St Johnstone fans not cowed by occasion

IF WE think of Perth as being like a scone – it’s easy if you try – then roughly a third of the dinky bun had a day out in the east end of Glasgow yesterday.

A day with real flare, the two teams enter the arena of Celtic Park. Picture: SNS
A day with real flare, the two teams enter the arena of Celtic Park. Picture: SNS

In funny hats, face-paint and much more besides, they were daring to dream that St Johnstone could win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 130 years of major trophy-swerving.

Before kick-off, they strolled around and took in the sights. Sons with their mums, quilted-up against the squally showers. Fathers who’d been persuaded by their daughters to dress like maddies. They bought lunch at the Golden Bird chippy and washed it down with pints in Turnstiles. Funny pub, this. Not wall-to-wall Hoops clobber as you’d expect. Nothing anywhere, in fact. Had the green and white been put away until Celtic got their stadium back? “Naw,” said the girl behind the bar, “it’s always this plain and boring and horrible.”

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But the Saints contingent barely noticed. They were at a final! Strangers were engaging them in football chitter-chatter! And these strangers were Dundee United fans, completing the first-ever joint Tayside tilt at the Scottish Cup. Middle-aged men with “COYS” scrawled on their foreheads lost any remaining self-consciousness in the happy mingling. Come on you Saints!

On the walk up to the stadium, rival fans continued with their cheery banter. “Do you think you’ll still have Stevie May next season?” “How many kids do you think United will lose in the summer?” Two chancers – one orange-clad the other blue – even hatched a plan to drape the statues of Jock Stein and Jimmy Johnstone in their clubs’ colours but chickened out when they spotted the burly security detail, their earpieces flashing.

Inside the ground, St Johnstone were given Jock’s stand while United were in the Lisbon Lions. That third of a scone amounted to 15,000 Saintees while United’s lot numbered close to 30,000. In each case, the biggest turnouts ever. Fine colour, fine noise. The blue half sang praiseful thanks for their goal-machine, the man in the “May 17” destiny shirt, and the Arabs responded by belting out Can’t Help Falling in Love With You. Despite gaps in the top-tier, it was every bit as impressive as the recent League Cup final. Now all we needed was a better game …

Saints were first to threaten through May – booed by the United end – but also displayed the first jitteriness when Alan Mannus fumbled a Ryan Dow cross. All May touches were being jeered and an outrageously ambitious try from 35 yards suggested the mild abuse was bugging him. But he was composed and alert in a sharp Saints move which finished with a rasping James Dunne shot, tipped over by Radoslaw Cierzniak.

United couldn’t really get going. Nadir Ciftci hadn’t had a sniff. But Saints were fooled by his name; they knew he spelled lurking danger. Operating by stealth, he was a tangerine tiger, flexing powerful shoulders to put defenders off their stroke. Certainly he was a more convincing tiger than the Arab I saw pre-match, his newly applied woad soon smudged by the rain.

In the private contest between discarded Hibernian midfielders now flourishing on Tayside, David Wotherspoon was more prominent than John Rankin and even had a decent chance after a May free-kick was charged down. United then came more into the game with the Saints defence still prone to the odd wobble. The blue end was quiet. To be fair, after the pre-kick-off display cards had been put away, it had been quiet during moments of St Johnstone supremacy as well. But isn’t this how these supporters are? Apologies for the regional stereotyping but they’re like farmers at a coo show, crowded round a pen, nodding cannily but not committing. And then their team scored a simple goal. A Wotherspoon corner, a Steven Anderson header. To an apple-cheeked man, they were on their feet, waving their flags almost madly.

Half-time, and a chance to speculate on what the other two-thirds of Perth – the larger portion of the scone – was doing instead. Well, King Edward Street was the venue for a garden market, although isn’t there one of them in Perth every Saturday? The what’s-on guides also confirmed that the Black Watch Museum was hosting a “living history gala day”. St Johnstone at Celtic Park – 130 years, don’t forget – were offering that too.

But surely the cup final among non-cup final activity back in the Fair City was this at the Concert Hall: “Consultation drop-in event for TAYplan main issues report.” Somewhat hopefully, this was described as being suitable for “all ages”. Advance booking? “Not required.” TAYplan, continued the blurb, would “set the general direction for how the Dundee and Perth area should change over the next 20 years”.

The next 45 minutes for the Dundee and Perth area began sensationally. First a Ciftci free-kick which crashed down off the bar, hit the prostrate Mannus on the line but didn’t cross it. Then, in an extraordinary incident, May seemed to have scored a second only to end up with merely a booking. He celebrated this “goal” by punching at the ball. Too soon, apparently. The crowd needed to catch their breath after that drama but weren’t allowed. Wotherspoon ran the length of the pitch only to have his shot saved and immediately Robertson horsed all the way in the other direction to go even closer. Fantastic stuff.

Going into the last quarter, Saints were sitting deeper and deeper. Understandable, given the potentially epic circumstances, but it seemed too early, and a 20-yarder from the ever-prowling Ciftci fizzed just wide. But then Steven MacLean spotted a gap and surged through it. Cierzniak seemed to have hold of the ball and then he didn’t. MacLean, who’d ran tirelessly throughout, thumped home and ripped off his shirt. One farmer from Kinross turned to his neighbour and said: “Could take that yin, I suppose.” The rest of the Perth mob went nearly crazy. United had Ryan Gauld now, but the superkid who looked too young even to have gained entry to the no-restriction TAYplan thingy, couldn’t turn the game around. Frazer Wright was right: Saints would leave nothing on the park. And manager Tommy Wright was right: his team winning would be a great story. Let them eat scones.