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St Johnstone’s 11 League Cup semi-finals: Highs and heartbreak relived in previously unseen images from our archives

The St Johnstone players celebrate beating Motherwell in the 1969 semi-final.
The St Johnstone players celebrate beating Motherwell in the 1969 semi-final.

Saturday’s Hampden Park clash with Celtic will be St Johnstone’s 12th League Cup semi-final.

The Perth club have made the final three times, with last season’s defeat of Livingston being the one and only victory.

Eric Nicolson looks back on the triumphs, the trauma, the highs and the heartbreak.

Included in the trip down memory lane are previously unseen pictures from our archives, previously undeveloped, of Saints’ first ever national cup semi-final win against Motherwell in 1969.

St Johnstone 2-3 Rangers (AET) – 11/10/1961, Celtic Park, attendance 41,000

Back then here were six group games to be negotiated to get into the last eight and Saints, who had escaped relegation from the old First Division on the last day of the previous season, earned progression the hard way after beating Celtic home and away without conceding a goal.

The quarter-finals were played over two legs and Motherwell were overcome after the Perth men backed up a 3-2 away win with a 1-1 draw at Muirton Park.

Skipping practice before the big game.

The semi-final was Saints’ first in the League Cup and you had to go back to the 30s for their only Scottish Cup one. The opponents in 1961, as in 1934, were Rangers.

The match as Celtic Park would set the benchmark for heroic failure.

Facing the league leaders, Saints, who had suffered two heavy league defeats to drop them to second from bottom in the top flight table, went 2-0 in front through Ian Gardiner and John Bell.

Action from the game.

It took Rangers until 15 minutes from the end to make it 2-2 (from the penalty spot). That the Light Blues went on to secure their place in the final in extra-time came as no great surprise thereafter.

St Johnstone 0-4 Hearts – 10/10/1962, Easter Road, attendance 25,000

As no Saints fan will need reminded, the club were relegated on the last day of the 61/62 season when Dundee secured the league title at Muirton.

Going down a league didn’t impact their League Cup form, however. Now a Second Division team, they beat a First Division one, Queen of the South, to get into back-to-back semi-finals.

There was no gulf in class in the quarters but the semi, in which injured keeper Billy Taylor was replaced by youngster Ian Ower, was a different story. It wasn’t the one-sided contest the 4-0 scoreline suggested but this was an excellent Hearts team which went on to win the competition.

The early-season cup run proved to be a sign of good times to come, though, with Saints clinching the league title and bouncing back to the First Division in one go.

St Johnstone 1-3 Dundee – 11/10/1967 – Tannadice, attendance 18,000

Bobby Brown took Saints to two League Cup semi-finals and his successor, Willie Ormond, wrote the next chapter of a burgeoning success story in the competition in his very first season in charge at Muirton.

The stand-out result of the group section was beating Hearts at Tynecastle, which hadn’t happened post-war until that point. Saints won in Perth as well and qualified for the quarters with a match to spare.

Queen’s Park proved to be meek opponents and were thrashed home and away, the aggregate score ending up 8-1.

Avoiding Jock Stein’s European champions was a rare bonus for a club which has been notoriously unlucky in semi-final draws over the years and beating Dundee at Tannadice was certainly well within Saints’ compass.

Gordon Whitelaw opened the scoring but George Miller’s name went into club infamy with not one but two own goals before Jim McLean – yes, that one – put the result beyond doubt.

St Johnstone 2-0 Motherwell – 6/10/1969, Hampden Park, attendance 19,970

It was becoming increasingly clear that Ormond’s team was one of real quality and deserved to smash the semi-final glass ceiling for St Johnstone.

The performances in their group were utterly emphatic and included a Dundee double and an 8-1 demolition of Partick Thistle, which remains a record Saints away victory. They were a flawless six out of six and Ormond received the first-ever Scottish manager of the month award for August.

The quarter-final against Falkirk was equally eye-catching – this time 11-3 over two legs.

