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Liam Craig: ‘No regrets’ is the mantra for St Johnstone against Hibs in Betfred Cup semi-final

Liam Craig in action against Hibs.
Liam Craig in action against Hibs.

This will be Liam Craig’s seventh semi-final and many of his young team-mates’ first.

But the mindset that will unite the St Johnstone players at Hampden Park will be treating it as if it is going to be their last.

Craig is confident that for the Perth side it will be a case of the bigger the occasion, the better the performance.

His old club Hibs stand in the way of a Betfred Cup final and a “no regrets” mantra will hopefully carry Saints into a return visit to the national stadium when there is a trophy to be lifted next month.

“Some people go their whole careers without playing one semi-final,” said the 34-year-old. “Even those who go on to bigger and better things.

“We’ve got a young, talented squad but you have to recognise these opportunities might not come along again.

“If someone like Ali McCann could get a move to the Championship in England or even the Premier League in England he might not get an opportunity to play in the latter stages of a cup competition.

“It’s the same up here. It is difficult reaching a final.

“It is important we realise how important this game is and the opportunity we have here. The other semi-finalists will all be thinking the same.

“We have to make sure we give it everything and come off the park with no regrets.

“Given the way we have performed this year I can’t see us freezing.  The young boys will take it in their stride.

“And personally, I’d love to get to my first final. I left St Johnstone and then they won it and it was the same for Hibs.”

There isn’t a hint of jealousy or envy in Craig as he looks back on the break in his Saints career that coincided with their 2014 Scottish Cup triumph – nor the fact that history repeated itself when he returned to Perth.

“I loved playing for Hibs and I don’t regret going there because I met a lot of good people there,” he said.

“I was fortunate enough to score the winner in a derby and I scored the only hat-trick of my career for the club at Easter Road as well.

Liam Craig celebrates a goal for Hibs.

“My career has got stronger off the back of it. Coming back to St Johnstone and keeping playing at this level. I’ve proved I can do it.

“That’s one of the biggest things I’ve done in my career, to have the mentality to come back and prove people wrong is something I’m proud of.”

The former Falkirk man added: “I actually felt more for my family missing out on it (Saints’ win at Celtic Park) because when you see the players and their families on the park at the end of the game those are memories that will last forever.

“That is what you want to be a part of. Yeah, winning a trophy is brilliant but having those memories is incredible.

“I was watching Cuptie, Midgey, the manager now and Steven Anderson – people who I had shared a changing room with.

“Everyone in that changing room had a strong bond and it was a great atmosphere. I was as happy as anyone to watch that.

Scottish Cup celebrations.

“Had it not been for the play-offs with Hibs at that time then I would have been at the game.

“It was similar when Hibs won the cup. I sat myself and watched that game in the house and I would have loved to have taken my boy but after what had happened with Hibs I didn’t want to put myself in a situation.

“Again I was delighted for everyone at the club. Paul Hanlon and Lewis Stevenson are two great people as well.

“When you see guys like I‘ve mentioned winning trophies, you certainly want to be a part of that.

“I would love it this year if I could finally get to a cup final.

“There has been a great team spirit and a great togetherness throughout the whole time I have been at St Johnstone.

“Now is an opportunity for this group of players to really go and achieve something. If the club can go and win the league cup these players will have these memories for years to come.”

The Saints transition over last season and this from one of the oldest squads in the Premiership to the youngest hasn’t impacted on that togetherness Craig puts such high importance on.

“What is great about the squad now is that you have a group of players who are all about a similar age,” he said.

“They have come into the team at a similar age as I did.

“I was coming through with the likes of Andy Jackson and Steven Anderson, even though he looked about 10 years older! Chrissy Millar too. You were at that age where you would socialise. It is obviously hard just now but last season the boys were out playing golf together and out for meals together.

“We have got that spirit and that has shown in games this season. It is our opportunity now to go and create bit of history for St Johnstone.”

‘It was my wife who talked me out of it’

It’s not breaking news that non-league football in West Yorkshire became a serious career option when Craig was looking for a club post-Hibs in his late 20s.

But it is worthy of repetition in the build-up to as high profile a match as this.

“I had a solid offer from Guiseley in the Conference,” he recalled. “It was part-time football and I was close to doing it.

“I travelled down to meet them. It was the only concrete offer I had. There had been some obscure offers from abroad too.

“The Guiseley offer was very good. I was thinking: ‘We have bills to pay’. And it was my wife who talked me out of it.

“When I turned that down I really didn’t know where I was going to go.

“I couldn’t even get a training session at most clubs, but I played golf with Tommy (Wright) and he was honest with me.

“He told me nothing would happen for a month because nobody would want to pay me when there’s no football on.

“The opportunity to come back to St Johnstone then came up, I came back and sometimes you do just find a club that is a perfect match for you.

“Tommy was the only one willing to give me the opportunity and I think I’ve shown I still had a lot to offer. If it hadn’t been for that, I honestly don’t know what would have happened.

“The club have given a lot to me and I’d like to think I’ve given a lot back to the club.”

Hampden is special. I would love to play a cup final there.

Craig, who scored the decisive penalty kick to see off Dunfermline in the quarter-finals, believes Saints can take heart from their two games against Hibs this season and their defeat of St Mirren last weekend.

“We drew 2-2 at Easter Road and played very well and they got the last minute penalty here in a game we thought we’d done enough in to win,” he said.

“I think it will be an exciting game. It’s definitely one we’re really looking forward to.

“Hibs have got a strong squad and they’ve added well in the last week or so.

“But I can only think of three or four games this season when I’ve felt we haven’t deserved anything.

“We’ve shown recently that we can do the dirty side of the game, like on Saturday against St Mirren. It was important we got a win to go into this semi, and we’re also now four undefeated.

“It will be strange playing a semi-final at an empty Hampden.

“Even going back to the last round at Dunfermline it would have been great if we’d had 2,000 fans behind the goal.

“Hampden is special. I would love to play a cup final there.”

St Johnstone’s 10 League Cup semi-finals: Highs and heartbreak relived in previously unseen images from our archives

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