It started in Fife and finished at Mount Florida. Eric Nicolson looks back on St Johnstone’s historic Betfred Cup run of 2020/21.
A is for Absent friends – A penny for the thoughts of Callum Hendry and Danny McNamara on Sunday afternoon. Hendry played an important part in the cup run with his equaliser in the last-16 clash against Motherwell and, of less significance, also scored a late penalty in the group thrashing of Brechin City. Incredibly, McNamara didn’t kick a ball in the competition. On Republic of Ireland Under-21 duty for the pool matches, he was injured for Fir Park and then benched when Saints faced Dunfermline in the last eight. To think Perth fans were (understandably) disconsolate when he was recalled early by Millwall. As good as McNamara was for Saints, and as good as he is now at the New Den, the ‘what if Shaun Rooney didn’t play’ doesn’t really bear thinking about.
B is for Backing from the supporters – This year’s competition was unique for obvious reasons but that is exactly why St Johnstone fans should be even prouder of their efforts than if this had been a normal Hampden occasion. The big billboard outside the Cherrybank Inn was ingenious and provided a backdrop for countless social media posts. Perth supporters made cup final week an online triumph.
Yesssss my man 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻🔵⚪️ https://t.co/CaB8rsm5Ie
— Cherrybank Inn (@CherrybankInn) February 27, 2021
C is for (Liam) Craig – Don’t take my word for the above, just ask Liam Craig. He soaked up every last bit of the build-up and was all the more motivated as a result of it. And what a fairtyale story it was for the man who missed out on 2014 by popping off to Hibs for a couple of years making it seventh semi-final and first final lucky. It was tear to a glass eye stuff when he spoke to us with a medal around his neck in the Hampden main stand.
D is for Dave Mackay – It was a cold night at East End Park for the quarters (it’s a cold night at East End Park in the middle of summer) so with hats and masks on we barely recognised each other as I walked past him at half-time of Saints’ game against the Pars. Now James McPake’s assistant at Dens Park, he was there to check out Dundee’s next league opponents. Looking back, it was fitting that the 2014 captain was at one of the matches in this cup run.
E is for Eight months. That’s all it has taken for Callum Davidson to become a cup-winning manager. When he trotted up the Hampden stairs to seek out his chairman he was asked whether it was to state his case for a pay rise or to announce he was quitting because things couldn’t get any better. The tactically astute training ground boss, whose strategies got the better of Jack Ross and David Martindale, had a stellar playing career. His management one may even surpass it.
F is for Free to air – I’m all for live broadcast rights going to the highest bidder. But no highlights of a national cup final on terrestrial TV isn’t acceptable. A commitment to do so should be non-negotiable when the contract next goes up for auction.
G is for Guy Melamed – I had my concerns about the side Davidson chose at Dunfermline but the players got the job done in the end and for the semi and final he was proved right with his tactics and team selections when many (myself included) would have fielded a different formation and picked Melamed. The Israeli was incredibly unlucky not to play on Sunday, in particular, and I do feel that Saints would still have won had he started.
H is for Hat-trick – Stevie May scored one against Brechin and David Wotherspoon passed up the opportunity to do the same when he let Hendry take a late spot-kick to get him off the mark for the season. It didn’t prove to be the turning point for last season’s top scorer that Wotherspoon would have hoped but it did underline the fact that the famous Saints team spirit was still alive and well.
I is for Internationals – Saints already have two current ones in Ali McCann and Wotherspoon but will one or more of the young guns at the back get called up for Scotland duty anytime soon? That’s not usually how it works unfortunately – you have to leave McDiarmid Park to do that. Zander Clark should be a serious contender for the number three goalie position at the summer Euros (how could you pick Robby McCrorie ahead of him after Sunday’s game?) The lack of friendlies will hurt the chances of Steve Clarke taking a look at Shaun Rooney and Jason Kerr in the spring but if Ryan Porteous and Stephen O’Donnell are selected ahead of them then they would have every right to feel aggrieved. The Saints boys are better than both.
J is for Jamie Murphy – Never has a player being too fancy with a finish proved so important for St Johnstone. Saints were under sustained pressure when the Hibs forward tried to get too cute with a chip over Clark in the semi, the ball struck the bar and the rest is history.
K is for Kleenex – If Liam Craig got waterworks going across Perthshire for good reasons, Murray Davidson did the same for the wrong ones. Seeing him alone with his thoughts, mask on and hood up, in the middle of the Hampden pitch while his pals were getting changed for the final (another one) he was missing through injury was horrible.
L is for Local lads – There were three of them with winners’ medals – Liam Gordon, David Wotherspoon and Stevie May. So much for Perth not producing talented footballers. The fact that they took different routes to the top highlights the merits of the academy structure and the old-school boys’ club set-up. There is room for both.
M is for Masked winger – What a sight Craig Conway was when he came on as a sub at Dunfermline. We couldn’t miss him but he’d have struggled to see us, mind you. With facial protection for a recently broken nose that he described as more suited to welding than professional football, peripheral vision was a no-no. Thankfully Conway was mask-free when he was landing crosses on to the head of Rooney at Hampden in January and February.
N is for Not once but twice – It still feels ridiculous that there are three St Johnstone players who have won both national cup competitions. It truly is an incredible achievement for May, Wotherspoon and Michael O’Halloran.
O is for Omens – There was no ‘May 17’ or anything close on this occasion. But if only the ‘Saints on this Day’ Twitter account hadn’t waited until game-day to let us all know the club had won the Perthshire Cup twice on February 28 (1903 and 1931), it would have spared so many people a lot of anxiety. How could Davidson’s boys possibly fail?
