St Johnstone in Europe

VPS Vaasa in Finland

Saturday 23 May 1999 was the final day of the 1998/99 season and it saw both Saints and Kilmarnock vying for the coveted 3rd place spot in the Scottish Premier League. This position would provide a passport to European qualification for the following season.

At the start of play Killie were 1 point ahead of Saints and visiting Glasgow to take on Rangers who had already been crowned Champions. Saints were playing hosts to local rivals Dundee at McDiarmid Park and a record crowd of 10,575 turned out to cheer on their favourites.

At half time it was 1 – 1 at Ibrox and 0 – 0 in Perth. So no change in League positions.

However, in the second half, Alan Main produced a brilliant fingertip save from a James Grady header to keep the scoreline blank. Then in the 72nd minute at the Ormond Stand end came the moment that mattered. A wonderful Paul Kane header from a John O’Neil cross gave Saints a 1 – 0 lead. This coupled with the full time news that Killmarnock had drawn at Ibrox meant that Saints had managed to leapfrog their Rugby Park rivals into third place. Saints finished the Season with 57 points, one ahead of the Ayrshire club.

Now Europe beckoned for the first time since 1971.

The draw for the 1st Qualifying Round of the UEFA Cup saw Saints paired with the Finnish side VPS Vaasa who had finished second in the their League. The first leg was set for Thursday 12 August 1999 at the 6,000 capacity Hietalahti Stadium.

Going into the match neither team was in the best of form. Reports from Finland indicated that our hosts had won only 1 of their previous 10 games, in a season which had started in May, and were close to the bottom of their league. That said, Sandy Clark’s team had got off to the worst possible start in the League, losing heavily to both Hearts ( 1 – 4 ) and to Celtic ( 0 – 3 ) in the opening matches of the domestic campaign.

However, none of this could dampen the enthusiasm of Saints supporters with some 300 fans making the long trip to the University town on the picturesque West Coast of Finland. A piper led the colourfully boisterous, but well behaved, band of fans as they set off on their march from the centre of town to the stadium. The local people had obviously never seen anything like it before and came out in their numbers to applaud and cheer the Saints fans. It was a truly memorable experience which has become a feature of subsequent European trips.

Prior to the match there had been injury concerns over Alan Kernaghan, Allan Preston and George O’Boyle, none of whom had featured in either the Hearts or Celtic matches. Roddy Grant had sustained a recurrence of an ankle injury against Hearts but was deemed fit enough for the subs bench. Accordingly the team which took the field on a sunny autumn evening was :-

Main, McQuillan, Bollan, Dasovic, Weir, Dods, Simao, O’Neil, McAnespie, McMahon, Kane. Subs – Griffin, Grant, O’Halloran, McCluskey, Lauchlan, Lowndes, Ferguson (gk).

Saints started the better of two very tentative sides and the first real chance of the match came along in the 7th minute when winger Miguel Simao created an opportunity for Gerry McMahon. However, the home goalkeeper was quickly out to dive at the Saints player’s feet to avert the danger. 

Minutes later Simao received a Paul Kane pass and cut across two defenders before sending in a fierce shot from just outside the penalty area which beat the keeper but missed the junction of the post and crossbar by a whisker.

Midway through the half, Saints nearly scored when the home keeper could only punch out a Gary Bollan cross as far as John McQuillan. The full back lobbed the ball over the stranded keeper but his effort was headed off the line by defender Kokko.

Two minutes later Saints should have taken the lead when John O’Neil’s cross eluded the home defenders and when the ball bounced up to Kieran McAnespie the striker could only head the ball into the goalkeeper’s arms from 8 yards out. A great chance missed.

Alan Main had been experiencing an extremely nervy period when, firstly, he tried to chip the ball to Gary Bollan but only succeeded in placing the ball at the feet of Vaasa striker Pohja. Fortunately his shot went inches over the crossbar with the Saints custodian anxiously scampering back. Minutes later he sliced a kick intended for McQuillan straight across his own goal.

Then in 33 minutes the ‘keeper produced an International class save when he tipped a Pohja net bound drive over the bar. Somewhat bizarrely he then  managed to drop the resultant corner and was relieved to see Suoste’s overhead kick float over the bar.

This seemed to buoy up the home team and 5 minutes before half time they took the lead. Sandy Clark was clearly unhappy with the play of his defenders when a left wing cross glanced off Darren Dods head straight to that man Pohja, who, despite Bollan’s efforts to block, dispatched the ball past a helpless Main into the net.

Just before the interval it was nearly 2 – 0 to Vaasa when Priha shaved the outside of the post with a shot from the edge of the box.

The start of the second half saw Saints attack with new vigour. Vaasa keeper Toivonen spilled a Jim Weir header only to see Simao blaze the ball over the bar from inside the six yard box. Minutes later the Portugese player was replaced by Roddy Grant and the big striker was soon into the action causing confusion in the home defence. A Nick Dasovic surge forward in 66 minutes saw his shot turned past the post. This was followed by a Weir shot that stung the keeper’s hands.

Minutes later a timely intervention by McQuillan stopped danger man Pohja from scoring a second.

Sandy Clark, had seen enough and on 70 minutes replaced McMahon with Nathan Lowndes. This proved to be an inspired substitution as it took the striker only 6 minutes to grab the equalizer. Roddy Grant’s physical threat was worrying the home defence and creating space in the danger area. John McQuillan drove into the box and his low driven cross was prodded home from 6 yards by Lowndes. 1 – 1 and game on.

Saints then went all out for the winner and after one or two near things in the last minute a Roddy Grant shot was headed clear again by Kokko on the goal line.

This was the final action and the game ended one goal each with all to play for in the second leg to be played in Perth two weeks later.

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