THE football authorities have come in for more than their fair share of stick over the years, so credit where it is due.
In combining the intensity of the post-split scheduling with the introduction of a nerve-jangling play-off they may just have created the most dramatic denouement possible at the foot of the SPFL Premiership.
Without the play-off place for the team finishing 11th, the last five games for the teams in the bottom half of the table would have had very little riding on them. Not any more. Hearts are now gone, relegated to the second tier for the first time in 31 years, but that will not ease the pressure any on the five sides above them. Whoever finishes in the play-off place should, on paper, be equipped to deal with any Championship side over two legs but with so much at stake none will want to put that theory to the test. Like a game of pass the parcel in reverse, nobody wants to be sitting second bottom when the music stops.
Loading article content
St Mirren went into the weekend's fixtures occupying that spot, a streak of just one victory in 11 matches giving no indication that they were about to extricate themselves from bother. Fast forward a few days and the picture has changed again. St Mirren have won, a remarkable if controversial come-from-behind 3-2 win over Motherwell, and all their rivals have lost. Now it is Partick Thistle's turn to be 'het' as the season really heats up, with all five sides due to face one another in a set of fixtures that will not be for the faint of heart. St Mirren have at least dragged themselves off the canvas for the time being. John McGinn, their tenacious and talented midfielder, had described the dressing room after the 3-2 defeat by Dundee United as "like a morgue" but here that situation was turned on it head, St Mirren rallying from 2-0 down thanks to a contentious refereeing call. A fortnight without a fixture will allow those in the bottom six plenty of contemplation, but McGinn was glad to be going into the break on a high.
"That was the best game I have played in at St Mirren Park and it was a massive victory for us," said the 19-year-old. "After the game you could tell the boost it gave every one of us, and the fans as well. It was huge, and the results elsewhere have gone our way. We are nowhere near out of trouble yet, so have to stay focused and play the way we did for the majority of the game, and cut out the silly goals we are losing."
McGinn plays with a maturity that belies his years but a word with the more experienced figures in the dressing room paid dividends on Saturday. "Thommo [Steven Thompson], Jim [Goodwin] and even Marian Kello, who wasn't playing, came in and spoke to us. They calmed us down and told us to keep playing the way we can and we would be fine. There was no panic in the dressing room and that helped us. I think you could see that in the second half we stayed patient and took our chances."
Thompson remains something of a Benjamin Button figure, a striker who seems to play with increasing energy and vitality the older he gets. Now aged 35 and a half, his double here, including a late winner, takes him to 16 goals for the season. "At half-time he was a real calming influence because the crowd were getting on our back a wee bit in the first half," said McGinn. "He said we have to keep getting balls into the box, create chances and something would come."
It says much for Motherwell's consistency under Stuart McCall that a relegation battle is not something they have had to worry about for some time. They left Paisley under a cloud after the decision to penalise Stephen McManus for handball that led to St Mirren drawing level at 2-2 ahead of their winner just moments later. Despite the setback, they enter the split in a strong position.
"It does [have an] impact on our chance for second," said striker John Sutton, scorer of his side's second goal. "These things happen, though, and we have to pick ourselves up. It is heart breaking because we felt we were doing well. We couldn't have asked the defence to do any more but fortune hasn't gone our way."