THE devil was in the detail in the battle of the Saints last night.
In a match which could have offered salvation for St Mirren, instead they were left looking for divine intervention as their season continues to collapse around them. This was their seventh defeat in eight games, and the Paisley club now looks in grave danger.
While a 1-0 loss to Europe-chasing St Johnstone is no disgrace - the Perth club are now within four points of fifth-placed Inverness Caledonian Thistle - the manner in which they sacrificed the points to their weakened opponents tells its own story. Behind on 39 minutes to a soft Steven MacLean goal, St Mirren's attacks were more a demonstration of blind faith than of attacking nous as they remain two points adrift of 10th-placed Partick Thistle ahead of their game with Celtic tonight.
Danny Lennon, the St Mirren manager, cut a frustrated and forlorn figure on the touchline in Paisley last night. His demeanour told a story of a man at the end of his tether during a poor 90 minutes, with every shake of the head or turn away being triggered by one error after another.
His mood had failed to lift by the time he trudged into the St Mirren Park press room afterwards. "There were a few ingredients missing tonight," explained Lennon, who ended up with a recipe for disaster. "We failed to bring all of those ingredients together and we were very flat, I'm still scratching my head. I told the players to not have any regrets, but we've come away with a few."
Stevie May's absence - the striker was rested - for St Johnstone was not felt, however, as those entrusted to torment the Paisley defence did so at will. Michael O'Halloran broke through early on but his tame effort was easily held by Marian Kello before he spurned a glorious chance after 23 minutes; Croft's cross to him at the edge of the box deserved more than the ballooned half volley it received. A hat trick of misses would be capped off before the first half was even out, this time the former Bolton Wanderers youth skewing his shot wide from just 10 yards following industrious play on the right from David Wotherspoon.
Yet the single goal needed was not far away, and like most of the visitors' play last night it was alarmingly direct. An outswinging Wotherspoon corner seemed to deceive the St Mirren defence and catch them out of position, allowing Steven MacLean to volley the ball into a seemingly empty net at the back post.
St Johnstone did have opportunities to add to their haul. Just seconds after the restart, Wotherspoon cut inside left-back Sean Kelly before turning him again to roll the ball across goal for O'Halloran who - yes, you guessed it - failed to score as Jason Naismith slid in at the last minute to block his goalbound effort. Kelly's wandering nature allowed O'Halloran in again 15 minutes later, but substitute goalkeeper Chris Dilo, who replaced Kello at half-time, batted away his effort with ease.
While St Johnstone roved into their hosts' box almost at will, it was a different story at the other end. Tony Bennett may have left his heart in San Francisco, but Josh Magennis looked as if he had left his in Aberdeen. The on-loan Pittodrie forward had been lambasted by his St Mirren team-mates for his exuberant celebrations during Aberdeen's League Cup final triumph as he sprinted across the Parkhead turf to join in the party following their shoot-out win over Inverness.
Given that his parent club paraded the trophy throughout the Granite City just two days prior to last night's jaded performance, Magennis certainly gave the impression that his mind was on other things.
He often failed to beat his man while his touch and link-up play was indifferent at best, leaving Stephen Thompson isolated up front. The closest Magennis came to making an impact was when his free header in the box was cleared off the byeline by Gary Miller; he and Thompson also both failed to bundle the ball over the line in a late first-half stramash.
"We had a plan on what to do against St Mirren and the players carried it out excellently," said Callum Davidson, the St Johnstone assistant manager who is deputising for Tommy Wright following a gall bladder operation.
"If we can win as many games now before the top six [split] we can put pressure on Inverness and Dundee United."