Any cup semi-final has various narrative strands. St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright yesterday sought to snip off the one that threatened to become distractingly strung out before his side face Hibernian in Saturday’s last four League Cup encounter.
In snippy fashion.
Ahead of conducting his media duties in Perth yesterday, a narked Wright said he would not take questions regarding Michael O’Halloran’s situation – which he reiterated had remained unchanged since his club rejected two bids of around £200,000 from Rangers more than a week ago. Saints are reported to value the winger at £400,000.
Yet, when Wright later confirmed that there would be no comings or goings within his squad ahead of the semi-final, he unequivocally ruled out any O’Halloran sale in the final full week of the January transfer window. The Northern Irishman also made the same point but with a different choice of words when discussing his possible line-up for the Tynecastle tussles.
“I already know my team but, with the injuries I’ve got, it’s a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C. But Michael O’Halloran is in every one of them,” said Wright. “At the minute Dave Mackay, Murray Davidson and Chris Millar are out, so the team we’re working on doesn’t have them in it. If that changes because of them recovering from their injuries then I’ve got Thursday and Friday to change that around. But Mikey will play, he’s in all three teams.”
O’Halloran produced an impressive display in the 3-1 defeat by Celtic on Saturday after being restored to the team a week on from Wright leaving him out for not being “mentally right” following the Rangers bids. The 25-year-old is entitled to be in a state of flux mentally with, arguably, his biggest game of the season arriving as he literally doesn’t know if he is coming or going.
That is the strung out League Cup for you. Alas, it will be even more strung out under the new format, with a 16 July group-stage start but still a last weekend of January semi-finals and a mid-March final. Many naively thought the summer beginning and sectional stage that removes one round would allow for the competition to start and finish in the same calendar year. Wright certainly would favour that in light of the O’Halloran situation.
“It probably isn’t ideal that the game is so close to the end of the transfer window and I know my chairman [Steve Brown] thinks that. Personally, I think the competition should be condensed and finished before Christmas, but we don’t make those decisions. It’s up to the people who run the game to do that, although, given how early it’s starting next season surely it could be finished sooner.”
Considering the quarter-finals were 11 weeks ago, the one consolation of the protracted format is that Wright has had oodles of time to run the rule over Alan Stubbs’ side. “We have watched a lot of Hibs, in the flesh and on video,” he said. “So we have plenty on them, we know how they play and will be well prepared.
“In these games a lot of it is down to who plays best on the day. We found that out the last time we were at Tynecastle in a semi-final [in the League Cup two years ago] when we lost to Aberdeen because we didn’t start the game well enough. But we learned from that and this week we’ll be focused on trying to find weaknesses in Hibs to exploit.”
The Perth club certainly learned from that Aberdeen loss because, three months later, they defeated the same opponents at the same stage of the Scottish Cup – a victory that paved the way for them to bank the trophy as the first major silverware success at the club. That triumph, and the consistent ability to reach the European qualifiers through league placing, makes the notion of Championship opposition being favourites for Saturday’s tie hard to swallow. Yet Wright is keen for outsiders to chew on that.
“Hibs are favourites in my mind because of their recent results. Although I’ve been happy enough with our performances, apart from the Hamilton one, we have not been picking up wins [with five games since victory]. Hibs are winning games, they are on a good run and are in a better vein of form than we are.
“I don’t know how much bigger Alan’s budget is than mine but it will be bigger, there’s no doubt about that. He’s been able to bring in five players during this transfer window, which is something there’s no way we could do. We won’t be bringing in anyone before Saturday’s game. It would have been nice but we just can’t do it. Hibs have gone out to get Anthony Stokes, who is a striker of proven quality, but we couldn’t do that. That shows you the resources Hibs have at their disposal, although budgets are no guarantee of success.”