Declaration of vested interest: St Johnstone are my team. For as long as I’ve followed football, I’ve been a Saints fan. I grew up supporting them home and away, from the lows of the lower leagues to the highs of top-three finishes, playing in Europe and – in 2014 – winning the Scottish Cup for the first time (genuinely the best day of life, in case you’re wondering).
These days, opportunities for me to watch my boyhood heroes in action are a little more scarce. Since 2007 I’ve lived in London, putting a six-hour train ride (or ten-hour Megabus journey, when I’m feeling hardcore) between myself and my spiritual home. So, when I rocked up at McDiarmid Park just three days before the end of 2019, it was for my first Saints match of the season. What a part-timer.
Still, even from a distance, it’s been impossible not to take notice of just how fruitful this current era has been for Saints. They’re currently enjoying their eleventh consecutive season in the top flight. Six of those seasons have brought a top-six finish, five have brought European football, three have brought at least one cup semi-final, and one has brought that beautiful trophy win. For a small, provincial club with average attendances rarely bypassing the 4,000 mark, and no sugar-daddy investor to lean upon, that’s one Helluva successful decade. If anyone out there can tell me of a small club that has done better, or indeed a manager who has out-performed Saints’ long-serving boss Tommy Wright, I’d love to hear of them.
Despite all that, crowds remain crushingly low, so me and my Dad had the pick of the seats when we turned up to watch this festive clash against Ross County. I took advantage of being back on Scottish soil by snarfing down a macaroni pie, a proper terrace delicacy that football fans south of the border are shamefully denied. England might have big crowds and glitzy TV coverage and a top league packed with international superstars, but its pie game is objectively rubbish.
Saints opened the match with a spring in their step, keeping possession, surging forward, and generally doing everything you’d want from a football team, with the one fairly important exception of putting the ball in the net. Given the team’s relatively poor start to the season (it took them until late October to win a league game), this fairly adventurous performance came as a pleasant surprise. In Matty Kennedy and Drey Wright, Saints can boast two out-and-out wingers who have it in their armoury to give opposing full-backs the run-around, and they demonstrated that on numerous occasions here. Sadly, they had very little to aim for, and so half-time came and went with the match still goalless.
72 minutes into a game in which Ross County had barely made it beyond the halfway line, the virtually inevitable happened: County broke up the park and scored. Suddenly, Saints were a goal down, and in need of a hero. Step forward habitual substitute Callum Hendry, the closest thing Saints have to the swashbuckling centre-forwards of old, to send a brilliant flashing header past the County keeper with only six minutes to go. His dad, legendary Scotland captain Colin Hendry, was among the delighted onlookers who savoured the moment.
Saints should have been home and dry with all three points, but if we needed to celebrate scraping to a 1-1 draw instead, then Godammit that’s what we’d do. Happy New Year.
St Johnstone 1 Ross County 1
Sunday 29 December 2019