HE scored the last minute winner back in September that helped St Mirren into the quarter-finals at the expense of Hamilton Accies.
Lee Mair admits no-one will remember that now, but the contribution to St Mirren’s history-making achievement by someone who played only 94 seconds of Sunday’s League Cup final victory over Hearts cannot be downplayed.
Mair undoubtedly deserved a break after being on the losing side in three previous finals, dating back to Dundee’s loss to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final a decade ago. Mair also picked up a loser’s medal two years later with Dundee United in the same competition, with Celtic the conquerors on that occasion.
Another defeat, when Rangers overcame St Mirren in the League Cup final in 2010, meant Mair began to think he was a serous jinx. Others too feared the same. When the news emerged earlier this month that he was almost certain to miss Sunday’s final due to a stomach injury, there was sympathy in Paisley for the popular player’s plight, but also, perhaps, a measure of relief, given this wretched run of final heartache.
After visiting a specialist in Edinburgh, the 32-year-old rallied, and was surprisingly included in the cup final squad, eventually seeing action as a late, late replacement for Esmael Goncalves, who had scored St Mirren’s first goal in the 3-2 victory. Even this brief glimpse of action was appreciated by Mair, who had tears in his eyes as he recalled the events of Sunday, while also sparing a thought for those St Mirren team-mates who missed out on the occasion.
“I am the only man who can say he has a 100 per cent pass rate in a cup final,” he grinned. “I am just happy to be part of it. A couple of weeks ago I was told I was out for a couple of months but luckily I have recovered well and got a place on the bench.
“I was diagnosed with a grade two stomach tear which means you are out for six weeks,” he explained. “Straight away I thought: ‘That’s me missed the final’. But gradually it was getting better and better. Then I felt fine and ready to train and the club sent me to a specialist in Edinburgh, who did a lot of tests and he said that I was doing fine and just to crack on in training.”
This heartening news was delivered to the players last Tuesday and so he got in his car and drove up to Fife to join his team-mates at their pre-cup final base in St Andrews. He resumed training and felt no ill-effects, and manager Danny Lennon took a leap of faith when naming him among the substitutes. Perhaps he recognised that without Mair’s 90th minute intervention against Hamilton Accies seven months ago, St Mirren might not have had the chance to make history on Sunday by winning the trophy for the first time in the club’s history.
“I was just happy to sneak on to the bench and be a part of a winning team,” said Mair. “I have lost three finals before so that is why I am so happy, so emotional. When I saw my family at the end – I am about to cry just thinking about it! I will need to man up here.”
Mair knows how it feels to be included among the bedraggled throng looking on as the winners ascend the Hampden stairs to collect the trophy. He recalled watching Nacho Novo leaping about the pitch after St Mirren were beaten by Rangers in the League Cup final three years ago. To make matters worse, the Ibrox side had been reduced to nine men for a good proportion of the second half, and the St Mirren players knew that they had let slip a golden opportunity to seal their place in folklore. It’s not often that a second chance presents itself, but it did for Mair. Typically, he expressed his sympathy for the beaten finalists. If anything, his own tale can perhaps offer some comfort to a young Hearts team, many of whom have much of their careers still ahead of them.
“I went around all the Hearts players at the end because I remembered what it is like to lose a cup final,” said Mair. “I celebrated and then I remembered the time three years ago watching Nacho Novo running about, jumping about.
“It broke my heart then. I thought that was what the Hearts players would be feeling now so I made sure I spoke to every one of them and told them to keep their heads up. I told them it was a horrible feeling because I have been there three times. Luckily, I have a winner’s medal now.
“The manager named the staring X1 first thing in the morning and then the subs about at 1.30pm,” he added. “There are boys left out who I feel sorry for: Dougie Imrie, Robbo [Jon Robertson], Lewis Guy, Chris Smith. They won’t feel part of it. I know how it [feels], but they are part of it,” he added. “They have helped us win this trophy. I was on the pitch for 94 seconds but I will cherish it for the rest of my life because I have lost three finals before.
“I scored the last-minute winner against Hamilton but that was four games ago and nobody will remember that.”
He accepts that people only really remember the final, although in St Mirren’s case, this would be remiss. Their defeat of Celtic in the semi-final was every bit as impressive as their comeback on Sunday. It has been a squad effort, of that there is no doubt.
St Mirren manager Danny Lennon savoured the sight of Paisley lined with thousands of Buddies fans as he and his squad toured the streets in an open-top bus on Sunday night and thanked fans for their support in a town-centre rally.
Lennon told STV: “It was absolutely fantastic and they are the type of moments that live long in your memory for the rest of your life.
“It was wonderful turning up to Hampden and the kit men had put out all the homemade cards from the schoolkids and plastered them throughout the dressing room for the players coming in. It was a lovely moment, a moment that told us we were not just there for ourselves but there for the community of Paisley. We are delighted for the people of Paisley that they are going to work sometime this week with a spring in their steps, and long may that continue.”
Lennon revealed there were some surprisingly energetic performances at the post-match party. “The party went on into the early hours of the morning and I’m led to believe it’s still going on,” he said. “Stevie Thompson, I think he had it well planned. With 15 minutes to go, he pulled up with cramp. He showed no sign of that once the music had started, he was never off that dancefloor .”