Wednesday 27th October 7:45pm – The Scottish Premiership – McDiarmid Park, Perth
If last night’s visit to Cappielow Park was most definitely Old School, a trip to the western edges of Perth to see St Johnstone is the New Kid on the Block, albeit one that is a route march out of the Scotland’s newest city.
With a quarter of the season played, few would have expected a four-way tussle at the top of the Premiership but that’s what we have with Hearts and Dundee United, two clubs who have spent time outside of the top flight in recent years on the coat tails of Rangers and squeezing Celtic into fourth place. Last season saw Rangers finally break a decade long Celtic hold on the championship but it was the events in Perth that provided the story of the domestic season.
The Saints took advantage of the Old Firm’s titanic league battle to firstly win their inaugural League Cup, beating Livingston 1-0 before completing the domestic cup double by beating Hibs at Hampden Park in the FA Cup Final. Their domestic cup double was the first outside the Old Firm in 30 years since Aberdeen achieved it in 1990. Hibs came close – winning the Scottish League Cup in 2016, but surprisingly lost the FA Cup to Ross County, so it’s a relatively rare occurrence.
It’s fair to say that the club haven’t looked back since they moved to McDiarmid Park in 1989, at the time the first newly built British all-seater stadium. The club had a stroke of fortune when they were offered the land and all building costs covered in exchange for the land where their previous stadium, Muirton Park was falling into disrepair. The good news was they were going to get a brand new stadium. The downside was it would be right on the edge of Perth, a good 40 minute walk from the city centre.
The torrential rain that had fallen over Greenock last night continued across the whole of the central belt in Scotland impacting the railway network and my diary of work calls. With the final one completed I jumped on a heavily-delayed northbound train to Perth although with a few hundred Hearts fans. The issue came when we arrived in Perth and found no cabs at the station and chaos trying to get on a bus – unfortunately, with each passenger’s contactless payment taking about 20 seconds, we sat for 15 minutes before everyone could board and pay. For those Hearts fans, with kick off approaching, they weren’t particularly happy with the ongoing delays but there is little else they could do but sit and wait.
The bus took every detour route possible before finally arriving outside of Britain’s biggest football car park – if St Johnstone every wanted to build a stadium for their B team, then they don’t have to look much further than the space to the south of the stadium. A quick scan of my Covid passport and I was in my seat just as the game kicked off.
The Hearts fans had taken every seat it seemed in the North Stand and a fair amount of the South Stand too, although the supporters there were getting soaked as the rain was being blown back into the stand. Just an hour before kick-off the concern for some of the areas on the pitch in front of this stand that there was a pitch inspection.
It was the home fans who were on their feet first when Cammy MacPherson’s cross was flicked on by Stevie May and it fell eventually to Liam Gordon to tap home to give St Johnstone the lead in the 11th minute. In the 39th minute St Johnstone felt that they had a great shout for deliberate handball against the Hearts keeper Craig Gordon when he slid outside his box on the greasy surface, appearing to take the ball with him. Their sense of injustice rose less than a minute later when Baningme played in Josh Ginnelly who calmly slotted home to equalise for the visitors.
At half-time as I queued for my Bovril a St Johnstone fan spotted my Lewes badge on my coat and told me about a visit to the town back in 1973 for a wedding of a cousin, who he couldn’t stand, but there was a free bar and that made up for having to attend. He then told me the piece of trivia that I know one day will come up in a football quiz – St Johnstone is the only professional football club in Britain with the letter ‘J’ in their name. I didn’t believe this one so then spent the first 10 minutes of the second half scrolling through every league in Steps 1 to 8 in England, and Steps 1 to 4 in Scotland and he’s right. Top football trivia.
If St Johnstone could claim the first half on the balance of play, the visitors dominated the second period, peppering the home team’s penalty box and having nearly 70% of the ball but they couldn’t break through a dogged and drenched defence. Ginnelly, Souter and Gnanduillet all missed great chances to take all three points back down the A9 to Edinburgh but it wasn’t to be their night.
As the game wound down and the rain eased I headed back towards the station. The queues at the bus stops would have led to more chaos in getting on one so I walked the 2.23 miles back to the train station, managing to get on a delayed Inverness to Edinburgh service ahead of the Hearts fans.
The trouble in getting to and from the stadium aside, there is plenty to approve of in a visit to McDiarmid Park. For games where there is a decent away following the atmosphere is good, the views are excellent and there’s plenty of places to buy your Bovril and Scotch Pie. The club excelled last season, winning the domestic double which gave the fans some long overdue success but they have set a rod for their own back, but one that could see the demand for success sit heavily of the shoulders of the manager Callum Davidson as the season progresses.