Yokerbhoy illustrates that it might not just be one of those freak holiday period results against a battling St Mirren side who have it in them to provide Celtic with a tough Boxing Day game
ULTRA DEFENSIVE ST MIRREN WITH MAJOR DEFENSIVE HEADACHES
Paisley St Mirren, like so many other Scottish clubs, is steeped in tradition and dramatic history. They’ve never won the league but have 3 Scottish Cups and one Scottish League Cup in their display cabinet.
I have never harboured a strong dislike for them, nor have I ever felt any great affection for the club but one thing they have invoked in me is nostalgia in abundance. My memories of them go right back to when I was 9 years old, when a young and dynamic manager was at the helm. His name was Fergie and he was the man who had grafted together one of the most exciting young teams in Scotland at the time, converting Love Street into a fortress and the entire city of Paisley into a football mad cauldron. I still have very vivid memories of the hugely effective young midfield trio of Billy Stark, Lex Richardson and Tony Fitzpatrick along with the impressive goalscoring exploits of a youthful Frank McGarvey accompanied by Donny McDowall and Bobby Torrance. That was the season when they blasted their way to the top of the old First Division having a fierce, albeit brief, rivalry with my local team Clydebank, who were also promoted to the top flight finishing second. Such was the excitement that the football on show generated, home attendances in excess of 15,000 at Love Street were not uncommon and this was second tier football at the time
The following season (1977-78) was when I began to relish Celtic away games against the Saints and this continued for a good few years. I have wonderful memories of sampling the delicious ice-cream before the match at the Kelso Cafe on Dumbarton Rd, which was owned by the Pelosi family at the time (I don’t give a toss what anyone says, theirs was the best that I’ve tasted anywhere in the world). A few years later I’d swapped the Kelso Cafe for the Lovat Arms, The Station Bar or the Anchorage, with the usual scenario being a social visit to all three establishments, before hopping onto the famous Yoker/Renfrew ferry. The excitement levels were probably about the same, whether it was crossing the Clyde amidst a bunch of boisterous wee boys on our way to see McGarvey play against us or, a few years later, being part of a band of inebriated and vociferous underage drinkers singing the same songs as before and ready to marvel at the prospect of the curly-heided Frank performing some of his magic for the Hoops. A cumfy short bus ride from Renfrew to Paisley and we were there, contributing to the highly-charged atmosphere inside the stadium.
My other big memory from Love Street was at the beginning of season 83/84 when I stood out in the pissing rain to see the one and only Johann Cruyff in action for Feyenoord against the Saints in the UEFA Cup (the Dutch team won 1-0 on the night), only one year after the great man had graced the turf of Parkhead with a superb display in our 2-2 draw with Ajax. I got fucking soaked that night in Paisley but it was still worth it.
Those were special days so I thought I’d share that with you. After all, we sometimes become a bit more nostalgic than usual over Xmas time.
So, onto our Boxing Day battle with the Buddies. The Paisley outfit already demonstrated their fighting qualities at the end of last season when they played above themselves to thwart a strong and plucky Dundee Utd side in the play-off final and they’ve been producing a lot more of the same so far this term. They did brilliantly to come back from the dead against Livi at home (from 1-3 down to 3-3) although the incessant heavy rain and the resulting state of the playing surface made the outcome something of a lottery. The tight St Mirren Park pitch, which can cut up badly in adverse weather conditions, pitches yet another banana skin in our path towards the glorious nine in a row. A more recent memory of mine, and not a very pleasant one either, was what happened there early last season when Oli Ntcham, who was having a nightmare of an evening, completely lost it during the first half and rightly saw red. On top of that, the number of clear-cut chances we squandered that night during a horribly frustrating 0-0 draw was just ridiculous.
When we last faced St Mirren at Celtic Park a few weeks ago, the visitors had quite an impressive defensive record (getting rid of the inept Jack Baird by loaning him out to Morton was probably part of the reason) but were scoring very few goals at the same time. They defended well again against us and only lost 2-0 in that midweek game. Since then, however, quite a few things have changed. The Paisley Pandas have been severely hampered by injury, especially in defence. Bad news for a club with such meagre playing resources. Veteran ex-hun warhorse Kirk Broadfoot, freed by Killie at the end of last season, had been something of a stalwart for the Renfrewshire side and had even formed a pretty solid partnership alongside Paul McGinn. Both got crocked though and McGinn only just returned to the side last weekend after being out for a while to take his place next to the big Irishman Sean McLoughlin, a loanee from Hull. The pair of them played well in the 0-0 draw away at St Johnstone last weekend. Their main weakness lies with both fullback positions, however. The diminutive ex-Celtic youth LB Calum Waters, currently on loan from Killie, has been a notable weak link in the side; hesitant in the tackle, ineffective in the air and, although decent on the ball and capable of whipping the odd dangerous cross into the area, he hasn’t contributed enough going forward either. Midfielder Errol Flynn (ok, Ryan Flynn), on the other hand, has been drafted into the RB position where he has been visibly uncomfortable and guilty of defensive errors. Both full backs put in a shift in Perth but they’re likely to come up short against a superior team. This makeshift set-up in defence has been significantly problematic for the Saints so I’m sure Neil Lennon will be on the case, devising ways to use this situation to our advantage.
