A TWINKLE appears in the eye of Alex Smith at the mention of 1987. His story is one of triumph against the odds, an “adventure” that benefited from elements of good fortune but also from shrewd management and an unstinting sense of perseverance.

The matches, the players, the anecdotes and the memories of leading St Mirren to their third, and to date final, Scottish Cup triumph, flow freely from Smith, still working as a coach with Falkirk at the age of 77. It feels an almost impossible task to do justice to his impressive powers of recall.

This, then, is the abridged version of how a mid-ranked, unglamorous team were able to get their hands on Scottish football’s most famous trophy, as told by the man who made it happen.

Provincial clubs tend to celebrate cup successes more exuberantly than their larger rivals simply due to their rarity, and it was no different in Paisley 30 years ago. For the players involved, however, it represented something more significant.

Senior figures like Frank McGarvey and Tony Fitzpatrick revelled in the moment, a welcome but unexpected triumph in the twilight of their playing days. For those at the other end of the age spectrum, like Paul Lambert and Ian Ferguson, it would prove the catalyst for careers that would go on to surpass anything they could possibly have dreamed of.

The facts tell us that St Mirren defeated Inverness Caledonian, Morton, Raith Rovers, Hearts and then Dundee United to become the last team of 11 Scots to lift the cup. It is Smith, however, who embroiders the cold statistics with his own illuminating insights three decades on.

“Everything,” he says without hesitation when asked what he recalls from 1987. “When you start talking about it, it all just comes flooding back.”

Smith and his assistant Jimmy Bone had only been appointed in the December previously, succeeding Alex Miller and inheriting his squad of players. With St Mirren toiling in the bottom half of the Premier League but not in any real relegation bother, winning the cup became their immediate focus albeit not for the most obvious reason.

“St Mirren had been in European competition a few times earlier that decade and we wanted to see if we could get back in again by winning the cup,” recalls Smith. “That’s what we said to the players. ‘It’s only five games. Win them and you’ll be back in Europe’. The boys’ faces told us we were asking a lot. And we were. But we thought it was possible.”

Good fortune came in the way of some early cup fallers. Rangers were a shock casualty at home to Hamilton, Celtic knocked out Aberdeen after a second replay, and were then beaten themselves by Hearts. The last four comprised the Edinburgh side, the two Dundee clubs and St Mirren. Suddenly Smith’s aspiration did not seem so far-fetched.

“Before the semi-finals, people started to realise this could actually happen. We were drawn against Hearts who were the favourites but we played well. The young guys like Lambert and Ferguson were not fazed at all by the occasion. Paul was a terrific player, while Fergie would have fought anybody. He had the guts for any scrap.”

While the final was undoubtedly the highlight of St Mirren’s season, their opponents had other matters to deal with. Their meeting at Hampden fell in the middle of United’s two-legged Uefa Cup final against Gothenburg.

“I was able to go over to Sweden to watch them in the first leg and they were a wee bit unlucky,” says Smith. “And Jim McLean was coming down to Hampden to try to win the cup for United for the first time. I was quite friendly with wee Jim and there was probably more pressure on him here than in the European final. But we didn’t feel any pressure. It was like an adventure for us.”

The match itself will not go down as a Scottish Cup final classic. Goalless after 90 minutes, it took something special from Ferguson in extra time to win it.

“It wasn’t a great game to watch but tactically it was a clever game,” Smith says. “You hear managers saying it’s about enjoying the occasion. I never said that. I wanted us to enjoy it by winning it.

“I remember for the goal the ball is played across to Brian Hamilton and he just lobbed it forward from the left midfield position. Ian Ferguson would have been one of the few players capable of doing what he did next. John Clark came towards him and Fergie went in early and knocked it into the space with a brave header. That took him beyond the defender.

“And when he ran into the box you thought there was a fair chance Billy Thomson in goals would block it but Fergie only had one thought in his head. And that was to go right in there and smash it into the top corner with his weaker foot. At that moment, everything stood still for me. We saw out the rest of the game and then everyone went mad. It was bedlam.

“I remember doing a radio interview in the middle of the park and went on a spiel almost like a political broadcast. It must have been the adrenaline. I remember going on about what the cup win was going to do for Paisley, it was going to put us on the map, and it would bring in jobs, and new business to the town, and all the rest! I got a wee bit carried away.”

The celebrations that night were just as boisterous, with Paisley pubs putting the prices back to 1959, the last time St Mirren had won the cup. Smith, a publican himself, remembers spying the fans from the open-top bus raising “not one but two pints each” as a toast.

“We went to the town hall, talking to the Provost about how great life is. And then we’re ushered out on to the balcony. It’s a sea of black and white, people were up lampposts and statues. It was chaos. And then it went deadly quiet and I realised I had to make a speech. I just told them how proud we were to have brought the cup back to Paisley. And to enjoy themselves. And I think they all did.”

Not everyone partied all night. Lambert was just 17 at the time but now a Scottish Cup winner. That fact mattered little to his manager.

“There was a reception for us and I minded of Lambert,” says Smith. “It’s nearly 11pm when I see him. He didn’t touch the drink as he was still only 17. I called him over. ‘Paul, what are you doing out until this time? You shouldn’t be still out. They’re all lying about drunk. Get yourself up the road’. And he went home. He’s never forgotten that any time I see him. ‘We won the cup and you sent me home early!’ But I was just looking out for him.”

Lambert was a local boy and Smith was evidently very fond of him. Seeing the midfielder go on to become an established Scotland international and Champions League winner filled him with pride.

“Paul was such a likeable, happy-go-lucky laddie, quiet but with a thing about him. Jimmy Bone has a nickname for everyone and Paul’s was Vince Prince who was a guy off the telly at the time. Paul had this swagger about him walking into Love Street, such a good nature.

“He was such a star for us in winning that cup. He didn’t want to play where we played him which was wide of a midfield four to keep him away from the hurly-burly in the middle of the park. But his temperament was great. I didn’t think Paul would get to the level where he would win the European Cup as that’s a whole other dimension. But I could tell he was going to be a special player.”

Ferguson was just 20, and another teetotaller. He wouldn’t hit the same heights as Lambert but Smith was not surprised to see him become a stalwart in Rangers’ nine-in-a-row squad.

“Knucklehead was the nickname Jimmy gave to Fergie,” laughs Smith. “He was a great boy. He came from a tough area in the road behind Celtic Park, maybe the only Rangers supporter in that part of town. He revelled in that kind of thing.

“He loved the support of the club and all the staff and the players. He was tough but he needed that soft touch as well. He needed appreciation of his ability. He was tough as nails but not in a bad way. What a competitor he was. But we had big players throughout the team that year. And all of them played their part in that cup win.”