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Mar 20, 2013

Buddies make friends with success

In this week's North of the Border, St Mirren end a long wait for silverware and the race is on for the SPL golden boot.

Paisley parade

St Mirren have the season's first trophy after they won the League Cup for the first time in their history. The Paisley club were 3-2 winners over Hearts in an entertaining final in which they went behind, led 3-1 and then endured intense pressure to hang on for victory.

Under Danny Lennon, their young manager, St Mirren have attempted to sex up their football, but results have been inconsistent. This season, in a wide-open race for the top six places and European qualification, they were only briefly in the mix before it became clear that Sunday's final was to be the sole focus of their campaign. However, the team that ended a 26-year wait for one of Scottish football's big prizes has much to admire.

The crucial third goal of the final, to put St Mirren 2-1 up, came from Steven Thompson. The former Scotland striker made a sentimental decision to move to the club he supports when he left Burnley in the summer of 2011. A hometown boy, the roundabout on the route he drives to drop his kids at school was bedecked in the days before the final with a banner that read: 'Thommohawk Believe!'.

Beyond all of that, Thompson has produced a career-high goal return since joining St Mirren and at 34 still has an all-round game at centre-forward that is better than most No. 9s in the division. As well as his goal, it was his pass that released Gary Teale down the right, before the winger gave Esmael Goncalves a tap-in for the equaliser.

The acquisition on loan of Goncalves, from Rio Ave in Portugal, is one of several mid-season transfers that played their part in this success. The third St Mirren goal was scored in some style by Conor Newton, one of two starters on loan from Newcastle United. The central midfielder uses the ball quickly and with intelligence and suits the style that Lennon encourages. If the manager retains either or both of his on-loan goalscorers, his team will be better placed next season.

The supporters who lined the streets of Paisley, outside Glasgow, will also long remember Jim Goodwin, the captain who lifted the cup at Hampden. Goodwin is a real treat to watch, a leader of his own side and a master at walking the line upon which a wide range of the rules that govern the sport are drawn. Whether as a defensive midfielder or, as at Hampden, a centre-back, Goodwin often appears to avoid censure from referees using a variation of the Jedi mind trick. In either role, he also rarely makes the wrong decision on the ball.

St Mirren have in recent seasons promised more than they have delivered. This week they gave their supporters something they will remember as long as they watch football and there are not that many that can say that.

Golden shot

There were some big goals in the SPL this week, affecting several of the more interesting races in the top division, including the golden boot.

There was a lot going on in Friday night's win for Motherwell over Hibernian. It gave second-placed Motherwell a ten-point edge over Hibs, who are now far more immediately concerned with retaining their place in the top six than chasing their vanquishers for the European places. The three teams below Hibs are all a win away from stealing their spot.

One of the four goals Motherwell scored was a beauty by James McFadden, who slid past two defenders and then shot around two more as they threw themselves down to block his way. It was McFadden's first since his return to Motherwell and his performance gave reason to believe that he can still get crowds on their feet. McFadden for Scotland? His manager, Stuart McCall, is on Gordon Strachan's staff. Another two games like this and the darling of the Tartan Army should be back in the frame.

However, his goal should not overshadow the 20th of the league season for Michael Higdon. The Motherwell target man is having the season of his career and became the first player since Willie Pettigrew in the mid-1970s to break 20. He shares the lead in the race to be the top scorer in the division with Billy McKay of Inverness Caledonian Thistle. McKay's penalty last weekend was his 20th and the striker has rediscovered most of the form that powered his phenomenal mid-season streak.

McKay's goal also moved Inverness to third, ahead of Ross County, the team they beat in another heated Highland derby. The penalty was disputed long and hard, but in super slo-mo looked a sound decision. County will surely have to end their winless season against their neighbours if they are going to take second after the split.

Gary Hooper, the Celtic striker who won the golden boot last season, is four back on 16 after his goal played a part in a remarkable comeback for Celtic against Aberdeen. Three-nil down with 22 minutes left, the champions franked their defence with a win borne of relentless pressure and sealed by an overhead kick from Georgios Samaras.

The real kicker in the race, however, could lie in the other two strikers with their eyes on the prize. Niall McGinn, of Aberdeen, is on 16. Leigh Griffiths, of Hibs, has 19. Both teams are capable of finishing on either side of the split and so may end up playing their final five fixtures against the lower-ranked teams. That may yet be the deciding factor in a competition that has, in the history of the SPL, never been won by a player outwith the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers.

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