WHAT an afternoon we had in Paisley.
St Mirren, toiling towards the foot of the table and enduring a wretched run of form, found themselves two goals down to Motherwell and seemingly staring another defeat in the face. A goal before half-time gave them a lifeline but with just four minutes of the game remaining they were still behind.
Then, virtually out of nowhere, came the most remarkable of comebacks. A contentious penalty, after Stephen McManus was adjudged to have handled, led to Kenny McLean reducing the deficit and St Mirren scented an opportunity. Within a minute they had found a winner goal, Steven Thompson squeezing a shot past Gunnar Nielsen. Come full-time a sense of exhilaration and relief swept over three ends of St Mirren Park.
The result was significant in that it confirmed Hearts' relegation, but also lifted St Mirren out of the play-off spot and into tenth place. Partick Thistle now find themselves in that unwanted position, but Kilmarnock, Hibernian and Ross County are not out of the woods either. If this game was anything to go by then the post-split fixtures in the bottom half of the table should make for compelling viewing. By the end, fans of all five clubs involved will surely have aged considerably. They should hand out tranquilisers with the pies and coffees.
St Mirren benefited from a huge stroke of luck with the award of the penalty. Thompson hollered the loudest after his header struck McManus and referee Iain Brines, a half-time replacement for the injured Euan Norris, took an eternity to think about it before awarding the kick. Replays showed that the ball had not struck McManus anywhere near his arm.
"It hit me on the face so you would think people could tell by my reaction that it wasn't a penalty," said a bemused McManus. "It's a big decision at a big moment and it's cost us."
Manager Stuart McCall was just as vehement. "The ball hits Stephen on the eye socket and the bridge of his nose. The linesman who was looking at it 12 yards away gave nothing and the referee who is 30 yards away gives a penalty. Maybe I'm too nice as I don't ring John Fleming [SFA referees supervisor] or send him letters."
St Mirren had suffered in similar circumstances last month when Dundee United benefited from a poor refereeing decision on their way to turning a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory. Little wonder Danny Lennon felt that what goes around, comes around.
"If we've got that wee bit of fortune today then the only thing I'll say is that it's well overdue," said the manager.
Motherwell still seemed in shock when they conceded again 60 seconds later. A John McGinn pass intended for Sean Kelly was inadvertently redirected into Thompson's path who fired past Nielsen. The celebrations that followed underlined how vital that goal might prove to be.
It was all so different in the first half, when Motherwell benefited from some defending that could only have been more generous had it come accompanied by a wad of £50 pound notes. In Glasgow parlance, St Mirren couldn't keep weans out a close.
By half-time they had lost two and it could have been more. The first came courtesy of a malfunctioning offside trap. McManus launched a ball forward, the St Mirren defence stepped out, and no flag went up for either Lionel Ainsworth or Henri Anier. The winger simply centred for Anier who tapped in.
The defending was little better at Motherwell's second. Steven Hammell swung over a cross that Ainsworth guided back across goal. There stood John Sutton, the forward virtually on his knees as he nodded the ball home.
St Mirren, though, clawed their way back into it with four minutes remaining of the half. McLean's corner was nodded back by Darren McGregor to Thompson who dribbled in a shot. The start of the second half was virtually all St Mirren. Boy, did they give it a whirl, only to find in Nielsen a goalkeeper in top form. Fortune, though, would favour them in the end.