Saints Alive! Stevie's Cup Dreamers May Now Make History
It was a familiar sight in my childhood. Long journeys between the far north of Scotland and the deep south of England meant look out for landmarks. Just as the A9 veered off towards Glasgow, there it was. Next to the ice rink. Coaches packed with Rangers, or Celtic, or Hearts supporters would fill up the road.
As for the locals, well it seemed that the people of Perth had bypassed football. Blue and white scarves were thin on the ground as we drove by Muirton Park, home of St. Johnstone. Sometimes we stopped for that afternoon's entertainment. I would always side with the Saints, named after the town's former moniker, St. John's Town. One vivid memory was a teenager Ally McCoist tearing the St. Mirren defence apart in a five goal League Cup thriller.
Although having a long history, St. Johnstone's is hardly illustrious. Formed as something to do by the cricket club in the winter months, the Tayside club have never won a major honour, and never reached a Scottish Cup Final. Even in their recent past, with regular Europa League football and top half Premiership finishes, their last two cup semi-finals had resulted in seven goals conceded, none for.
So the weight of history and expectation was heavily against the side, celebrating 25 years at McDiarmid Park, their present home, a functional all-seater on the edge of a housing estate at one end and a shopping centre opposite one side. Manager Tommy Wright, a doughty Ulsterman who had spent years of hard yakka in goal for Newcastle amongst other sides, was at least leading his charges to a more salubrious venue.
With Hampden being renovated for the upcoming Commonwealth Games, Ibrox Park was to become either their field of dreams or stuff of nightmares. Standing in the way were the Dandy Dons, unquestionably Scotland's strongest side of 2014 thus far.
Despite Celtic cantering to the title, Aberdeen had well and truly clipped their wings, dumping them out of the Cup at Parkhead and had the champions their only league defeat of the season at Parkhead. Over 40,000 Dons supporters had seen their side lift the League Cup, Aberdeen's first trophy in almost two decades, having dispatched St. Johnstone 4-0 in their previous semi-final. To say ex Saints boss Derek McInnes said were favourites hotter than their red shirts was an understatement.
We sat back, as a sunny but cold Glaswegian afternoon met the teams, with even a hint of rain in the air. With a good 80+% of the crowd Aberdeen supporters, raucously expectant, St. Johnstone really were up against it. Eight Scottish Cup Semi Final defeats out of eight had all the hallmarks of becoming nine out of nine.
The Saints started cautiously, memories still obviously fresh from the League Cup semi-final demolition, having fallen behind before they'd so much as touched the ball. Containment was the name of the game, trying to nullify the early sharpness and confidence Aberdeen exuded every week,
That was, predictably, shattered on the quarter of an hour mark when Aberdeen deservedly took the lead. The influential Peter Pawlett, in an inside right position, slipped a perfect pass through to Niall McGinn. He confidently swept past the St. Johnstone back line and his low shot Alan Mannus had no chance with.
Tommy Wright had clearly tried to flatfoot his opposite number with a pre-match change of formation. The long-haired talisman Stevie May, with 21 goals to his name all season, was taken from his familiar wide on the left position and placed ahead of centre forward Steve Maclean. It clearly wasn't working out, Maclean was becoming isolated and May frustrated.
It was too easy for Aberdeen, who had a golden opportunity to double their lead when McGinn's cross-field pass from the right found Adam Rooney unmarked and clean through on goal. Although Mannus did superbly to come out and narrow the angle, Rooney really did have the time and space to do better than shoot straight at him.
May had a shot smartly stopped by Dons shot stopper Jamie Langfield, but that was the sum total of St. Johnstone's attacking intentions and half time came with them perhaps relieved they weren't already out of the tie, like they were against Motherwell on a grisly Hampden afternoon three years previously.
Wright, however, knew what it took to win a semi-final, albeit in a far less pressured situation, having guided Lisburn Distillery to an Irish Cup triumph. More importantly, it was the experience gained from European competition that came to the fore. Although so very much out of it in terms of play, overhauling just a one goal deficit in 45 minutes was eminently possible.
He wisely put Steve May back into his familiar role wide on the left, leaving Steven Maclean certain of his responsibilities and giving St. Johnstone parity in midfield when defending. 4-4-1-1 wasn't working. Instead the switch was made to 4-3-3 in attack, and 4-5-1 when defending.
As the second half began, play slowly but surely evened out and was beginning to be played in the Aberdeen half. David Wotherspoon, now playing in a more central role now May was wide out, began pulling the strings. As a result, the Dons defence was getting flustered.
On the hour Aberdeen defender Shaleum Logan shouted at keeper Jamie Langfield for the lack of communication, resulting in a needless corner being conceded on the left. When it wasn't cleared properly, the ball eventually broke to that man Stevie May. Running away from goal, his first touch with his right foot trapped the ball, with a second taking it past a lunging Dons defender.
May then smartly turned and shot with his left foot, smashing the ball into the opposite right corner from about eight yards out. It was a superb equaliser which electrified the small but vociferous, and now delirious, St. Johnstone contingent behind the goal. They believed now. More importantly, so did the team. History was calling.
Nonetheless, Aberdeen surged forward, desperately trying to reclaim their earlier fluidity and confidence. Pawlett had a clear run at goal but shanked his shot horribly wide, not even going out for a goal kick. Barry Robson, from a smart cross on the right, headed straight at Alan Mannus by the near post when it seemed easier to score. A little later, at the far post, McGinn headed just as glaringly wide when unmarked.
The huge Aberdeen support groaned, their players no longer believing, as the game entered the last 10 minutes. Buoyed by their own performance and self-belief, St. Johnstone went looking for the winner. Maclean ran at the Pittodrie defence, and laid the ball towards, inevitably, the oncoming Stevie May. As those behind the goal stood and roared in expectation, the defining moment of the game - one way or another - was upon us.
Cometh the hour, cometh the May. He ran onto the ball superbly and toe-poked it home from the edge of the penalty area, crazily celebrating with the equally mad team mates and supporters. His yellow card for a somewhat, and entirely understandable, exuberant celebration was inevitable. Not that he or anyone from Perth cared less by that stage.
The game was up for Aberdeen. Stunned by a side who simply didn't roll over and die when they took the lead, they had nothing left in the tank to mount any worthwhile attempt to rescue the game. The Saints saw out the last 10 minutes, to frenzied celebrations throughout, with the ease of a club who have this season beaten Rosenborg and Dinamo Minsk away in Europe by single goal margins.
As the final whistle blew, 130 years of nothingness was blown away in itself. A Scottish Cup Final at last. 90 minutes from a major trophy. Again, the team and supporters celebrated as one. Perth has never been a football town, save those occasions way back when I popped in to Muirton Park when the opposition turned up in large numbers.
Over the next five weeks, that will all change. The emotion and excitement of a Cup Final countdown is new territory and will be utterly captivating for all those with saintly affections. Having endured so much hell in the Scottish Cup, it's now a hell of a time to be a St. Johnstone supporter.
And with Stevie wide on the left, Tommy Wright knows they May, just May, have yet more glory to come their way.
Aberdeen 1, St. Johnstone 2