Tommy Wright has heard all the stories and noted the hype about swashbuckling kids, but he does not believe Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara will dare to play two of his brightest stars from the start in the Scottish Cup final at Celtic Park tomorrow.
It could, of course, be interpreted as a challenge to someone with whom Wright had a verbal confrontation several weeks ago during a match at Tannadice, leading to an appointment with a Scottish Football Association disciplinary tribunal. However, it is the crafty St Johnstone manager’s opinion – and he was more than happy to volunteer it yesterday, with the merest hint of a wry smile – that teenagers Ryan Gauld and John Souttar will not feature in McNamara’s first 11.
Indeed, the 18-year-old Gauld was nominated as one of the PFA Scotland young players of the year, while Souttar, 17, has made 27 appearances in a campaign that was disrupted by a sunshine holiday to Spain, when McNamara decided the pair needed a rest.
Wright now thinks they will be on the sidelines once more when the first whistle goes tomorrow at Celtic Park – or at least he wants McNamara to think he is thinking that.
Speaking yesterday to reporters at Scone Palace, Wright could not resist some artful subterfuge when pondering how United might approach the cup final.
Souttar has played twice against St Johnstone this season, and has finished on the losing team both times, with a goal aggregate of 0-5. Four of these goals were scored by the in- demand striker Stevie May.
Gauld, meanwhile, featured in United’s sole victory over the Perth side in August but did not score in the 4-0 success.
“I just feel Gauld and Souttar won’t play,” Wright said yesterday. “I just feel that, when you look at it, Souttar hasn’t done particularly well against us or Stevie May, so I feel he [McNamara] won’t play him. Ryan Dow normally does okay against us so I think he’ll go with Dow in there instead of Gauld and then bring him on later on.”
Wright firmly rejected the notion that this is a contest that can be defined in such stark terms as inexperience versus experience, as some have suggested. While United youngsters such as Gauld, Souttar and Andrew Robertson have hogged the headlines this season, Wright pointed out that McNamara’s side can still count on several seasoned professionals, something sometimes forgotten in the race to praise the young performers, who helped United score 21 goals in five games.
“Dundee United have got experience,” pointed out Wright. “Gavin Gunning, John Rankin, Sean Dillon, Paul Paton. He won’t play his young players. John Souttar and Ryan Gauld won’t play. Andrew Robertson will be the only player without a lot of experience in his team. Gary Mackay-Steven has a lot of experience and so does Stuart Armstrong. I don’t buy into that ‘young and inexperienced’ tag. They’ve got a good team of players who have got experience in the league. We think we’ve got experience and a blend of youth as well that we can call upon.”
As far back as after the semi-final win over Aberdeen, Wright suggested that “this could be St Johnstone’s year”. Standing in their way are a side they have lost only once against in eight previous meetings, while the 27-goal May, Wright believes, “has got better as the season has gone on”. He added: “I hope it [the final] is tailor-made for Stevie.
“We had one of the best training sessions we have had this season on Thursday and after our session on Friday I can relax even more,” Wright added. “I am not feeling under pressure about it. Everybody seems to be happy that we are in the final, which is good. But as I said to the players, there is no point in us getting to the final and not winning it, and that is what we are hopefully going to do.
“It is great for Scottish football that two Tayside clubs are in the final. I did say before the semi-final that St Johnstone in the final would be a great story. And the fact we have 15,000 people coming I think makes it a good story, a club that has never won it.”
There was one setback threatening Wright’s mood, and that was the news that defender Tim Clancy had suffered a suspected ruptured Achilles tendon and is out of the cup final squad. Wright added: “It probably looks as if he needs an operation. There was nobody near him, it just popped so that’s really bad news for the player and the squad.”
The manager will name his team today and then let his substitutes know who has made the bench tomorrow. Since this is what happens before league matches, Wright is trying to keep things as close to normality as possible, although he admits that the sudden increase in his media profile is a new. “It’s a nice problem,” he added.
Wright’s mobile has been reverberating all week, informing him of messages from former team-mates and football associates. “It’s like New Year’s eve, people have been getting in there early with their messages,” he said.
However, there has been no word from Steve Lomas, the manager who brought Wright to St Johnstone as his assistant in 2011 but who left last summer to join Millwall. Wright was promoted and he has not looked back. While he is “disappointed” that Lomas has not been in contact, not even to wish him luck, Wright said he wants to concentrate “on the people who mean something to me”.
In this group, he was including the citizens of Perth, nearly a third of whom appear to be heading to Glasgow. “We want to create history for them,” said Wright.