NOBODY at St Johnstone was attempting to gloss over the weekend departure of their manager Steven MacLean or his assistant Liam Craig as they took on Kilmarnock in the cinch Premiership at McDiarmid Park tonight.

There was a double page tribute to the pair, who “parted company” with the Perth club on Sunday in the wake of their 4-0 mauling at the hands of St Mirren in Paisley the day before, under the headline “Thank You To Two Club Legends”.

“This was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make,” said Saints chief executive Stan Harris underneath a glowing tribute to the former striker and ex-midfielder.

“Nobody wants to be in a position where they have to make a decision like this. But the results weren’t forthcoming and the club always has to come first.”

Would making the difficult call to dispense with the services of an icon like MacLean, who played over 200 games for St Johnstone and scored the winner in the 2014 Scottish Cup final, and a great like Craig, their all-time appearance record holder and a double winner in 2021, have the desired effect? It certainly seemed to do something.  

Fair City Unity – the nicest ultras group in world soccer – made their feelings know about the dire run of form which had left their heroes five points adrift of Aberdeen at the bottom of the table before kick-off.

They unveiled banners which depicted Freddy Krueger of the A Nightmare on Elm Street film series standing in a fire. Underneath it read: “End the Nightmare.”

Liam Gordon and his team mates, without a league triumph home or away in nine outings this term, were clearly taking notice. A team which had netted just once in 450 minutes of competitive football found themselves 2-0 ahead within seven minutes.

Nicky Clark, who returned from an ankle injury and made his first appearance of the 2023/24 campaign at the SMiSA Stadium at the weekend, got both of them. MacLean will doubtless have been sitting at home shaking his head when he heard the news. Who would be a football manager?

The former Queen of the South, Rangers and Dundee United forward pounced after just 42 seconds after Will Dennis had palmed a powerful Chris Kane shot clear. His strike was initially ruled offside by linesman Craig Ferguson. But it was allowed to stand following a VAR check that took longer than had been played.   

There was no dubiety about his second. Clark rose and met a Graham Carey free kick with a powerful header which left Dennis with no chance. Having been sidelined since February and having not netted since last November, there was no hiding his delight.

He very nearly made it a dream hat-trick too when he met a Matt Smith delivery later in the first half. The Kilmarnock keeper fumbled his effort before retrieving it. The Bournemouth loanee had a busy evening. A long-range Gordon attempt deflected onto the top of his crossbar and Kane fired just over after playing keepie uppie in the opposition area.

It looked very much as if the visitors’ dire away record was set to continue and caretaker manager Alec Cleland, the former Dundee United, Rangers and Everton full-back who was taking temporary charge of a team for the fifth time in his coaching career, was set to enjoy a triumphant evening against all the odds. But Kilmarnock fought back well.

Derek McInnes’s charges, who went into this game with a fair bit of momentum behind them after back-to-back wins over Livingston and Aberdeen, had moved up to fourth place in the table and in to contention for a European place despite not winning once on the road. It was a problem which blighted them badly last term too.

McInnes clearly had a few choice words with his men in the dressing room at half-time as they pulled one back soon after the second half started. Kyle Vassel volleyed beyond Dimitar Mitov after being supplied by Matty Kennedy. The Rugby Park outfit nearly equalised when Joe Wright nodded a Danny Armstrong just past the right post.

Burnley loanee Dara Costelloe got a yellow card upgraded to a red after referee Calum Scott had watched a replay of his rash foul on Kennedy back on his pitchside monitor. But St Johnstone held on to pick up their first three points of a tough season and send their longsuffering fans home happy for the first time in a long time.

Whoever replaces MacLean permanently will have a tough task keeping his new club up. Much work remains to be done. But this result suggests it might not be an entirely lost cause. There was a definite response to their erstwhile gaffer’s character assassination on Saturday evening. They are now just three points behind fellow strugglers Livingston and Ross County. They have, too, a game in hand on the former.