Europa League qualifiers 2014

The following are passages from ‘Manifest Destiny: the official history of St. Johnstone FC’ by Alastair Blair and Brian Doyle.

FC Luzern

The 2014 European adventure was, in some respects, a facsimile of the 2013 one.  Drawn against a much bigger, more fancied team in the first tie, only to overcome them and then go out to a team that, like Minsk, we were more than capable of having beaten.  This sort of thing, of course, is what Saints’ fans become inured to, but it does not make it any easier at the time.  The current generation of fans will, no doubt, become more accustomed to this in time.

The bigger, more fancied team on this occasion was FC Luzern (Lucerne) of Switzerland.  Like Rosenborg, they had a budget well in excess of what was available to Tommy Wright, and like the Norwegians they had a reasonable track record in European football. 

The first leg was, for the third year running, away.  Switzerland being a modern, thriving European country, within easy reach of Scotland by air, a large number (c. 800+) of St Johnstone fans made the trip.  They were rewarded with some very expensive food and beer in a really beautiful city, albeit the abiding memory for many was the sight of blue and white clad fans out on the water on pedalos, interrupting the flow of boats in and out of Lake Luzern.

More importantly, Saints came away with a 1 – 1 draw, with Steven MacLean opening the scoring early in the second half, only for Luzern’s Marco Schneuwly, who had hit the bar in the first half, to equalise in 67 minutes.

The return leg on another pleasant Perthshire night, saw another very big crowd - some 8,486 - come to watch the unfolding drama. Drama there certainly was and like the Rosenborg and Minsk games, it was another evening where Saints and their fans were put through the wringer at times before the final denouement.

It all started well, with a penalty given, to the surprise of most of the crowd, in the 23rd minute following a push on Gary Miller at a corner.  Stevie May fired home the spot kick and we were winning on aggregate. 

But Luzern were made of strong stuff and it became a close-fought match, with the Swiss probably the better side.  In the second half they equalised through Schneuwly, who poked the ball home from close range in the 58th minute.  Luzern continue to cause problems right up to the final whistle and then it was extra time.  Both sides were visibly worried about losing and not many chances were created. Fortunately for us, their finishing was poor and then as time was running out Lee Croft sent in a great cross which substitute Liam Caddis hammered towards the goal.  It cannoned off the post and then soon after the referee’s whistle brought a temporary end to the agony. 

After the last season’s traumatic proceedings against Minsk, there must have been few in the crowd who relished the prospect of Saints competing in the pressure cooker of a penalty shoot-out to decide who would progress.  Yet watch the penalties on YouTube and you see one man who seemed calmness personified.  With Luzern due to take the first penalty, Tommy Wright walked purposefully up to Alan Mannus and shook his hand, embraced him and then watched his keeper stride up to the goal at the North Stand.

The first penalty was scored. Steven MacLean, having failed from the spot against Minsk, scored.  Luzern’s next penalty was saved, and Alan Mannus, rather than celebrating, coolly walked away from the goal to allow the Luzern keeper to take his place.  Luzern scored all the rest of their penalties. For Saints, Caddis, Mackay and May matched them.  Then came Tam Scobbie, for the one that would count.  Scobbie, not known for his goalscoring, slotted home before running towards the East Stand.  It was our night, and for many of the home supporters, it was going to be a long one.

Spartak Trnava

Having been the underdogs against a well-known European side, the next round paired Saints with a club it’s fair to say probably no-one in Perth had heard of before. Spartak Trnava, from Slovakia, came to Perth for the first leg as slight underdogs, a reputation they soon cast aside by passing the ball neatly around a St Johnstone team who played poorly on the night and were, as a consequence, faced with overturning a 2-1 deficit in Slovakia.  In fact, Saints had been two goals down and it was only in the third minute of injury-time that Dave Mackay scored with a low shot to keep Saints in with a chance.

As has happened with the away leg at Minsk, the ground for the return leg was not Spartak’s own, which was undergoing renovation and thus we had to travel to the tiny town of Zlate Moravce, about an hour’s bus journey from Bratislava.  The stadium, although modern, was in proportion to the town and held only 3,000, with a couple of hundred making the trip from Scotland.  The Spartak fans having a reputation for hooliganism, the Saints supporters who did make the trip were surprised (and disappointed) to find the local bars had had a curfew imposed by the police and, when they did get to the stadium they were met with squads of riot police with dogs.

It was another European night of so near and yet so far.  In the first half, Stevie May, who had missed the home leg, cut in from the left and scored what was to prove to be his last goal in a Saints’ shirt to give us a lead and square the scores on aggregate.  Then, with Saints looking reasonably comfortable and occasionally dangerous, poor Gary Miller botched a defensive header, sending the ball soaring back into the path of Mikovic who guided the ball past Alan Mannus.  Saints didn’t give up, and Stevie May came very close to connecting with a superb cross from Lee Croft in the dying minutes. If he had, and thus had an interest in playing again in Europe, would he have been influenced to move south to Sheffield Wednesday, as he did before the new season started?  Who knows, but of such margins are St Johnstone’s history made.