Underdogs set to spoil predictions

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Football

Hearts face a determined St Johnstone tonight as they continue their attempt to win the Scottish Cup for the first time in 40 years.

All four quarter-finals are David v Goliath encounters with Hearts, Rangers, Aberdeen and Celtic clear favourites for a heavyweight semi-final line- up but St Johnstone of the First Division insist they are ready to shatter that prediction.

"We are the underdogs on this occasion and that suits us fine" said the St Johnstone manager, Paul Sturrock, whose side have undergone a remarkable revival to coincide with his own recovery from a heart scare in October.

Sturrock collapsed at Tannadice midway through their game against Dundee United and he was rushed to hospital. Tests showed that he had not suffered a heart attack but was under severe stress.

Since returning to McDiarmid Park, Sturrock has instituted a nine-to-five regime for his players and they have shot from no-hopers to the promotion frame and the Cup quarter-finals.

Stenhousemuir, Livingston and Clydebank are among the sides who have blemished St Johnstone's Cup record in the past couple of years so their relish at being underdogs is understandable. "There's no pressure on us for this one," John Blackley, Sturrock's assistant, said. "Everyone is expecting Hearts to go through but we are geared up for an exciting night.

"There is a semi-final place at stake which would give another edge to our season. We've got ourselves back into the promotion picture and we would love to be involved in the last four of the Cup.

"The game is live on TV which is rare for us but something we feel the players will see as an incentive. It is a chance to show what they can do individually and as a team."

Saints could field two ex-Hearts players in Allan Preston and Jim Weir, while Roddy Grant and Kevin Twaddle have been lifelong supporters of their opponents tonight.

Preston is one of five Saints players doubtful. Blackley has confirmed that Philip Scott and Kevin McGowne are also among the injured but he refuses to say who the others are.

"We're hoping we might have two fit from Scott, McGowne and Preston," Blackley said. "The other two we wouldn't want to name. We will give them all until the last minute."

Hearts have not won the Scottish Cup since 1956 when they beat Celtic in the final and their manager, Jim Jefferies, hopes that banning his players from talking will prove to be a lucky omen.

Their French goalkeeper, Gilles Rousset, has won his fitness battle and will take over from Craig Nelson, who let in four goals against Celtic on Saturday. Top goalscorer John Robertson, who only came off the bench at half-time at Parkhead, is tipped to start.

Striker Alan Lawrence is expected to be clear to play. Lawrence was given a one-match ban earlier in the week by the Scottish Association but if an appeal lodged by Hearts arrives at Park Gardens today he will be available for selection.

Jefferies had his players in for training on Sunday after that defeat. "I wanted them to get that out of their system quickly. I didn't want them dwelling on it and the spirit in our camp is very high.

"We must regard St Johnstone as Premier Division opposition. They have been on a good run recently but so far we have beaten Partick and Kilmarnock who were in similar form.

"There is a big prize at stake for Hearts and we are all aware of that."

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