We know it’s a risky thing to say after only four games, but St. Mirren has started the Scottish Premiership in better form than critics probably expected them to. Two wins, a draw, and only one loss has put the Saints in mid-table at this early stage, and crucially five points clear of the dreaded 11th position, from which the trapdoor opens. Maintaining that gap between now and the end of the season won’t be easy, but is that all the Saints should be looking for in the 2020/2021 season, or should their aspirations be higher? The recent battling draw at home to Ross County certainly suggests that the team is capable of taking points from games they would have lost last time around, but was that a blip, or has there been a more permanent upturn in fortunes?
If this side is stronger than the one that finished 9th on the computer-generated final table last season, the bookies and pundits don’t appear to have noticed. The majority of bookmakers currently have the Saints second or third favorites to go down, with 6-1 being around the most generous odds you can get on the side staying in the top flight for next season. In the Scotsman, St. Mirren is forecast to finish 9th again. In the same article, the odds of the Saints lifting the Scottish Premiership trophy are listed as 1500/1. That’s better odds than Leicester City got at the start of the season when they won the English Premiership, so perhaps that should be taken as an encouraging sign, but it doesn’t say much about the pundits’ opinion of an immediate improvement in the side’s long term form.
Perhaps we shouldn’t put much stock in the opinions of those who are paid to give them. Pundits and bookies have never been much good at predicting the outcome of the Scottish Premiership – partially because they know much less about it than they do the English leagues, and partially because the Scottish top-flight is more like an online slots or a roulette wheel than it is a nice, simple, predictable bet. Outside of Rangers and Celtic, anyone can beat anyone, and anything can happen. Maybe that’s why so many bookies and online slots websites are drawn to sponsoring the shirts of the teams who compete in the division. The odds of St. Mirren finishing within the top four are probably a lot longer than the odds of an instant win on any online slots game, but the odds on avoiding the drop don’t appear to be quite that long.
If we listen to any voices at all about how the team might fare this time around, it should be those within the club. There’s little doubt that Jim Goodwin is a capable manager, and appears to be steering the club in the right direction. There’s also little doubt that Tony Fitzpatrick is an ambitious owner. He’s gone public with his belief that he thinks St. Mirren can finish in the top half of the table this season, and he believes he’s provided his club with the means to achieve that goal. If they’re able to do so, it’ll be their highest finish since the 1984 season. That’s a lifetime ago, and many of the Saints fans who were around to see that accomplishment are sadly no longer with us. It would be nice for a new generation of St. Mirren fans to see the club do something other than struggle against the force of gravity in the top flight, and 2020/2021 might be the time it finally happens.
Looking at the club’s transfer business during the summer, more players went out than came in. Despite that, the squad looks and feels more robust as a result. With no disrespect intended to any of the former Saints, there was dead wood to shift within the playing staff, and that dead wood has been shifted. Jak Alnwick, in particular, looks to be a good acquisition, and Joe Shaughnessy – recent red card aside – is a definite improvement in his department. Isak Thorvaldsson on loan from Norwich clearly isn’t going to stick around for the long term, but he may be able to push the team forward while he’s around. Smart loan business is often the way ahead for the smaller clubs in the Scottish Premiership, and Thorvaldsson looks like smart business.
The most important piece of business done during summer probably wasn’t the acquisition of any new players, though. It was the conversations that happened behind the scenes that persuaded Jonathan Obika to stay with the side for at least another season. Any of our readers who played “Championship Manager” or “Football Manager” ten years ago will remember Obika fondly; he was a young trainee at Tottenham Hotspur, and he always turned out to be a world-class player after a few years of development. Sadly for Obika, his career didn’t turn out that way in real life. Spurs loaned him out repeatedly for six years to a succession of different clubs, and then let him go in 2014. Since then, he’s caught the eye at Swindon Town, struggled at Oxford United, and found his feet again at St. Mirren. He may no longer be the prospect who represented England at under 19 and under 20 levels, but he still knows where the back of the net is and, at 29, could probably still find a bigger club than St. Mirren to play for if he wanted to. The fact he’s still here suggests that he feels an affinity for the side, and has the desire to help the Saints reach the next level. His goals will be a key factor in doing so.
We don’t want to see St. Mirren spending this whole season battling against the drop, and we don’t think we’ll have to. This season, we’re going to choose to be optimistic. Livingston and Hamilton can worry about relegation, and if Kilmarnock and Motherwell want to join that party, they’re welcome to do so. The time has come for St. Mirren to shake off their ‘plucky underdog’ tag and start pushing for better things. The side’s first two years back in the Premiership were about establishing themselves, and they’ve done that. The next job is to look upward, and with worse teams below them and comparable teams to measure themselves against, there’s no reason why it can’t be done. St. Mirren for Europe? Perhaps not just yet, but a step in that direction would be nice.