Hoops hoping to silence detractors
St. Mirren host league leaders Celtic in Saturday lunchtime's live ESPN game and if Tony Mowbray was in any doubt as to the unique pressures involved in managing one half of the Old Firm, the booing of his side - who went top of the SPL on Sunday - as they trudged off at half-time trailing to Hearts, served to remind him of the demanding expectations of fans in Glasgow.
Glenn Loovens' last-gasp header turned the jeers to cheers as he rescued a win for the Bhoys, while further underlining his growing importance in Tony Mowbray's side. It also, possibly, averted the first managerial mini-maelstrom of Mowbray's Celtic tenure following last week's Europa League defeat to Hapoel Tel-Aviv that has seen questions asked of the Celtic manager and his team for the first time.
While September is ludicrously early to be talking of a crisis, there are aspects of Celtic's play that will concern Mowbray, most notably that in ten competitive games they have managed only two clean sheets. St. Mirren manager Gus MacPherson will be hoping his goal-shy Buddies can benefit from the generosity of the Glasgow giants.
The sight of captain Gary Caldwell - who was singled out for abuse on Sunday from the Celtic fans following his ill-advised comments on forthcoming pay talks - arguing with Artur Boruc was dismissed by Mowbray as nothing more than 'passion,' but it was a locking of horns between the combustible Pole and his skipper that will do little to douse the impression that this Celtic defence is far from a unified rock of solidity.
The Bhoys' second-half performance was a vast improvement with the ever-sprightly Aiden McGeady once more the star turn. The decision to introduce McGeady as a substitute in Wednesday's canter at Falkirk could turn out to be a costly error ahead of next week's vital double header against Rapid Vienna and Rangers, as Celtic assess the extent of the injury the winger sustained at the Falkirk Stadium.
The enigma that is Paddy McCourt took centre stage and was in sparkling form against Falkirk and, with Niall McGinn impressing against Hearts, Mowbray could opt for either ex-Derry City wingers if McGeady fails to recover in time for Saturday's game. Chris Killen added another goal on Wednesday to his header against Hearts and the aerial presence of the big New Zealander gives Mowbray options up front for Saturday's match, with Giorgios Samaras likely to miss out after the injury he picked up in Israel.
Mowbray has spoken of the protective instincts he feels towards Scott Brown and, with the ex-Hibs midfielder currently out of sorts and nursing an ankle injury, he may have chosen to bring in Barry Robson for his first league outing since February had the midfielder not limped out of the midweek CIS Cup thrashing of Falkirk. Marc Crosas may take a midfield berth if both are deemed unfit.
The big topic of the week in Scotland has been the efficacy of referees in the SPL with Hugh Dallas leaping to the defence of his beleaguered profession following Steve Conroy's card-happy display at Rugby Park. Criticism of officials is a topic that MacPherson has waded boldly into since the season began.
He has railed against the SFA's appointment of 'novices' in three of St. Mirren's first four fixtures following a controversial encounter against St. Johnstone, before turning his ire on Scotland's ''untouchable'' top referee, Craig Thomson, revealing that Thomson ''doesn't enjoy St Mirren games'' after he officiated in Saturday's defeat to Aberdeen.
Thomson's decision to award Aberdeen an 88th minute free-kick twenty-five yards from Paul Gallacher's goal was always likely to cause palpitations on the St. Mirren bench with Charlie Mulgrew having already struck the woodwork with an earlier effort. McGhee this week described his full-back's left peg as ''a wand'' and St. Mirren were the latest team to curse Mulgrew's bewitching way with a ball as his 88th minute strike consigned them to a heartbreaking late defeat.
Ex-Don Lee Mair, incensed at Thomson's decision, collected his second yellow card as he protested too firmly. His absence on Saturday from a Saints defence already stripped of long-term casualty Mo Camara is one his manager could do without although the form of ex-Scotland keeper Paul Gallagher since he joined the Paisley club suggests the Celtic strikers may have to dig deep to find a way past the Buddies' backline. Summer signing Chris Innes may make his first appearance in the Saints defence alongside John Potter.
Goals are also a source of concern for MacPherson in the SPL, with only Stephen McGinn having netted from open play for the Buddies in five league games so far. The continued ascent of the young midfield star this season has at least offset the loss of form from last season's top scorer Andy Dorman who has been relegated to the bench for recent games.
McGinn - whose grandfather was once the chairman at Celtic Park - is no stranger to celebrating goals against the Old Firm, having scored against Celtic on his debut in 2007, and he proved with his delightful curled winner against Rangers at the old Love Street ground last season that he has a taste for the big occasion. Celtic will be wary of the threat the youngster carries from midfield - his opening strike in Tuesday's 2-1 win at Kilmarnock was his fourth so far this season.
Dorman's late winner in that game after neat work from Steven Thompson has got him off the mark for the season and with the signature of ex-Rangers midfielder Allan Johnston secured in midweek following a prolonged trial, MacPherson is well stocked in midfield; although he will be hoping strikers Billy Mehmet, Michael Higdon and Craig Dargo locate the route to goal shortly if Saints are to avoid a repeat of last season's relegation flirtation.
St. Mirren's home record in the SPL since switching stadiums in January might cause fans to start wondering if the new St. Mirren Park is built on cursed ground - nine months after taking up residence at their new abode they are without a home win in the SPL. That woeful record has to end sometime though and Celtic fans making the trip to Paisley will recall that this was the scene of their humbling Scottish Cup exit in March. Another defeat on Saturday and the joyous din that greeted Loovens' late goal will seem a very distant memory for Tony Mowbray.