St Mirren: Can Oran Kearney's side's recent revival save them?
|Scottish Premiership: St Mirren v Kilmarnock|
|Venue: Simple Digital Arena Date: 11 March Time: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Listen on BBC Radio Scotland and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport Scotland website|
It was not meant to be like this. St Mirren had won 23 of their 36 Scottish Championship games, earned promotion with four games to go, and cleaved open a 12-gap between themselves and second-place Livingston by the end of the season.
They had not just won promotion, they had romped to the Championship title.
Now, 11 months on, St Mirren are bottom of the Premiership and battling to stay afloat. Jack Ross is gone, as is his replacement Alan Stubbs, who lasted just three months.
After 28 games, Livingston - who were also promoted through the play-offs - have double the number of points.
But has a recent - albeit small - resurgence under current boss Oran Kearney showed signs St Mirren may have enough in them to avoid the drop back to the Championship?
Unrecognisable from last May
St Mirren had good reason to target the top six. Four of the last five Championship winners have finished in the top half, albeit three of those - Rangers, Hearts and Hibs - are among Scotland's biggest clubs. Dundee also managed it in 2014-15.
The then manager Ross insisted the Paisley side would not "simply tread water" in the top flight. He said St Mirren needed to be "bold and brave" and aim for a place in the top six. His chief executive, Tony Fitzpatrick, was even talking about the top four.
But just how recognisable is this St Mirren team to the one that won the Championship? Ross and assistant James Fowler left to take charge of Sunderland. Goalkeeper Craig Samson went with them. As did Championship player of the year Lewis Morgan on loan, having initially signed for Celtic.
Morgan, Gavin Reilly and Cammy Smith accounted for 35 of the side's Championship goals. Reilly left for Bristol Rovers, while Smith was allowed to leave for Dundee United in January.
Their top goalscorer in all competitions this season is Simeon Jackson with five goals. And just five players have scored more than once.
Slowly getting better?
St Mirren ended 2018 in 11th place with 10 points, two more than Dundee.
Things did not magically get better after the winter break, either. They had to come back from two-goals down to save themselves from an embarrassing cup exit against Alloa Athletic. They then lost four consecutive games, conceding 13 goals. Championship Dundee United then did what Alloa couldn't and knocked them out of the Scottish Cup in Paisley. Dundee had moved above them, too.
But then, when it could not get much worse, it started to go right. St Mirren battled to draws at Aberdeen and Hearts, before beating Livingston at home. Now they welcome Kilmarnock with their tails up.
Kearney brought in defensive pair Mateo Muzek and Mihai Popescu, and also added goalkeeper Vaclav Hladky and his side look organised and are defending better. Three goals conceded in games at Pittodrie and Tynecastle is a vast improvement on their previous trips to both, where they shipped a combined eight. The clean sheet against Livingston was their first since December.
Their five goals scored in their last four league games may not seem like much, but it accounts for nearly a quarter of the 21 league goals they have all season.
"I have been in football long enough to know that the minute you think that things are starting to go the way you want them to, it will be whipped from below your feet," Kearney said. "It hasn't been the mindset from me and it definitely hasn't been the mindset from training either."
But have they left it too late?
When they were last relegated, in 2014/15, they had 21 points after 28 games - the same as Ross County and Motherwell. They would lose seven of their 10 remaining games, finishing six points adrift.
A year later, Dundee United found themselves eight points adrift with 10 games to go. They could not close the gap, with Kilmarnock matching them like for like.
Inverness were just one point behind at this stage in in 2016/17. Despite three wins and two draws in their last 10, they still finished last. And last season, Ross County were three behind. By the end it was four.
So history is not with St Mirren. But only two of their remaining 10 games will be against probable top-six opposition, beginning on Monday against Kilmarnock.