JOHN Hughes continues to work quietly on Inverness Caledonian Thistle's league form.
A narrow win over St Johnstone yesterday offered a gentle reminder that the Highland side still have certain aspirations in the SPFL Premiership this season, but their campaign is more likely to be reflected in the Scottish League Cup when they face Aberdeen in the final. That said, the closest Inverness came to being a big noise in Perth arrived when Hughes shouted himself hoarse trying to tell midfielder Richie Foran that he wanted a quiet word.
The result at McDiarmid Park was more a whispered statement of Hughes' intent at the Highland club given that it brought just his third league win since being appointed manager - albeit he led his side to the final of the League Cup earlier this month. It was the league table which held Hughes' attention yesterday, though, after a goal from Gary Warren also took Inverness to within six points of third-place Motherwell.
"I feel the league is what you get judged on," said the Inverness manager, whose side face Ross County in a Highland derby on Tuesday night. "I doubt we will catch Aberdeen, I think they are already out there and will take second behind Celtic. But we don't want to just look to the cup final."
There were circumstances in Perth which might impinge on his side's prospective cup success, though. Inverness loosened their control of the match while the second half wore on, while Billy McKay was substituted late on and has now scored just two goals in his last 11 matches. It is an ill-fitting statistic for a player who has found the net 19 times overall this season.
The striker had one low shot blocked by goalkeeper Alan Mannus after six minutes and another was saved five minutes before the break. Warren then headed in decisively a minute later, nudging the ball into the net following a Foran knockdown.
It had been as though St Johnstone had given them the nod for much of the first half, too. That goal was a product of poor defending, the final result created from the loose passes and odd decisions of St Johnstone.
It left Stevie May looking a little like a spare part, the striker burrowing into the Inverness defence, only to unearth reasons to be exasperated. One pass from Chris Millar early in the game failed to catch the striker up, with May spinning to send a volley of frustration towards his team-mate instead. He later offered Millar a working example of what he wanted when a shrewd reverse pass resulted in Nigel Hasselbaink ramming a shot against goalkeeper Dean Brill. That chance could be classed as an isolated incident in the first half - Hasselbaink could only flick a close-range header wide of a post after the break - while a painful moment for Frazer Wright also stood out.
The defender signed a one-year contract extension with St Johnstone last week and will now serve an indeterminate spell on the sidelines after he suffered ankle ligament damage and was carried off after 36 minutes.
The time it took to carry the stricken defender from the penalty area put his injury in grim focus. It has been that way for some of the club's ambitions for the season, too, since a League Cup semi-final was surrendered meekly earlier this month and a place in the top six of the league table has still to be reserved. A defeat by Inverness yesterday has left the Perth side in sixth place, but only due to having a better goal difference than Hibernian.
"We didn't start the game well, even the kick-off was a disaster for us," said St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, whose side host Motherwell on Tuesday. "We were much better in the second half, but Nigel missed with a header and that was the best chance in the game."