Friday, 22 March 2013

Breaking Hearts

66th Scottish League Cup Final, Hampden; St Mirren 3, Hearts 2

You know, it is very difficult to know where to start with this match, bearing in mind that I’m still finding my way down from cloud nine from this match, but here goes…

St Mirren won their first silverware in nearly 26 years on Sunday by beating Hearts to lift the League Cup. Despite dominating the middle section of this match, Hearts should have buried St Mirren at the start of this match.  By the time Hearts got their second consolation, it was too late for them.

Hearts started the brighter, undoubtedly aided by St Mirren being caught cold.  The pressed high up and possibly should have taken the lead through Sutton.  They did when after 10 minutes Ryan Stevenson picked up the ball just in front of goal – he tried to shake off the marking but shot across Samson, maybe coming off Dummett.  In the next 15 minutes, Sutton’s header hit the post while Ngoo failed to connect with a cross.  Taouil also had a shot that was just tipped past by Samson.  A second goal would have sunk St Mirren before half time.  Yet the turning point came with 8 minutes to go until half time when St Mirren equalised, inflicting a crucial psychological blow while their numerical advantage in midfield was started to tell.

Thompson’s through ball found Teale, who outpaced the Hearts defence and centred for Goncalves to tap in.  Hearts must have been shell shocked to have been pegged back.  It only got worse for them at the very start of the second half.  Hearts first proper touch of the second half was the restart after St Mirren possession at the start of the second half concluded with Thompson’s low volley (below) off a Dummett centre.  Rather annoyingly this was a goal that I missed.  Unsurprisingly, St Mirren looked at their most comfortable during this period.

If anything St Mirren looked the more likely team to get a third, as their formation sucked the life out of Hearts.  McGowan had a shot at goal that went over before St Mirren got that third.  The other Newcastle loanee Connor Newton dispossessed one of the Hearts players, passed the ball to Goncalves, who completed the one two with Newton in lost of space.  Newton smashed the ball past Goalie MacDonald.

A brace of substitutions with 15 minutes to go seemed to spark a late Hearts rally – one that brought their second goal as Stevenson once again shot past Samson.  Stevenson could have had a hat-trick had the woodwork not come to St Mirren’s aid.  In a funny sort of way, while I thought that Hearts were slight favourites because of their experience, St Mirren showed a lot of nous by taking the ball into the corners – this I think ate up at least 3 minutes at the end of the game.

The foul on Carey right at the end essentially extinguished Hearts chances seconds before Craig Thompson confirmed St Mirren’s maiden League Cup win and first trophy since the Scottish Cup win in 1987.  In the short term, this should provide a fillip in St Mirren’s quest to move up the table.  St Mirren sits 5 points behind Kilmarnock and Aberdeen in 8th and 9th place respectively (and a point behind Hearts in 10th).  Overhauling those teams should be a viable target for the rest of the season – starting next Saturday with the visit of the Champions elect Celtic.

In the longer term this victory can provide St Mirren with the financial foundations to build on as well as a new status as a team familiar to the winners circle.  Providing of course that the key players from Sunday are able and willing to stay and that the issues with the side (lack of a commanding central defender and a defensive midfielder) are resolved.

For Hearts the future is less certain, they may feel that this was the cup that got away from them.  Also at a time when Hearts may be still in financial trouble, the disparity in prize money may give them problems.  They should however take positives from that start.

From a supporters point of view there are three things that stick in the mind.  Firstly there was the atmosphere in Paisley a couple of hours before the game.  Walking through Paisley on my way to catch the train, there was a lovely chilled buzz around the place.  Secondly, the atmosphere at the game itself was incredible.  Certainly better than the atmosphere in the 2010 final, while thirdly the atmosphere after the game back in Paisley…  well you will have seen the pictures of some of the players celebrating… 

One other thing comes to mind, at the “reception” in County Square Renfrewshire Council continued the tradition of somehow screwing up a part of the “Reception”.  When St Mirren won the Scottish Cup in 1959, the players had some trouble getting from the bus to the Council headquarters (at that time in County Square), on Sunday a stage was erected…  and was populated by a bunch of photographers, not the players. 

Now, where is that cloud that I came off of...

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.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Sporting Picks of 2012: Part 4; August 4th

"Super Saturday" At The London Olympics

The sporting highlight of this year was of course the Summer Olympics, held of course in London.  Having already posted on my five moments of the Olympics (as well as my five performances), I thought that I would concentrate here on the middle Saturday of the Olympics – a day that saw Britain win six gold medals.  To put that achievement into context, Britain won more medals on Saturday 4 August 2012 that they won in both the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympics.

Farah wins the first of his 5,000/10,000 double
While there were two further rowing gold’s (Copeland & Hosking in the Lightweight Double Sculls and the Men’s Foursomes) and a gold in the Velodrome (Woman’s Team Pursuit), the day belonged to the Athletes on the second day of the Athletics programme.

While Jessica Ennis had been the dominant Heptathlete since the Berlin World Championships in 2009, her loss in Daegu in 2011 had cast doubt over her chances of victory.  Ennis cast that doubt aside and dominated the Heptathlon, taking the lead in the opening discipline (100m hurdles).  In contrast, Mo Farah emerged during the Daegu World Championships as a contender for the longer distance races by winning the 5,000m.  Farah doubled up for the Olympics, going for both the 5,000m and the 10,000m.

Unlike Ennis, Farrah has excelled in a discipline where there is little history of British success, the last male British medal in the 10,000m was at the Montreal Olympics (in sharp contrast, Liz McColgan became the World Champion at 10,000m at the Tokyo World Championships in 1991 & maybe should have added the Olympic crown in Barcelona a year later).
While Ennis & Farrah were expected to be contenders, the Long jumper Greg Rutherford kind of flew under the radar as a medal contender (though not thought of as a contender for the title itself).  Yet his second jump of 8.21 metres was enough to take gold, though he did extend his jump to 8.31 metres.

The funny thing though is that if I had to pick one moment that encapsulated these games perfectly, it would not be Britain’s most successful hour on the Athletics track but the Mens 8 (above) at the rowing regatta.  The mens team were leading at the half way point of their race, but having put everything into the race fell behind as the German crew found that extra gear to take Gold.  The British crew finished with Bronze medals but conveyed both the sense of disappointment at loosing alongside an air of dignity that has been amiss from Football.