St Johnstone’s first ever Scottish League match was a Second Division fixture with Arthurlie ( from Barrhead ) played on 19 August 1911 at the Recreation Grounds in Perth. Saints winning by 4 goals to 1. The Recreation Grounds are no longer there but were situated at the foot of the South Inch opposite the Prison and behind the present Shell garage.
The previous 1910/11 Season had been a particularly successful campaign for Saints winning both local competitions – the Perthshire Cup and the Dewar Shield. However, of much greater prestige was their success in winning the Scottish Consolation Cup ( a competition for teams knocked out of the Scottish Cup proper before the 4th round ) by defeating Second Division champions Dumbarton 2 – 1 in the final at Ibrox. Saints came back from a one goal half time deficit with goals by Albert Cunningham ( who was on loan from Rangers for the match ) and George Mackay bringing the cup to Perth. Press reports at the time state that the £143 “gate” was a record for the Consolation Cup final. On their way to this success they also had to overcome strong Second Division opponents in Ayr United, and Cowdenbeath. Of equally significant importance, Saints fans had turned up in large numbers to Central League and Cup matches, both at home and away.
So when the opportunity presented itself during the close season to join the Scottish League their application was supported by strong credentials both on and off the park. Confirmation of their acceptance was received on 6 June 1911 resulting in much activity to improve the pitch, the supporters facilities and the team for the new season.
During the summer period the trainer John McVean along with a number of players sought to improve their financial rewards and unfortunately two of Saints all time greats, Bert Sampson ( a centre back ) and Johnny Cameron ( a midfield player who had been with Saints for over 13 years ) had a slight difference with the Directors regarding terms. Although they were to resolve matters shortly thereafter, regrettably, they did not appear in the historic opening fixture against Arthurlie, instead their places being taken by new recruits William Macpherson who had signed from local junior club, St Leonard’s and Alex Stuart who was previously with Dundee Stobswell juniors.
From the Consolation Cup winning team 3 notable players had departed. Full back John Ferguson joined Dundee, George Bennett had gone to England with George Mackay moving to Kilmarnock. “The real mackay” as supporters affectionately called him had proved to be a prolific scorer during that Season with over 20 goals in League and Cup matches.
Goalkeeper Robert Aitken, Tom Jackson ( a former Scottish internationalist with 6 caps whilst at St Mirren ), Willie Wilson, George Steven, and Henry Brown had all remained. Added to the squad were Alex Page from Rangers, Walter Anderson from Montrose and Arthur McGowan, a soldier from the local barracks.
In an attempt to replace Mackay’s goals and to be prepared for stiffer opposition Saints paid Hearts, for what was then, a substantial fee of £20, for the transfer of Bail Colombo.
Accordingly, the team that turned out before a large attendance that auspicious day was : – Aitken, Jackson, McGowan, Anderson Macpherson, Stuart, Wilson, Page, Colombo, Steven, Brown.
The local press was somewhat disappointed with the standard of play on show with one reporter suggesting that there had been a better standard in both the Central League and the Northern League. However Perth fans were soon celebrating Saints first ever League goal when Alex Stuart fired the homesters ahead in the first half. Stevenson equalized for the visitors with a free kick from outside the box which went straight through the Saints defence and past Aitken into the net. So at half time the match was all square at 1 goal each. On resumption George Steven put Saints in front quickly followed by a Colombo header. This effectively ended the contest before Willie Wilson scored late on to give Saints a comfortable 4 – 1 win and both points.
New striker Colombo was unfortunate to be injured twice in the early stages of the match and was very much a passenger for a large part of the game. His first accident took place immediately from kick off and after treatment he resumed only to receive another kick on the same knee. This effectively rendered him a passenger. The Perthshire Constitutional reporter was clearly unimpressed with the new man and suggested that “it would be no surprise to learn that this was his first and last game for the Saints.” Colombo then missed a couple of matches and Saints Directors decided to get expert medical advice on their big money signing. Accordingly they paid for the player to see an Edinburgh specialist whose report on the player’s injured knee proved favourable. However, from match reports it was clear that Colombo’s performances were still very much below par. The Saints Directors were not slow to take action and when it appeared that our old friend Mackay had not settled in Ayrshire he was brought back to Perth where he again showed his eye for goal by scoring winning goals against both Dundee Hibs in the league and Cowdenbeath in the Scottish Qualifying Cup.
Saints early Season form was good and they topped the League for a number of weeks. At the end of the Season they were comfortably placed in 5th position with 24 points gained from their 22 matches played. It was reported that with one exception no Club had ever taken a better position in its first Season in the Second Division.
In the Scottish Cup they were drawn at home to First Division side Motherwell and a crowd of between 8,000 and 9,000 turned up at the Recreation Grounds. Despite playing exceedingly well they were unfortunate to lose by 2 goals to 0. The Perthshire Advertiser report is headed “Defeated But Not Disgraced” and it is clear that even although Saints were the better outfield team, they just couldn’t put the ball in the net. Where have we heard that before?
Interestingly the report from the Annual General Meeting makes fascinating reading in so far as finances are concerned. Total income for the full year amounted to £1315 and with total expenditure of £1490 a loss of £175 was reported. The Chairman, Robert Campbell ( who later in life would become President of the Scottish Football Association ) explained to the shareholders that the main reason for the loss was players transfer fees paid on entering the Second League. The detailed accounts reveal players wages and bonuses amounted to £473.
The final Division 2 League table was : –
Division 2 P W D L F A W D L F A Pts
1 Ayr United 22 10 1 0 37 8 6 2 3 17 16 35
2 Abercorn 22 8 2 1 25 10 5 2 4 18 12 30
3 Dumbarton 22 10 0 1 29 10 3 1 7 18 21 27
4 Cowdenbeath 22 7 0 4 20 12 5 2 4 19 19 26
5 St Johnstone 22 8 1 2 17 7 2 3 6 12 20 24
6 St Bernard’s 22 6 2 3 23 11 3 3 5 15 25 23
7 Leith Athletic 22 6 4 1 16 8 3 0 8 15 26 22
8 Arthurlie 22 5 2 4 24 15 2 3 6 6 15 19
9 East Stirling 22 5 3 3 13 9 2 0 9 8 22 17
10 Dundee Hibs 22 5 4 2 17 11 0 1 10 4 30 15
11 Vale of Leven 22 4 0 7 18 26 2 1 8 8 24 13
12 Albion Rovers 22 5 0 6 14 18 1 1 9 5 23 13
Saints defeated champions Ayr United 1 – 0 at the Recreation Grounds and drew the away fixture 1 – 1.
The following 3 Seasons leading up to the First World War saw Saints more or less consolidate their League position with mid table finishes.