St Johnstone Down High-Flying Livingston
St Johnstone left the Tony Macaroni Arena with all three points after handing Livingston boss David Martindale the first defeat of his managerial career. Cameron Wanstall reports.
A Scott Tanser free kick and a Shaun Rooney header gave St Johnstone a comfortable lead. Max Stryjek’s excellent penalty save and Scott Pittman’s late header gave Livingston hope before the full-time whistle blew, but an equaliser never materialised – ending Livi’s impressive 14-game unbeaten run.
Both teams had every right to feel confident heading into this tie. Livingston have been national news in recent weeks as David Martindale, his inspiring turnaround and his side’s unbeaten run has been the feel-good story of 2021 so far.
Similarly, St Johnstone are enjoying a good spell of results under manager Callum Davidson. The Perthshire outfit were seven games unbeaten before succumbing to a respectable 1-0 defeat to league leaders Rangers.
Martindale made three changes to the team that comfortably defeated Aberdeen on Tuesday night. Captain Marvin Bartley regained his spot in midfield, while Alan Forrest and Scott Robinson also came back into the fold. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas only made the bench, as Josh Mullin and Julien Serrano (who is self-isolating after striker Gavin Reilly tested positive for Covid-19) dropped out entirely.
The visitors, hoping to bounce back after Wednesday’s loss, made five changes from last time out. Murray Davidson missed out through injury, while Craig Bryson, Craig Conway, James Brown and this season’s Saints top goalscorer Stevie May dropped to the bench. David Wotherspoon, Guy Melamed, Liam Craig, Shaun Rooney and Chris Kane all came into the starting eleven.
This league fixture gave us a glimpse into what we can expect in the upcoming Betfred Cup final between the two clubs – let’s hope it is nothing like the first half. Both sides lined up as expected with Livingston sticking by their trusted 4-2-3-1 against St Johnstone’s 5-3-2.
The opening thirty minutes matched the weather in West Lothian: awful. An early chance for Saints captain Jason Kerr – his superb back post run from a corner was let down by the side-footed volley that followed – was a bright spark in a drab opening half hour.
There was plenty of admirable fight and passion from both sides that gave the game a gritty feeling you wouldn’t associate with modern elite football. This combative nature unfortunately did not make up for the lack of chances and skill on show.
Livi ‘keeper Max Stryjek was nearly embarrassed on two separate occasions. The Polish shot-stopper was first troubled by a careless Efe Ambrose back pass which was very close to being intercepted by Kane, before also making a mess of collecting a loose ball after being pressured by the striker again.
Outwith Shaun Rooney’s unexpected expletive-ridden rant at an official, Liam Craig continually being called “ginge” by his teammates and David Martindale’s (never-boring) touchline antics that will put fear into those not even on the pitch offering some amusement, there really wasn’t a lot going on.
A half-chance for Ali McCann was blocked by his own teammate, before Kane had a shot blocked following some neat build-up play from Guy Melamed and McCann. Livingston’s first shot on goal came after 34 minutes when the tenacious midfielder Scott Pittman let off a speculative volley that flew over the bar. That remained Livingston’s only effort in the first half.
As the first period finally came to an end, Aaron Taylor-Sinclair crashed into Kane on the edge of the Livi penalty area. Referee Euan Anderson booked the defender, but what happened next was sure to upset Taylor-Sinclair more. Scott Tanser stepped up and delightfully dinked the ball over the wall and past a helpless Stryjek.
That was the final kick of the first half and Livingston emerged for the second with a change made. Alan Forrest, who like his attacking partners struggled against the physicality and professional performances of St Johnstone’s back three, was replaced by burly forward Jay Emmanuel-Thomas.
Emmanuel-Thomas’ introduction did make a difference, he became the main outlet in attack. Passes were pinged into him as he had the ability and physical presence to hold off his markers, play intelligent passes and make clever runs in behind. Livingston added another dimension to their attack with this substitution but, unfortunately for them, they couldn’t stop the away side doubling their advantage just five minutes into the second half.
Shaun Rooney headed home St Johnstone’s second. His glancing header met Liam Craig’s superb inswinging free-kick and settled in the far corner of the goal. Stryjek, again, was left standing still; powerless to keep the effort out.
As the game approached the hour mark, the quality of attacks from both sides improved. Emmanuel-Thomas came close with a header, before David Wotherspoon and substitute Stevie May continually combined to create a couple chances for the visitors.
Moments after a heated altercation in the middle of the pitch involving several players was split up, Pittman found his way into the referee’s book for cynically ending a quick counter attack – an offence which also got Saints captain Kerr cautioned earlier on.
St Johnstone had a chance to kill the game after Nicky Devlin fouled Rooney in the box and Anderson pointed to the spot. Stevie May hit the penalty with conviction but right into Stryjek’s legs. While the penalty save revitalised Livingston, who committed men forward in hope of a late comeback, it did not deter St Johnstone who continued to attack despite holding the lead.
Craig wasted a promising opportunity for St Johnstone by blazing a shot over the crossbar as well as over the stand behind it. He must’ve felt the pressure more than any other man in blue when Livi went up the other end and pulled one back to make it 2-1 with seven minutes still to play.
Jason Holt fooled defenders with a quick cross into the box when he feigned a pass out wide. The cross was then expertly headed on by Pittman as it smacked off the post and creeped over the line.
With only one goal in it, just one more chance fell for Livingston in the short time remaining. A dangerous cross from the left side was nearly met by Scott Robinson, but the forward did not get enough on it to trouble Zander Clark.
St Johnstone headed for the corner flag as the full-time whistle sounded. Despite picking up three points, the Saints remain in 8th place but have pulled away from the relegation battle. Livingston remain in 5th, five points behind Aberdeen.
After finally suffering the first defeat of his managerial career, David Martindale wasn’t too critical of his side:
“Two bad goals, probably two good goals from St Johnstone’s point of view, I don’t think we defended our box well enough… I think St Johnstone done that better today.”
Martindale was adamant today’s result won’t play on his or his players’ minds:
“I don’t feel any different than I have the past five years being at the club. I’m no going to change anything I do… You don’t try and get too high when you win games, and you don’t try to get too low when you lose games.
The Livingston manager was more than happy to put pressure on St Johnstone ahead of the Betfred Cup final but admits it means next to nothing:
“Even if we won the day, I don’t think it would’ve gave us the opportunity to make us the favourites. Going into a national cup final, form goes out the window. Nerves will be playing a part on both teams. I’m no bothered about that.”
Scott Tanser was in a great mood after opening the scoring for his side en route to victory. On the free kick:
“I’ve just got to keep practising free kicks, that’s what I do. When I’m on the free kicks I need to perform and hopefully I’ll score the next one as well. Personally, I think the keeper gave me too much room. I spotted a gap. Get it over the wall and it’s going in with a bit of pace.”
The left-back agreed with the idea that his goal right on half-time was well-timed and helped his team take control of the game:
“Yeah, right on half-time, gives us that boost coming out for the second half, knowing we’ve got the lead to hold onto to. Obviously, Rooney scores, go 2-0 up and it’s just about seeing the game out.”
Tanser was reserved but hopeful when discussing the upcoming Betfred Cup final:
“Someone had to do it [end Livi’s unbeaten run]. We have made a statement that we are going to stand up to them and hopefully we will bring the trophy home.
And was bold when discussing where the club should be in the Premiership:
“Our aim is the top six. We definitely think we are a top six team. Slow start to the season but you can see how close we are.”