St Mirren: Successful season beckons for Goodwin's side despite two crushing blows

By Martin WattBBC Scotland
St Mirren beat Kilmarnock on penalties in the Scottish Cup quarter-final after a six-goal thriller
St Mirren beat Kilmarnock on penalties in the Scottish Cup quarter-final after a six-goal thriller
Scottish Cup: St Mirren v St Johnstone
Venue: Hampden Park Date: Sunday, 9 May Kick-off: 14:15 BST
Coverage: Watch on BBC One Scotland; listen on BBC Radio Scotland; live text coverage on the BBC Sport website & app

Sometimes falling short can still take you a long way. In a season of near misses so far for St Mirren, Jim Goodwin and his team's reputation has been enhanced rather than damaged.

And they still have the chance to crown their campaign with Scottish Cup silverware.

Despite having ended a couple of goals shy of the Scottish Premiership's top six, the Paisley club are on track for their highest top-flight finish in decades.

And victory over St Johnstone in their second semi-final of the season will eclipse their League Cup efforts.

Here's why there are plenty of positives amid the pain...

Best of rest a 32-year high

To gauge the merits of St Mirren's campaign, we have to look at what went before. Upon returning to the top flight in 2018 they finished second bottom, scraping survival with a nerve-ridden shootout win in the play-off final against Dundee United.

In Goodwin's debut term, the Buddies were ninth, two points above the play-off berth, when Covid-19 resulted in an abrupt halt with eight games left. The 1-0 win over Hearts in the final match played before the shutdown proved decisive - had the result been reversed, St Mirren would have been relegated in bottom spot.

So after two brushes with the drop that were too close for comfort, staying in the league was the be all and end all this season, right? Not according to chief executive Tony Fitzpatrick. His bullish pre-season prediction of a top-six finish invited scorn from pundits and heaped pressure on Goodwin and the players.

In the end, they were four minutes from delivering the lofty target in a season spent looking up rather than fretfully peering over their shoulder. Of the memorable moments along the way, a first away win over Celtic in 31 years takes some beating.

The dramatic late stumble at Hamilton Academical in the final pre-split fixture that cost St Mirren a first top-six finish since 1985 will sting for a while. The fact they missed out by a margin of just two goals is an extra slap in the face to go with the gut-punch.

But the pain can't mask the tangible signs of progress. The league campaign is far from a write-off. Indeed, if St Mirren overhaul seventh-place Motherwell - who sit a point ahead - in the final two games, Goodwin will have steered the club to their highest top-flight finish since they also came seventh 32 years ago.

While more goals are needed - St Mirren's haul of 34 from 36 league outings is the fourth lowest in the division - they have balanced that shortage with defensive parsimony. With just 42 conceded, the Paisley men have, alongside St Johnstnone, the tightest rearguard outside the top four.

A second crack at silverware

St Mirren's run to the Scottish League Cup semi-final highlighted Goodwin's tactical acumen. But, similar to the Premiership near miss, the prize slipped from their grasp just when it looked like the hard work had been done.

Having dumped out one top-four side with quarter-final victory over Aberdeen, Goodwin's men brought Rangers' unbeaten record to an end.

A semi-final spot was in the bag, with both of the Old Firm eliminated. All St Mirren had to do was get past Livingston. But they succumbed 1-0 in an attritional Hampden contest and the prospect of repeating their 2013 League Cup success - the club's last major trophy - had gone.

"It was a difficult one to take," said goalkeeper Jak Alnwick. "You came out the game saying, 'what if, what if?' Obviously it still hurts but you have to use it to your advantage."

Alnwick and his team-mates used the disappointment to fuel a return to Hampden. Twice St Mirren trailed Kilmarnock in the Scottish Cup quarter-final at Rugby Park, and twice they scored a late equaliser before prevailing on penalties after a 3-3 draw.

Goodwin's side are through to their second semi-final of the season, where they face League Cup winners St Johnstone with the Old Firm again both knocked out.

It is another touchstone of progress for the Paisley club, who had only gone beyond the Scottish Cup quarter-finals once - 2009 - since lifting the trophy way back in 1987.

Reshaped squad looks the part

Irish forward Jamie McGrath has excelled under his compatriot Jim Goodwin this season
Irish forward Jamie McGrath has excelled under his compatriot Jim Goodwin this season

Regardless of how the next fortnight pans out, Goodwin's stock has risen. The former skipper return to Paisley after an impressive start in management at Alloa Athletic, getting the part-time club promoted to the Championship in 2018 and keeping them there the following season.

He won't have clocked up two years in the Paisley job until late June, but is currently the third longest-serving manager in the top flight.

The Irishman has brought stability to a club that had churned through nine managers in nine years prior to his arrival.

While Covid has caused chaos across the game - St Mirren had more than their fair share with an outbreak that caused two games to be postponed - Goodwin's men have flourished in adversity.

The manager has put his stamp on the squad with a recruitment drive while keeping faith in homegrown young talent such as Kyle McAllister, Cammy MacPherson, and Ethan Erhahon.

Of the starting XI from the season-ending win over Hearts 13 months ago, only four players remain at the club.

Alnwick has proved an able replacement for the excellent Vaclav Hladky in goals, while the reshaped defence of Joe Shaughnessy, Richard Tait, Conor McCarthy and Marcus Fraser has quickly melded into a formidable unit.

Jake Doyle-Hayes, part of the burgeoning Irish contingent, has added craft to midfield while fellow countryman Jamie McGrath is the standout.

McGrath's impact has been a slow-burner after arriving in January 2020. Having failed to net in his 11 appearances last season, and first 12 outings of this campaign, the 24-year-old forward has bloomed with 16 strikes since, comfortably making him the club's top scorer and attracting the interest of Aberdeen among other clubs.

His contribution will be integral to St Mirren's hopes of ending the season with the Scottish Cup in their grasp. Win or lose, though, the future looks bright in Paisley.

Top Stories

Around Scottish sport

Elsewhere on the BBC