Those who pour scorn on the relevance of a national final between Livingston and St Johnstone do a huge disservice to a group of history makers from Perth. St Johnstone have now taken delivery of the League Cup for the first time since formation, 137 years ago. Until this behind-closed-door experience, St Johnstone had only featured in two League Cup finals, which ended in 1-0 defeat to Jock Stein’s Celtic in 1969 and a 2-1 loss to Rangers 29 years later. This victory takes “overdue” to fresh extremes.
If the absence of bigger clubs is bemoaned by sponsors and television executives, it provides the kind of welcome opportunity St Johnstone seized upon. Scottish football is a better place when honours are shared; St Johnstone have now ended Celtic’s run of consecutive trophies at the 12 mark. The names of Clark, Rooney, Kerr, Gordon, Booth, McCann, Craig, Conway, Kane, Wotherspoon, McCart and May have been etched into St Johnstone folklore. Tens of thousands of supporters are not required for that to be a celebrated sporting fact.
After Scottish Cup success in 2014, St Johnstone are just the fifth team in Scotland to win more than one trophy in the 21st century. “I’m gutted we can’t share this with the fans in Perth but we’ve still got to enjoy the moment as much as we can,” said Callum Davidson, St Johnstone’s manager. “I’m over the moon. I’m not really an emotional person but I’m emotional here because I’ve seen how much it means to so many people.”
Proof that football doesn’t deliver fairytale endings as routine can be found alongside David Martindale’s runners-up medal. To neutral observers it seemed set that Martindale’s redemption journey, from a six-and-a-half year jail term to managing Livingston would be topped off by a League Cup triumph. Instead, focus should fall on Davidson; impressive in the early stages of his managerial career even before he broke St Johnstone’s League Cup hoodoo.
Davidson, who started his playing career in Perth before a move to Blackburn Rovers, should cherish this success. His decision to swap backroom coaching in England for management has been fully justified.
That this final lacked plenty in artistic impression was no great shock given the heavy burden of history. The 90 minutes at Hampden were attritional, with a set-piece responsible for the moment that won the cup. Shaun Rooney, St Johnstone’s right-back, rose to meet an outswinging Craig Conway header for a goal that immediately felt significant.
Robby McCrorie, the Livingston goalkeeper, will feel he should have done better with Rooney’s header which squeezed over the line via a post. Martindale’s frustration could only have been intensified by the fact Livingston were the better side until the goal while failing to regularly trouble Zander Clark. St Johnstone’s goalgoalkeeper reacted well to an angled Josh Mullin drive but was otherwise a bystander.
St Johnstone’s bullish opening to the second half suggested the final could be settled long before full time. McCrorie saved well from a close-range David Wotherspoon attempt shortly before the latter rather unimpressively tried – and failed – to deceive the referee, Don Robertson, into awarding a penalty. Livingston rallied without appearing to have the belief they could earn an equalising goal. St Johnstone’s win was fully deserved.
In the cold light of day Martindale must reflect both on his own incredible progress and that of the club; Livingston were in the bottom tier of Scottish football in 2009-10 and only one level higher in 2016-17. For now, though, he will encounter irritation; finals like this are so uncommon as to make one wonder when such a chance may arise again.
“I’m very pragmatic, it’s difficult to take but it’s done,” said Martindale. “We can’t let this affect the rest of our season. I’m over it, I’m focused on securing top six in the league. I’ll make sure the boys are over it too, I told them that when St Johnstone were picking up their medals. You have to move on from your past.”