WHEN the Betfred Cup campaign got underway belatedly in October, very few would’ve predicted that either St Johnstone or Livingston would be even one of the Finalists let alone both.
With just four National Cup Finals between them, and having two of the Premierships lowest budgets, it is a fairytale in itself that they have overcome the odds to battle it out for the first major trophy on offer in the 2020/21 season. Throw in the ingredient of two managers in their debut season in the hot seat and it really is a great story of this League Cup campaign.
Unfortunately, the one key component that will be missing is the fans. Cup Finals simply don’t come around often enough for St Johnstone and Livingston fans, and it really is sad that Hampden’s seats will be covered with sponsor banners instead of seeing segments of blue and yellow as both sets of fans cheer their team to glory. Of course, the winter surge of the virus with new variants killed off any hope of even a reduced capacity at the National Stadium, and public health has to take priority until numbers are drastically low whilst the vaccination programme is rolled out. However, that understanding doesn’t take away from the sadness that no St Johnstone or Livingston supporter can have a day out for a National Cup Final.
Instead, fans will have to watch the game on Premier Sportsfrom the comfort of their own home. It’s not the same as being at Hampden, or even watching on a big screen in a local pub, but fans will not be less passionate and will be willing their respective sides onto glory.
The final itself is an intriguing affair between two sidessimilar in stature, budgets and indeed playing styles.
For St Johnstone, they’ll be hoping it’s third time lucky in the League Cup having lost their two previous Finals in this competition. What should be taken into account was that in 1969/70 they only lost 1-0 to Jock Stein’s all conquering Celtic side that reached that seasons European Cup Final, whilst the 1998/99 attempt saw them go down 2-1 to Dick Advocaat’s multi-million pound Rangers side who strolled to the treble. They will also take heart from the fact the club won their last major final, the famous 2014 Scottish Cup Final victory over Dundee United.
There are two survivors from the success of seven years ago in Stevie May and David Wotherspoon. May is in his second spell at the club having had injury ravaged spells at Sheffield Wednesday, Preston North End and Aberdeen. Whilst he is not the same player as the one who hit 27 goals in a season that earned his big move down south, May can still play an important role for Saints, whether from the bench or the start, with his tenacity to harass defenders and still has that eye for goal. Wotherspoon, providing he’s fit, is a likely starter and his delivery from set pieces will be a valuable asset, as shown in the Semi Final against Hibs. A Saints fan, it would mean the world for Wotherspoon to add a League Cup winners medal to the Scottish Cup one he collected seven years ago, and he will be a key player if Saints are to get their hands on the trophy.
As for Manager Callum Davidson, it would be a tremendous achievement if he could steer Saints to glory in his first season. Following in the footsteps of long serving and Cup winning Manager Tommy Wright was always going to be a tall order for anyone who went in, but Davidson has grown into the role after a difficult start, proving he was the right man to takeover from the Northern Irishman in the summer. Being a former player, and also Assistant to Wright during the Scottish Cup triumph, there aren’t many who know the club better than Davidson and he’ll be desperate to ensure that his name is written into St Johnstone folklore on Sunday, if it wasn’t already, by adding the Betfred Cup to that Scottish Cup glory.
Meanwhile, Livingston are appearing in only their second ever final since their formation in 1995. They were huge underdogs going into the 2004 League Cup Final against a Hibs side who had beaten both halves of the Old Firm en route to Hampden. To make matters tougher, Livi were placed into administration the month before the Final, losing six players as a result, but the Lions roared that day to win 2-0 and cause one of the biggest upsets in the competitions history.
They’ve long overcome those dark days of administration, twice (the other in 2009), and have been a revelation in the Scottish Premiership since they won their way back there in 2018 after a 12 year absence. Often tipped to go down, they’ve punched well above their weight to comfortably stay up, last season getting into the top six before the pandemic curtailed the season, and are on course for, at least, another top six berth this campaign.
Livi will be turning to two players in particular to help guide them to success on Sunday. Skipper Marvin Bartley is an enforcer in midfield and has tasted victory in a National Cup Final before having helped Hibs end their long 114 year wait for the Scottish Cup nearly five years ago. Defender Efe Ambrose has also got a few winners medal from his Celtic days, so his big game experience will be vital if the Lions are to come away from Hampden with the trophy in black and yellow ribbons.
For Manager David Martindale, victory would complete an incredible journey for him. Having served three years in prison for drug trafficking and money laundering, Martindale has learned his lessons and the rehabilitation that began with voluntary coaching has paid dividends. Succeeding Gary Holt, who himself done a great job at the Tony Macaroni Arena, in November after being part of the coaching staff, Martindale oversaw a remarkable 14 game unbeaten run that catapulted Livi to fifth in the table and into Sunday’s Hampden showpiece. Victory would be the icing on the cake on what has been an incredible journey for him, proving that you can learn from your mistakes and make a success of your life.
So the scene is set for the Final that no one expected. It goes without saying that it would mean the world to St Johnstone and Livingston if one of them could double their trophy haul in Sunday’s Betfred Cup Final showpiece. For Callum Davidson and David Martindale, it would cap off a great debut season as Manager to guide their side to success.
These are testing times for everyone with the pandemic taking control of our lives, and only the cold hearted would not have sympathy for Saints and Livi fans who can’t make the rare trip to see their team in a National Cup Final. Let’s hope, from a neutral perspective, that we are treated to a classic, though fans of both clubs will happily take a scrappy one nil win and the trophy instead of being on the wrong end of a five goal classic.