TWO years in succession Hibs made it to the Scottish Cup final and lost. Two years in a row David Wotherspoon smarted as he watched helplessly from the stands. In the aftermath of the first one, his manager, Pat Fenlon, confessed he had made a error.
When he repeated it 12 months later, the midfielder knew the biggest mistake would be his if he chose to stick around Easter Road.
Instead, he rejected the offer of a new contract and left for Perth. Throughout a season that has included praise for St Johnstone’s performances in Europe, a top-six finish, two cup semi-finals and the hope that one could yet be converted into something sweeter, he has had no reason for regrets.
“I missed out on both finals and it was tough, really tough,” said the 24-year-old as he previewed this afternoon’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Aberdeen. “It is hard to put into words what it feels like sitting in the stands watching your team-mates play in such a massive game. Especially as the week before the final last year I scored against Dundee and thought at least that would put me in the team. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. These things happen and it’s the way you bounce back from that is what tells the story.”
His response has been proactive. After the first omission, against Hearts, he asked Fenlon for an explanation. “He said it was his decision – and that he felt he had made the wrong one. So the following season I felt sure he wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. But obviously he did. He spoke to me afterwards and said he was really sorry, but there was nothing he could say. He felt it was between me and someone else for a place on the bench but that didn’t help matters at all. I felt I had to move on and go somewhere else.
“When the biggest game of the season comes along if you are in the starting XI it means you are a big player. If you are on the bench you are still part of it. If you’re in the stands you just feel you are not needed at all. That’s exactly how I felt.
“That was in my head at the time and it was a contributing factor that I had missed out on the two biggest games of my life. I didn’t feel it was fair. I felt I needed a fresh start and to move on and when Saints came calling it was an easy decision to change. I wanted to enjoy my football again and I feel I have done that this season.”
He has been a key part of Saints manager Tommy Wright’s plans and made his competitive debut in the club’s historic European win over Rosenborg. He has already made 43 appearances, 36 of them in the starting XI, and although his manager wants to see more goals from him (he has scored just once this season), Hibs’ loss has been St Johnstone’s gain. While the Easter Road club have endured another season of under-achievement, Wotherspoon’s summer transfer has benefited both the player and the team he grew up supporting.
“It’s brilliant. I was obviously just looking to play regularly and enjoy my football and that’s what I have done. I have missed a few games but the manager has told me whenever I have missed a game it’s because I have been rested, which is fantastic. He has a good understanding with me, he always talks to you no matter what the situation is and that has been great for me this season. He has kept me relaxed and confident throughout.
“It’s amazing what a little thing like that can do for a player. Just speaking to them, even for a couple of minutes, helps a lot mentally and it can help your game quite a bit. I felt I didn’t get that at Hibs and I think a lot of the boys felt that as well. We felt we didn’t get enough information or feedback from the manager and since I’ve been here it’s been so different and it’s been a great team effort, starting with the staff to the players and the backroom staff, we have all been together and it’s been great.”
Every manager has his own way but Wotherspoon believes he knows which way is best. Statistics would seem to support him given the contrasting fortunes enjoyed by the Perth outfit and his former employers this term, in Europe, in the cups and in the league, where St Johnstone will again see out the campaign against the top sides while Hibs scramble around in the bottom half of the standings.
“Being ahead of Hibs is great but I wasn’t looking at that. I was looking at where we finished and to get that top-six place was brilliant for us. I think we might have done better at times throughout the season. Every now and again we have slipped up and our away form hasn’t been great at all. We’ve only started to kick on the last few games. But I think it has been a good season, starting with Europe, which was fantastic, such a good experience, it was great for everyone involved. And to get to two semi-finals has been a great achievement. Now here’s hoping we can push on to the final.”
In a re-run of the League Cup semi-final, it is Aberdeen who stand between St Johnstone and a historic first Scottish Cup final appearance. Judging by this season’s head to heads, league standings and cup performances, it is the toughest draw they could have got but it does offer them an early opportunity to atone for the upset of that last semi, the 4-0 scoreline reflecting how clinical Aberdeen were that day but not telling the full story.
“I thought we conducted ourselves pretty well though. We were just disappointed with the goals we conceded, but I felt we deserved more out of the game. I felt we played well enough to do something in the end.
“Looking back on it now, it didn’t seem like a 4-0 game but they took their chances well.
“There were a few mistakes in there from us as well but it wasn’t our day. And they obviously went on to win the cup. But that’s in the past and hopefully we can put things right this weekend.
“Coming from Perth and supporting St Johnstone, you want to play as best you can and hopefully get something out of the game. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be that day.”
In the four head-to-heads already this term there have been three Aberdeen triumphs and one draw, but each encounter has been close enough to offer hope to the Perth players, management and fans. “We’re really looking forward to it,” said the midfielder. “It’s a chance to put things right. We haven’t scored against them this season, so we’ll be looking to get a few goals and put things to bed.”