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Race for Europe could boil down to clash with Rangers for former Cork City star

After some testing times in England, Graham Cummins now feels he’s heading in the right direction.

Graham Cummins playing for St Johnstone against Celtic earlier this season.
Graham Cummins playing for St Johnstone against Celtic earlier this season.
Image: Jeff Holmes

PLAYING REGULARLY FOR a team on the verge of qualifying for Europe, Graham Cummins is enjoying his football these days.

But that hasn’t always been the case for the Cork-born striker since he completed what he hoped would turn out to be a dream move to Preston North End in 2012.

“I’m very happy in Scotland. I’ve experienced England and I’m much happier going into training every day here,” says Cummins, who’s coming to the end of his second season at St Johnstone — for whom there’s plenty at stake over the final five fixtures of this Scottish Premiership campaign.

The Perth outfit, who are managed by former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Tommy Wright, sit in fourth place in the table, four points clear of Hearts and eight ahead of Patrick Thistle. If they’re still in that position following their season finale at home to Rangers on 21 May, they’ll play in the Europa League next season.

St Johnstone’s post-split run-in begins this afternoon away to second-placed Aberdeen, with Cummins set to return to the team after serving a suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards. They travel to champions Celtic next weekend, before hosting Partick, Hearts and Rangers at McDiarmid Park in what’s likely to be a decisive nine-day spell in May.

“The last week of the season is going to be massive for us,” Cummins explains. “That’s probably when it’s going to be determined if we’re going to finish fourth or not. The games against each other will be crucial. If we can get results against Partick and Hearts then that might do it, but you just don’t know what’s going to happen until then.

“The older you get, the more you appreciate the chance to play European football and what it could do for you. It’s something you want to be part of and be able to look back on at the end of your career. It would be a brilliant achievement for a club of our size,” adds Cummins, who plays in front of average home crowds of just over four thousand for St Johnstone.

The game on the final day of the season will represent Cummins’ fifth opportunity to face Rangers, who are nine points ahead of St Johsntone in third. The Saints will be at home, although the visiting fans from the blue half of Glasgow usually tend to negate that advantage.

St Johnstone v Rangers - Ladbrokes Scottish Premiership - McDiarmid Park Cummins under pressure from Danny Wilson of Rangers. Source: Craig Watson

Cummins says: “Rangers have the best atmosphere, probably even better than Celtic. Not just at Ibrox, even when the Rangers fans came to McDiarmid [Park] this year it was probably the best atmosphere I’ve played in. My mam and dad were at the game — they’ve come to the Celtic games as well — and they said the Rangers atmosphere was just unbelievable.

“It’s certainly a lot more tense when you play Rangers. Especially when they’re at home, their crowd will get on their backs fairly quickly because obviously they’ve been used to a certain level for years, which is not being produced at the moment. As an Irish lad you’re always looking to get on the scoresheet against Rangers. Hopefully I can do that in a few weeks.”

He adds: “You might think you’re going to get an extra bit of abuse from the Rangers fans because you’re an Irish lad, but I think everyone gets it. There’s just as much abuse when we’re playing Celtic. It doesn’t matter to them. They just see you as opposition. Your nationality doesn’t come into it.”

Celtic will be the opposition in seven days’ time at Parkhead and Cummins has some fond memories of facing the Bhoys, who have already wrapped up their sixth consecutive Scottish Premiership title. Last May, the 29-year-old scored the winner in a 2-1 home victory over the Glasgow giants.

“Against Celtic, it’s one of those games when you just go in, work hard and hope for the best,” says Cummins. “They’re a totally different kind of opposition. It’s completely different going to their ground than any other, where you have hundreds of fans waiting outside and there’s police horses and stuff like that.

“There was a lot of nerves playing against them the first time. When we beat them towards the end of last season I think they had slackened off a small bit, which was understandable as they had nothing to play for. But I think they have a different mentality this season. I don’t think they’ll be complacent. They’re setting the standard. I don’t know if any other player in the league would get into their team.”

As for the oft-maligned standard of the Scottish Premiership, Cummins says: “Celtic are so far ahead of the other teams that it’s very hard to see anyone else winning the league over the next couple of years.

