VICTORY is vital for St Johnstone in this afternoon’s clash of top two in the Bell’s Scottish League first division, but winning will not be enough for Jason Scotland. The visitors, St Mirren, sit seven points clear of St Johnstone and a win for the Perth side at McDiarmid Park would open up the title race, but Scotland is wary of placing too much emphasis on one league game.
“It’s crucial,” Scotland admits, “and it’s one we can’t lose because we must get a win or a draw, but after that we must keep it going and make sure it’s not a one-off. It’s no good playing St Mirren and beating them and then losing to Hamilton the following week. It doesn’t make any sense, especially as St Mirren will still be top even if we win.”
Scotland’s caution, rather than a gung-ho attitude, is understandable. St Johnstone have played some of the best football in their division this season and have scored 42 goals, more than any other club, but have frittered points away carelessly to less accomplished teams.
“We can play well and get a bad result,” Scotland suggests, “and play badly and get a good result. We need to be consistent. We beat Hamilton 5-1 and then lost 2-1 to Ross County and were awful. That was one game where we played badly and matched it with the result. Sometimes the team suffers from overconfidence after we have played well; myself included.”
Inconsistency is a concept with which Scotland, 26, has become too familiar over the past year. Last summer, the Home Office refused to renew the work permit that had allowed the Trinidadian striker to play for Dundee United in the Bank of Scotland Premierleague from 2003 to 2005, stating that the player “was not of the highest calibre and would not make a significant contribution to the Scottish game”. Scotland had appeared 29 times in 38 Premierleague games for United last season, coming off the bench in 18 of those matches. Within weeks, a work-permit application from St Johnstone had been strangely successful and Scotland joined the first division club in late August.
“I was angry about that,” Scotland says of the original application being declined, “knowing the impact I had had with Dundee United, where the fans loved me. I had been coming off the bench and changing games. I had also scored the goal that put Dundee United into the Scottish Cup final last season and that won them a place in Europe.
“I am still not 100 per cent sure why the work permit was turned down. It was looking grim, my career was on the line, but I’m now playing every week. Getting into the Premierleague would be a happy ending.”
A Tennent’s Scottish Cup defeat at home to Gretna, of the second division, in early January has helped to bring the top flight closer to St Johnstone. The paucity of the team’s play in that match had Owen Coyle, the manager, seething and vowing afterwards that there would be no more leeway for his players. Since then, St Johnstone have won all three of their league fixtures to gain ground on St Mirren, who have simultaneously dropped five points out of a possible nine.
A bulky striker, Scotland has the strength to cope with the physical rigours of the Scottish game but it is his delicacy of touch that distinguishes him. Spectacular goals, often precisely struck from distance, are his speciality and he has added a new dimension to his game this season.
“When I was at Dundee United,” Scotland recalls, “my manager said I always scored pretty goals. Now I’m getting some ugly goals; goal-poacher goals. I’ve scored four of them this season. Eleven goals in 23 games is quite satisfying.”
This summer promises to be a more enjoyable one than last for Scotland. Trinidad and Tobago will compete in the World Cup finals for the first time and he has a chance of making the final 23-man squad selected by Leo Beenhakker, despite yesterday being left out of the squad to face Iceland in a World Cup warm-up in London at the end of the month. Scotland also fully understands why England would be happy to have been drawn in the same group as his country.
“We have qualified for the first time so I think anybody would want to draw us,” he says. “On paper, England are supposed to beat us but it’s football and anything can happen. You need to make it half-difficult against England.
I also think Paraguay, who are in our group, are a good team and England haven’t beaten Sweden for a long time.
“We have a few talented lads, we play together as a team and it could be a good stage for a lot of players to show what they can do. People talk about how we lost to Scotland 4-1 a couple of years ago but we’re a different team from that one. We’re more organised; the coach has done great things with us. We’ve come a long way.”
Scotland is looking forward to the finals, when he expects everyone in Trinidad and Tobago will be wearing something red to show support for the national side. Before that, he will be concentrating on what he hopes will be some red-letter days for St Johnstone.