Scottish cup preview: atonement in reach for St Johnstone

IT'S a gaping omission. There's nothing. No grainy newsreel footage or even a few paragraphs in the history books. Unlike most top-flight clubs, St Johnstone have never had a Scottish Cup final day to savour. Seven times they have made it to the penultimate stage, seven times they have failed to take that next step and secure a place in the season's showcase finale.

"We certainly have a manager who wants to change that," says chairman Geoff Brown, who has been at the helm for five of those fruitless endeavours. "Last year we had a big dinner, a 125-year anniversary dinner at the Concert Hall in Perth, and we brought along the team that got to the 1969 final of the League Cup and those guys had a ball because some of them are in their 60s or even 70s and all of a sudden they became heroes again. And Derek McInnes said: 'This is just ridiculous that a club like this has never, ever been in a Scottish Cup final - we will have to win a cup', and I said: 'Good Derek, that's exactly what I want!' It was good to know that was working in his mind."

McInnes takes up the story: "To be honest with you, you saw how that team were lauded and still so well thought of by the support and I think any time you are at a club you want to try to be remembered for achieving something. I have said to the players this year that we have never won a Scottish Cup or a League Cup, or even been to a Scottish Cup final. The first cup we won was the Challenge Cup that I lifted as a player a few years ago and I find that astonishing. But at that dinner our hardcore fans could still rhyme off the names of that team and I would love to even equal what they have done."

The first of the semi-final appearances was back in 1934 followed by a wait of 34 years before the next opportunity came knocking. On those occasions it was Rangers and then Dunfermline who killed off the dream.

One week after Brown took over the running of the club in 1986 they hit rock bottom and not only were cup finals absent from the club's past, it seemed inconceivable they could ever be part of their future.

But with a new ground, rejuvenated finances and a more fiscal running of the club, fortunes turned and, in 1989, a Scottish Cup final was again within touching distance.

"I have always been a great believer that you have to lift the sights and go for something that is realistic. When we came in in 1986, St Johnstone were bottom of the then 38 clubs the weekend after we took over and our focus was just on getting the club up and running and, yeah, we succeeded in doing that.

"But then to get to a semi-final, that was a step on. The first semi-final was in 1989 when we were in the then Second Division.We were playing Rangers and that one was quite a difficult one for me personally because my son Steve, who is now the vice-chairman here, had decided to get married that Saturday. It was also the Saturday of the Hillsbrough disaster.

"I was unable to go to the semi-final; well I think my wife actually said: 'You're not going!' At that time the mobile phone was the proverbial brick and at the reception I was sitting at the end of the top table on this mobile phone to Alan Campbell who was my then vice-chairman who was in the directors' box. The game was played at Celtic Park because Hampden was in the process of being redeveloped and it finished 0-0 and, of course, at full-time I stood up to celebrate the fact we had got a replay! We lost the replay 4-0, but for a Second Division club to be playing Rangers at Celtic Park was quite amazing."

Expectations have changed now. Since then there have been four further semi-finals, all within the past decade. All four represent refusals at the second last fence, and now, this Saturday, St Johnstone head into their latest, hoping that the fact they do not have to face an Old Firm team will help them not only to make history, but also to make money. The club has had a frustrating season, with postponements hitting them hard and the budget has buckled. A Scottish Cup final place would help the end of term balancing act. But even that could not overshadow the achievement in pure football and sheer sentimental terms.

"After that first semi-final, for one reason or another, the others flew by until the last one at Hampden (in 2008] when we took Rangers to penalties." Brown thought fate was about to smile on them. Then Jody Morris missed the decisive penalty. "That was disappointing. Penalties are a lottery, but it was as close as St Johnstone have been to a Scottish Cup final."

Now that they are heading into their sixth semi-final of Brown's tenure, there is evidence that the people of Perth need something extra to get the juices flowing. Back then people turned out in their tens of thousands, but with less than a week to go this time the Perth side are struggling to defy the recession and the sense of football deja vu and tickets sales are only edging towards 3,000.

