ST MIRREN triumphantly bridged a 26-year gap between major trophy successes at Hampden as Hearts allowed the chance of securing silverware for the second time in just 10 months to pass them by.
St Mirren 3 (Goncalves 37, Thompson 46, Newton 66)
Hearts 2 (Stevenson 10, 85)
Dominant for the first 30 minutes of what proved to be a thrilling League Cup Final, the Scottish Cup holders were unable to add to a deserved 10th minute lead provided by Ryan Stevenson.
So off colour during that opening spell, Danny Lennon’s team somehow managed to remain in touching distance and turned it around when Esmael Goncalves levelled before half-time. Steven Thompson’s strike less than a minute after the restart completed the transformation before on-loan Newcastle United midfielder Conor Newton netted what proved to be the winner for the Paisley club.
They had to sweat for their historic first League Cup triumph and first major trophy win since the 1987 Scottish Cup final, Stevenson scoring again for Hearts in a frantic late onslaught. But there was to be no silver lining for Gary Locke in his first match since being named Hearts new manager on a permanent basis.
He would have been left both bemused and exasperated that his side did not build on Stevenson’s opening goal to forge a more commanding lead which their level of control certainly merited before the concession of Goncalves’ equaliser.
Hearts were by far the more purposeful and energetic side in the opening half hour. Many of the St Mirren players looked as if they were suffering from stage fright, while their defence were unsettled by the bustling presence of former Saints striker John Sutton leading the line for Hearts.
Sutton got on the end of a good cross from right-back Dylan McGowan as the Gorgie men put together their first threatening move in the early moments, but his flick at the near post did not find a team-mate.
Although Paul McGowan brought a rare moment of attacking ambition to St Mirren’s work with a lofted shot from distance which drifted just over Jamie MacDonald’s crossbar, the flow of play was largely towards Craig Samson’s goal and Hearts were well worth their 10th minute breakthrough.
Referee Craig Thomson played a good advantage in Hearts favour when Sutton was fouled on the left, the ball breaking towards Michael Ngoo. The big striker was dispossessed by St Mirren captain Jim Goodwin’s sliding challenge but the ball broke into the path of Stevenson.
He took it wide of three Saints defenders before driving in a right foot shot from around 14 yards which took a deflection off left-back Paul Dummett, the ball looping beyond Samson’s right hand into the corner of the net.
With St Mirren struggling to find any rhythm in their play, Hearts looked to build on their early advantage. Jamie Walker, composed and impressive on the left of midfield, delivered a fine cross in the 21st minute which picked out Sutton at the far post but his close range header, under pressure from Dummett, struck the upright.
St Mirren managed the first effort on target five minutes later when Goncalves’ 20 yard shot was comfortably held by MacDonald, but Hearts remained the more menacing side. Samson had to scramble to his right to keep out a Kevin McHattie free-kick before Mehdi Taouil wasted a promising situation for Hearts when he broke free in the penalty area but screwed his left foot shot off target.
Locke’s men paid for their failure to capitalise on the momentum they had enjoyed, finding themselves back at square one when Goncalves scored eight minutes before half-time.
Thompson won possession in midfield and played a perfectly weighted poass into the path of Gary Teale. Hearts appealed for offside but assistant refeee Alasdair Ross correctly kept his flag down as Andy Webster had played the former Scotland winger onside. Teale raced clear and calmly rolled the ball across the face of the penalty area to present Goncalves with a simple left footed finish from around eight yards.
The transformation in the body language of the respective sets of players after that goal was startling. It was Hearts who suddenly looked deeply unsure of themselves, while St Mirren began to play with confidence and conviction. MacDonald had to race from his line to deny Teale just inside the penalty area as Saints threatened to take the lead just before the interval.
They only had to wait 49 seconds after the restart for the second goal as the final turned firmly in their favour. Hearts were caught cold in defence as John McGinn found Dummett on the left and his low cross picked out Thompson who slammed a firm left-foot shot beyond the helpless MacDonald.
A stunned Hearts side tried to respond and Samson had to make a reaction save to keep out a close range effort from Ngoo, the lanky striker knowing little about it as the ball rebounded off him from Taouil’s driven cross.
But St Mirren struck what proved to be the decisive blow with a fine third goal in the 66th minute. Newton played a slick exhange of passes with Goncalves to pierce a gaping hole in the Hearts defence before striking a precise right foot shot from around 10 yards beyond MacDonald’s left hand.
Hearts were left with no option but to commit more players into forward areas and they did manage to pen St Mirren into their own half for most of the closing 20 minutes. Stevenson was on a one-man salvage mission for Hearts, hitting the bar from close range before he gave them renewed hope with his second goal of the afternoon in the 85th minute.
Ngoo, whose build-up work was often less than cultured, this time played in Stevenson perfectly and his low left foot shot across Samson nestled just inside the post. St Mirren were now under siege and Stevenson came close to a remarkable hat-trick with a minute remaining when his shot was parried by Samson before he drove his follow-up effort just wide from a tight angle. Lennon’s men saw out stoppage time without any further alarm to set up a party in Paisley which may continue for some time yet.
MAN OF THE MATCH
PAUL McGOWAN - After a quiet opening period, the former Celtic player grew in influence as the final progressed. Composed in possession, he provided an intelligent link between midfield and strikers for St Mirren.
Teams with substitutions:
ST MIRREN (4-4-2): Samson, Van Zanten, Goodwin, McAusland, Dummett; Teale, McGowan, Newton, McGinn (Carey 81); Goncalves (Mair 90), Thompson (Parkin 77). Subs not used: McLean, Adam.
HEARTS (4-4-2): MacDonald, McGowan, Webster, Wilson, McHattie; Barr (Holt 70), Taouil (Carrick 80), Stevenson, Walker (Novikovas 64); Sutton, Ngoo. Subs not used: McKay, Ridgers.