Saints enjoy their moment in the sun
St Mirren 1 Celtic 0
St Mirren began yesterday on a high, at 30,000 feet on a pre-dawn Spain-bound flight to a week of warm-weather training, booked before they became the hot story of Scottish Cup quarter-finals weekend.
This victory on Saturday, courtesy of Billy Mehmet's second-half penalty, will gird them for the week's work. "Sun on our backs, and double sessions," said the terrier of a forward, Craig Dargo, who earned the spot-kick when felled from behind by Celtic's captain, Stephen McManus. If the only sessions this week are on a training pitch, it will be a surprise.
A week after Saints were mauled 7-0 at Celtic Park in the SPL, the penalty was a match-winner thanks to Mehmet, a 25-year-old London-born, Anglo-Irish Cockney of Turkish heritage, who started his footballing life at West Ham and wound up at St Mirren via Dunfermline. "Me and the boys went out and put a shift in," was his sweet summary of success.
If the precis of Mehmet's life is a mind-scrambler, so too was this shocking cup exit for Celtic and their numbed manager, Gordon Strachan. You have to trawl back through the record books 47 years and nine cup meetings to find the last time St Mirren sent Celtic crashing out, in March 1962. St Mirren will face Rangers in the semi-final next month after Walter Smith's side saw off Hamilton 5-1 at Ibrox yesterday. In the other tie, Falkirk take on the winners of Aberdeen and Dunfermline.
So Celtic start this week at a low, both floored and flawed. Strachan stated the obvious when he said: "We don't have consistency." Specifically, he lacks consistent strikers. In the SPL, Scott McDonald is Celtic's joint top scorer with 12 goals, the same as Georgios Samaras, but the Greek scored seven of his in a month at the start of the season.
Then there is Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, with two goals from 17 SPL games all season and none in six matches in other competitions. Strachan's faith in the Dutchman, 30, seems more misplaced by the week, and Hesselink's critics now include the former Celtic and Scotland midfielder Craig Burley, who articulated an opinion as withering as it is widespread.
"Vennegoor of Hesselink is over the hill," said Burley with a brutal frankness born not just of his professional punditry but from his status as an ex-Hoop trying to fathom their torpidity. "If the legs aren't gone, they are very much on their way," he added. "His lack of movement is showing... He always looks cumbersome."
Such tough-love judgements – combined with a dose of self-flagellation that most of Celtic's misfiring players should be administering – should, fans will hope, stir a response. They certainly will if McManus' "devastation" at costing his team the match is as genuine as it seemed.
Hampden, next weekend, would be the ideal arena for that response, in the League Cup final against Rangers. It is not a venue Celtic will be visiting for any other occasion this season. Unlike St Mirren, in the Scottish Cup semis and maybe beyond.
Goal: Mehmet pen (55) 1-0.
St Mirren (4-4-2): Smith; Ross, Potter, Haining, Camara; Murray, Dorman, Thomson, Brady; Mehmet, Dargo (Wyness, 90). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Hamilton, Barron, McGinn.
Celtic (4-4-2): Boruc; Hinkel, Caldwell, McManus, O'Dea (Conroy, 83); Nakamura, S Brown, Crosas (Samaras, 74), McGeady; McDonald, Vennegoor of Hesselink. Substitutes not used: M Brown (gk), Loovens, Hartley.
Referee: C Richmond.
Booked: St Mirren Dorman, Thomson; Celtic McManus, Vennegoor of Hesselink.
Man of the match: Dargo.
Homecoming Scottish Cup semi-final draw: Rangers v St Mirren; Falkirk v Aberdeen or Dunfermline. Ties to be played on weekend of 25-26 April.
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