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Second chance affords Perth side opportunity to banish all regrets

THERE is the moment when managers must be forgiven for raging against the forces outwith their control.

Tommy Wright appreciates that restrictions in his budget means St Johnstone struggle  to compete in the same markeplace  as Aberdeen for players. Picture: SNS
Tommy Wright appreciates that restrictions in his budget means St Johnstone struggle to compete in the same markeplace as Aberdeen for players. Picture: SNS

There is the moment, too, that the player regretfully replays in his head, torturing himself with accusations while confronting but not changing a painful past.

These both occurred on a glowering day at Tynecastle in February. The victims were Tommy Wright and Lee Croft, manager and player respectively for a St Johnstone side beaten 4-0 in the League Cup semi-final by Aberdeen.

The frustration was almost exquisite for Wright. After just three minutes of the match, the Pittodrie side's Adam Rooney picked up a poor clearance and crossed for Jonny Hayes to score at the back post.

"We were in for Rooney in January, on a loan deal because we couldn't have afforded a contract," Wright said. But there is no envy, just a sense of what might have been. "I think Derek has earned the right to spend a bit of money," he said of McInnes of that ilk, his managerial counterpart at Aberdeen who he confronts again at Ibrox tomorrow.

"Derek has done so well and the gates at Pittodrie have almost doubled, so he's able to go in and say: 'Bang, here you go'. He was able to give Rooney a two-and-a-half year deal because they are doing well."

St Johnstone, of course, are also "doing well" on the field with a top-six finish complemented by reaching both the League Cup and William Hill Scottish Cup semi-finals. Off the field, there is another battle to be fought, however.

"Although we've done well our budget has been cut," Wright said without complaint. He points out he knew the reality when he was appointed last summer.

"We qualified for Europe last season and the budget went down again," he said. "But at a massive club like Aberdeen, one that hasn't had much success in recent years, there is the scope to improve it. Someone had to get it right. Derek has and you can see that in their gates."

"Because of that he's able to bring in a player like Adam and I think he'll strengthen further over the summer. I can only see Aberdeen going from strength to strength now."

The Northern Irishman, of course, seeks to stall that drive for success tomorrow. He has confidence his side have improved since the defeat at Tynecastle and he knows there were opportunities missed that day and awful errors made. He is aware, too, of the financial significance of beating Aberdeen.

"If we get to the final the chairman will be walking 10ft tall," he said. "We've made losses the last few years, like a lot of the clubs in Scotland, and that's on the back of us being successful," the 50-year-old former goalkeeper said.

"So a cup final would be huge for the club financially. Would I see any of it if it happens? I doubt it. I might get a wee bit here and there but it won't be a case of, 'there you go, spend that'.

"I understand that and know why the club is being run the way it is. The reason this club has been successful is because it has been run properly over the years."

Asked what he has learned in his year as a manager in Perth, Wright, who moved up from assistant manager on Steve Lomas's departure, replied: " I have learned you can build a decent squad on a tight budget. I haven't learned much about the players because I knew them all already and knew I can trust them."

Wright has learned, too, that he cannot always buy what he wants.

If Rooney provided a painful intimation for the manager at Tynecastle, there was also anguish for Croft. There was a moment in the first half when the Englishman raced in on goal only to see Jamie Langfield save well. Instead of equalising, St Johnstone almost immediately lost a second goal.

Was this the defining moment of the semi-final?

"Definitely, yeah," Croft said. "Maybe I should have done better but it was a great save. If it had gone in who knows what would have happened because I think we were having a decent period of the game at that point. Just after that they went and scored the second and killed our momentum, killed the game really."

Croft, at 28, has found that a career which started at Manchester City and with an under-age cap for England has taken a detour to Perth. He is not complaining and can find time to be humorous about an opponent who has made a similar journey.

Willo Flood, the Aberdeen midfielder, played with Croft at City and the Englishman was mischievous when recalling the Dubliner as a youngster.

"What was Willo like as young player? Exactly the same. Tenacious, dirty, horrible to play against but a good footballer. He could get on the ball, drive forward with it, pass it.

"I played with him from about 11, 12 years old, all the way through. They had high hopes for him and he broke through into the first team before me. He played a few games and then came out. I then obviously got into the team."

The two players have shared a professional life that has encompassed a series of clubs. They will share the same pitch tomorrow.

It is a match that will be decided in crucial moments. Croft will hope he can seize his if it is offered and look back on this semi-final with a sense of achievement instead of a feeling of regret.

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