It’s Easter Sunday, I’m sitting in the living room ready to watch Sky tv’s football offerings when the phone rings at 12.20pm. It’s my young cousin who’s inebriated from the night before, on to tell us that there are tickets available in the St.Mirren end for us.
I politely declined them initially given nobody in the house was ready to go and the fact that it was twenty five minutes before kick off! However, after some deliberating with the kids we decided to hot foot it over to Paisley and got there for just after kick off.
We met up with our contact and collected the briefs before getting a couple of pictures of the stadium on our way round to the West Stand area where we would be sitting.
I pass this ground three or four times a week and have visited twice previously in the last couple of seasons for games against Falkirk and Hearts when the local schools were giving away tickets. The irony is I also pass the now vacant Love Street site, the former home to St.Mirren for over one hundred years, with similar regularity.
As this was one of Sky television’s featured matches there was also radio coverage meaning we could hear the team news in the car which was useful as we were not likely to catch it before kick off! St.Mirren boss, Danny Lennon has made very few changes to the starting eleven in recent weeks and their general form has been decent, culminating in a League Cup Semi Final win at Hampden Park in January, over their opponents in this game no less.
The Saints went on to lift the League Cup two weeks ago having defeated Hearts in an epic Final and this was the first game at home since that triumph. Just prior to kick off the team were applauded onto the park by the Celtic players, a gesture which I am sure was appreciated by all fans and officials at St.Mirren.
Craig Samson between the sticks has been steady all season and has a defence well marshalled by skipper, Jim Goodwin. The main men in midfield are former Celtic player Paul McGowan who was on loan here for a spell before making the move permanent in 2011, promising youngster, Paul McGinn and Conor Newton, on loan to the end of the season from Newcastle United.
Up front the Saints can call upon experienced hit man, Steven Thompson and the impressive Esmael Goncalves who is another loan player from Rio Ave in Portugal.
For the visitors, Manager Neil Lennon has threatened to ring the changes following some erratic results and performances but continues to stick to the same group of players. For this game Celtic would be missing full backs, Lustig and Matthews along with longer term absentees, Scott Brown and James Forrest. The defence has made a lot of uncharacteristic errors this term with one of the main offenders, Efe Ambrose deputising at right back in this game.
The midfield was a physically strong one with Wanyama, Ledley and Kayal in to break up St.Mirren’s passing game. Samaras and the inform Kris Commons rotated playing on the left and supporting Gary Hooper in attack. All the games between the sides so far this season have been very keenly contested and this one had the added edge to it due to St.Mirren’s cup win over Celtic less than two months ago.
There were still a few stragglers like us heading into the turnstiles as the game had kicked off and we entered onto the concourse just as Celtic had a corner on the far side. We waited as the ball landed out at the edge of the box where it was neatly dinked back in by Ambrose. Kris Commons who had made a run into the danger area rose high almost on the run to powerfully head past Samson to give the away side the lead after only six minutes.
From the restart the Saints had a couple of corners and goalkeeper, Fraser Forster made a comfortable save from Dummett before a Newton shot went over the bar. Celtic had a couple of corners themselves and remained relatively comfortable in possession of the ball. A weak header from Commons and a shot high over the bar from Gary Hooper were all the Champions elect could muster.
St.Mirren were dangerous on the break though and Celtic’s defence struggled with some of the balls being played into their box by Van Zanten, Dummett and Teale. Saints best chance came after eighteen minutes when Steven Thompson’s glancing header went just wide following a great run on the right again by Gary Teale.
The game didn’t really flow as referee, Bobby Madden continually stopped play for petty fouls, which tended to upset the home support. On the half hour mark we had the first real controversial moment in the game when the Saints thought they had equalised only for a foul to be given on ‘keeper, Forster.
Again it was from a Teale cross this time on the left to the back post where Dummett rose with Forster and Izaguirre. The ball dropped into the net before the referee blew for a foul. There didn’t appear much wrong with the goal from our position and television replays showed later that it looked like Dummett was pushed by Izaguirre into Forster and that the goal should have stood or St.Mirren should have been awarded a penalty.
Just before half time Kris Commons landed awkwardly following a challenge involving Goncalves of St.Mirren and his team mate, Beram Kayal. After initially receiving treatment we had the unfortunate scene of the stretcher being called for. While Celtic played on with ten men, we then had another controversial moment when the home side’s claims for a penalty were waved away.
