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MacLean is back on top and good to go

FOR a man who plunged from such soaring heights to the most desperate of lows, Steven MacLean does not give the impression of being remotely bruised by the experience.

Steven MacLean's penalty is saved by FC Minsk's Vladzimir Bushmar, but it hasn't put him off taking them                       Photograph: SNS
Steven MacLean's penalty is saved by FC Minsk's Vladzimir Bushmar, but it hasn't put him off taking them Photograph: SNS

Far from it. Indeed, as he prepares for this Thursday's trip to the Alpine scenery of Lucerne on St Johnstone's return to European competition, the 31-year-old striker is more than ready to climb the mountain again.

MacLean played the entire 180 minutes as Tommy Wright's side achieved an historic victory over Rosenborg in the second qualifying round of the Europa League last season and produced a crisp finish to secure a 1-0 win away to FC Minsk in Belarus next time out.

Never mind making it to the play-off round. The impossible dream of the group stages was actually threatening to become reality.

It was during the course of the return leg at McDiarmid Park, though, that things turned sour. One of the main targets of a decidedly physical approach, MacLean was brought crashing down when through on goal early in the opening period and left equally crestfallen when the Montenegrin referee proved unwilling to flash a red card at his assailant.

He was then denied from a good position by goalkeeper Vladzimir Bushma and missed another couple of decent chances with the visitors having levelled the tie on aggregate against the run of play.

With Dave Mackay and Paddy Cregg having already missed in the penalty shoot-out and the Perth side 3-2 behind, MacLean went for power rather than placement with Saints' fifth and final spot kick and found himself thwarted by Bushma once again.

As he held his head in his hands and trudged back towards the sidelines, Minsk launched into the most appalling of celebrations, directing inflammatory signals at St Johnstone's players, creating a flashpoint with Mackay and forcing the referee to finally send off one of their players in Sergey Sosnovskiy.

MacLean still feels sore over the nature of that defeat. However, having bounced back to become one of the goal-scoring heroes of their Scottish Cup final win over Dundee United at the end of the campaign, he is ready to go back into battle on foreign fields and has made it clear that he will be first in the queue should his side need another one of those nerve-shredding penalty shoot-outs to get the better of FC Luzern.

"We definitely feel we have a bit of unfinished business in Europe," MacLean said. "When it comes to penalties, you stick your hand up to take one and you miss them some- times, but I'd still be up for stepping up again if it came to it. I have been involved in a few shoot-outs and I have scored more than I have missed. Next time, I hope I stick it away.

"We should have beaten Minsk in Perth over the 90 minutes anyway because we had chances. It was just one of those nights in which we didn't take them. When you play those Eastern European teams, they are clever. They make good fouls when they have to.

"We are back in Europe thanks to winning the Scottish Cup and we have to try to make more history this season and attempt to top that if we possibly can. It is going to be hard to achieve anything close to what we did. We might not have the same strength in depth as last year, but we still have quality and I just hope everyone stays fit."

St Johnstone released five players at the end of last season and have yet to make a signing ahead of the current campaign. MacLean has already spoken about the squad being a little thin, but he gives the impression anything might be possible should the chairman, Geoff Brown, do the deal that will keep manager Tommy Wright at McDiarmid Park for the foreseeable future.

"When you like and respect a manager, you will go that extra yard for him when the going gets tough," said MacLean. "The players will run through brick walls for him. I just hope the club can get him tied up on a long-term deal because he has shown his worth in so many regards. He speaks so well to the players during training and games and I think that is down to the fact he is a very honest man. What he says is what he does.

"He has also proved his tactical awareness. We have changed systems in certain games to get results and he has introduced little tweaks at the right times."

Brown has also revealed that the finances put aside for a new contract for Stevie May, with the latest round of negotiations scheduled for the start of the week, have contributed to the board's relatively hardline attitude to new players coming in.

MacLean formed an excellent partnership with May last term and that has been one element of life at St Johnstone that has rekindled his love of football following time in England that left him disheartened.

"It was great playing with Stevie because he stretches the game and lets me play in little pockets," said MacLean. "Since I have come back to Scotland, I have enjoyed my football and I didn't have that for a couple of years. There were times in England where I had fallen out with managers and fallen out of favour. I'd had enough.

"I felt like I wasn't really going anywhere. That was certainly the case at Plymouth and Yeovil. Over the past while at St Johnstone, I would say I've been back to my best."

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