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Kick-off 2013-14: The Saints go marching into Europe

saintsFor anyone accustomed to the long era of Celtic and Rangers dominance, the rise of St.Johnstone is a little hard to believe and a little refreshing.

They have never won a major honour, although they lifted the Scottish Challenge Cup in 2007-08 and a year later, the Scottish First Division. Last season, the Saints finished third in the Scottish Premier League and qualified for the Europa League for the second successive season.

St.Johnstone, who kick-off on Sunday against Hearts on Sunday (August 4), have a tough away trip to play Minsk of Belarus before they start their SPL campaign. They’ve already beaten once-mighty Rosenborg in the second qualifying round of the Europa, winning 1-0 away (their first ever away win in Europe) and drawing 1-1 at McDiarmid Park to secure 2-1 aggregate win.

If the Saints successfully negotiate this two-legged tie, they will be one round away from the lucrative group stage of the competition. It’s not the Champions League, but will represent a historical high point for St.Johnstone.

Tommy Wright’s squad cost a fraction of the £18m that built Rosenborg’s team. St.Johnstone chairman Steve Brown refuses to gamble on his club’s future the way others have, and failed, in Scotland. Livingstone, Gretna, Motherwell and Dundee have all spent their way into trouble in recent years. Brown rescued the Saints from bankruptcy when he joined the club in 1986. They’ve come a long way since then.

St.Johnstone prepared for their trip to meet Minsk with a pre-season friendly against Morecambe at home on Saturday. Less than 900 people saw them lose 0-1. Understandably, they had their minds elsewhere. Wright’s squad has been boosted by the re-signing of Murray Davidson, a talented midfielder who was hoping to find a club in England. Goalkeeper Alan Mannus, who apparently played a “blinder” against the Norwegians, has also attracted the attention of more senior clubs.

So what can St.Johnstone expect of Minsk? For a start, they have to travel to Grodno near the Polish border due to problems with Minsk’s stadium.

Minsk won the Belarusian Cup in 2013, beating local rivals Dinamo in the final of penalties. They finished sixth in the league last season with their near-100% Belarusian squad. In the previous round, they beat Valletta of Malta. They are currently seventh in the 12-team Belarus Premier League, drawing their most recent game 1-1 away at Dinamo Brest.

St.Johnstone described their win against Rosenborg as one of the finest nights in the club’s history. Getting through against Minsk and overcoming another hurdle to reach the Europa group stage would cap that experience and create a little bit more history for the Perth club.

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