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Scottish Cup final demands make Tommy Wright a patron for Saints fans

IT isn't as if Tommy Wright doesn't have better things to do.

Tommy Wright is gearing up for a momentous week as St Johnstone make their final preparations for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden               Photograph: SNS
Tommy Wright is gearing up for a momentous week as St Johnstone make their final preparations for the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Photograph: SNS

The St Johnstone manager has been overwhelmed by a veritable tsunami of additional demands on his precious time in the lead-up to Saturday's William Hill Scottish Cup final. Fashion stylist with the casting vote on the club's cup final day suits, check. Travel booker for the club's hotel accommodation, check. General point of contact for random Saints fans from all over the world, check. Wright will be doing well if he can find a couple of spare moments to concentrate on the serious business of winning a major trophy for the first time in the club's 130-year history. Still, in the generally sleepy footballing backwater which is Perth, you suspect the 50-year-old wouldn't have it any other way.

"A player I played with at Linfield called David Hanna, who I haven't seen or heard of since about 1985, contacted me from Australia," said Wright. "And he is telling me about wee Willie in the pub who is coming back to Perth for the final and hasn't been back in Perth for 50-odd years or something. He is saying 'can I look after him when he comes over?' It is like, 'what does he want me to do - put him up?'

"We are a pretty small club so, much to the players' dissatisfaction, I am involved in basically everything - the suits, the shoes, everything," the St Johnstone boss added. "There are things that maybe I would get involved in that Neil [Lennon] wouldn't be getting involved in if it was Celtic who got to a major final. The chairman [Steve Brown] tried to muscle in, but if you have seen his dress sense then no. To be fair it was myself, the senior players and the staff that chose them."

It is worth mentioning that all this Wright stuff with which the manager has had to contend is despite the fact he spent a couple of nights in Perth Royal Infirmary recently due to gall bladder surgery. "It hasn't affected my work," said Wright. "Although it probably should have because I had my meeting last week and the consultant said it had to come out or it was ready to rupture. If that had happened, I'd be seriously ill. So it was a scare and it does put things in perspective. But once I had the operation, I was dying to get back to work and my wife Anne was dying to get me out the house."

Spend even the merest time in his company, and it is hard not to warm to this bluff Northern Irishman. For the record, he divulges that St Johnstone's preparation for the biggest day in the club's history will include overnight stays following yesterday's final league match against Inverness on Sunday and Monday, with some clay pigeon shooting thrown in, although Dundee United scored a minor early victory when they beat them to the punch with the Old Course Hotel at St Andrews. After a light session on Tuesday, and some more serious practice on Wednesday, the Northern Irish connection with Lennon will allow Saints to train at Lennoxtown as they did prior to the semi-final win.

Bigger, more impersonal clubs, of course, have things called player liaison officers and sundry layers of administration to deal with most of these matters, but Wright has always been happy to get his hands dirty. While the goalkeeper's playing career saw him grace Premier League outfits like Manchester City and Newcastle United and claim full international honours, he glories in his only cup success to date, the 2011 Irish League Cup whilst managing at Lisburn Distillery, mainly as it was achieved with a side which stayed together amid financial chaos. With the club's exit from administration all but secured, a settlement cheque in the post is imminent, guaranteeing him a fairly respectable 65p in the pound.

"The most pleasing thing for me at that time was that we never lost a player," said Wright. "They could all have walked out, but we kept hold of the squad and within 12 months we had won a cup. That was a real highlight. There were about eight supporters from Distillery who came over for the semi-final. I think it is always important to remember where you have come from, where you have been."

Wright certainly spends more time engaged in the business of remembering where he has come from, and where he has been, than plotting where he is going to next. His career has been a parable of the merits of hard graft and focus, not jumping ship at the first available opportunity. "When I went over to Newcastle, I was probably more known as the Ballyclare Barman than a goalkeeper," said Wright. "I just want to work hard and try and do the best I can every day and try and improve. Then if you do fall short at least it's not through lack of effort."

The other key strand to his character is a "stubborn belief" in his abilities. While Wright says he would be happy to spend the next five or 10 years at St Johnstone, if he continues at this rate such a scenario seems highly unlikely. Mind you, the synergy he felt at St Johnstone was such that he declined the opportunity to join Steve Lomas at Millwall, even before a serious conversation had taken place about him taking the top job.

"I could've gone to Millwall, but it wasn't for me," said Wright. "I don't like big cities. It was a gamble. But it was a calculated gamble. The chairman didn't speak to me about the job until after Steve left. Even then it was a roundabout conversation, 'well, what are we going to do now?'."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a particularly glowing testimonial to the manager from the other Northern Irish goalkeeper at the club, a man who appears to share that same stubborn streak. Despite missing the boat on a move to English football with Everton as a teenager, Alan Mannus is revelling in full-time football and it all started when he was given the nod for the first of four Irish Cups with Linfield back in 2002, soon after Wright came in as goalkeeper coach.

"I wasn't playing at the time, I was on the bench, then Tommy came in and changed everything," said Mannus, who produced a key save from Adam Rooney in the semi-final with the score at 1-0 to Aberdeen which kept St Johnstone in the cup. "He spoke to the manager at the time about putting me in for a cup final, even though I'd only played six or seven league games before that. I only played in those because we'd already won the league, but Tommy spoke to the manager and persuaded him to keep me in for the cup final, and things went well for me."

The mutual affinity between the two countrymen is such that the only minor disagreement arises over the subject of how far Mannus can go in the game. While Mannus at least has the modesty to feel he is unlikely to attain as high a level as his gaffer, Wright is convinced his player can supplant Roy Carroll as Northern Ireland's goalkeeper.

Neutrals may be somewhat disappointed with St Johnstone preventing the seemingly anointed New Firm final, but Saturday may yet provide an even better tale. Like their manager, St Johnstone the club - under the canny ownership of Geoff and Steve Brown - are a model for calm, steady progression, while others spent money they didn't have and eventually combusted. "It's a great story that a club of this size, that has never won a senior trophy before, can actually be 90 minutes away from it," said Wright. The patience, and prudence, of the Perth Saints may yet be rewarded.

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