In the six years that had elapsed since the previous appearance in the 1992 semi final, when Saints lost to Rangers, a lot had happened at McDiarmid Park. Alex Totten had been replaced by John McClelland and he in turn by Paul Sturrock. The team had been relegated from the Premier League and after 5 seasons in Division 1 had been promoted again in 1997. Paul Sturrock had completely reshaped the team and re-established Saints as a Premier League team.
When the 1998/99 Season got underway there was optimism that Saints could once again make a real impact on Scottish football.
After a bye in the first round of the competition, Saints met Stranraer in the second round at McDiarmid Park. A number of good chances were squandered in the first half before three second half goals by Keith O’Halloran, Paddy Connolly and George O’Boyle finally overcame their lower league opponents.
The third round saw Saints face a tricky tie with Falkirk at Brockville where Saints had been embarrassed earlier in the year going down 3 – 0 in the Scottish Cup. On this occasion it took a 90th minute Paul Kane goal to allow Saints to progress.
Prior to the quarter final match with Hibernian at McDiarmid Park, Paul Sturrock had been lured to the vacant Manager’s post at Tannadice and his replacement Sandy Clark had been recruited from Hamilton Accies only days beforehand. What a start for Sandy as Saints turned on a brilliant display of attacking football to sweep the Hibees aside 4 – 0. A crowd of 8,165 saw two goals from new recruit Nathan Lowndes and single strikes from Gerry McMahon and John O’Neil take Saints through to the semi final.
Hearts were Saints opponents at Easter Road and there was no repeat of the 1962 semi when Hearts won convincingly. This time it was the Saints fans in the 12,027 attendance who were in for a real treat.
The Manager chose the following team: – Alan Main, John McQuillan, Gary Bollan, Nick Dasovic, Darren Dods, Alan Kernaghan, John O’Neil, George O’Boyle, Allan Preston, Miguel Simao, Paul Kane. Subs were Gerry McMahon, Roddy Grant and Nathan Lowndes.
The first decent chance of the match fell to Simao in nine minutes when his pace took him past McPherson to reach Dasovic’s lobbed pass but he lifted the ball over the keeper and the bar.
Hearts who had won the Scottish Cup in the summer were made to look a poor lot by this dynamic St Johnstone team. The first half was all Saints and O’Neil nearly put us ahead when he worked a neat one-two with O’Boyle which put him clean through. However, after partly rounding the keeper the goalie recovered to get back and turn the wing man’s effort round the post for a corner.
From the resultant flag kick another chance came along. Preston’s cross was headed down to Kernaghan by Dasovic, but the big defender’s shot was blocked on the goal line before the Hearts keeper managed to grab it.
The goal was merely delayed. Four minutes before the interval another Preston corner eventually found Dasovic just inside the penalty area and the Canadian Internationalist wasted no time in drilling the ball into the far corner. 1 – 0.
Saints second goal by Preston in added time at the end of the half was a candidate for goal of the season. Picking up a Simao pass on the left wing “biscuits” let fly from fully 25 yards giving the keeper absolutely no chance as his rocket shot flew into the top corner of the net. 2 – 0 and fully deserved.
Hearts started the second half with the Manager’s half time team talk still ringing in their ears but despite their efforts Saints defence was in no mood to let them have a sight of Main’s goal.
It was soon back to the other end when Kane sent O’Boyle scampering down the right wing. His great cut back was entercepted by Weir just as Simao was about to add the finishing touch.
Back came Hearts and after a poor clearance by Main the custodian redeemed himself by turning a fierce McKinnon drive around the post. Next it was McQuillan who got his body in front of a goal bound header to keep the lead intact.
Lowndes had replaced Simao and set off on a great solo run but after beating defender after defender he was unable to find a finish.
The icing on the proverbial cake came three minutes from time when a superb Dasovic pass found Lowndes in the box and when the striker pulled the ball back for O’Boyle to shoot home to make it 3 – 0 it was game over.
The Manager brought on McMahon for Preston and Grant for O’Boyle to run down the clock. So Saints had made it to the League Cup Final for the second time in their history and 29 years since the legendry Willie Ormond team.
In the final Saints narrowly lost 2 – 1 to Rangers at Celtic Park but at the end of the season secured 3rd place in the Premier League to qualify for the following season’s UEFA Cup.
It was a great time to be a Saints fan.