Celtic were carried through to the final on a wave of emotion with the drums beating out tribute after tribute to Bertie Auld, who scored the winner for Celtic in the 1969/70 League Cup final win over St Johnstone.
Like then, this contest finished 1-0 and the tight margin of victory was a fair reflection on a match Celtic had initially seemed set to win at a canter. But you don’t become double cup winners in Scotland without being hard to beat. Celtic had to rely on a celebrated super sub to negotiate a way past their stubborn opponents.
“They’ll encourage you and they’ll never forget you,” was written on a large banner unfurled before the start of the game. The quote referring to Celtic supporters is attributed to Auld’s father, Joe, on the day his son signed for Celtic in 1955. It was fitting, then, that a modern Celtic great should prove the difference between the sides here.
There was perhaps some sense that James Forrest was being forgotten amid the acclaim for Celtic’s newer and younger wide men, Jota in particular. The Scotland winger picked a timely moment to remind people of his undoubted worth.
Liel Abada, another newcomer, has also impressed though he was quieter on the occasion. He made way for Forrest after 69 minutes. One hesitates to call the winger a veteran but he is now 30 and targeting an incredible 20th major trophy of a storied Celtic career in next month’s final.
He took only four minutes to make an impact on his 11th appearance of an injury-interrupted season. Jota stole the ball from James Brown after a poor Zander Clark kick out before making a bee-line for the byline. His cross was awkwardly cleared by Liam Gordon while facing the wrong way. Understandably, the centre-half, otherwise excellence, could not get enough distance on it.
Forrest was in the right place as far as he and Celtic were concerned to slam the ball in from the edge of the six-yard box. The Celtic fans had marked the 67th minute of the game by unveiling a huge banner depicting Auld, who passed away last week. Fortunately, they did not also portray him smoking a trademark cigar given the accompanying display of flares by the Green Brigade. Saints' hopes went up in smoke shortly afterwards. Forrest pointed to the sky and ran to the fans. Bertie, you’re immortal.
The Perth side’s fans had joined in an uplifting minute’s applause for one of the greatest characters the Scottish game has produced. The Celtic players all wore ten on their shorts in a nicely judged tribute.
Ange Postecoglou's side began with an irresistible swagger. A sweeping move involving Callum McGregor and Jota should have been the source of an opening goal from David Turnbull after four minutes but the midfielder fired wastefully over from near the penalty spot.
No matter. The goal seemed set to come. It was only a matter of time. Jota was looking unplayable at this juncture. He even felt confident enough to pull off a "Rabona", flummoxing Brown by wrapping his right leg around his left leg to deliver a cross that St Johnstone managed to clear. It would be wrong to claim Celtic were all tricks and little substance. But the sight of such showboating appeared to deepen St Johnstone’s resolve. They didn’t get to be double cup winners by standing back and admiring the opposition.
A Nir Bitton booking for fouling Chris Kane seemed to mark the point where an almost incessant period of Celtic pressure finally relented. We were at the quarter hour mark.
Callum Davidson’s side were supposed to be spooked by the reality of fans inside Hampden. All their previous four visits this year were to an empty national stadium. It was certainly far from empty here. Around 40,000 Celtic fans were present, perhaps 3,000 St Johnstone supporters. It was partisan in the extreme. Add in acclaim for Auld, and it seemed to be a night where it was not possible for Celtic to fail. They wouldn’t dare fall short.
But that was without factoring in this quite extraordinary Saints side. St Johnstone drew breath and took encouragement from the fact it was still goalless. They then did what they tend to do and frustrated the life out of the opposition. While it’s true that Joe Hart's problems were often his own doing, Clark, at the other end, was not required to overstretch himself.
Celtic hearts were in mouths as Michael O’Halloran chased down a Stephen Welsh passback and almost harried Hart into a damaging mistake. The ‘keeper seemed to delay clearing and when he did, the ball rebounded off the sliding O’Halloran and behind for a goal-kick. It could so easily have been a less favourable outcome for Celtic.
Craig Bryson then tried his luck from long range before smothering the ball at the second attempt. Another effort from distance had Hart scrambling across his goalmouth. St Johnstone were dealt a blow when David Wotherspoon was forced off after falling to the turf following an innocuous challenge. Perhaps a multi-flight journey back from a Canada game in Edmonton in midweek had not helped. He was replaced by Ali Crawford, who fluffed an admittedly difficult chance to lob the out of position Hart after 72 minutes. O’Halloran, bursting through the middle, might have been a better option.
Nevertheless, there were few complaints at the end from St Johnstone fans, who applauded their side - Scotland's team of 2021 - from the park.