CUP finals are forever emotional for those whose engagement with them has epoch-making potential. So immersed is Steven Thompson in St Mirren lore, the club’s forward seems to have spent much of the build-up to today’s Scottish Communities League Cup showpiece steadying a trembling lip.
His home town of Houston is, the 34-year-old says, a “big community” of the Paisley side that claimed his heart and soul when his first game just happened to be the last time they snared silverware, the 1987 Scottish Cup final. Making his way round the Renfrewshire town this week left him struggling to retain his composure.
“There’s a big roundabout in Houston and there are always signs on it – Happy 50th or whatever – made out of bed-sheets,” he says. “I was driving to pick up my daughter from school on Thursday and somebody had made a banner that said ‘Thommohawk Believe’ next to a big St Mirren sign. I was that close to crying [he presses thumb and forefinger almost together] it was unbelievable. When I got to school the banner was the chat with everybody. Somebody had obviously put it up for the school run. It’s been really touching the number of people who are willing us to do it. I’ve felt the buzz building with the good luck wishes and cards through the door. It’s really gripped the community, we’ve sold over 16,000 tickets, and it’s been excellent to be part of that. It’s now reached fever pitch and I just hope and pray we can win it.”
Thompson’s story is one of those that so often seem to attach themselves to cups like a club’s ribbons. From the age of around 30 he “formulated a plan” to sign for his boyhood team. To return his wife and children to the place he knew as home and play at the footballing home at which he had only previously been a professional visitor. After a career that took him from Dundee United to Rangers before spells in English football with Cardiff City and Burnley, and earned him 16 Scotland caps, it seemed the 32-year-old’s way of fulfilling a final ambition in the game as he went to seed. Instead it has been, as he says, “really fruitful”.
Aside from the campaign in which he helped Burnley earn promotion to the English Premier League, the striker feels in the best form of his career. In Paisley, he has enjoyed his greatest goals return for a season and, last term, helped the club to their highest league placing in more than two decades. And now there is the opportunity for a first League Cup triumph and first trophy success since he was an eight-year-old on the then Hampden slopes being “terrified” when Iain Ferguson scored and it sparked “the rush forward” and “the noise levels” and “so many people” going berserk around him.
“[When I left Burnley in the summer of 2010] I had Hibs and Charlton interested but I had made my mind up that if I was coming back to Scotland it would be to St Mirren,” he said. “I’m so happy it happened and in the way it’s turned out. It’s been really fruitful for me, I’ve had a real zest and been energised by coming here. This final would top it all off.”
And, Thompson hopes, will be the cause of a “few more young St Mirren fans latching on for the future” as he did when his entire future lay ahead of him nearly 26 years ago. He gives short shrift to the notion that this afternoon also represents the opportunity for atonement following the club losing to a nine-man Rangers in the final of the same competition three years ago. It is conceivable that no player who sported St Mirren colours that day will start against Hearts.
“I wasn’t here and 99 per cent of the people weren’t here. It’s not been mentioned or in anybody’s thoughts. It’s certainly not in mine,” he says tersely. He feels his St Mirren did more than exorcise any demons from that day with their dismantling of Celtic at Hampden in the League Cup semi-final seven weeks ago, a day he calls a career highlight.
There is no room for negativity in Thompson’s thoughts, as that would distract from the desire and drive that is proving life-affirming. “In the last couple of weeks I’ve been nervous and anxious but, over the past few days, the nerves have been replaced with a real determination and an unbelievable focus to make sure we get it right.
“The fans are craving success, something to lift them up again. Virtually every single person I know is going to the game, my two kids too. To have all that support on top of the 16,000-plus St Mirren fans screaming their hearts out it’s going to be fantastic. I’ve spoken to a lot of them in the street and they are saying this feels better than Christmas morning. The excitement levels are palpable. You can feel it dripping off of people and I just hope we can do it for them.”
He feels fortunate to have been party to memorable events at all the clubs he has played for. “At Rangers you are expected to win trophies but I went to Cardiff and played in an FA Cup final, which was completely out of the blue. I went to Burnley when we were third bottom of the Championship and then we got promoted via the play-offs and I played in the Premier League. I never thought these things would happen. Same with Sunday. I’m going to soak up every single minute of it because at my age this could be my last opportunity to play at Hampden, play in a major final. I’m going to absorb as much of the day as I can and give pretty much every morsel I have in my body for the cause.”
Yet, whatever happens this afternoon, he doesn’t feel as if he is “winding down” and hopes for more one-year contracts beyond the deal he has signed to cover next season. Former Burnley team-mate Graham Alexander, who was still playing for Scotland at 38, has inspired him to believe a player’s career need not end in their mid-30s.
“I witnessed his appetite for the game at 38, 39. The way he prepared, looked after himself and played in every game it made me think it doesn’t have to end.”