The opponents this time are Motherwell and while relieved they missed Celtic, no-one at McDiarmid Park is expecting an easy day of it. "They have beaten us twice this season, but we have beaten them so we know that on the day either side could win," says McInnes. "I have told this group of players that I believe that we can win this tie. I believe we can win this cup.

"Most of us have experienced the hurt of losing a semi-final.I have had two as a player and two as manager here, in the Scottish Cup and League Cup, and I have told the players that they have to use the memories of those feelings to drive them on."

A man who was involved for Rangers when the Ibrox side denied St Johnstone progress to the final in 1999, McInnes is trying to replicate the success he enjoyed with his former employers. "Winning a Scottish Cup final is special. Hampden in the sun, in May. That was the year we won the treble so I have experienced the highs of winning and the lows of losing and there's only one thing that hurts more than losing a final and that is losing a semi-final."

Another defeat, especially to a side outwith the big two, would be cruel. It would also prompt chatter of a hoodoo. Brown and McInnes, though, are far too practical to be spooked by stats. Rather than fear, they believe.

"To be drawn against Hearts in the first round, you're thinking this is a tough draw," says Brown, "but to go to Tynecastle, especially at a time when Hearts were going so well, and to win that game, you then have a real expectancy because you have come through against Partick Thistle and then Brechin and you are looking at the other ties and Celtic have got Rangers and one side has to go so you know there is scope for avoidance here and there is a greater chance of finding a route to the final. It has happened in the past: Ross County and Gretna have been to a final so there have been teams with much less history than us getting to finals."

Brown's own desire is complemented by a manager whose ambition is progress. Both men want to leave a lasting legacy and at this club just making a final would achieve that. Although, with this pair, the dream will not end there.

The tale of woe

31 March 1934

v Rangers 0-1 (Hampden, 60,119)

Saints' first appearance in the semi-finals ended in defeat, with Jimmy Marshall scoring the only goal for Rangers who would go on to defeat St Mirren in the final.

30 March 1968

v Dunfermline 1-1 (Tynecastle, 14,268)

Willie Ormond's St Johnstone were the better side and took an early lead through Tom Wilson. But Dunfermline's Pat Gardner equalised in 54 minutes with a freak goal, forcing a replay.

Replay

3 April 1968

v Dunfermline 1-2 aet (Tynecastle, 9,845)

Again, Saints took the lead, with Alex MacDonald, left, scoring after 65 minutes. But Bert Paton took the tie to extra time with a 72nd-minute equaliser. The match looked to be heading for a second replay until Ian Lister popped up with the winner two minutes from the end of extra time to send Dunfermline to their third final in seven years.

15 April 1989

v Rangers 0-0

(Celtic Park, 47,374)

After a 21-year absence, Saints returned to the semi stage, playing out a goalless draw with Rangers.

Replay

18 April 1989

v Rangers 0-4

(Celtic Park, 44,205)

THE Perth side were swamped in the replay by Graeme Souness's team who scored through Mark Walters, Gary Stevens, Kevin Drinkell and Ally McCoist.

6 April 1991

v Dundee United 1-2 (East End Park, 16,560)

Duncan Ferguson's second-half winner booked United's cup final place after first-half goals from Harry Curran, for St Johnstone, and John Clark, for United.

11 April 1999

v Rangers 0-4

(Celtic Park, 20,664)

St Johnstone had already reached the League Cup final that season but they were denied a second showpiece occasion by goals from Rod Wallace, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Jonatan Johansson and Neil McCann. Derek McInnes featured for Rangers as a late sub.

14 April 2007

v Celtic 1-2

(Hampden, 28,339)

CELTIC'S Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink open the scoring with a 13th-minute penalty from a softish award but Martin Hardie equalised six minutes later. Vennegoor of Hesselink restored Celtic's lead after 54 minutes.

20 April 2008

v Rangers 1-1 aet Lost 4-3 on pens

(Hampden, 26,180)

Daniel McBreen, left, opened the scoring for Saints early on in extra time but Rangers pegged them back when Nacho Novo equalised from the spot to take the tie to penalties. Misses by Steven Milne and Jody Morris handed the initiative to Rangers and Daniel Cousin converted the winner.