Cup win a victory of substance over style for Saints

IT WAS at around 4:05pm that St Johnstone supporters could truly believe 17 May was indeed their date with destiny.

Steven MacLean celebrates after scoring St Johnstones decisive second goal at Celtic Park. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

If ever there was a “name on the cup” moment, it came five minutes into the second half at Celtic Park when Nadir Ciftci’s beautifully struck free kick crashed off the underside of the crossbar and into the grateful grasp of Alan Mannus.

It wasn’t the only piece of good fortune to come the Perth club’s way on an historic afternoon, but it was the one which provided an overwhelming sense that their time in Scottish football’s major winnners’ enclosure had finally come.

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St Johnstone more than earned their luck, yet again delivering a robust and well-organised performance which proved the antidote to the more expressive instincts of a Dundee United side they have now defeated four times in a row with an aggregate score of 8-0.

It was a triumph of substance over style for Tommy Wright’s men who not only collected the first major silverware of their club’s 130-year existence, but also became the first to lift the Scottish Cup in their debut final appearance since Jock Stein’s Dunfermline defeated Celtic back in 1961.

The triumph also takes Saints into Europe for a third consecutive season, a notable achievement in itself for a club which takes pride in its astute financial husbandry.

Wright’s team are not the most pleasing on the eye and no-one could credibly hail Saturday’s final as a classic. But it was at least an improvement on the stultifying League Cup final at the same venue two months before. And just as it was for Aberdeen and their supporters when they edged Inverness on penalties that day, so too did the manner of victory matter much less to Saints than victory itself.

The crucial difference between the teams was that Wright did not have a failure in his starting line-up, while too many of Jackie McNamara’s players did not deliver their optimum form for United.

St Johnstone’s back four were far more solid than their rivals. The central defensive partnership of Steven Anderson and Frazer Wright were outstanding, successfully stifling the threat of Ciftci for most of the afternoon.

In midfield, James Dunne and Chris Millar carried out the unglamorous but vital work required to dull the effectiveness of Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven, neither of whom was able bring his pace or incisiveness into play.

Up front, Steven MacLean and Stevie May provided an industrious and intelligent focal point for Saints, holding the ball up well when required and playing their part in preventing United from finding any cohesion.

In a frantic and untidy first half, Saints had the early edge. Dunne forced a fine save from Radoslaw Cierzniak with a stinging 22-yard volley and the United goalkeeper then blocked a close-range effort by David Wotherspoon.

The Tannadice men, who had a couple of highly optimistic penalty appeals for handball correctly turned down, gradually worked their way into a spell of ascendancy and Gavin Gunning should have done better than head a Ryan Dow corner wide from six yards.

In United’s best move of the match, they came agonisingly close to the opener in the 32nd minute, a sweeping sequence of passes culminating in Andrew Robertson crossing from the left for Dow to flick a shot against the inside of Mannus’s left hand post, the ball rebounding to safety when it might just as easily have gone in.

But McNamara’s men could not sustain that level of fluency and in first-half stoppage time were undone by their own defensive frailty. Cierzniak needlessly charged off his line to try to cut out Wotherspoon’s corner from the left. The Polish ’keeper had no chance of reaching the ball and when Keith Watson failed to match Anderson’s movement at the back post, the big Saints defender rose to guide a header into the gaping net.

The timing of the goal could not have been more deflating for United but they began the second half on the front foot as they looked to retrieve the situation. When that Ciftci free kick somehow stayed out, however, even they must have started to feel this was going to be Saints’ day.

Wright’s side looked fairly comfortable for much of the second half and could have doubled their lead sooner had May not chosen to handle the ball over the line from close range, his offence eventually noted thanks to the attention of additional assistant referee Alan Muir behind the goal.

There were only sporadic threats from United. Robertson forced Mannus into his first real save of the match in the 62nd minute, the full-back embarking on a magnificent solo run from his own half before curling in a shot which the Saints ’keeper dived to his right to turn behind. Substitute Brian Graham and Ciftci both flashed shots wide as the final entered its closing stages but it was St Johnstone who finally settled the issue with six minutes remaining. Once again, luck was on their side as May’s miscued pass, intended for Wotherspoon, ricocheted off John Rankin into the path of MacLean.

The striker was left one-on-one with Cierzniak and after his first effort was blocked by the advancing ’keeper, he reacted smartly to hook the loose ball into the net from close range.

United’s race was well and truly run, Graham’s missed “sitter” in stoppage time an irrelevance, and McNamara will now focus his attention on trying to ensure the foundations he has laid in place at Tannadice are built on with greater progress and a tangible reward. For St Johnstone and the people of Perth, a party 130 years in the making is likely to last well into the summer. The patience of the Saints has finally been rewarded.