St Johnstone v Celtic - Scottish Premiership - McDiarmid Park Cummins celebrates with Galway native Joe Shaughnessy after scoring against Celtic last season. Source: Jeff Holmes

“I think there are certain players at Aberdeen that would be good enough for the Championship in England; that kind of standard. There are players at every club who’d probably be good enough for that level, but it’s just a matter of the balance throughout the squads,” explains the former Preston North End, Rochdale and Exeter City striker.

“Up here a lot of the players are probably technically better than where I played in England. It’s probably just the physicality that wouldn’t be the same as the lower leagues in England. It’s also a lot more tactical up here. Teams are working each other out, which is probably why nearly every game is so close. You feel like you can get a victory going into every game, bar maybe the ones against Celtic.”

Having played over 60 games for St Johnstone, Cummins is averaging just shy of a goal every four games. While the Douglas native believes his strike rate can improve, he’s gradually growing satisfied with his overall contribution to Tommy Wright’s side.

“I definitely think I’ve got more in me,” he says. “I had only started about five games up until Christmas; I had a few niggles but I felt I needed a run of games because coming on as a substitute might not be the best thing for me. I feel I need time to get into a game.

“I wouldn’t say the season has been a success for me but certainly the last few weeks have been good in terms of my performances, even though I haven’t scored as many goals as I’d like. But I’m coming off the pitch happier with how I’ve done.”

Five years since he left Cork City for the UK, Cummins feels like he’s on the right track. A two-and-a-half-year spell at Preston didn’t go according to plan and it ended in testing circumstances. With just a few weeks remaining on his contract, Cummins was one of seven players arrested as part of an investigation into spot-fixing in football in April 2014.

He was bailed and eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, but it was a difficult period for the player, who at the time was in the process of helping Rochdale to secure promotion to League One, having joined the club on loan. Despite the uncertainty over his future, Exeter City came in with the timely offer of a contract.

Soccer - Johnstone's Paint Trophy - Northern Section - Carlisle United v Preston North End - Brunton Park Cummins joined Preston from Cork City in 2012. Source: Barrington Coombs

Cummins: “The problem for me at that stage was that I was coming to the end of my contract at Preston and it made it much more difficult to get another club with that hanging over me. It did affect me at the start because obviously you’re going to worry but I eventually had to put it into the back of my head.

“People believe everything they read and it made life more difficult. Once you sat down with a manager and explained what was going on, there was no problem. But the hard part was actually getting those conversations.”

With the benefit of hindsight, Cummins knows he could have had a different approach when he joined Preston in January 2012. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to be critical of a 24-year-old who had been playing part-time football in the second tier of the League of Ireland, where he scored 42 goals in two seasons for Cork City.

“I think I was very naive when I went over,” Cummins admits. “I wasn’t ready for what was put in front of me. I wasn’t streetwise. I learned that a lot of lads look after themselves, whereas some lads are naive and think everyone’s their friend. But they’re not.

“You don’t realise that at first but you eventually learn from your experiences. Looking back on it, I really wish I could have a second crack, because Preston is such a good club and I didn’t produce what I wanted to there.

“Rochdale was okay, we got promoted there, and I started off well at Exeter but myself and the manager actually came to the conclusion that I just wasn’t suited to them and they weren’t suited to me. That’s just life. I have no regrets about Exeter or Rochdale. My biggest regret is Preston and how naive I was.

“Even though I was 24 years of age, I had never played full-time before or anything like that. I was playing in the League of Ireland, and not even in the Premier Division. That’s one of my biggest regrets — that I didn’t have more full-time experience under my belt before going to a club like Preston.”

Graham Cummins and Sean Byrne Cummins was named PFAI First Division Player of the Year in both of his seasons with Cork City. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Cummins keeps a close eye on the fortunes of Cork City and still attends their home games when he’s back home on Leeside. He has no immediate plans to leave St Johnstone, to whom he’s contracted for another year, but a return to Turner’s Cross is something that could eventually be on his agenda.

“I’m very happy where I am,” he says. “I’m really enjoying it here, especially playing under this manager. You can never tell what’s around the corner but as I get older I’ll probably look to go back to the League of Ireland. That’s something for further down the line, though.”

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Paul Dollery

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