Again, Celtic were avoided in the semi-final draw. Motherwell were to be respected (they beat Saints 4-1 in the league a few weeks before the cup tie) but certainly not feared.

The game was Saints’ first semi in the competition at the national stadium and was played on a Monday night – just two days after a trip to Ibrox in the league.

Considering all the stress and despair that was associated with previous last four matches in national cup competitions, and would be in later years, this one was remarkably serene.

Bill ‘Buck’ McCarry scored early in one half and Fred Aitken early in the other and Saints’ place in the final, where they lost by one goal to Celtic, was secured with a minimum of drama.

Bill McCarry scores.
Saints celebrate the opener.

St Johnstone 1-3 Rangers – 22/09/1992, Hampden Park, attendance 30,062

After reaching the semi-finals on four occasions in nine years during the 60s, the 70s and 80s were barren decades.

By 1992 the sectional beginning had been replaced by a straight knock-out format and the competition had Skol as its title sponsor.

Alloa, Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock provided progressively tougher opposition before Saints were paired with the dominant side of the era, Rangers, at Hampden.

Had this been the Alex Totten team of a couple of years ago they might have had a chance but cracks were opening up at McDiarmid Park and a comfortable evening for the Light Blues was entirely predictable.

Totten’s decision to drop ever-present left-back Sean McAuley and replace him with Ian Redford perplexed Perth fans.

Ian Redford was a surprise starter.

Paul Wright scored a late penalty consolation but ex-Saint Ally McCoist was the Hampden hero.

Ally McCoist beats Andy Rhodes.

St Johnstone 3-0 Hearts – 27/10/1998, Easter Road, attendance 12,027

It is one of Saints’ big ‘what ifs’ – what if Paul Sturrock hadn’t left the club for Dundee United a few months into the 1998/99 season?

Part of the answer is there’s an argument to say that they wouldn’t have reached the League Cup final.

Sturrock was a far better manager than the man who succeeded him but the key to Sandy Clark’s success was appreciating he had inherited a side which was a well-oiled machine and the best strategy was just letting them go out and play.

And, to Clark’s credit, he took the shackles off compared to Sturrock, who had a lot of the Jim McLean about him and was sometimes guilty of focusing on the opposition’s strengths rather than his own team’s.

The lack of inhibitions played out instantly when Clark guided Saints to a stunning 4-0 quarter-final victory against Hibs at McDiarmid and it was the very same in the semi-final.

Hearts had won the Scottish Cup the previous summer but they were out-played by a hungry and focused Perth side, with the experienced men taking the game by the scruff of the neck. Nick Dasovic scored first, George O’Boyle last and in between Allan Preston’s 25-yard strike was a goal of the season contender.

Nick Dasovic scored first.
George O’Boyle leads the celebrations.

St Johnstone 1-3 Hibs (AET) – 31/01/2007, Tynecastle, attendance 16,112

Of Saints’ eight League Cup semi-final losses this one (by now the CIS Insurance Cup) was undoubtedly the biggest hard-luck tale.

Owen Coyle was a fearless young manager with a contacts’ book to match his enthusiasm and had shaped a powerful and effective unit with the likes of Kevin James, Martin Hardie and Simon Mensing providing the height and muscle, and Paul Sheerin, Goran Stanic, Peter MacDonald and Jason Scotland the subtlety. It had the perfect balance.

To get to this point the First Division side had smashed an Ibrox hoodoo and beaten local rivals Dundee United 3-0.

They went behind early but Jason Scotland’s 76th minute equaliser came during a period of sustained dominance and it was Hibs who were relieved to take the game into extra-time.

Jason Scotland equalises.

Early in the added 30 minutes, Kevin Cuthbert made a mess of a long-range David Murphy free-kick, letting it through his grasp at his bottom right-hand corner.

Hibs beat Kilmarnock in the final but really didn’t deserve to get the chance.

It turned out to be arguably the cruellest season in Saints’ history. They lost to Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi-final and then there was the anguish of being denied promotion by James Grady and Gretna.

Kevin James consoles Allan McManus.

