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Writing is now on the wall in Perth, rather than a banner

THE banner was hung up at the back of McDiarmid Park's East Stand, behind where St Johnstone's rowdier young fans tend to congregate and make themselves heard.

Dave Mackay scored in stoppage time to give St Johnstone a slender hope of progress. Picture: SNS
Dave Mackay scored in stoppage time to give St Johnstone a slender hope of progress. Picture: SNS

"Underestimated Since 1884", it read. It was the sort of statement a support feels it can make after the sort of year the Perth club - which often feels a bit patronised and under-appreciated - has enjoyed. It also amounted to a mild warning from those who recently relished their underdog team winning the William Hill Scottish Cup: write us off at your peril.

Still, sometimes all the available evidence suggests it is legitimate to dismiss St Johnstone's prospects, and their Europa League tie against Spartak Trnava is one of them. Scottish clubs simply do not lose 2-1 at home and then turn things around with acts of dramatic heroism away from home.

An abject performance, especially in the first half, left St Johnstone sinking at 2-0 down after 90 minutes on Thursday night. Dave Mackay's stoppage-time goal restored a faint pulse and Stevie May could be back for the game in Slovakia having been absent with a thigh strain but only if he hasn't left for Rotherham United by that time. Those are, at best, tentative encouragements. Even so, the belief among the St Johnstone players - the hope, in fact - is that Trnava will regard the tie as being over already.

"Every time we're written off, in any big game in the last 12-18 months, we've managed to turn up," said Mackay, although he did confess that the 4-0 League Cup semi-final defeat by Aberdeen last season had been a solitary exception.

"I wouldn't write us off yet but, again, it's a real tricky task. Spartak will be thinking it's 'tie over' after seeing the way we played at times. Anybody who was at the match will be thinking the same. Hopefully that plays into our hands and the real St Johnstone turn up next week."

What is particularly dispiriting for them, ahead of the return game in this third qualifying round, is their obligation to accept that they were beaten by the better side. Spartak Trnava, third in the Slovakian championship last season and currently in the same position again, were sharper and better in possession, and they created far more threat around goal.

St Johnstone's inability to retain possession was punished twice and might have been exploited more severely. Trnava are entitled to believe they will win the second leg, too, even though it will be played in a venue 50 miles from their home because their usual stadium is being renovated.

"In the first 45 minutes we were nothing short of a shambles, to be honest," said Mackay. "We didn't keep the ball, we never won any second balls, it just wasn't like a St Johnstone team. I think they played pretty well, they are a decent team, but we made them look like world-beaters at times, the way we played that first half.

"It's just not good enough. The first half we couldn't string two passes together, we were getting the ball and lumping it forward. You just can't do that in Europe, turning the ball over so cheaply."

The captain was inclined to view St Johnstone's sloppy performance as uncharacteristically poor, to the point of being freakishly so. He took that as a wellspring for optimism. "The positive thing is we can't play as bad as that again, that's for sure. We know we have to score two goals at least over there but our better performances in Europe have come in the away ties. I don't think it's dead and buried yet, hopefully they will think it is. They probably will after seeing us. They'll think we're hopeless."

St Johnstone won in Rosenborg and Minsk last season and had a scoring draw in Lucerne last month, three excellent away results. They scored one goal in each of those matches, though, and that alone cannot save them this time. In three consecutive European campaigns it was the first time they had played at home in the first leg. It did not seem to suit them. "I don't know if it was because the first leg was at home, it was as if we didn't know what to do at times," Mackay added.

"It just wasn't like a St Johnstone team, I don't know if we turned up after a good tie last week against a good team [they eliminated Lucerne on penalties] and maybe thought 'we'll just turn up and turn this team over'. It was strange at times, even the fact the fans possibly thought we would turn this team over as well. They booed us off at half-time - maybe a little bit harsh after what we've done over the past 12 months or so. But they have paid good money to come and it wasn't good enough."

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