What better way to pass the evening of a Bank Holiday Monday by taking in a game and ticking another ground off the list in the process. We travelled to McDairmid Park, Perth for the Live ESPN match between St Johnstone and Dundee United who are both targeting a top six finish and a potential European place as well so it was bound to be a competitive match.
We arrived in good time and opted for street parking some ten minutes walk from the stadium. The last time I visited here was back in August 1997 and we left the car in the official parking area and it took over forty minutes to get out so I was determined not to let that happen again! I can also recall a visit to St.Johnstone’s old ground, Muirton Park back in the mid 1980s which is maybe giving my age away slightly, but as a stadium enthusiast and a Scottish football fan I can at least be able to say that I have visited both venues.
Apart from the fact both teams could be doing with a win, this is also a local Derby fixture of sorts and wondered what kind of crowd would be expected. It was busy with people mulling around outside pre-match and could sense the anticipation of the supporters. Before going into the stadium we walked round the perimeter of the four stands, taking a few pictures along the way and paid a visit to the small club shop as well.
Both sides were able to field strong sides for this one though it would be fair to say United were probably at more of a disadvantage following an injury to Gary Mackay-Steven on recent international duty and long term casualty, Johnny Russell.
The Saints have had a great season and have benefitted from a solid back line starting with Alan Mannus in goals, Dave Mackay, Frazer Wright, David McCracken and the veteran, Callum Davidson in defence, though the latter two were missing for this game.
In midfield there is a mixture of ball winners and creative players with Murray Davidson, Liam Craig, Paddy Cregg and Chris Millar. This season the Saints Manager, Steve Lomas has a welcome headache with a number of forward players to choose from including Rowan Vine, Steven MacLean, Nigel Hasselbaink and target man, Gregory Tade,.
For the Tangerine’s their boss, Jackie McNamara recalled Michael Gardyne in place of Rory Boulding up front, their newest star, Ryan Gauld was almost a direct replacement for Mackay-Steven and Willo Flood returned from suspension.
When the game got under way it was hard going on the eye with a lot of high balls being played up the park with no specific targets, passes went astray and the distribution from both sides was below par. Both sides had headers that didn’t trouble either goalkeeper, Murray Davidson for Saints and Keith Watson for United. Then a run from Gardyne into the box saw Daly narrowly miss the cut back and the chance was gone for the visitors.
The opening goal arrived midway through the first half and it was the impressive United youngster, Ryan Gauld who broke the deadlock on twenty three minutes. Liam Craig was robbed of possession in the middle of the park by Mark Millar who then threaded the ball through for Gauld and as ‘keeper, Mannus advanced out his area, the midfielder poked the ball under him and it traveled into the net as the St. Johnstone defenders looked on helplessly.
The referee, Ian Brines made himself unpopular with both sets of supporters by continually holding the game up with petty fouls and the game never got a chance to flow. St.Johnstone were struggling to break the United defence down and all they could muster was a weak shot from Vine which didn’t trouble the goalkeeper and a direct free kick from Craig five minutes from the break which went just over the bar.
Craig again, right on forty five minutes had a shot blocked following a counter attack and just before that United’s Mark Millar should have done better with a direct free kick which hit the wall and was cleared. Although the visitors led, I am sure both managers will have been glad to hear the half time whistle so they could reorganise and look to improve their lot for the second half.
Neither team dominated the early part of the second half but it was St.Johnstone who then went on to have a reasonable spell of dominance. Rowan Vine’s poor first touch saw a good move come to an end before complacency in the United midfield just before the hour nearly led to a Saints equaliser. The United players tried to take a quick free kick following a foul on Gauld, but it was intercepted leaving Tade bearing down on the United goal. Cierzniak narrowed the angle and Tade’s shot went wide of the left hand post.
The only effort on goal for United in the second half came from Stuart Armstrong which posed no threat to Alan Mannus’ goal. Again St Johnstone pressed and came close twice in a matter of seconds. Liam Craig’s well struck shot was superbly saved by Cierzniak who turned it away for a corner, and from the resulting set piece Keith Watson cleared Murray Davidson’s header off the line.
Nigel Hasselbaink then replaced Gregory Tade on the hour mark for the home side as the Saints continued to pursue an equaliser. After only a few minutes the substitute had a glorious chance to score when his header from six yards out was comfortably held by Cierzniak. As the game entered the last quarter of an hour Murray Davidson put a header just over the bar from a Vine corner.
Jackie McNamara then used all his substitutes a couple of minutes apart before seeing his side reduced to ten men after Stuart Armstrong was given his second yellow card of the evening. He was a bit unfortunate as I initially thought that United had been awarded a penalty. Having received the ball he turned in the box but Ian Brines interpretation was that he had dived and after a caution early in the first half Armstrong was off.
St.Johnstone were throwing everything at their opponents and with ten minutes to go Steve Lomas gave Gwion Edwards a run out when he replaced Rowan Vine. After good hold up play by Murray Davidson, his shot was saved by Cierzniak before Edwards himself saw a shot go wide of the right hand post.
As the game entered injury time, Steven MacLean looked odds on to score when he was given time and space to shoot inside the eighteen yard box. Maybe he had too much time to think about it as his shot cleared the crossbar when he should have scored.
As a lot of fans made their way to the exits St Johnstone forced a corner having desperately claimed for handball in the United penalty area. From the resulting kick the ball found its way to the back post were Liam Craig powerfully headed high into the net from a standing jump to equalise. The place erupted and we felt compelled to almost join in with the celebrations as it would have been discourteous not to! I thought at the time United’s defence may have dealt with the corner a lot better and that Jon Daly may have been at fault, but he was just over powered by Liam Craig.
There was not much time left for either side to grab a winner and think both managers would have been satisfied with the draw as they each chase that top six finish before the SPL split this weekend.
This was a really entertaining game of football especially for the neutral, watched by 4,613 fans, played at a fast pace with two good goals and with scoring opportunities at both ends of the park.
I wasn’t sure about McDairmid Park, I had always been put off by television images of it half empty and because of that official parking set up I had experienced before! On this visit it gave us a chance to almost review it again in finer detail and a bit like St.Mirren’s new location, I left with a totally different perception.
The stadium is set back just off the motorway and a shopping centre. As there are houses on the main road leading into the ground, the area can get congested at peak times and on a match day. Although more than twenty years old now, McDairmid Park is still a modern looking venue with four adequate sized stands with a total capacity of over 10,000. It is well maintained and caters well for fans with facilities readily available and well signposted.
The club has been criticised for some of its low attendances despite making shrewd signings in the transfer market, showing good form in the league, and qualification into the Europa League in recent seasons. I suppose this is somewhat disappointing, yet if you are a local thinking about taking kids or Grandkids to see the football you won’t find many clubs offering such affordable admission prices like St.Johnstone. We were in the Ormond Family Stand which is behind the goal at the home end, to the right of the Main Stand and it is priced at £15 for parent and child which is tremendous value for the SPL.
The club cannot be faulted for not trying to bring in the next generation of supporters. I think many other clubs could be doing with taking note of St.Johnstone’s strategy both on and off the park.