Saturday, 16 March 2013

All Eyes On The Prize

Sunday sees the 66th Scottish League Cup final, or to give it it’s sponsors laden name, the Scottish Communities League Cup Final.  With half of the Old Firm fit for purpose, it’s perhaps unsurprising to see a non Old Firm League Cup final, the first in six years.  Mind you, the prescience of Hearts and St Mirren might be something of a surprise.
Billy Mehmet gets the winner in the 2010 League Cup semi V Hearts at Fir Park

St Mirren are still chasing their maiden win in this competition after defeats in 1955 (to Aberdeen) and three years ago to Rangers.  Ironically enough their last cup win over Hearts came in the semi-final that year (right) – St Mirren’s last meeting with Hearts at Hampden also finished with a win, Hearts being St Mirren’s semi final victims during their cup win in 1987 (below).  Despite being at the wrong end of the table, St Mirren’s form has picked up since the 4-1 mauling by Ross County after the mid season break. 

Part of that has been down to Lennon reverting to the 4-2-3-1 formation he deployed last season, this I think has been done to accommodate Goncalves.  Part of that has also been down to the form shown by Goncalves, who got the opener in the historic Semi-final win over Celtic as well as goals against St Johnsone in the Scottish Cup and Inverness in the league.

While St Mirren are still in the bottom half of the table, their opponents are not that far ahead of them.  Hearts probably start as slight favourites due to their cup final experience.  Remember that Hearts are going for a second domestic trophy in a row after their Scottish Cup win last year (which – and I mention this in the interests of balance – included a quarter final win after a replay against St Mirren).  It is however worth remembering that this will be only their second League Cup final in 50 years. 

From 1955 to 1963 Hearts reached 5 League Cup finals, winning four of them.  This period represented something of a golden period for Hearts as they won the League twice (in 1958 & 1960) and the Scottish Cup (1956).  Since then their only appearance in the final came in 1996 where a see-saw final that finished 4-3 to Rangers has been since overshadowed as the one where Gascoigne had a dram at half time before grabbing a brace in the second half.

Frank McGarvey gets the winner V Hearts; Scottish Cup Semi Final, 11 April 1987
Hearts cup final experience comes in the shape of Andy Webster, Darren Barr & Jamie MacDonald – all starters in last season’s Scottish Cup final against Hib’s.  Webster has also featured in Dundee United’s Scottish Cup win in 2010 while Barr captained Falkirk to defeat in the previous season’s finale.  Granger & Zaliukas were also starters last season but injury rules them out of Sunday while Ryan Stevenson did not feature in the final.

What is not known is Gary Locke’s preferred formation for Sunday.  He has played 4-4-2 in the games since John McGlynn’s departure.  Whether he deploy’s 4-4-2 on Sunday remains to be seen.  However St Mirren should stick with their 4-2-3-1 formation that served them well recently.

As has been said before St Mirren can be soft at the back, however John McGinn (brother of Stephen McGinn, formally of this parrish and now at Watford) and Connor Newton (on loan from Newcastle) have formed a solid partnership at the base of the midfield.  They also work well with the “sweeping” centre-back Jim Goodwin.  Those three players will be key to building a platform for other players to do their work.

Key to getting the goals will be the partnership of Stephen Thompson and Paul McGowan.  Technically McGowan is more a playmaker, so the spaces that he operates in and his use of them will be key on Sunday.  Thompson on the other hand will only really be as good as the quality of the passes to him.  However as Thompson is the most experienced member of the Saints team (having played for Rangers, Burnley and was part of the Cardiff team that played in the FA Cup final in 2008) this will make him one of the on pitch leaders alongside Goodwin.

In truth, this is a very nip and tuck final.  Hearts recent finals experience only makes them slight favourites.  I would hope that this is yet another Classic League Cup final to go alongside the vintage finals of 1987, 1994 & 2008 to name but three. In truth it may well be an awful lot more nervy than that – certainly not a repeat of the very comfortable 2-0 win St Mirren racked up against Hearts at the end of February.  I take St Mirren to win 2-1, but that’s only because my head thinks Sunday will be too close to call.

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