In contrast, the Buddies have been performing much better than before in midfield as well as up front and are starting to string some decent results together as they gradually move away from the bottom spots in the league table. Captain Stephen McGinn (yet another casualty) has been sorely missed but the Paisley side will greatly welcome the return of Irish midfielder Sam Foley, a consistent player of good awareness who reads the game well and exerts a steadying influence on the team while 20 year-old Cameron MacPherson is a potential gem who has been in great form lately, scoring the odd vital goal, setting up attacking moves and winning one or two MOTM awards. Up front experienced English campaigner Jon Obika could prove to be a bit of a handful as he is starting to prove his worth by banging in a few goals and tends to make life difficult for opposing defenders. With a low centre of gravity it’s a tricky job trying to dispossess him and he’s at his most dangerous when zooming in on goal from deeper positions. Obika is sometimes partnered by Jamaican forward Junior Morias, who tends to blow a bit hot and cold but has a lot of pace and impressive shooting power. Curiously enough, he was recently deployed as a right wing back due to the present injury crisis.
Manager Jim Goodwin obviously has had to improvise due to his side’s injury issues often putting square pegs in round holes as his options have been considerably reduced with numbers in his playing staff being so limited. He even had to throw in raw teenager Scott Glover to cover in central defence against Livi a couple of games ago. The likeable Northern Irishman, only 38 years of age, has actually done quite well overall and plays to his strengths of successful man-management and natural ability to instill a fighting spirit into his teams. His players have been working extremely hard for each other on the field of play. He has come in for some criticism at times for supposedly bizarre team selections and substitution decisions but his chopping and changing of late is entirely justified given the current scenario. What he might lack in experience and tactical nous he makes up for in pragmatism and sheer motivation. Goodwin isn’t afraid to take risks, which often brings an unpredictable element to how the Buddies play. I like and admire him for that.
Predicted starting XI for Boxing Day:
Flynn McGinn McLoughlin Waters
Magennis Foley MacPherson Durmus
Over at Paradise there’s not even a glimmer of a doubt that we have to go with our strongest available team at St Mirren Park. For the LB position, I believe Johnny Hayes has already been ruled out so for me it’ll be a toss up between Boli and Taylor. If there are no new last-minute injury snags, it shouldn’t be difficult to predict the rest of the starting line-up and get at least 8 or 9 right out of the XI so there’s not much else for me to do here except jump on the bandwagon and join the Oli Ntcham debate.
Personally I like the guy both as a player and as a person so I’d be happy if he were to stay with us for a long time to come. I know he made a couple of inappropriate comments when interviewed by a top French sports newspaper in the summertime but he never downed tools in the way Boyata did, at such a crucial time as well, one year previous to that. As far as I’m concerned, his professional attitude has been spot on since then; therefore the only worthwhile debate in this respect should centre around his style of play and current form. There have already been various valid and interesting comments on here both recently and before regarding what the Frenchman brings to the team and I think most of us would agree that the player oozes quality when on the ball with amazing close control and many of his passes are just sublime. His shooting tends to be a bit erratic and he’s probably not the best man at taking free-kicks and corners and, as some point out, he slows play down too much to be a really effective and incisive nº 10. His consistency has also been an issue at times although I feel he has improved in that respect. Moreover, his recent inclusion in the side in the absence of Elyounoussi (Mikey Johnston is only now starting to regain his match fitness) has meant pulling two of our top players out of their natural positions, largely contributing to a dip in their form. It’s also been said many times that he would be more suited to European football than in the Scottish (or even the English) Premiership.
Perhaps so, but I believe he’d still be a great asset for us when deployed in a different formation to the frequently utilised 4-2-3-1. It’s true that your central attacking midfielder should be able to make split-second decisions, be direct when need be, make things happen extremely quickly and be a high quality finisher so Christie at the moment certainly fits the nº 10 role best when that system is played but in certain games, especially in European competition, it is often necessary to set up differently or alter things as the game proceeds. Having a plan B, a plan C or any other plan can also prove to be extremely effective when there is a need to produce something totally unexpected against Scottish opposition. Where Ntcham could thrive would be as a wide midfielder (not a winger) in a continental 4-4-2 set-up or having a more free role as a CM in a 3-5-2 system. I think we are still to see some of the best from Olivier in the months to come but I do realise that there is a real possibility that he could be leaving the club before too long if the right offer comes in. The lure of European games after Christmas could keep him with us at least until the summer though. Part of my prediction for our encounter against the Saints is for Oli to come off the bench as a second half supersub and unleash a 30 yard screamer into the top right hand corner of the net to seal the points, thus erasing all his bad memories of the place. I’ll leave the Tom Rogic debate for another day.
The game in Paisley on the 26th will be anything but a stroll in the park. St Mirren are fighting for their top flight survival and they’re doing a damned good job too so there could be plenty of squeaky bum time moments awaiting us as the Buddies have belief in themselves to make home advantage really count and will make a superhuman effort to take something from this game. They’re likely to come in with an aggressive approach and a high press so it’s up to Lenny and our lads to enter the scene with an effective game plan. It’ll be extremely important to lay down a marker early on with a firm but fair approach to the game, winning those 50-50 balls and bossing the midfield. Their weaknesses at the back have to be exploited, especially down both flanks and our finishing will have to improve. We’ve been great at carving out chances in all our recent games and I’d expect us to create plenty more against the Buddies, so it’ll be absolutely essential to capitalise on this. If and when we manage to go ahead, we must then maintain a tight control of the proceedings without any lapses in concentration to see the game out.
Frimpong Jullien Ajer Boli
Forrest Christie Johnston
Subs: Gordon, Taylor, Bitton, Ntcham, Rogic, Morgan, Griffiths
Prediction: Saints 0 Celts 1 (Ntcham)
MERRY XMAS Y’ALL