DESPITE being dominated by duopolies for most of its existence, the Scottish Cup has always retained a contrarily pleasing knack of delivering something just a little bit different.
For 13 of its first 20 years, the world’s oldest surviving football trophy was claimed by either Queen’s Park or fellow pioneers Vale of Leven. During the subsequent century or so, Celtic and Rangers have hogged the glory, winning the cup 69 times between them.
Despite that predictability, however, you seldom need to look far for something new when Scottish football’s showpiece occasion comes along.
This afternoon at Celtic Park, it is St Johnstone who provide the novelty value as they make, remarkably, the first Scottish Cup final appearance of their 130-year history. The Perth club join Gretna, Queen of the South and Ross County as maiden finalists inside the last decade.
Unlike that trio, who all went into their respective big days as rank outsiders, St Johnstone’s chances of success against Dundee United are fancied strongly by many observers. The Tannadice club are favourites, but only marginally so in what bookmakers believe is their hardest Scottish Cup final to call since the 1991 classic between Motherwell and United.
It is a contest laced with intrigue, pitting the burgeoning talent of Jackie McNamara’s United against the consistently effective solidity of Tommy Wright’s Saints. There will be a compelling narrative to be written whoever triumphs – either a silver lining to a season in which United have often produced some of the most exhilarating football in the country, or a long-awaited first major honour for St Johnstone.
“Most neutrals want us to win the game,” insists Wright. “A lot of people have told me that they like Dundee United but want to see us win. That’s maybe natural, because St Johnstone have never won it.
“The magic of the Scottish Cup is summed up in the fact we are in the final. Cup final day has been overtaken by the importance of the league and Champions League as the game has evolved and changed. But domestic cups should be able to provide that bit of magic and have a fairytale end. Hopefully that will be the case for us this year.”
It is a sentiment McNamara will dispute, of course, as he seeks the first managerial honour of his career. Already the subject of covetous monitoring by English clubs, the former Celtic captain remains content to commit himself to building a sustained spell of progress and success at United.
“I’m hoping this is the start of something,” says McNamara. “I want to keep this group of players together as long as possible. They are not the finished article yet but the potential in them is very high. I’m a great believer in them and their capabilities.”
United have failed to display those capabilities in their last three matches against St Johnstone, losing all of them without scoring a goal. It has been a sharp reversal in form after McNamara’s men convincingly won the first league meeting of the season 4-0 last August.
“I don’t know how difficult Dundee United are to play against in full flow because I haven’t seen them in full flow against us,” claims Wright. “Even in the 4-0 defeat, they beat us with counter attacking.
“We feel we can set up to stop them being free-flowing. I’ve watched them in games against other teams where they’ve totally dominated and if you let them do that, they’ll cause you loads of problems but I think we’ve enough about us to stop them being as free-flowing as they have been.
“Recent results would suggest we have the upper hand on United, but our players know it’s a different game and totally different occasion this time. We are going into it confident, but not over-confident.
“Dundee United are the bigger club and have the bigger fan base. They are taking twice as many to the game, they have won it before, they have been successful and they have had great teams and great trophy-winning sides down through the years.
“From our point of view outside our dressing room the pressure is on them. They are expected to win, they are expected to go and win it. They are probably still favourites as well. But within our dressing room, we are putting a big emphasis on that we want to win it.”
There remains a sense that if both teams were to produce their optimum form, United would prevail more often than not. But they have found consistency hard to come by this season. McNamara insists it is not a major concern.
“Sometimes you can tell when the team are going to click,” he said. “I can see something will spark it off, maybe good hold-up play which allows our midfielders to move about with freedom and not get picked up.
“There are certain games where it works more than others, but every manager will have their own frustrations with their team at times. For me, I think my team have been more ‘on it’ than ‘off it’ this season. We’ve gone on some great runs of results and have scored 87 goals so far. It must be a wee while since United scored that many in a season.
“As I say, I know what they are capable of and it’s all about getting that into the match on Saturday. St Johnstone are very hard to break down at times and we have to be patient. We have to match them first and then take the game to them.”
Both teams have obvious potential match winners in their ranks. Stevie May, the man who wears today’s date on his back, has a sense of destiny around him as he looks to add to his 27 goals this season for St Johnstone.
United, though, have their own talisman leading the line in the shape of Nadir Ciftci who appears ideally suited to big occasions such as this one.
“Nadir is important for us and at times he is unplayable,” added McNamara. “But I think any of our front players, when they are on it, are great. You need everyone on top of their game, not just one, to win a cup final.”
Today is the eighth time Celtic Park has hosted the Scottish Cup final. The previous seven have thrown up some unlikely winners, as far back as Hibs in 1902 and then Kilmarnock and Partick Thistle in 1920 and 1921 respectively.
A St Johnstone success in 2014 would be another tale of the unexpected. Dundee United have their own script in mind, however, and may just edge what promises to be a memorable final.