LOOKING in from the outside, you can never know a manager’s reasons for his decisions, but today’s League Cup final has definitely taken on a different dynamic because Gary Locke and not John McGlynn is picking the Hearts team.
The Tynecastle side reverting to a 4-4-2 and the deployment of more experienced players have been notable features since John’s departure. The change is most evident in the re-emergence of John Sutton as strike partner for Michael Ngoo.
Under McGlynn, the big English striker was rarely accommodated. That might seem strange now because Sutton has produced good efforts in the past couple of weeks and, across his time in Scotland, has a reasonable goalscoring record.
With players such as Ryan Stevenson and Mehdi Taouil holding down starting places, there has been a settled look to the Hearts side and fewer slots for the youngsters to whom John was admirably giving valuable experience. I understand Darren Barr has been earmarked by some for the central midfield role beside Taouil. I may be biased as the Scotland under-21 manager, but I just love Jason Holt. Maybe the occasion is too early for him, but I would think Callum Tapping, who has done very little wrong in difficult circumstances, will also be in Lockey’s thinking. I would say the same for young Jamie Walker when it comes to the wide-left role.
Walker is a very talented boy. Perhaps he is still learning to impose himself on games but, while Arvydas Novikovas can have his moments, I see the 19-year-old just as capable of offering creativity and telling balls.
Hearts would not appear to have as numerous attacking options or possible shape considerations as St Mirren. The signing of left winger Sander Puri on Friday gives Danny Lennon another one and you can’t know whether he is just trying to unsettle Hearts or conjure up a genuine surprise in saying he would have no qualms about throwing in the Estonian winger. It can be good to hit your final opponents with something unexpected but you have to take care not to become fixated with that to the point you unsettle your own side.
I think Danny has been playing a few mind games of late, and did so when their last meeting with Hearts saw him leave out Steven Thompson and Esmael Goncalves. I think St Mirren will either set out in a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-2-1-2, the latter the midfield diamond. I’d probably plump for the former. I say that with the understanding that Lee Mair has surprised his manager to come back into contention for a centre-back role. That frees up Jim Goodwin to go into midfield as one of the holding two with Conor Newton. Young John McGinn is an option too after proving an excellent all-rounder in there of late, which has kept Kenny McLean on the bench. In front of the two, you would have Paul McGowan. He has the industry to accompany his invention to ensure he willingly works back to give St Mirren three in the middle and prevent them being outnumbered.
I think Danny will want to use the big Hampden pitch, and that means going for width, to supply Steven Thompson, their attacking focal point. Gary Teale is a cert for the right, with the winger having the pace and guile to make the most of the wide spaces at Hampden, where he has turned in a number of fine performances for Scotland. Goncalves will likely be on the other side, but as a big lad who is still searching for fitness, his position might come under threat from the naturally quicker Puri.
St Mirren were rightly rewarded for being really positive in their semi-final win over Celtic and I see no reason for their mindset to change in the final. With the absence of a true favourite, we surely won’t see either team simply sit in and hope a little break goes their way. Both of them should possess the confidence to open up. There comes a point in any final when that is what you need to do and I am pretty certain we will see goals. As for which team will lift the trophy at the end of the afternoon, I don’t think there can be any certainty about that.