Temple Of Saints - Just Not Good Enough

Challenge Cup 1st Round 26/07/2008

Ross Co 2 Saints 1

Team : McLean, Irvine, Ando, Millar, Rutkiewicz, McCaffrey, Craig, Hardie, Holmes, Savo, Sheerinho
Subs: Kelly, Peaso, Swankie, Samuel, Jacko

The phoney war was finally over and today we got back to business with another cup trip up north to face Ross County at Victoria Park, a ground that's fast becoming as familiar as Hampden for watching Saints cup ties these days. Of course after our wins their last season in the Challenge and Scottish Cups, the men from Dingwall had gone on to improve greatly with a return to the First Division so it's not as though we weren't going to see plenty of one another over the coming season. And there were plenty of familiar faces with the Highlanders having discovered a star striker in ex-Saintee Dyron Daal who this time last year was trying to establish himself in the Saints side. They'd also had a decent pre- season with plenty of wins and a creditable draw at Falkirk in midweek. Saints on the other hand had stuttered a bit and while results didn't matter pre-season (at least according to Chapter One of the Book of Managerial Clichés) and the Burnley game had seen a reasonable display, the travelling fans that headed up the A9 were justified in expecting a lot more in terms of performance and ability from the boys in blue (well yellow today).

In the end it just looks like far too many of the players haven't got into the serious frame of mind for the season. For far too long we were second to the ball and could barely string two or three passes together. Yes we lost a couple of players through injury early on in Ando and Savo but the subs should have been good enough. More worrying though was that despite his best efforts, Liam Craig was shown up as not being a left- back. There were more than a few fans in the stand who weren't slow in letting the dugout know how much importance the fans are placing on getting someone in to fill that slot. And even then there are still major questions to be asked of the side - McLean doesn't come close to inspiring any confidence in goal and while the midfield looked reasonable, for far too long they were either slow in getting forward in support or else unable to put in tackles or show the sort of movement required. Up front the introduction of Holmes has led to a worrying trend of punting everything forward to him while Samuel and Jacko are still well off the pace. Still it's only a Diddy cup isn't it?

Savo limps off. Photo copyright Temple of Saints.Following on from the growing list of knocks and niggles keeping the treatment room staff busy, Del had a chance to try and get his first- choice lineup out today, although with James, Mooner and Morris all missing out it looked like he might have to wait until next week. Still Ando and Collin Samuel were added back into the squad and Jody had recovered for the trip north although all three were woefully short of match practice (cue snide remarks about the rest of the squad given some of the pre-season performances). The gaffer had experimented with a 4-4-2 formation in recent games in an attempt to get some width into the side. That was the case today with the strike pairing of Savo and Holmes selected supported by the midfield quartet of Millar and Sheerin on the wings and Hardie and Irvine in the middle. That meant Ando coming in at right-back while Liam Craig dropped back to cover at the other side.For County, there were plenty of familiar faces in the lineup with Dyron Daal in the stand (spending most of the pre-match chatting to the Saints
players) and Paul Lawson lining up for them alongside Harte in midfield.

With the sunny weather and a fairly big travelling support behind them, Saints started badly enough as County attacked the away end. A first- minute cross was headed clear by Liam but didn't exactly inspire us and while Sheerinho and Savo tried to create some early pressure for Saints there was little in the way of real threat at the end of it all. Ruti and Harte both picked up early knocks, Rusty settling for a wee spray and Harte able to carry on after getting some medication of his own. The County midfielder had the first real attempt in the fifth minute when Rustybitz only half-cleared a cross and the ball fell kindly for Harte - thankfully his long-range effort went woefully wide. A minute later and Higgins found himself in the box but was unable to turn and Anderson and Millar ganged up on him to clear the danger.

Our first chance came in the tenth minute with a decent Millar cross from the right finding the Mad Mental One in the box but his header was easily held. Back up the other end of the park and Sean Higgins went for the first Divers Award of the season as Ruti won the ball off him in the Saints penalty area. But the overall play from Saints was pretty woeful at times with no sense of linking or teamwork. Things weren't helped a few minutes later when Savo pulled up with a thigh / groin strain. He tried to run it off but was replaced by Samuel in the 17th minute. Almost immediately Sammy had a great run into the box before he was tackled. County went straight up the park but Craig pulled off a great tackle in the box to prevent the shot.

Sheerin saw a cross cleared as far as Hardie but his effort went wide. Then in the 25th minute County broke through, McLean hesitated but Caff got back to put in a good tackle to concede a corner - suffice to say the Del'n'Tony were not happy and were in dangerously close territory given the tannoy warnings pre-match concerning the colour of one's language. And to add to their depression, a minute later and Saints were forced into their second change of the afternoon as Ando (who had been getting it in the neck from the management early on mainly because he was closest to the touchline), limped off with what looked like a knee knock. He was replaced by Swankie on the right wing with Millar moving to the centre of midfield and Irvine dropping back to right-back.

Saints were creating the odd chance but nothing spectacular. A long ball found Holmes who headed it on for Sammy but his effort only ended up going out for a corner and as usual, that was wasted. A repeat a minute later ended up with the keeper coming out to gather from the feet of Sammy who is not exactly the fastest of players. Our best chance came on the half-hour mark with a great low cross in from Craig on the left. Sammy (either deliberately or probably accidentally) dummied it in the box and it fell through for Sherlock but his turn and shot ended up with a weak effort that Bullock easily held. Hardie was next to try his luck in the 34th minute when he cut inside and tried his luck from distance but the shot was held.

