Statistics are a strange phenomenon. They help predict the likely outcome of events based on previous demeanours. Yet at the same time they predict nothing. As I heartily relayed some of the intimidating stats to my friend on the train to Glasgow today I, along with every St Mirren supporter, knew the enormity of the task facing our team; “Haven’t scored against Celtic since March 2010”, “Failed to score at Hampden since May 1987”. They made for extremely unpleasant reading. Yet today, January 27 2013, they mattered not one bit.
For the thousands of Paisley Buddies descending upon Hampden today they would experience one of the most incredible footballing experiences of their lives. They would witness guile, commitment, passion, and ultimately a day where the odds were discarded and neutrals rubbed their eyes at their television sets. Today St Mirren defeated Celtic 3-2 at Hampden Park. The records will credit scorers Goncalves, McGowan and Thompson with the victory, yet everyone who witnessed the game will recognise the majestic whilst concrete team performance that secured St Mirren’s second League Cup Final in four seasons.
For such an arduous task Danny Lennon rang the changes accordingly from last week’s thrashing from Ross County. David van Zanten, Esmael Goncalves and John McGinn replaced David Barron, Jon Robertson Sam Parkin in a conservative yet offensive 4-5-1 formation using Teale and Goncalves as threatening wingers.
The opening stages instantly told the travelling Buddies that this would be no repeat of the December sit-in at Celtic Park. What they saw raised hope and expectation from the first whistle. A connected, drilled St Mirren side played with flair and imagination in stark contrast to the typical fixture between the two sides. Lennon had spoken of taking the game to Celtic on this occasion and there was no tactical miscommunication on that front.
Therefore it was wholly deserved, albeit still unexpected, when Saints forged ahead after a meagre 8 minutes. After a familiar sweeping move starting with on-loan Rio Ave debutant Esmael Goncalves, the Portugese moved the ball inside to McGowan who knocked the ball further wide to Gary Teale. Teale’s pass to Conor Newton was curled into the area as the onrushing Goncalves stuck out a boot and stabbed the ball home from 12 yards with a little help from the post. Cue bedlam in the St Mirren end as the eight-minute old Buddie ended a 26 year-old goal drought at the national stadium, in very Lavety-esque style.
An unlikely lead could have feasibly stretched even further as just about everyone watching this game wasn’t quite sure what was happening. John McGinn surged towards goal and unleashed a flashing drive towards Lukasz Zaluska. Spectating Buddies edged forward as the Polish ‘keeper momentarily spilled but gathered at the second attempt. Conor Newton was exemplary in winning possession throughout however the Geordie received a harsh yellow card from referee Willie Collum for a late heel-clip early in the match. Collum curiously acquitted Victor Wanyama for a similar offence whilst exonerating Scott Brown for two blatant dives and a fanfare of dissent.
A rather bewildered Celtic side endeavoured to extinguish the deficit as they reclaimed a hold on the game. £5 million-rated Gary Hooper received a long ball from Scott Brown, took a great touch on the edge of the box but watched in anguish as his effort clipped the top of the crossbar.
And that same crossbar came to Saints’ rescue minutes later as Georgios Samaras leapt above van Zanten and bulleted Adam Matthew’s cross onto the top of the bar. The shaking crossbar emulated the nerves of the Paisley contingent as Celtic drew closer to parity.
As Celtic were made to work for their equaliser St Mirren looked deadly on every single counter attack. The continental brilliance of Goncalves and the Caledonian trickery from McGowan were a joy to behold, as the defence looked exceptionally comfortable facing a side that had recently conquered Barcelona. Celtic looked ordinary, yet even the most average Parkhead team are always capable of springing the unexpected.
With half time drawing near Celtic equalised thanks to their prized striking asset. Lassad played in Scott Brown on the right-hand edge of the penalty area. His teasing ball across goal found an unmarked Hooper who finished high into the net. A needlessly inflammatory celebration from Brown followed as Collum presumably looked in any alternative direction.
The equaliser was as sickening as they come, however based on the balance of chances the draw was perhaps fair at the break. The setback would test the most resolute of minds in the St Mirren dressing room, as their psychological game would have to prevail. Tactically nothing warranted change. Danny’s message? “Keep it up, lads”.
As the second half began the more sceptical of the Buddies support envisaged a Celtic win following their late first-half equaliser. Those fears would materialise as Collum gifted Celtic a penalty kick just five minutes into the second half. Following a Celtic corner, Lassad fired towards goal as the onrushing Goodwin dived to block. The ball was adjudged to smack off the Captain’s left arm, ensuring him a yellow card. Saints’ promising first half exploits appeared to melt away as Charlie Mulgrew placed the ball on the spot. Hearts sank as the international took his run-up. Yet Craig Samson dived low to his right and tipped the penalty wide of goal as jubilation reigned once more among the sea of black and white, as the goalkeeper’s brilliance signalled the turning point in this sublime encounter.
Mulgrew would be instrumental once again in shaping the outcome of the tie, this time handing Saints an identical opportunity to restore their lead after 63 minutes. As Teale struck towards goal the defender inexplicably blocked with both hands and suffered the same punishment as Goodwin. Arguably worse in fact, as Paul McGowan rolled the ball past Zaluska to show Mulgrew what he could have won.
That hush of anxiety reared its head once more. Muffled chants were masked by an all-too familiar scepticism, a protective barrier constructed after years of heartbreak; one fine example occurring at the same venue in the same competition just three years previously. Yet there were no discernable signs of weakness. Possession was easily recaptured in midfield and much like the first half a fearless Saints were hungrier than Celtic’s stars used to the glamour of Barcelona and Lisbon. They just did not look cut-out for a freezing cold rainy afternoon in Mount Florida.
Mulgrew glanced a header just wide of Samson’s right-hand post from Izaguirre’s cross as Celtic suddenly realised their alarming predicament. Neil Lennon threw on Stokes, Commons and Lustig in a desperate attempt to salvage their League Cup campaign. Danny meanwhile introduced Barron for an outstanding John McGinn (only to be booked for his first offence), and Lee Mair and Lewis Guy were momentarily introduced towards the end for McGowan and Goncalves respectively in a noble touch from the manager.
As the seconds ticked down, the volume increased. The songs of old rang around Hampden Park as the Celtic fans lost faith and headed for the exits. The dreams were slowly turning to reality as 88 minutes became 89, 89 agonisingly dragged into the cherished 90…three added minutes separated St Mirren Football Club from a cup final date on March 17. Well beyond those three minutes Mulgrew became involved for one final time as he lashed home a 25-yard drive with the game’s final touch – ensuring only consolation for the SPL champions and with it a feeble cheer from the withdrawn Celtic support.
The cries of elation as the referee blew the full time whistle will live long in the memory. The realisation will only hit many tomorrow morning as the Buddies achieved the implausible and have set up the best chance to win a major trophy for the first time in 26 years. The last one is still fresh in the memories of many a-supporter, not least of all the scorer of today’s winning goal, Steven Thompson. As Thompson watched Abercrombie, Lambert et al lift the Scottish Cup in 1987 as a young boy, little did he know that in 2013 he would preserve similar priceless memories for the next generation - much like Ian Ferguson did for him.