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Mackay's journeymen form vanguard in march to glory for St Johnstone

THE long march of the journeymen ended in a combined, celebratory jig at Celtic Park.

Dave Mackay, 34, grasps a major trophy for the first time as he becomes the first St Johnstone captain to lift the Scottish Cup. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Dave Mackay, 34, grasps a major trophy for the first time as he becomes the first St Johnstone captain to lift the Scottish Cup. Picture: Stewart Attwood

The imperatives of television and presentation meant Dave Mackay, the St Johnstone captain, had to hesitate before lifting the cup. But what is a few seconds after 130 years of waiting?

The "journeymen" tag on St Johnstone is praiseworthy rather than patronising. Football can have its tyros, its stars and its effervescent personalities but clubs like St Johnstone survive and prosper on the dedication, professionalism and sheer will of those who can take and give orders and refuse to buckle under responsibility.

The core of Tommy Wright's team is filled by those judged not good enough elsewhere. They have been more than good enough this season to take the Saints to a top-six position, defeat Rosenborg in Europe and lift the club's first Scottish Cup. They are now carved into St Johnstone's history.

"I was about to lift the cup and the guy presenting it kept pulling it back down," said Mackay of the wait before the traditional celebration. "I was like: 'Just let us get on with it and enjoy our moment'. It must not have been quite the right time for us to lift it, but you can't put it in front us and expect it to be left alone. You dream about it growing up so to realise that dream is incredible."

The last sentence was said of the authenticity of a 34-year-old who has spent time on loan at Brechin City and Arbroath. Saturday was a dream for Mackay but made all the better because he has experienced football's bruising realities.

Steven Anderson, the scorer of the crucial first goal, is another who has worked hard and has never had cause to write to the Press Complaints Commission about being stalked by paparazzi.

"We always felt Dundee United were weak at set-pieces," said Mackay. "We have scored a few goals against them this season and Ando got one that was pretty much identical at McDiarmid Park a few weeks back. He has got in there at the back post again. It is his testimonial year and that might add another few quid to what he gets at the end of the season."

Anderson, 28, has spent a decade at St Johnstone after being released by United and has known the tough times. "When we missed out on promotion to the SPL by a matter of minutes on the final day of the 2007 season it was one of the worst experiences I've had in the game but you put these things behind you and, hopefully, win something," he said.

Brian Easton, the full-back, is only 26 but he too conforms to the St Johnstone template of overcoming adversity. A rising talent with Hamilton Academical - his former team-mate James McCarthy, now a Barclays Premiership player at Everton, was among his 40-strong personal support in the stands on Saturday - was transferred to Burnley but released and was then relegated with Dundee last season.

"It's been quite a journey to get to this stage in my career. The manager said before that so many boys have ups and down in their careers so we had to make this count," he said. "You need to be a strong character in this game. I'm lucky I've got a good family and close friends who have always stuck by me. The manager here showed a bit of faith in me by bringing me to the club and playing me with this great group of lads."

Alan Mannus, who at 31 has enjoyed loan spells at Larne and Carrick Rangers, had a couple of spine-tingling moments on Saturday. The goalkeeper fumbled his first cross and then was grateful to grab Nadir Ciftci's free-kick after it dropped from the crossbar. He was sure about what allowed St Johnstone to prevail.

"The blend of youth and experience is just right and you have to give the manager credit for that," he said. "He brought in the likes of Michael O'Halloran and James Dunne and they have been terrific additions. We've got young guys like Stevie May and David Wotherspoon and older ones like Dave Mackay and Frazer Wright. The balance for me is just right. We work well as a team and hopefully we can really kick on."

The dream has been achieved but the reality is that most of the St Johnstone team will not be pestered by their agents informing them of extraordinary offers from bigger teams this summer. Stevie May, the vibrant striker, will be the inevitable transfer speculation subject of the near future but Wright has the most solid of foundations to build upon.

In the tale of the journeyman, the manager may be treated as a minor character because of his ability even on the sunniest days to find a shadow to step into. Yet a line of St Johnstone players praised the Northern Irishman not just for his motivational technique but his obsession with detail and planning.

It would have been no surprise for form students to acknowledge that United would find it difficult to score against St Johnstone or that a set-piece would provide a goal for the Perth side.

This was a result of Wright, once manager of Limavady United, Ballymena United and Lisburn Distillery, putting in the hard yards all season. He now prepares the journeymen for another European adventure.

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