FOUR months ago, Danny Lennon walked out of Tynecastle in the grip of what he freely admits was a crisis. Losing 1-0 to Hearts on 17 November made it six consecutive SPL defeats for St Mirren, constituting by far the darkest spell of his managerial tenure at the club.
The only solace for the Paisley club during that period was a penalty shoot-out victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie in the quarter-final of the League Cup, the value of which will be fully measured at Hampden tomorrow when Lennon leads his team out for the final against Hearts.
While that morale-sapping run of league losses deeply concerned Lennon at the time, it did not cause him to waver in his commitment to the brand of passing football he has attempted to establish at St Mirren.
“If you’ve got a belief in going forward and the way you want to play, you must stick to that,” reflected Lennon. “If you are going through hell, keep on walking and you’ll come out the other side of it.
“That run of six defeats was a bit of a crisis for myself. But I was under no pressure from the chairman and directors at St Mirren, who are a pleasure to work with. The pressure all came from myself.
“I always believe that what we are doing is the right way, but the way we want to win football games is also the hardest way. I’m not saying it is right or wrong. But if you have most of the ball, it gives you a better opportunity to score goals.
“Back during that run of defeats, I was trying to pick up the spirits of the players and make sure we were getting the maximum out of them. We did come out the other side of it, thankfully, and that’s because we believe in the group of players we have here.
“We have a fantastic team behind the team in my staff and, most importantly, we have good people who own the football club and run it fantastically well.”
Since his appointment in the summer of 2010, Lennon’s purist footballing philosophy has hardly translated into consistent excellence on the pitch for St Mirren.
A top six SPL finish is all but beyond Saints once more this season, although their supporters will willingly trade that for lifting the League Cup for the first time in the club’s history.
Hampden’s expansive playing surface proved to the liking of Lennon’s men in their fully merited semi-final win over Celtic at the end of January and he is hoping for a repeat tomorrow. “I had a look at the pitch when I was at Hampden on Thursday and it’s actually in better nick than it was for the semi-final,” observed Lennon. “The ground staff have done a terrific job and it looks absolutely terrific. It’s something that brings out the true strength in us. I’m delighted the game is almost upon us now.
“The period from winning the semi-final until now has been a distraction at times, the closer the final got. I totally understand that from the players’ viewpoint, having people constantly remind them about the big game. It’s difficult to switch off and focus on the league games. Now there are no more distractions and I want the players to go out there on Sunday and give their best to bring this cup to Paisley.
“We have a very proud 135-year history at this football club. We were one of the original members of the Scottish Football League, we’ve won the Scottish Cup three times, and we’re now into our second League Cup final in the space of three years. It would mean the world to myself, my staff, the players and the directors if we manage to bring this cup home to our wonderful supporters in Paisley.
“My proudest moment in football so far was when I was appointed manager of St Mirren. To get to a national cup final at this early stage of my managerial career is a wonderful experience.”
Lennon took his squad to St Andrews for three days this week to hone his preparations for the final and was gratified and encouraged by the collective mood he sensed among them.
“We had a great few days and left no stone unturned,” he added. “It was great to get away and go through everything tactically, both in terms of what we aim to do and on the strengths and weaknesses of Hearts.
“We must bring our key strengths on Sunday. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a great opportunity to bring that cup home. If not, we just become ordinary.
“The players have bought into it big time. Sometimes when you do your presentations to them, even just the ten minute ones, you can see them getting a bit fidgety.
“But these ones were long and they were buying into it big time. That tells me they are all switched on and that they appreciate the opportunity they have at Hampden on Sunday to become legends for St Mirren.”