ST JOHNSTONE had all the answers around this special 2014 William Hill Scottish Cup final, except to this question:
why had the bookmakers not had them as favourites to win it? When it came to the pre-match odds Dundee United were marginally favoured. But the prices available showed no recognition of recent history. By the time the cup final was over St Johnstone had extended their sequence against "the favourites" to four consecutive wins and an aggregate score of 8-0.
They rode their luck in the final, brilliantly. They accepted a couple of major let-offs without being unnerved, and grafted their way to two clinical goals. As a group they delivered the sort of cup final every manager dreams of, in which every player turns up and delivers. Steven Anderson and Frazer Wright were immense in the centre of their back four. Dave Mackay and Brian Easton were terriers at full-back. Chris Millar and James Dunne gripped midfield and David Wotherspoon and Michael O'Halloran - what talents - were eager and creative. Dundee United manager Jackie McNamara later observed how St Johnstone "pack themselves in numbers" and "work very hard in midfield not to allow us space and movement". They suffocated United again, as they have done for most of the season.
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It did not turn out to be the "May 17" final after all, as Stevie May, St Johnstone's talisman, did not score. He did bundle the ball into the net with his hand - additional assistant referee Alan Muir saved referee Craig Thomson's skin by letting him know the "goal" should not stand - a split second after May should have buried a header. But his energy and drive perfectly complemented the intelligence of Steven MacLean's forward play. Goalkeeper Alan Mannus did not always look at ease yet he produced a couple of big saves. St Johnstone did not have a failure.
St Johnstone have been playing continuously for 10 months. On July 18 last year they delivered one of the greatest results in 130 years of the club, a 1-0 away win against Rosenborg. Two days ago they bettered it, by far. It is to manager Tommy Wright's eternal credit that they look such a well-coached group: hard-working, organised, together, and motivated.
The opening goal came from a back-post header at a corner, an unremarkable goal were it not for the fact Wright had been telling his players that United were vulnerable there. Great coaching. United goalkeeper Radoslaw Cierzniak did deliver a couple of good saves but he came hopelessly for the corner which Anderson, rising above Keith Watson, buried for the opening goal. Cierzniak also ought to have done better when trying to tackle MacLean at the second. MacLean forced the ball into the net and set off on a full-throttle, shirt-off, leap-the-barriers, hug-the-fans celebration.
For United, desperate disappointment. There were fine performances from Andrew Robertson, Ryan Dow and Nadir Ciftci but too many did not offer enough. John Rankin and Paul Paton simply could not impose themselves against St Johnstone's midfield four. More was needed from Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven. Too often their defenders' marking was inadequate.
They suffered three horrible breaks. Dow's brilliant flick to the back post looked a goal all the way but hit the woodwork. How on earth did Ciftci's free kick off the underside of the bar not bounce off Mannus into the net? When May burst through and jabbed a pass the ball could have gone anywhere, but broke off Rankin straight to MacLean for a goal.
Creditably there was no self-pity over all of this, not from McNamara at least. "There were a hundred mistakes made out there, not just by my goalkeeper," he said. "The outfield players made mistakes too. I would never criticise him for coming out for crosses because that's exactly what we want him to do. We want him to command his area and over the season he's been outstanding at it, one of the best in the league."
McNamara will meet his chairman, Stephen Thompson, to discuss the budget for next season. United have planned cleverly when it comes to their players' contracts. Their key men are tied up. Mackay-Steven has another year, Ciftci, Robertson, Dow, Armstrong and John Souttar have deals until 2016, and Ryan Gauld until 2017. Only Gavin Gunning is out of contract this summer and he will leave. "I would anticipate that would be Gavin's last game," said McNamara. "There is a danger there that we might lose one or two players but there are also one or two positions that I would like to strengthen as we need to get better. Not reaching European football is a disappointment but, on reflection, there are so many things we need to be better at before we are ready to compete in Europe - things like passing the ball, keeping possession, being braver on the ball and switching on at set pieces."
McNamara is still in the infancy of his United career at 15 months into the job. Saturday familiarised him with something that has cursed United managers for decades. They are a curiously unsuccessful club in cup finals. They have won only four in their history, and lost 13.