ALLAN JOHNSTON admits “it’s going to be difficult” for Dunfermline to put pressure on the Championship promotion-chasers but he wants positive results so he can plan for next season.

The stalemate at St Mirren inched the Pars closer to securing their place in the division for next season and victory over a second-bottom and free-falling Ayr United this weekend would move them a big step away from any thoughts about a possible relegation battle.

After a first clean sheet in nine games, Athletic have now lost just one of their last 18 in all competitions and while he heaped praise on his team – and centre backs Callum Morris and Lee Ashcroft in particular – Johnston concedes there haven’t been enough maximum returns in that run.

Ten of those matches have ended all-square and, speaking to Press Sport this week, Johnston wants his team to build on their point in Paisley so he can begin preparations for next season.

He said: “We’re disappointed not to get the three points because, when you look at clear-cut chances, we’ve had the bulk of them, so we need to take them. But it’s encouraging when you get a clean sheet as well because that’s one thing we probably need to improve on.

“They (Morris and Ashcroft) have got a bit of pace which makes a big difference. They’re aggressive in the air and winning headers, and big Cal’s come in, settled in really well and has a good partnership with Lee. I can only see the two of them getting better. But you couldn’t really fault any of the players; there was a lot of good play and it was a really good team performance.

“There’s a lot of the boys doing really well just now but it’s an important few games we have coming up. We need to start picking up wins if we’ve any chance of catching the teams up above us.

“You’re always looking at next season and it makes life a lot easier when you’re in a really good position and you can start getting things sorted as early as possible. We want to catch Queen of the South and see where that will take us; if we manage to put a run of results together with the fixtures we’ve got left then you never know, but it is going to be difficult.”

Johnston, who revealed Ben Richards-Everton is due to visit his surgeon imminently to find out whether he can move closer to a return, continued: “I don’t think there’s any easy games in this league. Look at St Mirren; they’re bottom of the table but brought in 10 players in January and have improved dramatically from where they were. We came away with a point and a good performance, so we can build on that.

“There have been too many draws but the start to the season as well (has hit promotion hopes). It makes it really difficult when you lose that many games and put yourself under pressure but credit to the players – they’ve responded really well because a lot of times when you start like that, you stay there. You need to have players who have quality and belief they can get out of the position they’re in.

“It is outstanding but there should be a few more wins there, when you look at the games and the chances we’ve had. That’s a couple of things we need to improve on; we need to keep more clean sheets and score more goals.”

While Pars defeating an Ayr side who have only won once in the league since October at Somerset Park in January, Johnston is taking nothing for granted this weekend but hopes the Honest Men’s need for a victory will suit his team.

He added: “Ayr will be desperate to win the game; they’ll come here, hopefully open up and try and go for it, and that should suit us.”

The Dunfermline boss revealed that David Hopkirk took a knock in training last week but is available for selection, while Lewis Martin is expected to return to training next week.