Saints have lifted a trophy twice on this day in their history. The first was in 1903…
1903 | St Johnstone lift the Perthshire Cup for the sixth time with a 3-2 victory against Vale of Teith in Perth. pic.twitter.com/eePUhSD5ka
— Saints On This Day (@SaintsOTD) February 28, 2021
P is for Penalties – That could have been P for preposterous as well. Because that’s how Saints fans would have described the notion of their team winning a penalty shoot-out of any consequence. There was a time not very long ago when they stopped shouting for spot-kicks during a game because they knew whichever victim was put up next would find a way to miss. So to all the men who held their nerve at East End Park when there was serious pressure during those walks from the half-way line (and the big man between the posts), I doff my cap.
Q is for Quiz question – Now that Saints have played Kelty Hearts in an SPFL competition, the Lowland League club will be the answer when you get asked who the closest ‘as the crow flies’ fixture for the Perth side are. Until they draw Jeanfield Swifts in the Scottish Cup, that is. It feels like a lifetime ago now, but Davidson’s men were really toiling when this first group game was up next. They couldn’t score a goal and there was even chat of Steven MacLean being brought out of retirement. Nobody was talking about Hampden and lifting the trophy before – or indeed after – the game, that’s for sure.
R is for Rooney – Couldn’t be anything else really. I’ll admit it, the rise and rise of Shaun Rooney has been utterly astonishing. There’s all the stuff about Danny McNamara, on top of which Tommy Wright’s last signing probably produced one of the poorest Premiership debuts I’ve ever seen at Rugby Park. But the bounce-back speaks volumes for his character and determination and his manager’s coaching. Not only has he been transformed, the team has too. Pre-Rooney they lacked any sort of dead-ball threat whereas now they (he) provide arguably the most potent one in the country. And in open play, he pops up at the back post more than a lot of number nines. A wing-back with his speed, power and shooting ability is quite the asset.
S is for Skipper – Jason Kerr wasn’t playing well before Christmas. There was the stupid tackle that got him sent off in Paisley and cost his team dearly and he was subbed in the second half against Livingston around that time for football rather than injury reasons. But, along with that man Rooney, I’d put Kerr’s return to the team and return to form down as the biggest reason Saints have won this cup. He is now playing better than ever and was the captain and leader his side needed at Hampden (twice). He scored two crucial goals – one to turn the semi-final and one to get the whole Betfred thing moving at Kelty.
T is for Turnaround at Fir Park – Aside from the penalty shoot-out against Dunfermline, the point of greatest League Cup jeopardy on reflection was when Motherwell were leading 1-0 back in November. Hendry rightly deserves to be remembered for his 68th minute equaliser but this was Michael O’Halloran’s afternoon. I’m going to put it above anything Rooney went on to do as the best individual display by a Saints player in the whole cup run – maybe even the season. And it was as a wing-back! We got a glimpse of the O’Halloran of old. He was unplayable and you felt relieved for left-back Ricki Lamie when his manager eventually took him off. O’Halloran might not have got on the pitch in the final but he can look at his second St Johnstone winners’ medal and know he did his bit.
U is for Undefeated – They didn’t win all their group games like Livingston but the only bump in the road for Saints was the penalty shoot-out bonus point they lost to Dundee United. It proved to be good practice for the real thing at Dunfermline though, didn’t it.
V is Victory parade – Forget the ‘won’t the moment have passed’ argument. This is St Johnstone, not Liverpool. Trophy-winning is not habitual and the appetite to celebrate will not disappear even if coronavirus restrictions stretch into next season. With the possible exception of Melamed, it shouldn’t be too problematic getting these boys back together. The opportunity the club have got to take time to plan this properly not only means, as Callum Davidson put it, Saints can “do it right”, they can also do it differently and maybe even do it better.
W is for Wind and rain of Peterhead – The group decider was played at Balmoor and we got the first sighting of Mr Melamed in St Johnstone colours. The occasion required a professional job, which it got. There was also a Rooney own goal. Hero status would have to wait a while.
X is for ex-players – Jody Morris, Michael Duberry, Peter MacDonald, Kieran McAnespie, Chris Millar, Nick Dasovic, Attila Sekerlioglu, Steven Anderson, Graham Cummins, James Dunne and plenty of others I won’t have noticed posted their best wishes for their old club on Twitter on Sunday morning. And even more, like Dave Mackay, got in touch with players and club officials privately. Saints won the game, of course, but they also won the build-up.
All the very best to Callum Davidson and the Saintees today.. bring it home to Perth 💪🏼 @StJohnstone
— Jody Morris (@morriskid) February 28, 2021
Y is for Young star, Alex Ferguson – That Liam Craig was waiting to be picked up by the Hampden-bound team bus alongside a player half his age puts into perspective his own longevity and the importance of grabbing this unexpected last chance of winning a trophy. What must the 17-year-old have been thinking? If he goes on to fulfil his own expectations, and those of coaches inside the club, big games in blue and white will come the way of the midfielder with a name that will bring a bright spotlight upon him. Let’s hope that 74 minutes into the game against Brechin on October 10, 2020 will be remembered as the moment a great Saints career began.
Z is for Zander – Zander Clark traded starts in the group games with Elliott Parish but by the time the quarter-finals came round there was no rotation of the goalkeeping position. He saved a crucial penalty to give Craig the opportunity to clinch the victory and it was Clark’s command of his penalty box in the opening half-hour of the semi-final that built the platform for what happened thereafter. The same was true of the final. Although he was a virtual spectator from the moment Saints went in front, the early punch to clear a dangerous free-kick and then a save to deny Josh Mullin were big moments. Clark was the reassuring presence his manager needed him to be, just like Alan Mannus was seven years earlier. They both have their winners’ medals and clean-sheets to show for it.