They did it again, didn’t they? Everyone talks about ICT upsetting the odds, but what about St Johnstone? The 2013/14 team was built around a solid base and the quality of their strike-force: Steven MacLean and Stevie May. Then within a month of 2014/15 starting, May had been sold to Sheffield Wednesday and MacLean picked up an injury that would put him out for half a year. Nobody, and we mean nobody, realistically thought they would recover and finish in the European places yet again. We’re still not entirely sure how they managed it.
All right, we do know. They were very St Johnstone once again. Well organised, hard working with a great team ethos and just enough quality in attack to win games. In James McFadden and Brian Graham, Tommy Wright managed to recruit two 2013/14 misfits and built a well-balanced attack with them alongside Michael O’Halloran. This continued into the second half of the season when the returning MacLean filled in for McFadden, who had succumb to injury problems. The back four and goalkeeper were their usual selves, and the midfield got a massive boost from Chris Millar having the season of his career.
How do you replace a striker who didn’t contribute all that much except from a great ability to put the ball in the back of the net? Answer: you sign John Sutton. In theory this is a shrewd bit of business from Wright. Sutton may not be as mobile as Graham, but he does have a better goalscoring record. With O’Halloran’s pace and MacLean’s guile, he’s the perfect foil. What does concern us was Wright picking Sutton and MacLean in a front two in Europe. That’s an experiment that cannot last long, at least not in a straight-forward 4-4-2. There’s just not enough pace. Wright’s one of the best reactive managers in the league, however, so we’re sure he’ll get it right in the long run.
Adding competition to the striking department and cover for when MacLean inevitably suffers an injury is Graham Cummins. The 27-year-old had a great scoring record in Ireland but has failed to score consistently since moving to the UK and comes up from League Two. St Johnstone sign one dreadful striker per season and those warning signs indicate Cummins may be that man, though he did get off to a good start with an instinctive goal against Hearts. Elsewhere, the Saints defence cannot go on forever so Wright has opted to try out a couple of regenerations in Joe Shaughnessy and Brad McKay. Both were let go from their respective clubs, Aberdeen and Hearts, and are rightly viewed as gambles, however St Johnstone will take their time to develop them so these signings shouldn’t be considered gaffs if neither contribute much this campaign.
Liam Craig was the most recent player added to the squad. It remains to be seen whether the midfielder, good in his first spell at McDiarmid Park, was suffering from the same Easter Road curse which inflicted David Wotherspoon. If he was, and he’s sacrificed the necessary farm yard animals to free himself of such a hex, then he should return to his previous form with the club.
All things considered, St Johnstone‘s fourth place finish highlighted the terrific managerial skills of Tommy Wright more than their Scottish Cup win. He was unable to sign players during the summer until the May situation was sorted out, and then watched as his other attacker went down through injury shortly after the young prodigy departed in August. Top six shouldn’t have been achievable in such circumstances, let alone European qualification.
St Johnstone have built their success on continuity and a strong core of players and it certainly has helped Wright to this point that he was part of the backroom staff under his predecessor Steve Lomas. He has the respect of everyone at the club and they’re the most organised side in the league. This is made easier by the personalities in the dressing room and the next test for Wright is what happens when some of these guys eventually move on or retire. He’s been proactive against that inevitability this summer with a couple of his signings and we await to see whether he’s got an eye for that sort of player.
Key Player – Michael O’Halloran
Structured, functional, difficult to beat, these sorts of cliches are always used when talking about St Johnstone because well, frankly, they’re true. The fallacy is the belief that Saints are a boring team to watch. They’re not – they’re just boring to talk about because they’ve kept the core of their team and they don’t court controversy.
One player, more than any other in the squad, who stops them from being just as boring on the park is O’Halloran. When he’s on his game he’s just electric. People love to watch players with pace and they love to watch players who run at defenders. O’Halloran does both and he even displayed an hunger for goalscoring last season which he’ll be looking to elevate further this term.
In the meantime he’s immensely important to his team because he really represents about the only attacking player with pace and dribbling ability. Liam Craig, who’s been promised a more attacking role than the one he had at Hibs, and David Wotherspoon will chip in with assists, but both players are a little similar in style as they rely on technique and passing as opposed to the raw physical attributes of a O’Halloran. If Danny Swanson re-signs, bringing back his trademark flair, the burden will be off O’Halloran to an extent. Until then they will be relying on his pace to stretch the field and push other teams back.
Six St Johnstone players who deserve a statue
1) Dave Mackay
Lifted the only major trophy in the club’s history. Nuff said.
2) Steven Anderson
Consistently one of the most underrated players in Scottish football and has been ever since The Terrace named him Most Improved Player way back in 2011 – before we even had a website. Has been at the club for 11 years and scored the opening goal in the 2014 Scottish Cup Final. Not only should they build a statue, St Johnstone should retire the number six and name one of the stands The Steven Anderson Stand. Or at the very least the car park or something.
3) Frazer Wright
A statue for ‘Thing’ could double up as an honour to a very good pro and an effective scarecrow.
4) Alan Mannus
Over the past three seasons he’s been one of the two best goalkeepers not named Fraser Forster or Craig Gordon in Scottish football and he’s likely to be that again this season. At the very least he deserves some sort of bronzed gloves to stick on his mantelpiece.
5) Chris Millar
This one may be a little premature as it took around 200 games for Saints fans to unanimously agree that Millar was a good player. We’re betting he’ll continue last season’s form in the defensive midfield position for another three years yet, which will take him onto 300 appearances and a testimonial… and a statue.
6) Steven MacLean
Sure he’s not been around as long as the rest of them. Does it matter when he scored the second goal in the cup final win? The club’s only cup final win? Thought not.
They’ve kept the core of the team together. The same team that continually defies its doubters and finishes in the top six. We had to include them. HAD to.