Dundee United 0 St Johnstone 2 (17th May 2014)
On the warmest day of the year in England so far this year, I arrived in Glasgow, where an announcer at a fun football tournament in the city’s main George Square was announcing it was “a wee bit overcast”, in the same way that Elvis Presley could be described as “a wee bit dead”. At least it wasn’t cold, and the showers were almost all short lived and very light.
After alight lunch of a Guinness and some “Haggis Bites” (haggis fried in oatmeal – better than they sound, but there is quite some scope for that) in The Piper pub on the same square, I started the 45 minute walk to Celtic Park. Celtic’s ground, not Hampden Park, was where this year’s cup final would be held, due to Hampden being refitted for the Commonwealth Games. What I hadn’t anticipated was work for the same games also going on Glasgow Green, turning a planned picturesque parkland stroll into a detour round a boarded-up building site.
It wasn’t too long past there that Celtic Park came into view, and the trickle of fans became more numerous. Also increasing were the sellers of scarves and flags. I have about 50 of the things, but none are orange, so I was keen to pick up a Dundee United one. The sellers were clearly unsanctioned producers of cheap knock-off items though, aiming their wares at fans of “D. United”. Closer to the ground though, I found one who was either more official or who had little care about copyright laws, as his featured the full club name and the official badge. What I didn’t notice until later was that it also bore the phrase “Keep Dundee tidy. Dump your rubbish in Dens Park” along with a cartoon image of a kid pissing on a Dundee shirt.
I had planned taking a photo of the back of Celtic Park across the Necropolis behind the North Stand. Distance, and the arrival of heavier rainfall had me seeking refuge instead, and I made my way across the lumpy and only partly tarmacked car park towards the main stand. Here thing were much smarter, and despite the venue’s neutral status on this day, it was still unashamedly Celtic in identity, with statues of Celtic legends were adorned with green and white scarves.
One of those status bear’s Jock Stein’s quote of “without the fans, football is nothing”. Proving that in the numbers were the fans of St Johnstone and Dundee United. 47000 of them made their way to Celtic Park for this finas, double the combined capacities of their stadiums, and even if the increasing rain was dampening their clothes, it wasn’t dampening their enthusiasm.
Cup Final in club grounds will always lack the special edge of playing in a national stadium, but as a substitute you could do far worse than Celtic Park. It holds 10,000 more than Hampden for a start, and the towering upper tier offers views of southern Glasgow over the much lower Main Stand roof, even if the hump of Hampden Park’s Main Stand roof, way off in the distance, is possibly the most notable thing to see.
The tiers themselves are tall and steep, although they do suffer from a surprising number of seats with obstructed views. These are usually minor, it has to be said, although the necessity of adding 14 supporting pillars halfway up the top tier of the side, where room is restricted, is a shame.
Next to these giants, the Main Stand, refurbished with a new roof as part of the stadium rebuilt, seems dwarfed. I like it though. Maybe the view wouldn’t be the best, but having one side different makes the place far more interesting that it would have been if the bowl had continued on this fourth side too. It has one relatively shallow tier, with a large green (naturally) girder allowing for column-free viewing for all.
Most of the green seats today would have an orange hue, with Dundee United supplying two-thirds of the fans for the game. Both sets of fans had arranged a hold-a-card-in-the-air “tifo” style display as the teams came out. The neat blue and white stripes at the St Johnstone end were probably outdone by a more ambitious effort from United, although I have to confess that I have no idea what the picture created was meant to be. Maybe the large number of unused “restricted view” seats left out crucial detail. Either way, once the modern fripperies of fireworks and large balloons carrying team flags were out of the way, it left a crowd of two sets of pumped up supporters, all feeling this could or would, depending on confidence levels, be their day.
If there was one word I’d use to sum up the final, it would be “competitive”. It was like a derby game, with determination and enthusiasm at time leaving little room for composure, but it wasn’t detrimental to a terrific game of football.
Dundee United seemed the stronger side territorially, but St Johnstone defended like their lives depended on it, chasing every ball, loose or otherwise, like a pack of wolves hunting their prey. The upshot was that despite the men in orange looking stronger, it was actually St Johnstone who were getting closest to scoring. It didn’t help the Dundee United cause when they almost scored a goal for them too. A shot fired in was blocked, but this block sent the ball spinning towards goal, rather fortuitously going straight to the Dundee United keeper’s chest. It would be probably the last bit of good fortune that would go Dundee United’s way all the afternoon.
Shortly after Dundee United thought they’d scored in the right net. They’d had a few scrambles in the box, but one was flicked onto the far post. It looked in, but hit the inside of the post and rolled right across the goal, without anyone able to finish the move. The ball just wasn’t falling kindly for them, which was becoming an increasingly common theme for the day.
