St Johnstone in Europe – Part 2

St Johnstone v VPS Vaasa at home

Two weeks after a late Nathan Lowndes goal had secured a 1 – 1 draw in Finland against VPS Vaasa the second leg of the UEFA Cup Qualifying Round took place at McDiarmid Park on Thursday 26 August 1999.

Since the first leg, going into the match, Saints Premier League form had improved with a 2 – 0 win secured over Kilmarnock followed by a 1 – 1 draw with Hibs, both at Perth, providing confidence. Encouragingly, Lowndes was in a good vein of goalscoring form as he netted in both of the league games. Gary Bollan scored the other goal against Killie.

Ongoing injuries meant that Alan Kernaghan, George O’Boyle and Allan Preston were still missing from the Euro squad.

So when the team lined up that evening it was : – Main, McQuillan, Bollan, Dasovic, Weir, Dods, McAnespie, O’Neil, Lowndes, McMahon, Kane. Subs – Griffin, Grant, Simao, McCluskey, McBride, O’Halloran and Ferguson ( gk ).

Saints first home European tie in 28 years had rekindled much interest in Perth and surrounding areas so when 8,392 fans turned up they were hoping that their new heroes could repeat the form of the likes of Henry Hall, John Connolly and Jim Pearson from the 1971 campaign.

They were not to be disappointed but it was the visitors playing three up front who made the first impression winning a corner straight from the kick off. This came to nothing and it was Saints who took control with Paul Kane, John O’Neil and Canadian internationalist Nick Dasovic taking a firm grip in midfield.

Kane had a long-range effort saved by the keeper before a strong Saints penalty appeal was waved away by the Spanish referee. John McQuillan made a great run into the box only to be tackled by Pohja who had scored the Vaasa goal in the first leg and had proved something of a handful to the Saints defence in that match. However, the ref was not convinced. In today’s game the challenge would probably be described as “a forward’s tackle”.

On 15 minutes a Kane free kick so nearly found the head of a diving Jim Weir and minutes later good interplay between Gerry McMahon and Lowndes sent the striker clear on goal. Unfortunately his parting shot flew over the bar.

Saints were definitely the better team but unable to turn their outfield superiority into clear-cut chances. Vaasa were playing a typical away game with a resolute well-organised defence and hoping to hit on the break through two fast wingers.

Consequently there were 40 minutes on the clock before the next bit of real action came along … and it came at the Saints end!

Alan Main had been something of a spectator throughout the first half only being asked to make a routine save from a tame shot from Pohja. However, he managed to miskick a Darren Dods pass back straight to Kaijasitta. Thankfully the Vaasa forward failed to control the ball with the goal gaping and Weir was able to boot the ball clear. A real let off.

The early stages of the second half followed a similar pattern to the first period with mainly midfield play and little goalmouth action.

With Saints holding the advantage of an away goal the visitors began to realise that they had to score in order to have any hope of advancing in the competition.

Saints had adopted a patient strategy that was effective but not exactly exciting.

In 52 minutes Main showed his true ability when he made a tremendous save from former Motherwell striker Roy Essandoh who saw the keeper tip his 20 yarder around the post for a corner.

The biggest cheer of the night came on 68 minutes when Sandy Clark decided that Roddy Grant should be introduced for Kieran McAnespie to add punch to the attack.

This seemed to galvanise the home team and a minute later a Kane effort from inside the box brought out a fine save from goalkeeper Stringheim who managed to turn the shot around the post. Gary Bollan’s corner kick was met at the back post by Darren Dods and his downward header was saved by the keeper’s feet. Dods then saw his shot from the rebound hit the keeper point blank on the head. The ball was then cleared upfield and as play raged on Stringheim lay prone in the box apparently unseen by any of the match officials.

30 seconds or so elapsed and despite the Finns frantic protests the referee only stopped the game after a Bollan lob into the goalmouth had caused a further melee before being cleared out of play.

The Finnish coach, Kimmo Lipponen, was furious and raced on to the pitch behind the team’s physio. Words appear to have been exchanged with the referee who promptly ordered Lipponen to the stand. This certainly livened things up.

The unfortunate goalie could not recover from his injury and was subsequently replaced by substitute keeper Sillanpaa.

Saints were now going all out for the winner and Lowndes had another good chance to score but shot straight at the keeper. With less than 10 minutes left of play he was replaced by Miguel Simao.

The Portugese forward had only been on the pitch for 6 minutes when he scored.

Gerry McMahon crossed and when “Roddy” nodded the ball down Simao drilled the ball into the net from 12 yards much to the relief of the home support.

The Finns realised that now they really had to score to level the match and pushed hard for an equaliser which would have seen the game go into extra time.

However, much to the delight of the Saints fans, two minutes into injury time  super sub Simao scored his second goal. This time he collected the ball from a McMahon pass and ran into the box before rounding the keeper and sliding the ball into the empty net. The noise in the stadium was deafening as the jubilant supporters celebrated.

This would prove to be the final action and the match ended 2 – 0 Saints on the night and 3 – 1 on aggregate.

The scoreline also maintained Saints proud record of not conceding a home goal in the 4 European matches.

In his post match interview Manager Sandy Clark said, “ It was always going to be a bit nervy. Give VPS credit, they played three up, had a go and made it very hard for us.”

The draw for the next round would see Saints given a glamour tie with AS Monaco.

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