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Play-off rivals prepare for 'biggest game of season'

THE introduction this season of a relegation play-off spot in the SPFL Premiership is no longer capturing the imagination of the teams around it.

James Craigen says Thistle are good enough to stay up. Picture: SNS
James Craigen says Thistle are good enough to stay up. Picture: SNS

It is holding them hostage.

The manner in which each of Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Ross County, St Mirren and Partick Thistle have been swirling around 11th place has allowed for a comparison to a plug hole, but one of those five will be feeling rather flushed at the end of the campaign. A play-off with a side from the Championship is the reality for whichever club's hopes of survival wind up in the toilet.

It is a dispiriting prospect and one which will come into greater focus during the final four fixtures of the campaign. Supporters of Thistle and St Mirren have the opportunity to take a closer look later tonight when their sides meet under the lights at Firhill, both intent on isolating County a little more in 11th place. A win for the home side will move them five points clear of the play-off, until tomorrow evening at least.

Given what is at stake, relative to this stage of the season, the match has been described on Thistle's official website as the "biggest game of the season". There was confirmation yesterday that home fans have been buying into ambitions to secure a position in the top flight outright as tickets continue to be purchased with alacrity, while there has been notable enthusiasm registered on the club's social media sites.

That sentiment was summed up simply by Alan Archibald yesterday. "It is massive," said the Thistle manager, using the accepted term to denote a fitba' match of significance.

"We wouldn't be safe by any means but it would take us a long way to getting us there. It is now down to nerve and character."

The manager was able to speak baldly about those traits, his players having avoided carefully any hairy moments in a win away to Kilmarnock last weekend.

That result had required the Glasgow side to be bold - Aaron Taylor-Sinclair abandoned his station at full-back to break into the six-yard box and score decisively late on - but also for the experience of the club's older players to tell. It will be important for Thistle that those players continue to make their voices heard in the last matches of the campaign.

Among them is Lee Mair, the defender who changed his stripes in January by moving from St Mirren to Firhill. "It might be awkward for him as some of them [St Mirren players] are his mates. But he will be 100% professional," said Archibald of a player who spent five years in Paisley.

"He brings a bit of experience; he brings calmness and is a good talker. That is something that is getting worse in the game now as a lot of young lads don't speak [on the pitch]. They are the first ones to come and chap on your door to have a go at you but you need a leader, an organiser on the pitch. Experience lets you go and point the finger and tell others where they should be on the pitch rather than just concentrating on your game."

That is not likely to be a problem this weekend as each of the other bottom six teams contest their games, including the Edinburgh derby on Sunday. The proximity of each of the clubs in the league table will ensure that their respective results will never be too far from the minds of their rivals and Archibald acknowledged that it would have been "impossible" to expect a quiet weekend to himself.

He will instead await furtive text messages relating to each of the games, while it would likely have been be unreasonable too to assume that none of his players would feel obliged to get their rivals telt. "All of us at Thistle thought that we were good enough [to stay up this season], that we had a good enough squad and a good enough manager," said James Craigen, the Thistle midfielder.

The conviction of the young Englishman will remain a constant in the final fixtures, although a more senior player is adamant that the battle to avoid the play-off is not easy to predict. David van Zanten, the St Mirren defender, is in his second spell at the club and carries the scars of a few fraught relegation fights.

"There are so many twists and turns still to be had in the league, there are so many permutations and all we can do is take each game one at a time," said the Irishman, whose side have captain Jim Goodwin available after the club appealed the red card he received last weekend.

Their next match will take them to Firhill, and perhaps a little further from the plug hole.

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