Saints v Hearts preview
By Stuart Gillespie
Updated Monday, 1st February 2010
Saints play their biggest game of the season so far tomorrow night when they go head to head with Hearts for a place in this season's Co-operative Insurance Final.
Like it's English counterpart, the League Cup is seen as the poorer of the two cup competitions in Scotland by clubs, fans, the media and just about everyone else. Unless you support one of the Old Firm, I don't think that should be the case. Sure, there may be no European place on offer to the winners, but it is a national trophy - how many times do supporters get the chance to see their club win a cup final at Hampden? It's a rare occasion for some clubs, and for others it's something that hasn't yet happened. So, while it may not be seen as an important trophy to some clubs, it's still one that should have been taken seriously. Of course, the fact that we've only made the final once in our history is more due to bad luck, poor players and the like rather than any deliberate attempt not to give the tournament any respect!
The attitude taken by the governing bodies to semi-finals such as tomorrow nights does not help attempts to have the League Cup taken seriously. While Rangers and St. Johnstone will meet at Hampden, we will meet at Fir Park - on a pitch that barely passes as a piece of wasteground, let alone some nice, lush turf. The game won't be televised (imagine that happening to a national cup final down south), while playing semi-finals on a February midweek is hardly the sort of thing to get punters turning up in their droves. I can't comment on Hearts, but from Saints it's been a pretty low key build-up to our second semi-final inside 12 months. The points just mentioned are a contributing factor, while our poor form and the general negativity around the place haven't been helping things.
That was perhaps summed up on Saturday, when we suffered a late defeat to Hibs. Losing at Easter Road is hardly a disaster, but as numerous people are just waiting to pounce on problems at the moment, many people treated it as such. While I'm not happy with how things are going at the club and feel it is time for a change - on and off the park - there seem to be some supporters who are just hoping we lose so they can have a good moan. If that's the case, hopefully they'll stay away tomorrow. The team needs the fans behind them from the first whistle to the last. In return, we expect a fully committed performance from every player, a sensible team selection and proper tactics. A win would give everyone at the club a massive lift, which would transform into our league form. What we cannot afford is a repeat of last season's Scottish Cup semi-final, or our last League Cup semi-final in 2001 when we were humped by Kilmarnock.
Hugh Murray is the only player left from that horrible night, while Gus MacPherson and Craig Dargo have switched from Killie to Saints. After last season, most of the squad have experienced at least one big semi-final in their career, which will hopefully be a big help to us. We cannot afford any stage fright tomorrow night, although the fact we're playing at a ground we visited in the league less than a fortnight ago, rather than the national stadium, may help us in that regard. That we've also played on the potato field known as the Fir Park pitch could also be a benefit. With Michael Higdon and Billy Mehmet starting the last two games, it would seem the sensible thing to start with them again tomorrow night, pump the ball in their general direction and see what happens. The long ball game may not be pretty, but it could be effective on the disgraceful surface we're being forced to play on. To be honest, I can't see too many changes from the team that faced Hibs on Saturday. The obvious ones would be playing Chris Innes if he's fit and bringing Andy Dorman in from the start, although I'd keep Steven Robb in the team - his cross did lead to our goal after all. There seems to be some confusion over the eligibility of loan signings Rory Loy and Graham Carey. Although neither is cup-tied, it could be the pair signed after some cup deadline that none of us are aware of. If they are available, they'll probably be on the bench rather than the starting 11. Chris Smith, Tom Brighton and Allan Johnston are all out with injury.
I had thought I'd struggle to find something to write about Hearts, considering we only played them a few weeks ago. Then, last week, Vladimir Romanov realised it was a while since he'd changed managers and decided to get rid of Csaba Laszlo. He probably deserves a medal for surviving so long at Tynecastle, having taken over as long ago as the summer of 2008 and leading the club to the Europa League last season. Surprisingly, Hearts decided against a long, drawn out selection process and instead appointed Jim Jeffries within a couple of hours of Laszlo's departure. While you can claim Jeffries wasn't great in his final few years at Hearts, this is still a bad move for our hopes tomorrow night. Jeffries is a legend at Hearts, having guided them to the Scottish Cup in 1998, and his return to Gorgie will surely have given everyone a big boost.
What his return doesn't change overnight is their trouble scoring goals. Laszlo was continually moaning about not being given the funds to sign a striker during his final months in charge, and I can fully accept his point. Their top scorer this season is Michael Stewart - a midfielder who takes their penalties when he isn't busy getting himself sent off. Admittedly, this is better than having a defender as your leading scorer in the league (which is the case for us now Stephen McGinn has gone) but it's still not a great state of affairs. When you consider Hearts have struggled up front, what Laszlo was able to achieve is even more impressive. Christian Nade looks good every now and then, while Calum Elliot looked fantastic before his recent injury, but they really are struggling for strikers. Youngsters Gary Glen and Gordon Smith have been getting games recently and are having to do a great deal of learning in the first team.
Still, while they may struggle for goals at one end of the park, Hearts don't have a big problem keeping them out at the other. Despite the departures of Steven Pressley, Robbie Neilson, Craig Gordon and Christophe Berra in their last few years, their defence is incredibly solid. Lee Wallace looks like being the next player off the Riccarton production line to be sold, although unfortunately for us it's unlikely that will happen until the summer at the earliest. Marion Kello and Janos Balogh are both good keepers, while Jose Goncalves and Ismael Bouzid are commanding in the middle of the defence. Perhaps they'll deal easily with a partnership of Mehmet and Higdon, although I'd fancy the latter to rough them up a bit.
So, we've got two teams who struggle to score, one of which has a good defence while the other struggles to create chances. Perhaps it's not such a bad thing this game will be tucked away at Fir Park on a Tuesday night, hidden from TV cameras!