The waiting is nearly over and St Johnstone will soon be attempting to win the club’s first ever League Cup.
Eric Nicolson assesses how preparations have gone, what big decisions manager Callum Davidson has to make and where the final is likely to be won and lost.
What have you made of St Johnstone’s cup final week?
As has been the case all season, journalists have not had the privilege of being around the squad through the week for obvious reasons, so there have been no nice trips to the Dunkeld House Hotel or Scone Palace for this cup final build-up. Zoom, Zoom and more Zoom.
What I can say with authority is that Davidson and his players have struck the right tone – confidence but not bravado. And that’s exactly how it should be.
Neither camp can kid anybody on and claim to be rank underdogs.
Davidson hasn’t used any of Tommy Wright’s mind-games by naming David Martindale’s team for him as the Northern Irishman famously did with Jackie McNamara seven years ago.
His message from Monday onwards has been about maintaining their form and momentum rather than getting in their own way by mixing things up. I certainly wouldn’t argue with that.
All you’re looking for is a sense that a squad isn’t getting overwhelmed or over comfortable in the days leading up a final. Davidson and the players I’ve spoken to have been neither.
What about the form of the two teams going into the game – do you put more significance on that than the pre-match shadow boxing?
You have to.
All the ‘on the day’ stuff is absolutely true and cup finals are won in all different manners.
There have been countless sides who have rediscovered their best football when it matters most or even lifted themselves to new levels entirely. And there are plenty of others who have continued along a form curve, for good or bad.
Talk of peaking too soon, in Saints’ case, is only for the pessimists and the fearful.
Every manager would rather his team was playing well before a final rather than the opposite.
That Martindale has more doubts about how his side is performing – albeit the drop in their level shouldn’t be exaggerated – than Davidson is a good thing.
The most relevant result for Saints wasn’t beating Motherwell last weekend. It was beating Livingston. Davidson needed proof that his players and his strategies could work against Livi – and he’s now got it.
Having lost three out of three of the head-to-heads would have been a significant psychological barrier. To return to 2014, the Dundee United players knew deep down that Saints had their number. Neither team on Sunday will be weighed down by that burden.
To the nuts and bolts of the game itself – what team will Davidson pick and what system will he deploy?
I’ll start with the latter because everything else follows on from that.
Davidson now has two distinct formations which can loosely be described as a 3-5-2 and a 3-4-3.
It was the 3-5-2 that yielded three recent league away wins and the 3-4-3 that was the platform for the semi-final triumph against Hibs.
I prefer the two up front rather than the one with a couple of players just off. And, even though Saints ended up such convincing winners at Hampden last month, I would be sticking with the 3-5-2.
That then means Guy Melamed would start, which isn’t going to happen if Davidson reverts to the system that is probably his favourite one (in this scenario Craig Conway would come back in at his expense and combine with David Wotherspoon behind Chris Kane).
The balance of the Saints team at Fir Park was as good as you could hope for, with the sitting midfielder role suiting Liam Craig perfectly.
It’s crucial Craig is given the role he is most comfortable in. I would be reluctant to go up against the Livi central midfield, in particular Marvin Bartley, with Ali McCann and Craig Bryson. It opens up the potential of being out-muscled.
The left-back selection is the only flip of a coin one for me.
Callum Booth has the jersey and didn’t put a foot wrong at Motherwell, he has an excellent understanding with Wotherspoon who was a team-mate of his in the Hibs academy and his tackling abilities and defensive radar are more reliable than Scott Tanser’s.
On the other side of the argument, Tanser is quicker, more offensive-minded, probably a better crosser, a more effective target with cross-field diagonals or kicks from Zander Clark and carries a dead-ball threat as he showed by scoring against Livi from a free-kick.
The man chosen is likely to be up against Josh Mullin. During Livi’s remarkable winning run, Scott Robinson probably got the most plaudits, but Mullin wasn’t far behind.
Martindale believes only James Tavernier is a better crosser of a ball from that side of the pitch, which is quite the compliment.
The fact that Booth would be a slightly better bet at stopping those crosses at source, that Saints have never been as equally matched between left and right all season as they were at Fir Park and the appeal of saying to the team of last Saturday: ‘Same again, lads’ nudges me towards Booth. I’ve got a feeling Davidson will pick Tanser, though!
So, state the case for Saints winning their first League Cup?
I’ll get the pessimistic bit out of the way first.
Livingston are a strong team, with more mobility and variety to their play than many give them credit for, not dissimilar to Tommy Wright’s Saints sides of years gone by.
I fully expect them to bring their Sunday best to Hampden and there is a strong chance the sort of contest that played out in their semi-final repeats itself – they score first and then manage the tempo and nature of the match to suit their strengths, seeing out a 1-0.
But what should give the Saints players belief is that their ceiling is higher than Livingston’s ceiling. And, 2014 included, this is the first time that has been true for St Johnstone in a cup final. Reach that ceiling and they win.
Shaun Rooney has transformed the way Davidson can approach a game, while Jason Kerr’s return to the side has been equally significant. And Wotherspoon is producing the best and most influential football of his career.
The footballer who I think will be the decisive one, though, is the youngest and most talented on either side – McCann.
— SPFL (@spfl) February 26, 2021
To return to the formation theme, having three in the middle (most notably Craig) has allowed McCann to take the handbrake off, getting shots away as he did for the winner at Kilmarnock and generally helping to pin the opposition back, bringing others into goal scoring positions around him. The Northern Ireland international has the ability to force Bartley into reverse far more regularly than Martindale would want with his energy and first-touch passes round the corner.
Saints fans already know McCann is a wonderful talent who will soar to much greater heights than their club’s level. The rest of the country – and Livingston – might be about to discover why.