St Johnstone, with three local boys in their ranks, host Turkish giants Galatasaray knowing a win of any margin will secure a place in the Europa League play-off round. It seems the epitome of why we like to refer to football as the glory game. In a terrific gesture, season ticket holders are being allowed in free to see if St Johnstone can get within a tie of the group stage and the guarantee of European football until Christmas.
It is a challenge fraught with difficulties, but last week’s 1-1 draw in Istanbul means some expectation has been allowed to build on the banks of the Tay, hence the expected capacity crowd. Callum Davidson is confident St Johnstone will handle what could stand as their first full house in over 20 years.
Indeed, the manager is actively trying to quell the excitement within the group. “I will have to drop their enthusiasm and levels to make sure we are focused with calm minds,” said Davidson yesterday.
The manager, who grew up in nearby Dunblane, sought to provide a flavour of the atmosphere that is building both within and outside the stadium. “There were more people down the stadium today than I have ever seen in my life before a game,” he said. “There were TV crews and flags set out in the stadium. We know the season ticket holders are in, which is great. And we appreciate the rest of the support too.”
It is, to all intents and purposes, St Johnstone's third cup final in a quite extraordinary year. This is the first of these high-profile occasions where their fans have been permitted to play a part.
Galatasaray’s name is normally associated with frenzied, passionate, sold-out home crowds. It’s certainly not something St Johnstone are accustomed to. The Perth club are aware of this themselves. A self-deprecating “Welcome to Tulloch” tweet ripped off the famous Galatasaray “Welcome to Hell” banner. Tulloch is the name of the area in the north-west of the city where St Johnstone built a new home thanks to the largesse of a local farmer.
The surrounding loamy Perthshire fields are a contrast to Istanbul’s teeming streets. However, there will be a sense of (hopefully) organised chaos tonight as St Johnstone try to ensure nearly 10,000 fans are deposited safely inside McDiarmid Park just days after the stadium was given the green light to host capacity crowds. “The timing has been pretty good,” said Davidson.
Fatih Terim, the old man of Turkish football, seemed gently amused by the idea that this might be a factor in the outcome when answering questions via Zoom from McDiarmid Park last night. More creases appeared across the 67-year-old's face as he considered whether Galatasaray, whose fans are among the most raucous in world football, might be spooked by some Perth ultras.
"When we went to play PSV (in the Champions League second qualifying round) it was a full house and it will be the same here," he said. "I can see the flags are ready on the seats and I hope it will be a great occasion.
"I have experienced games in Wales, Ireland, England and Scotland during my career,” he added. "I am sure everyone will be buzzing and it will be a rocking atmosphere. I am used to that. It will be a good day, for everyone and for football. It doesn't scare me. It's going to be good!”
Terim seemed more concerned by the weather. “There is nearly 20 degrees of a difference between Istanbul and Perth,” he noted. “It was 37 degrees when we left Turkey and now it is very different here. That is not a small difference, it is a change of climate!”
Never mind welcome to hell, welcome to Scotland in August, Fatih.
Galatasaray might not quite challenge AS Monaco for the title of most decorated visitors to McDiarmid Park. The French side, including World Cup winners Fabian Barthez and David Trezeguet, drew 3-3 in Perth in a Uefa Cup tie in 1999 after winning the first leg 3-0. But the Turkish club are a significant name in world football.
Over 10 million followers on Twitter attest to their popularity – or at least renown. Many in this number will be supporters of their fierce city rivals, including Besiktas and Fenerbahce. This is one reason why replies to St Johnstone tweets on any subject in the last two weeks have included several good luck messages in Turkish.
Galatasaray’s recent capture of Danish defender Victor Nelsson from FC Copenhagen provides another illustration of their status. Asked to assess where the opposition rank, Davidson suggested that this transfer was a guide.
“You look at their squad size,” he said. “I think they have just signed someone from Denmark for £10million. You are going above what Celtic and Rangers can afford. I would probably put them a level above.”
Davidson will need his big-game players. There was some concern over the fitness of skipper Jason Kerr, who missed Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Motherwell after rolling his ankle. The manager is hopeful, not least because the centre-half is the current nominated penalty taker. Kerr's strike from the spot put his side ahead last week in Turkey.
Now that the away goal-rule has been abolished, there is an increased chance of a shoot-out deciding which team progresses to play Danish side Randers. A notable golfer as well as footballer, Davidson has left it to his players to decide whether to practise penalties or not.
"I put pressure on myself when I’m trying to hit a shot in golf on the practice range," he said. “It’s very similar to penalties. Each player has to adapt and find their own way to do it.”