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ST JOHNSTONE closed to within two points of first division leaders St Mirren in a lacklustre affair at McDiarmid Park. Jason Scotland's first-half effort secured a gutsy three points for the Perth men, who got back on the championship trail after last week's 2-1 defeat at Ross County had somewhat derailed their reasonably good run.


The victory takes Saints into second above Hamilton, who face St Mirren in the Bell's Challenge Cup final today. It could prove to be a vital win for Owen Coyle's men in this exciting start to the campaign. The afternoon always had the potential to be eventful. If anything, it was intriguing just to see Coyle cheering on his St Johnstone players against a team with which he has such a legendary status. On the home bench, there was Coyle managing a Saints outfit opposite his close friend, Sandy Stewart, alongside whom he coached the Diamonds just last season.

It was interesting to watch the two of them in different dugouts. The vociferous Stewart was shouting his odds every few minutes, which led to a lecture from match official Mike McCurry. On the other hand, Coyle was happier just to survey the action with his arms folded and the odd shout thrown in for good measure. Funnily enough, though, Coyle also got on the official's bad side, receiving a ticking off from the assistant referee at the start of the second half.

Despite having already managed his Saints side against his former club of many years, it must have been strange for him to try and plot the downfall of a side he so often celebrated his multitude of goals with. Coyle also had one challenge ahead of him that no other Saints boss had achieved in the last few seasons. That was to beat yesterday's opponents from Lanarkshire who, since re-joining the league as Airdrie United after the demise of Airdrieonians, had never lost to Saints.

This was the seventh meeting of the clubs since the Diamonds' revival, and the New Broomfield club had won two with four matches drawn.

By the final whistle, Coyle had achieved his aim, although human natures dictates that he must have had mixed emotions. The first half was a big disappointment with the lack of action failing to warm up the 2,412 who put up with the bitterly cold day to watch their teams. It was a totally inept performance from Stewart's Airdrie United side, who failed to test Saints goalkeeper Kevin Cuthbert at all. So it was refreshing to see the interchanging play between Ryan Stevenson and Scotland on 28 minutes, which provided the Trinidad & Tobago international with the space to fire the home side ahead.

That was the highlight of a poor opening half which, if all chances had been converted, would have seen the scoreline at the interval stand at 2-0 to Coyle's men.

Aside from Scotland's effort, the only opportunity of note fell to his striker partner Steven Milne, who contrived to fire in a tame effort when he had a clear shot at goal on 14 minutes. Airdrie United shot-stopper Stephen Robertson didn't even have to budge to collect the attempt. Guy Fawkes' Night it may have been, but this clash was far from explosive.

The second half continued the pattern of play that had been in evidence in the first, only the shooting had gone from dire to woeful. Stephen McKeown's 60th-minute free kick for the visitors typified this when it ended up in Row Z.

Kevin Barkey then brought the first save of the game out of Cuthbert when Brian McPhee teed him up with a cheeky back heel two minutes later, but the Saints No.1 got down well and blocked the effort with his legs.

Scotland then came close to his second of the game in 71 minutes when he wriggled free of the Airdrie defence and unleashed a superb effort which Robertson clawed away to safety. For the sake of this encounter, it was a blessing that Scotland was on the field as he stood out among the 22 players. That the Home Office decided this guy was not good enough for the SPL beggars belief. He may not be a Chris Sutton or a Dado Prso, but he definitely offers something different to Scottish football. Even Dutch legend Leo Beenhakker seems to think so, as he regularly calls the robust frontman up for international duty. Dundee United's loss has certainly been St Johnstone's gain.

The Caribbean star was close again with 12 minutes remaining when, again, he used his intelligence to turn and shoot from 20 yards out. Robertson, however, was in the right place at the right time to gather Scotland's rocket.

The last chance of the game fell to substitute Stephen Dobbie, but the former Hibernian player couldn't double Saints' lead. In the end, Scotland's first-half goal was enough for the home side.

St Johnstone: K Cuthbert, S Mensing, G Stanic, R Stevenson, K Rutkiewicz, K James, J Henry (R McCann 56), D Sheridan, S Milne (S Dobbie 76), J Scotland, P Sheerin.

Airdrie United: S Robertson, S McKenna, P Lovering, N McGowan, A McManus, M Hardie, K Barkey (D Dunn 86), S McKeown, B Prunty, B McPhee (S Docherty 78), S McDougall.

Referee: M McCurry