Lawson picked up the first booking, barely deserved, of the game for a foul on Swankie but again Craig's freekick was as threatening as a Rock Steady steward. It almost turned against us with County breaking up the park and Higgins trying his luck with a shot that forced McLean into a decent save - just the sort of counterattack we didn't learn from.

Hardie proved he hadn't quite lost his touch with an accidental kick at the ball into the face of referee Thomson requiring the official to receive some of the magic highland medication and adding a few more nervous minutes to the first half. County had the better of the closing stages and three minutes from the break came closest to scoring when a Harte cross from the right bypassed McLean and the Saints defence before falling for Strachan but his finish was a weak effort. Hardie had a lob go well over the home goal before the half finished with County getting a corner courtesy of Irvine after McLean again hesitated to come out of his goal. The corner was cleared but when County came back, Irvine found his name going in the book for a late challenge. The freekick was a well struck angled attempt and Euan got down well to block it before the rebound went over the bar.

No changes at half-time and indeed Saints actually looked a wee bit livelier after the restart. Swankie moved over to the left wing with Sheerin going into the middle. Craig won us an early corner that was cleared and then Sammy had a brilliant run beating four or five opposition players before being crowded out although the lack of support was also a concern. Swankie had a pretty pathetic attempt go wide before the 56th minute and the approximate time that the Challenge Cup reverted back to being a Diddy Cup. A simple County break down the left and a deep cross over found the defence and keeper having another game of statues allowing Winters to head the ball back and into the net despite the efforts of (I think) Craig to try and pull off an overhead clearance. Cue cheering in the home end and pelters for the manager from the Saints fans (especially pertaining to the fact that the goal was another soft one to lose and yet again the lack of a left-back covering didn't help).

Still even though we'd used two subs there was still time to get back into the game. Millar played a nice ball into the County box on the hour finding Holmes and Sherlock's header down fell beautifully for Sammy but his low drive was just wide of the goal. County hit back with another Winters header but despite the ball ending up in the back of the net the County man was correctly ruled offside.

Del went for broke and the tiring Sheerinho was replaced by Jacko as we went for a 4-3-3 formation in the 62nd minute. Three minutes later and the game sparked to life once more. Higgins picked up a deserved booking for dissent (mind you going by the example of his manager on the touchline it's easy to see where his bad habit comes from) and a minute later Harte joined him for a soft foul on Millar. Things were slightly evened up when Craig picked up his yellow card a minute after that for a late foul. The freekick from that ended up in another low shot that McLean did well to save. A minute after that and some good play from Jacko won us a corner. That came to nothing but Caff got us a second. This time the inswinger for Holmes was punched clear by the keeper. A hoof up the park, worthy of McManus last season, took the ball to the halfway line where Caff somehow completely misjudged the bounce of the ball. He was left playing catch-up as Higgins broke up the park with only McLean to beat. For a change Euan came off his line but to no avail and a good low finish gave the home side the sort of two-goal advantage that saw some Saints fans head for an early exit.

We lost our shape and discipline after that - there was no cohesion in the side as we tried to get back into the game and the players were starting to lose the rag with one another. For all that we kept trying to press for some consolation and while County seemed to be happy to sit back and hit us on the counter. A foul on Jacko led to a freekick near the touchline which was headed down for Swankie but his effort went just wide. At the other end County fired a freekick of their own into the Saints box and again McLean was caught static although the defence spared his blushes.

Twelve minutes from time Millar, probably our most effective player on the day, put Jacko through but despite beating the offside trap he failed to capitalise and Bullock was able to come and gather. Hardie wasted a freekick after Jacko was up-ended again and then Caff did the same to Higgins to get his name in the book.

Saints were running out of time though and despite having the majority of the possession as the game entered the closing stages, we seemed to be unable to do anything other than punt high balls for Holmes and unfortunately for us he was pretty much knackered after a solid performance. But just when we wee set to give up all hope, that little teasing chink of light appeared again. Another ball into the box found Holmes and his header down for Samuel saw the T&T striker take a couple of touches before firing the ball low into the net. Suddenly there was a bit more urgency although County were trying to kill the game. Millar had a good run and a long ball for Jacko saw him well tackled. Then with almost the final kick of the ball Millar was brought down at the edge of the box. Craig played another good ball in but despite the header at the back post, the ball came back off the post / keeper and was cleared.

Not much more else to say than we knew already. The defence is still shaky and badly needs a settled left-back. Craig tried his best but isn't the best tackler. McLean looks incredibly nervous and currently is no better than Cuthbert was. Midfield was a bit better though both Swankie and Hardie were poor as the game went on. Still Millar just edges out Derek Holmes for my MoM award. Up front we need the strikers to start putting the chances away. County were a good side and there's no doubt they'll comfortably survive the season but we had plenty of chances to take the lead and get something from the game. McInnes has a week now to get his act together and get the players gelling properly as a side - and a left-back signing has to be a priority. Otherwise it's going to be a long, long season.

Still it's only a Diddy cup innit?

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