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Caley Thistle’s brave bid to make Premiership return ends in sore defeat at St Johnstone, who survive drop

Stevie May fires St Johnstone in front against Inverness.
Stevie May fires St Johnstone in front against Inverness.

Caley Thistle’s brilliant bid to reach the top-flight fell at the last hurdle as they lost 4-0 at St Johnstone in the second leg of the Premiership play-off final.

Former Aberdeen striker Stevie May made an instant impact after coming on at half-time when he slammed home the Saints’ opener.

It was effectively all over soon after when Cammy MacPherson doubled the scoreline with a wildly deflected killer second to keep Saints in the Premiership.

Late strikes from Callum Hendry and Shaun Rooney were shattering added blows to add gloss to the result.

ICT blasted back from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 in Friday’s first tie, heaping pressure on the Perth team as they fought to avoid the drop.

They’ve been a top-tier club since 2009, but facing the high-flying Highlanders locked level at kick-off was not a prospect loaded with anything other than dread for the hosts.

However, with ICT looking to return to the Premiership for the first time since 2017, Saints came out on top.

St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson (left) and ICT head coach Billy Dodds shake hands before kick-off.

No team has ever come through all six play-off ties after finishing third or fourth in the Championship and ICT were not to be the history-makers, despite their best efforts.

Reece McAlear’s deadly double earned Inverness parity by the end of the first leg on Friday after Shaun Rooney and Melker Hellberg goals had Saints coasting.

Brilliant support from fans

How much of a mental blow that would be to the Premiership’s 11th-placed finishers was up for discussion all weekend.

A 1-0 win against Aberdeen was the Perth side’s only victory in their last seven games, while Dodds’ in-form men arrived at McDiarmid Park unbeaten in seven fixtures and only one defeat in 13.

They saw off Partick Thistle 3-1 on aggregate and Arbroath on penalties with nine men in the end to reach the final.

St Johnstone’s Melker Hallberg closes in on Inverness midfielder Sean Welsh.

It was a brilliant effort from the estimated 1800 Caley Jags’ fans here, especially given there was a lack of available coaches for hire and the reduced trains on offer due to the drivers’ ongoing pay dispute.

St Johnstone, also backed by decent numbers, made just one change to their starting 11, with defender John Mahon replacing the sidelined Jamie McCart.

Inverness defender Danny Devine was back from his suspension after his controversial red card against Arbroath last week.

He was handed a start, along with Wallace Duffy, Logan Chalmers and Austin Samuels, with ICT going to four at the back after 3-5-2 failed to fire in the first half on Friday.

Cruel start to second half

It was a real toe-to-toe battle and ICT were far from overawed by the occasion and they were not far off with a Duffy downward header from a Chalmers corner, with Billy Mckay’s follow-up dealt with by Clark on 22 minutes.

Saints’ advances were few and far between and, in fact, speedy Samuels was next in the notes as he was stopped in the box by Dan Cleary as the striker sought an opening.

As the teams went in at the break, there’s little doubt the nerves with more with the home supporters with it all in the balance.

However, exactly one minute after replacing Glenn Middleton, experienced May shot St Johnstone in front when he buried the ball past Mark Ridgers after the ICT keeper denied Melker Hallberg.

St Johnstone’s Stevie May celebrates his opener against ICT.

It was a cruel start to the second half and it was 2-0 on 53 minutes when a MacPherson drive diverted off Duffy, which sent Ridgers off course and the ball flew into the net.

It was now a mountain to scale for Inverness and a nightmare given what they’d put into the tie so far.

Sub Aaron Doran seemed odds-on to halve the deficit on 68 minutes, but sliced his effort wide. That was as close as it came for ICT and two late cool finishes on the attack from Hendry and Rooney added a sore outcome for the visitors.

ICT responded to set-backs time and again this season, but this was a step too far in the end.

ST JOHNSTONE (3-4-1-2) – Clark 6, Rooney 6, Cleary 6, Gordon 6, Mahon 6, Brown 6, Davidson 6, Hendry 6, Hallberg 6, MacPherson 6, Middleton 6 (May 46). Subs not used – Parish (GK), O’Halloran, Craig, Sang, Ciftci, Gilmour.

CALEY THISTLE (4-3-3) – Ridgers 6, Duffy 6, Welsh 6 (Allardice 81), Deas 6, Devine 6 (Hardy 81), Carson 6 (Harper 74), Mckay 6, Broadfoot 6, Chalmers 6 (Doran 65), McAlear 6, Samuels 6. Subs not used – MacKay (GK),  Hyde.

Referee – Nick Walsh.

Man of the match – Cammy MacPherson.