LIKE Hearts, St Mirren’s season effectively hinges on what happens at Hampden tomorrow. No sooner had the Buddies’ SPL game against Dundee United finished last weekend, than their players were clamouring to say how much of a relief it was that they could finally focus on their big day in the limelight.
By Danny Lennon’s own admission, reaching the League Cup final has had an adverse effect on St Mirren’s league form, to the point where the manager feels it denied them a chance of a first top-six finish in a season where there is so little between all the teams outwith Celtic.
The 42-year-old will only tolerate his players taking their eye off the ball if it results in the spin-off of a fully-focused display when it matters most: against Hearts in front of 50,000 exhilarated punters at Hampden Park.
“I’m delighted this week has eventually come around,” he said. “The period from winning the semi-final to now has been a distraction at times the closer the game got.
“I totally understand players and their thinking, having people constantly reminding them about the big game, so it’s only human to think about it. It’s difficult to switch off.
“Now there are no more distractions and I want the players to go out there on Sunday and give their best to try to bring this cup home.
“Has it had an impact on us not reaching the top six? In my opinion – certainly. And it hurts me to say that, but it’s part and parcel of football and sometimes things like that are outwith your control.
“But if there was anybody holding anything back then I’m certainly looking forward to what they’ve saved being given back to us on Sunday.”
While Hearts opted to keep their preparations low-key, with a team-bonding go-karting session the only notable break from their normal weekly routine, St Mirren enjoyed a few days away at St Andrews. Lennon feels the change of scenery had a positive effect on his troops and noticed an extra focus to their work.
“We’ve had a great couple of days up in St Andrews and left no stone unturned in our preparation,” he continued.
“It has been great just to be away and go over everything tactically on what we aim to do, and the strengths and weaknesses of Hearts. The players have bought into that big-time.
“Sometimes when you do presentations, even just the ten-minute ones, you can see them getting a bit fidgety, but these ones were longer and they were buying into it. That tells me they are switched on and that they appreciate the opportunity they have to become legends.”
Lennon, whose best days as a player came with Raith Rovers, admits he’s living the dream as manager of St Mirren and is hoping tomorrow’s match provides him with the pinnacle of his career so far. “My proudest moment in football was when I was unveiled as manager of St Mirren Football Club,” he declares. “It’s an absolute honour and a privilege to serve them.
“And to get to a national cup final at this early stage of my managerial career is a wonderful experience. It would mean the world to me if I could deliver that trophy to the wonderful fans in Paisley.”
Lennon knows if his team are to lift the cup, they will probably have to replicate the scintillating performance they produced in their 3-2 victory over Celtic in the semi-final back in January. “The players know their own jobs and responsibilities,” said the manager. “The key strengths we had against Celtic were out work-rate and our belief. They’re the two key ingredients that we have to make sure we bring on Sunday and if we do that for 90 minutes that’s paramount to giving us every opportunity to pick up that special cup.”
Lennon, who revealed defender Lee Mair still has a chance of being fit despite initially being ruled out with a stomach injury, believes the scene is set for St Mirren and Hearts to serve up a memorable occasion on Hampden’s lush bowling green surface.
“The pitch is in great nick,” he observed. “It’s better than we had at the end of January, which maybe coincided with the poor weather we had.
“Hearts have sold 25,000 tickets so far. We’ve managed to sell 15,000, so it’s going to be a great occasion. At the start of the competition who would have imagined Hearts and St Mirren in the final? But it’s certainly going to be the people’s final.”