WHENEVER Danny Lennon is around, a laugh and a joke are never far away. It is easy to form the impression that the ever approachable St Mirren manager seldom takes life too seriously.
As the Paisley club held their pre-League Cup final media day in the town’s West Primary School, Lennon was in typically ebullient form as he engaged in light-hearted banter with children, teachers and dinner ladies alike.
That approach will be repeated at times in the company of his players this week as they spend the next few days in St Andrews preparing for Sunday’s Hampden showdown with Hearts. But, when it comes down to the task of trying to secure his first major trophy as a manager, 43-year-old Lennon believes he knows just how to mix business with pleasure.
“We are going to work hard, but we’ll also enjoy it,” he says. “We are looking forward to the two or three days we are getting away together. We will leave no stone unturned in our preparation. It gives players an opportunity to just totally focus on the job in hand. When we are away, I want the players to talk about and prepare in their own minds for what they can achieve if they bring their best to the game on Sunday. It also gives us an opportunity to have a bit of fun together as well, which is also important in the build-up to a big game like this. There will be the usual quizzes and a few meals together. We also have a game of golf arranged, although if the weather continues like it is, we’ll be having a snowball fight instead!”
It is six weeks since St Mirren stunned Celtic 3-2 in the semi-final at Hampden. They have won just three of their subsequent nine games, suggesting the prospect of winning the club’s first major silverware since 1987 has been a considerable distraction. “I told them after our SPL game against Dundee United on Saturday that we can now start to talk about the cup final in a way that has probably been on a lot of their minds for a while,” added Lennon.
“That’s only natural. I’m sure every player has played the final through in their mind several times already. A lot of people have said we’ve not been at our best since beating Celtic in the semi-final, but we’ve still managed to score more goals than we’ve conceded and kept four clean sheets in that period. So we certainly know what we are doing well at the moment and what we’re not doing so well. The fine balance is to try and make sure we get everything clicking together on Sunday.”
Lennon is acutely aware of how significant victory on Sunday would be for both his own reputation and the standing of his players in a historical context. “As a wee boy, when you started to fall in love with this beautiful game, you dreamed about what player you wanted to be and about playing in cup finals,” he said.
“These lads now have a great opportunity and I’m sure they will grasp it with both hands. It has been a long, long wait for our supporters and it would be fantastic if we could come back to Paisley with that trophy. Our guys are hungry and I’m sure they are very much aware of what status they would have with the supporters if they can win the cup.
“The Scottish Cup win at Hampden in 1987 is a long time ago now. I met Tony Fitzpatrick recently and he said ‘Come on, it’s about time we had more legends to go with our ’87 team’. That would be nice. But the team in ’87 went to Hampden and earned it and our lads have to do the same. At such an early stage of my managerial career, this is a fantastic experience. Hopefully, there are more to come. But it’s a real joy to reach a major cup final with St Mirren. This week, it will sink in. But you’ve got to go and win it, pure and simple.
“As a manager, you want to pit your wits against the best, you want to work with top quality. But I’m in the right place at this moment in time. I’m learning every single minute of every day, game by game. I’m happy at the way the club has progressed over the last two or three years.
“We’ve managed to reach a major cup final, even though we are still short of where we want to be in the league. This season, we’ve managed to get the balance right between bringing in high quality youth players who are making a massive contribution alongside more experienced guys. We enjoyed the semi-final occasion at Hampden against Celtic and we enjoyed the experience of that. The environment is not a new one for our players now.”
Although the bookmakers have Hearts as favourites on Sunday, many observers feel St Mirren have never gone into a final as fancied to win as they do on this occasion. “Listen, Hearts are a big club in Scottish football and won a major trophy at Hampden just ten months ago,” observed Lennon. “Our games with them have been incredibly close this season. They beat us 1-0 at Tynecastle, we’ve managed to beat them twice at home 2-0. There is only one point between the teams in the SPL at the moment, which tells you how evenly matched we are. There’s no home advantage on Sunday, it’s going to be about the team who turn up wanting it the most. I believe the team which works the hardest will be successful.”
Lennon already has a clear idea of his starting eleven for Sunday and is already gearing himself up to impart the bad news to those players he will leave out. Having been denied his only shot at a major final as a player in 1994 when injury ruled him out of Raith Rovers’ League Cup win over Celtic, he is sensitive to the dismay of those left on the sidelines.
“I’ve got my team picked in my head already,” added Lennon. “The hardest part for me is telling the ones who miss out. That’s life and just the way it is in this game. In 1994, I missed out when I broke my metatarsal five days before the game. One of the young lads caught me in training. I didn’t know right away what had happened, but a minute or so later I heard it snap. That was it. I went to hospital, got the x-ray and it was confirmed I was out. It was disappointing, but as a professional you just get right behind the rest of your team-mates and become a supporter.
“The hardest part is when you are in the dressing room and the players are having their moment. You feel a wee bit sorry for yourself at that stage. But after that, you become a part of things. It is just part and parcel of the business we are in.”