With the game in 1st half stoppage time, St Johnstone, who’d had a few chances themselves, saw a fine effort tipped over for a corner. The minds of fans were already on halftime, with many going for refreshments etc. Sadly the Dundee United goalkeeper’s mind also seemed to be on half time too. He went to punch a really good inswinging deep corner, but hardly even got close. The defenders, not to mention 30,000 Dundee United fans, could only watch in dismay as Steven Anderson headed St Johnstone in front. For St Johnstone, in their first Cup Final in their 130 year history, it was time to start dreaming.
While the view I had was decent enough, if a little “cosy” in the narrow Celtic Park seats, the gaps in the Lisbon Lions Stand, behind the goal, were looking tempting. With Dundee United attacking that goal I’d get a better view of any goals there, for a start, but sitting next to a Dundee United supporting clone of Trainspotting’s Francis Begbie and friends was slightly grating at times. These friends were female, but with “get tae f***, beat this shite!” being a common phrase, they weren’t a calming influence. To be fair the whole group were probably just on the right side of the cusp of passion and annoyance, but “Begbie” himself was angry enough at 0-0. His mood at being a goal down didn’t bear thinking about.
While there were enough empty seats to snap up, getting to them wasn’t as easy as it could have been. Celtic Park was one of the earlier all-seater conversions, and as a result didn’t have the experience of learning from the mistakes of others. One of these mistakes is underestimating how wide concourse areas need to be. Celtic Park’s would have been narrow even by 1960s standards, and the converging queues for toilets, food bars, and people just trying to move along the stand brought about human gridlock in places. Having just gone a goal down probably hadn’t helped matters, and the natural good humour you often get in such situations was a bit strained. At one stage a guy had to squeeze through to stop two women, struggling in opposite directions, from coming to blows.
If there were thoughts that maybe the 2nd half might calm down, it didn’t get through to the players. It was just yet more body-on-the-line enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve even seen so many passes blocked in one game before. It didn’t help Dundee United’s cause that they had very little width in their play, and with St Johnstone playing like they had about 15 men, breaking though wasn’t easy.
It looked like Dundee United had early in the half though. A free kick on the edge of the box was expertly curled past the St Johnstone keeper, but it came down off the underside of the bar and bounced behind him, and he was able to spin round and gratefully clutch the loose ball to his chest. There’s no doubt the Dundee United fans, much quieter now, were starting to get that “one of those days” feeling.
They needed some sort of boost, and got it in an unusual way. Shortly after the free kick, St Johnstone thought they’d scored a 2nd goal, but it was ruled out for handball after an age of deliberation by the officials. It was Steven May who’d “scored” it too. The man, who thanks to his squad number would be playing with “17 May” on his back on this 17th of May final, looked to have answered the headline writer’s prayers, but he’d actually put the ball in with his hand.
He claimed afterwards that he thought he’d already scored with his initial header, and he could easily have turned it in without using his hand, but if we give him the benefit of the doubt then that moment would have gone down in St Johnstone history, for all the wrong reasons, if Dundee United were to have come back and won.
Even if the refs signals were unclear – it went for being a goal to being possibly disallowed, being a goal again, and then only realising it definitely was disallowed following the free kick restart – it gave a life to the Dundee United fans, who spurred their team on with renewed vigour.
United were really knocking at the door now. St Johnstone feet and bodies were still getting everywhere where a shot might develop or loose ball fell, but Dundee United had the momentum. When one effort from distance when just wide, you felt that the equaliser was coming. What’s more, get one and you felt they’d go on to win. Quite how the nerves of the St Johnstone fans, let alone players, was holding out, remains a mystery.
They shouldn’t have worried. With the story of their first final in 130 years and the events of the day behind them, then if ever the adage of “their name was on the cup” was true, it was true for St Johnstone in 2014. I’m not saying they were lucky, as they defended magnificently and had the better game plan on the day, but while Dundee United would have an afternoon of wondering how chances didn’t go in and wondering how every ricochet fell to a blue shirt – even one that was bodged twice – St Johnstone did get the odd break.
At half time I had a feeling the game was heading for an 84th minute winner. Before I claim to be a modern day Nostradamus, I will confess I thought it would be for Dundee United, but it was St Johnstone attacking in the 84th minute. A cross-field ball was blocked, but this deflected interception turned into an almost perfect through-ball for St Johnstone’s Steven MacLean. In a chase between MacLean and Dundee United keeper Cierzniak both got there at the same time. The ball could have bounced anywhere. Instead it dropped perfectly for MacLean, lying on the floor, to be able to hook the ball into the empty net.
That was 2-0, game, and the cup for St Johnstone. With the footballing gods against them, Dundee United knew there’d be no miracle comeback, and the orange hordes began to silently drift away. Once last chance, a free near post header from a corner that was somehow headed wide, sealed the afternoon.
It was now just a matter of waiting for the ref to blow the whistle and put the fans out of their misery, in stark contrast to the opposite noisy blue end where the party was just about to begin. And when you’ve had to wait 130 years for an invite, you can be sure everyone savoured every second.