St Johnstone 0-2 Rangers – 03/02/2010, Hampden Park, attendance 17,371

Derek McInnes, who conceded the free-kick which led to Murphy’s goal in that Hibs semi-final, was now Saints manager and his team were in the top flight.

There were 11 unanswered goals scored in the first two rounds away at Stenhousemuir and Arbroath, with Hibs and Dundee United beaten next before the long gap until the February Hampden clash with Rangers.

It turned out to be a pretty standard semi for Walter Smith’s men really, albeit a snowstorm posed a threat of abandonment at one point.

Steven Davis and Lee McCulloch scored before half-time, with keeper Graeme Smith at fault for the second. A Murray Davidson header was the closest Saints, who were without Kenny Deuchar because of a back injury, came to scoring.

Steven Davis scored one.
Murray Davidson came close with a header.

This was slap bang in the middle of an era when it felt as if a cup final was an unattainable goal for St Johnstone. The defeat made it four losses in national semis in three seasons.

St Johnstone 0-4 Aberdeen – 01/02/2014, Tynecastle, attendance 16,761

This was by far the shortest and easiest route Saints had ever navigated to a cup semi-final.

The competition had returned to a group stage first format and because they were involved in Europa League qualifiers, Tommy Wright’s men didn’t enter the fray until the last 16 knock-outs.

They beat Hamilton Accies 3-0 and then Morton 1-0 to secure their place in the last four.

The Tynecastle January semi was a prime example of one team being clinical and the other not. The gulf between the sides certainly wasn’t a four-goal one.

Possession was shared 50-50, Saints were just one behind on the shots count and forced 10 corners to Aberdeen’s one.

The game was effectively won and lost when Saints, who had Stevie Banks in goal in place of the injured Alan Mannus, were just 1-0 down and on top. Lee Croft was through on goal but failed to score with a glorious opportunity.

Lee Croft curses his miss.

If ever a defeat proved to be a blessing in disguise it was this one, though. A few months later Saints faced Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup semi and, fuelled by a determination that they wouldn’t yet again be burdened with regrets, they produced the most memorable second half comeback in the club’s history.

St Johnstone 1-2 Hibs – 30/01/2016, Tynecastle, attendance 16,971

This was another Europa League-aided League Cup for Saints but the degree of difficulty was far higher than two years earlier.

Yes, Rangers were a Championship side but beating them at Ibrox 3-1 was still a memorable achievement given Mark Warburton’s high-scoring outfit had won 11 out of 11 up to that point, including a 6-2 group triumph at Easter Road.

Morton were again the side vanquished in the quarters by a team now ruthlessly efficient in the cups against lower league opposition.

Had the semi been played before the turn of the year, Saints would probably have won given the form they were showing but the end of January was the worst possible time for it.

They were in the middle of what would become a nine-game run without a victory and Hibs, by contrast, had hit top form in the Championship.

A soft penalty got Saints off to a dreadful start when Liam Henderson conned referee Steven McLean but Joe Shaughnessy levelled the contest before the break.

Joe Shaughnessy equalises.

Simon Lappin struck the crossbar during a period of Perth dominance, however John McGinn was the match winner.

Considering Saints’ cup pedigree, the fact that 2014 had removed the weight of history and that this was the one and only time they have faced a team a division below them in a semi, file it under opportunity passed up.

St Johnstone 3-0 Hibs – 23/01/21, Hampden Park, no supporters

It took another five years for Saints to get back to a League Cup semi-final and the opponents were same.

Hibs started strongly and Zander Clark had to be at his best in the first half-hour – Jamie Murphy will still be having nightmares about the chipped finish that struck the crossbar when the Perth goalie was beaten for once.

After Jason Kerr scored with a header, the game changed beyond recognition.

Shaun Rooney and Craig Conway added two more goals in the second half and the last half-hour proved to be by far the most comfortable experience for a St Johnstone team (and their supporters) in a semi-final.

Owen Coyle exclusive: ‘My St Johnstone team suffered cruel semi-final defeat to Hibs but were catalyst for club’s rise in Scottish football’