How St Johnstone overcame Covid setbacks to keep historic double hopes alive with Scottish Cup semi-final win over St Mirren

St Johnstone might be considered a small club on the verge of the biggest of things; nay a monumentally big thing.

St Johnstone players surround Glenn Middleton after the substitute made it 2-0. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

Yet it should be recognised why they find themselves a Scottish Cup final over Hibernian away from a cup double that would represent one of the most outstanding achievements in the annals of our game. It is because they have found the secret to winning the way football’s serial silverware-snafflers do. Small club in stature, big club in big moments across a potentially annus mirabilis for them.

The 2-1 semi-final success for, what increasingly seems, the anointed Callum Davidson and his men over St Mirren was an object lesson in the importance of cutting it at crucial moments. That is something the Perth club did in their January League Cup semi-final win over a Hibs side that they will now meet in the Hampden decider of this competition on May 22. They did it again to land a first League Cup with final success over Livingston. And, it was something that St Mirren ultimately failed to do against them in passing up glorious chances - the best of the tie, indeed - across a largely stodgy, goalless first hour.

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The semi-final in a nutshell wasn’t merely the Perth club netting twice inside three minutes…. before surviving a late onslaught after Jim Goodwin’s men pulled a goal back in 86th minute to set up a frantic finish.

Chris Kane slides St Johnstone's opener past Jak Alnwick. (Photo by Alan Harvey / SNS Group)

It was what pre-empted Chris Kane following up his tie-turning last gasp equaliser - which goalkeeper Zander Clark’s intervention caused to be largely overlooked - with another tie-turning strike that made the difference. While Kane showed composure and conviction to slide-in and direct away from Jak Alwnick a low left wing centre from Glenn Middleton, these qualities were excruciating absent when Collin Quaner was presented with a similar opportunity nine minutes earlier. Then, the St Mirren forward, only introduced from the bench five minutes earlier, was guilty of one almighty howler. His foot seemed to be transformed into a 50p piece as he somehow clipped a gift of a cross from Ilkay Durmus way wide of the target as it appeared entirely at his mercy.

The double-whammy for the Paisley club was Middleton - a transformative 66th minute substitute making it 2-0 in the 74th minute with a curious free-kick strike. He sweetly chopped the dead-ball over the defensive wall but the reality is that Alnwick then bizarrely dropped to his knees as the ball dropped in at the centre of his goal.

St Mirren cannot be faulted for their refusal to meekly accept their fate. And when Conor McCarthy rose above the St Johnstone defence to head in with four minutes of normal time remaining, they gave themselves a glimmer of changing it, Jamie McGrath almost finding the net with a thumping drive in the closing minutes. In contrast to the victory, over the afternoon the story for the Paisley team was typical of vanquished wee teams in such scenarios.

The attritional nature of much of the first half perhaps betrayed the magnitude of the occasion for both clubs. Rightly, much has been made of St Johnstone’s bid to become only the fourth Scottish club to land a cup double - and the fourth outside of Glasgow since Aberdeen did it in 1989-90. Yet, the Paisley club were also pitching to recall memories of football’s mullet-age since they had not reached a final since they were triumphant in the competition in 1987.

Glenn Middleton sends his free-kick into the net to put St Johnstone 2-0 up. (Photo by Craig Foy / SNS Group)

Such weighty history was not all that may have played a part in the bitsy manner that Davidson’s men set about their tasks. The Perth manager admitted that preparations for the trip to Hampden - a third in four months following their League Cup exploits - had been significantly impacted by two positive Covid-19 tests among his squad, which forced two other players into isolation. He revealed the club had closed down for two days, but he also had to face rejigging his side without the four unnamed, unavailable players.

There was no Liam Craig or Stevie May in the St Johnstone squad, and there was a certain shapelessness to their play. The talking point of the early stages was a double penalty claim for St Mirren 18 minutes in. There is no doubt that Jamie McCart inadvertently handed a spinning ball after a painful challenge he made that left Kristian Dennis writing in agony. However, the clatter and the contact did not seem to warrant referee Willie Collum pointing to the spot, with McCart’s arm not in an unnatural position and Dennis jabbing his foot towards his opponent more than anything.

Those of a St MIrren disposition would argue that case but they would not dispute that their downfall was self-inflicted. Even if St Johnstone had greater control as the half wore on, they should have been one-up in half an hour, with Lee Erwin, on the stretch, stabbing a teasing cross from Dennis straight at Clark, the keeper merely spreading himself to ensure his frame was a barrier. If the striker had found any touch either side of the keeper, the complexion of the contest could have altered.

That, of course, is the familiar lament of small clubs when they are on the wrong end of a result in a rare major cup occasion. The big teams, in contrast, merely content themselves with basking in the spoils - however these might have been earned.

St Mirren: Alnwick; Fraser, McCarthy, Shaughnessy; Tait (Connolly 68), McGrath, Doyle-Hayes, Erhahon (Brophy 77), Durmus; Erwin, Dennis (Quaner 56). Subs: Flynn, Obika, McAllister, Findlayson, Lyness, Henderson.

St Johnstone: Clark; Kerr, Gordon, McCart; Rooney, McCann, Wotherspoon, Bryson, Booth; Kane, Melamed (Middleton 66). Subs: Brown, Conway, O’Halloran, Gilmour, Middleton, Robertson, Ferguson, Zlamal.

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