How the relegation issue got this far in the first place is a puzzle to most Saints fans, and this subject should be of much discussion in the dressing room presently, but despite the success of the season as a whole, it is obvious to me that an enforced overhaul of players is imminent during the summer in Paisley, more of which later.
However, before I get to this, firstly I must look at the so called ‘relegation fight’ and the role of both Dundee and my own club in this.
It would be churlish of me not to recognise the tremendous effort and turnaround in form of the Dens Park club under John Brown. Their supporters must be wondering what would have happened had the former Clyde boss been appointed only a few weeks earlier, such has his impact been on the surface.
In nine league games, he has won four and drawn four, losing only to Motherwell in that period. If that had been replicated throughout the season, they would have sixty four points currently after thirty six matches, enough to put them second!
This season is our seventh consecutive in the SPL, a record for a club which was not a founder member of the current set up, and our continual inability to end the threat of relegation throughout that period has been a really frustrating trend, as has our deplorable record against the bottom club each season.
In the first season of this run of seven, we witnessed Dunfermline under Stephen Kenny claw back a twelve point lead in the second half of the season, with the two clubs meeting with four games to go in the 2006/07 season at Love Street and the gap at five points.
That evening Saints could have effectively finished the season and achieved a fairly comfortable survival in the first campaign back up, but the Pars triumphed 1-0 thanks to a Tam McManus strike in a match which seen the largest crowd at Love Street in the SPL era.
In the SPL, the ridiculous pro old firm 11-1 vote for such matters remains in place despite the liquidation of Rangers nearly a year ago. No-one is really sure why this is, apparently Aberdeen for some reason wanted to retain it the last time it was on the SPL board agenda, but whatever the explanation it remains.
For several years, this voting structure which was effectively set up to allow the old firm to reject the plans of the ten other clubs, has been solely the most unpopular SPL rule by a considerable distance, which is quite an achievement.
How it was accepted back in 1998 is a mystery to most of us also, but it would not be disingenuous to suggest that the vast majority of fans outside Celtic in the SPL think it is a rule which must be changed. I even know Celtic fans who think it is dictatorial and not fit for purpose, and most journalists also believe it is unfair and should have been removed by now.
Yet it remains in place today and within the restructure proposal, but with a twist where the whole proposal including the voting structure can’t be changed for 36 months if accepted.
One thing is certain, Saints should not be suffering from lack of confidence or an inferiority complex when facing the champions on Sunday, having lifted a trophy in our last match and defeating the Parkhead along the way to victory in late January.
Our recent record against Celtic has been well highlighted, and the sorry statistic of played eight, won zero, scored zero, lost eight, conceded twenty two is still valid in SPL matches, as the last two meetings where we have scored and won a match have of course been cup ties.
I politely nodded and smiled as any young man would, seemingly thankful for the advice, but thought to myself “That’s all very well, but can Gandhi score the winner against Dumbarton?”, and continued to choose Barry Lavety and Norrie McWhirter over all the fantastic people mentioned that lunchtime.
That’s just the way it is. Football, and in particular St. Mirren for me, is where the magic happens. It always has since a spring afternoon in 1984 when my Dad took me and my younger brother to a Scottish Cup quarter final match at Love Street between Saints and Morton, where the Buddies triumphed 4-3 in a thrilling match.
Fast forward a few years to 1987, and the three of us stood with other family members on the steep slopes of Hampden Park to witness Saints capture the Scottish Cup against an exceptional Dundee United side. I was just about to turn eleven years old, and the memories from that day remain fresh, but seem to be from a completely different world to the football I watch in 2013.
That Ian Ferguson goal was to be the last goal scored by a St. Mirren player at Hampden Park for over twenty five years. On January 27th 2013 a man making his debut for Saints called Esmael Goncalves netted on eight minutes against Celtic in the semi-final of the competition Saints have just won for the first time, to break about five hoodoos including the Hampden Park one, and we should probably have known then that something special was about to happen.
We dug in though, and we survived, and in the last decade or so have sown the seeds for a full recovery, which will be complete on Sunday if we can lift the League Cup for the first time in our history.
The fifteen year battle Saints faced off the park just to balance the books was finally won last decade, and since then the focus has been solely to restore the club back to the top flight, which we have now achieved, and amongst other things such as qualify for Europe again, is to get some much needed silverware at the new stadium in Greenhill Road.
We are now within touching distance of achieving another of our goals.
However, this is not the first cup final Saints have played in since 1987 of course, and in 2010 we also had the same opportunity which presents itself currently.
That year Saints made the final of this same competition, and although optimism wasn’t as high as now, it was still a fine achievement by the side.
What happened that day though will always remain one of the most painful episodes from the clubs entire history, and even three years on, it still seems like a bad dream. A combination of bad luck in the first half, and utter incompetence in the second half by Saints conspired to send us to the most devastating of defeats, and in a Cup Final as well.
It should be a straightforward issue. It’s a cup final, therefore you would expect the authorities, in this case the SFL, to split the tickets 50/50 unless agreed otherwise between the clubs beforehand.
In the case of the forthcoming League Cup final, it was agreed by all parties that the split would be approximately 17,500 for St. Mirren and 25,000 for Hearts, with the rest going to sponsors etc as is the norm in the modern era.
St. Mirren further agreed, in a move which has come back to haunt them, that they would accept tickets in separate blocks in the event they were unable to sell their allocation. The instalments appear to be 11,500 initially, with a further two additions of 2500 and 3500 if the demand was sufficient.
The split and instalments agreement were both well highlighted by the club, and they encouraged fans to buy early to ensure the remaining 3500 tickets were allocated to the Saints fans. It was important to all of us as these tickets are effectively in the ‘Saints end’ of the ground, and quite rightly we would want this to ourselves.
So by yesterday afternoon with Saints having sold 99% of every ticket available to them, the fans and club expected delivery of our next batch of tickets as agreed, and would have nine days to sell 3500 tickets to a public where interest was high. It was simple, and everyone was looking forward to the final.
What we know in this country however, is that football authorities don’t particularly like to see happy fans, or indeed can they be trusted, and the SFL took the ludicrous decision to give this batch of 3500 tickets located in the Saints end to Hearts who haven’t yet sold their own allocation. This was done in typical cloak and dagger style, with no communications or dialogue with St. Mirren football club.
Saints chairman Stewart Gilmour must have turned on his phone yesterday evening and been shocked to see hundreds of tweets in his direction asking what was going on, one from me included, and he advised that this development was news to him and he was trying to find out more.
It is just over a week since a second string Saints comfortably beat their cup final opponents 2-0 at St. Mirren Park, ultimately resulting in John McGlynn being removed from his post as manager at Tynecastle. The timing was surprising with the cup final in mind, but hardly shocking considering the almost constant change of leadership at Hearts over the past decade.
Former Jambo Alan Preston announced to the nation on radio at the start of the week that Hearts keeper Jamie MacDonald has now had 16 managers at Tynecastle since Craig Levein signed him in 2003, and with Gary Locke likely to be replaced soon that will rise to 17. An astonishing statistic if I’m being honest.
That evening in Paisley, Danny Lennon decided to start without David Van Zanten, Kenny McLean, Steven Thompson, and Esmael Goncalves, as well as consider the enforced absence of injured skipper Jim Goodwin and Gary Teale. These are six players who would be almost certain to start the final in a few weeks time.
Despite these changes, Saints made light work of the Edinburgh side and were quickly one nil up following a Paul McGowan penalty, before moving into cruise control after a magnificent Graham Carey strike from around 35 yards which will undoubtedly be in the mix for goal of the season in a few months.