The following are passages from ‘Manifest Destiny: the official history of St. Johnstone FC’ by Alastair Blair and Brian Doyle.
The following season, following Saints’ superb third place in the league, the draw was once again unkind, pairing them with Rosenborg BK of Norway. Financially, they were in a similar bracket to Es-Es, but Rosenborg are Norway’s most successful club who had featured regularly in the European Champions League group stages for many years and had a budget that reflected that pedigree. New manager Tommy Wright would probably have wanted easier opponents for his first competitive game in charge.
As in the previous season, St Johnstone had to travel for the first leg. The trip, to Trondheim in Norway, was shorter than the journey to Turkey and some 500 Saints fans made the effort. One group, travelling via a connecting flight from Oslo, started singing on this second leg of the journey, only to be silenced by an announcement from the plane’s captain, “will the supporters on board please stop - you’re not at the match yet.”
Once they arrived, the general consensus was that the locals were less welcoming than their Turkish equivalents had been the previous season, but despite this the trip was well worth it. Frazer Wright scored from close range in the 19th minute and despite Alan Mannus having to make some important saves the team held out to take a one goal advantage back to Perth.
That excellent result (and performance) captured the imagination of the supporters and 7,850 came to McDiarmid on a balmy Scottish summer’s evening. Within a few minutes the majority of the crowd were crestfallen as Soderlund stroked home for the Norwegians after a great move. However, Saints rallied and took the game forward. Stevie May, who had remained on the bench in Trondheim, was playing up front, partly because Chris Millar was out through injury, but it was the 20 year old striker who made the crucial breakthrough for his side in 21 minutes, latching on to a lofted through ball from Wotherspoon to win a race with the onrushing goalkeeper and lift the ball over him and into the net.
The rest of the match was tense, with both sides creating chances. Rosenborg, naturally, applied a lot of pressure but the Saints’ rearguard held firm, aided by some occasional wayward finishing, especially at the death when the visitors’ Jon Inge Hoiland had a great chance only for Mannus to save his weak shot. Then the referee blew the final whistle, the pre-tie favourites Rosenborg were out and St Johnstone were through.
The next round, which followed literally a week later, once more saw Saints drawn away, but this time to Belarus and a match against FC Minsk. To compound matters, Minsk’s stadium was being redeveloped so both sides had to play in front of a small crowd of only 3,000 in the western city of Grodno. The very short timescale meant fans could not get visas to travel from Scotland to Belarus, so this first leg probably ranks as a record for having the smallest ever St Johnstone support for any match – or to be precise, none. Other than the official party, one ‘supporter’ was present, and even he was not actually a Saints fan but simply an exiled Scot living in the area.
Minsk were not regarded as strong opponents. Steven MacLean scored the only goal of the away leg and Saints were confident they could go marching on after the home match at McDiarmid.
This confidence manifested itself in a huge crowd, of 8,594, and in Saints taking the game to their opponents from the outset. Despite a lot of hard work and several reasonable chances they failed to score and Minsk slowly came into the game. Then in the 75th minute, Milos Rnic scored, driving in a cross which, on another night, might have crept past the post or been saved. More drama followed in extra time when Rory Fallon looked to have been fouled in the box, but no penalty was given and the match petered out and the first European penalty shoot-out in Saints’ history began.
It began badly. Minsk scored their first three, while Dave Mackay had his saved and Paddy Cregg missed. Alan Mannus came to the rescue with two great saves, while Rory Fallon and Gwion Edwards scored. It was then down to Steven MacLean to take the match to sudden death penalties, but, sadly, his spot-kick was saved. Saints’ proud record of never having lost a home tie in European football was over and the behaviour of the Belarus’ team in the aftermath in attempting to goad the Saints’ players just added to the misery.
Like the ZEL Sarajevo result all those decades previously, this was a sore blow. Saints could have, should have, progressed to another round. Two consecutive seasons in Europe had given the fans a lot of pleasure though, but given the size and financial strength of the club it was asking much to be granted a third stab at European competition.
However, as we know, that wish was granted, with Steven MacLean’s second goal in the Cup Final in 2014 more than compensating for any penalty miss against Minsk and taking Saints into Europe once again.
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