SINCE the 19th-century domination of Queen’s Park and Vale of Leven, only Aberdeen and the Old Firm have managed to find the wherewithal to retain the Scottish Cup.
Scorers: St Johnstone - O’Halloran 6; McFadden 12; Ross County - Jervis 63
However, holders St Johnstone gave an indication against Ross County that they are in no mood to relinquish the old trophy without a fight.
Two goals to the good within 12 minutes courtesy of strikes from Michael O’Halloran and James McFadden, there was a sense of deja vu, given that the same players had given the home side an identical lead in the league encounter between the two teams just seven days previously.
On that occasion, County had staged a second-half revival and Jake Jervis, their scorer last week, provided the hope they could go a step further than last weekend’s 2-1 defeat.
However, clearly desperate to cling to the magic of May’s triumph over Dundee United, the Perth hosts showed a determination not to have their grip on the silverware loosened so early.
They could perhaps have expected a gentler start to their defence of the trophy but, at a sparsely-populated McDiarmid Park that belied their status as cup holders, Saints prevailed in what turned into a desperate battle to stem the County tide as time wore on.
“I’ve been asked if other teams will see us as a scalp being the cup holders, and maybe they do,” said St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright afterwards.
“But maybe their standards have dropped if St Johnstone are a scalp for them!
“We’re the cup holders and in cup football you just beat what’s in front of you. Maybe we have grown a wee bit in stature and I know we’re the holders, but we don’t feel that puts us under any more pressure.
“Let’s be honest, we’ve only won it once in 130 years – it’s not as if we’re winning it year-in, year-out. But it would be nice to get another home draw and see what we can do.”
Neither side would be in much doubt as to the other’s qualities, having squared up so recently. McFadden turned back the clock last weekend with a display that could fleetingly be described as vintage and that would have served as a stark warning to County over this week’s approach. It was a lesson they failed to learn, however, as the 31-year-old proved once more he is still capable of game-changing moments of inspiration.
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With Jamie Reckord’s challenge giving Saints a sixth-minute free-kick in a dangerous position on the right side of the 18-yard line, it was no surprise to see McFadden over the set-piece. His attempt was poor and rebounded from the wall but O’Halloran provided the quality with a volley from the rebound that squeezed through a ruck of players into the net.
County keeper Mark Brown and skipper Richard Brittain led the protests that Steven Anderson had interfered with play from an offside position, but referee Mark Beaton was not persuaded.
“The first goal, I don’t know why it was given,” said County manager Jim McIntyre.
“The linesman has definitely flagged that it’s not a goal but the referee has overruled him because he said their player hasn’t touched it. But, for my mind, Anderson has tried to flick the ball, he’s missed it and it’s gone in the net. That put our goalkeeper off.
“I think we’re all scratching our heads, managers and coaches alike, at this rule. It’s a sore one.”
There were no doubts over the second just six minutes later, however. This time, McFadden found the sweet spot after striding to within 25 yards of goal before arrowing a luscious left-foot drive beyond a static Brown.
County had found themselves two goals behind last weekend but found a response during an improved second-half display.
This time, they had longer to produce a comeback.
With a block on Martin Woods’ point-blank shot, Brian Easton epitomised Saints’ determination to stay resolute any time the Staggies ventured into the home box. Yet, the biggest threat to St Johnstone’s lead before the interval was a header from their own Chris Millar that brought out a magnificent diving save from Alan Mannus.
A third for St Johnstone would surely have ended County’s hopes and they almost landed that killer blow eight minutes from the break, only for Scott Boyd to hack clear Lee Croft’s shot following an O’Halloran cross.
However, it was to be the visitors who got their rewards for a more adventurous approach in the second-half when they pulled a goal back. Cardle had whistled a drive inches past and Mannus had pulled off a superb save from Reckord’s shot before the deficit was halved in the 63rd minute. Cardle’s ball over the top caught the Saints defence on their heels and Jervis raced through before finishing with aplomb.
Brian Graham struck the bar, and skipper Dave Mackay could not hit the target with two late volleys as Saints sought a killer third, but in the end they did not need it as County ran out of time in their grandstand finish.
“They may feel aggrieved,” added Wright, “but I think, overall, we had the far better chances and more chances in the game, and fully deserved to win.”
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