A Teale corner from the left cleared everyone in the area and as Wanyama went to head it, he mistimed his jump and the ball appeared to hit the arm of Georgious Samaras. The big Greek striker was a bit unsighted and it would have been harsh as there was no intent but it is a situation when you have seen a penalty being awarded.
During the interval the League Cup was paraded round the track, which went down a treat with the home fans who scrambled to get pictures of it.
Anthony Stokes was the replacement for Commons as the second half got under way. There was not much between the sides in the first ten minutes until we got the next controversial moment of the afternoon. Near the halfway line Victor Wanyama went in for a challenge with Paul McGowan, it did look like the Kenyan tried to pull out of the tackle at the last minute but there was some contact and the Saints midfielder came off second best. Referee, Madden was close by and pulled out the red card leaving the Hoops with over half an hour to play with a man less. It did look a harsh decision and a yellow card may have sufficed.
The Saints were looking to capitalise and probably looked the more threatening going forward. They had opportunities through Teale and Van Zanten but neither of which troubled Forster. Both sides made changes with Carey replacing McGinn for St.Mirren and McGeouch was introduced in place of Hooper.
Celtic were sitting deeper as they tried to hang on to their slender advantage and this left St.Mirren with more of the possession. Neither side carved out any clear cut chances with Thompson heading over from another Teale corner for Saints and a Mulgrew free kick for the visitors came to nothing.
With ten minutes left it was time for the fourth and final controversial incident of the afternoon. The Celtic defence failed to clear their lines starting with Izaguirre on the left of the eighteen yard box. The ball ended up with Stokes who seemed to lose his footing, Goncalves picked up the ball and headed into the box where he was clumsily challenged by Izaguirre. Referee, Madden didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot and from nothing, St.Mirren were thrown a lifeline. We were seated looking right in line with where the challenge was made and thought the referee had blown due to simulation by Goncalves. There seemed very little contact and if there was, it had taken place outside the box.
Having taken a penalty against Celtic in the League Cup Semi Final at Hampden, Paul McGowan had a chance to score against his former side once again. He faced Zaluska the last time, but he was up against the intimidating frame of Fraser Forster who would surely be a sterner challenge. What do I know, the confident midfielder went for power and smashed his kick down the middle to equalise and make the closing minutes very interesting.
If there was going to be a winner it looked like it would come from the home side and they had a great chance when Gary Teale was allowed to run at the Celtic defence almost unchallenged but his drive went just over the bar. The Saints brought on their latest signing, Estonian midfielder Sander Puri and he nearly had a dream debut with a goal but he couldn’t convert a shot from close range after Forster fumbled a Carey cross.
This proved to be the last real action of the game as both teams had to settle for a point, which was probably fair based on possession and chances created. It is not often you hear both managers bemoaning decisions made by officials, but this was the case in this game and referee, Bobby Madden’s ears will be burning for days! To say the official made a few errors of judgement is a major understatement.
Even though this was a very short notice visit, it was quite an enjoyable game to watch and maybe helped change my opinion of St.Mirren’s new ground. For the previous two visits here we were in the South Stand behind the home goal, the atmosphere was almost non existent, I didn’t think the view was great and the standard of football was poor. Having walked round the perimeter and sat in a different end for this game it is actually very smart and modern.
For anyone passing the main, East Stand either in the car or on foot the facade is very impressive with the club crest leaving you in no doubt of who plays here! The offices at the front look quite lavish and I like the fans names engraved on the walls either side of the main doors.
Adjacent to this is the West Stand which is the home end though for certain opposition a small section is used for the away fans who are allocated the North Stand behind the goal. Opposite this, the South Stand is used as the family area and the club do good deals including Under 18’s priced at £5 and Under 12’s at only £2. The club also do a lot of school and community work, occasionally giving away tickets to Renfrewshire Primary schools in an effort to encourage locals to come out and support the team.
Over time the new ground will develop its own character and maybe then the club could look at re-naming a couple of the stands with the names of former legends. In the last couple of seasons St.Mirren have seen their attendances increase as a result of Danny Lennon’s football philosophy and with the style of football he likes his players to play. Their league position is a strange one and probably doesn’t do them justice but the League Cup win gives the club a great platform to build on.