St Johnstone have qualified for the semi-finals of the 2014 Scottish League Cup. In this series of articles I recollect the successes and failures of the previous eight appearances the club has made in this famous cup competition. This is the first of these.
In Season 1961/62 St Johnstone reached the semi-final of the Scottish League Cup for the first time and, whilst the dream would eventually end in tears, Manager Bobby Brown’s team came so very close to reaching the club’s first ever national final.
The League Cup was introduced in 1946 when football was getting going again following the end of the Second World War the previous year. During the 15 year period until 1961 Saints, as a Second Division team, had reached the quarter final stages on three occasions but had lost over two legs to First Division opposition. The first time in 1952 to Kilmarnock, then in 1954 to Hearts and the following year to Motherwell in a tie that went to a third game.
The 1961 sectional draw had placed Saints in a tough group alongwith Hibernian, Celtic and Partick Thistle.
The opening match of the group saw Hibs come to Muirton Park and a second half Ian Gardiner goal gave Saints a deserved 1 – 1 draw in front of a 10,500 crowd.
The following Wednesday it was Celtic at Parkhead where Saints caused a major shock in winning 1 – 0. Bobby Grant, making his first appearance in a blue jersey scored the only goal of the game in 75 minutes. However, the hero of the night was undoubtedly keeper Billy Taylor who was in brilliant form throughout, making save after save, as “The Hoops” tried to get an equaliser.
A dour 0 – 0 draw at Firhill against Partick Thistle coupled with Hibs and Celtic drawing 2 – 2 at Easter Road meant that Saints finished the first week of matches on top of the table equal with Hibs on 4 points each.
After leading 1 – 0 at half time against Hibs at Easter Road a second half collapse saw their chances of progress receive a set back as the Edinburgh team went on to win 4 – 1.
So when Celtic arrived at Muirton Park on the Wednesday night it really was a “must win” match for Saints. In one of the most exciting matches I have ever seen Saints triumphed 2 – 0 thanks to a fantastic first half performance. Goals from Ian Gardiner and Ronnie Wright paved the way for a famous victory. 15,000 fans turned up for this match.
Somewhat surprisingly, on the same night Hibs lost 2 – 1 to Partick Thistle which meant that going into the final match they were on top of the table on 6 points, Saints were second ( on goal average ) also on 6 points, with Celtic just one point behind.
After the success over Celtic there was great hope that Saints could carry on the form they had displayed that evening for the visit of Partick Thistle to Perth on the Saturday. However, after dominating the early stages Saints were stunned when “The Jags” scored two first half goals to lead at the interval. But there was a great “will to win” in this team and they stormed back in the second period. The revival began in 64 minutes when John Bell scored from a tight angle, then two minutes later, full back Charlie McFadyen lobbed the keeper from 20 yards to level the match. Thistle showed their character when they restored their lead in a match that was now swinging from end to end. John Bell scored again to bring Saints back on level terms. Excitement was now at fever pitch and the noise in the stadium was incredible. With only 9 minutes left Ronnie Wright scored the winner when, despite all that was going on, he remained calm in the penalty area, and, after he had dribbled past two defenders he then stroked the ball into the corner of the net. 4 – 3.
The joy was further enhanced when news came through that Hibs had lost to Celtic 2 – 1 at Parkhead meaning that Saints had topped the group on 7 points to reach the quarter final stage.
A crowd of 15,000 turned up at Fir Park to watch the first leg match against Motherwell and they were not disappointed. In yet another thrilling match, Saints came back from 2 – 1 down at half-time to win 3 – 2. Saints scorers were Ian Gardiner, Matt McVittie, and a superb 20 yarder from Ronnie Wright 10 minutes from time. Goalkeeper Billy Taylor again had an outstanding match making miraculous saves to keep the Steelmen at bay.
The second leg at Muirton a week later was played in front of 14,500 fans and was yet another thriller. Pat Quinn had levelled the aggregate score with an 18th minute strike and both teams went all out for the winner. Saints thought they had it early in the second half but Bobby Grant’s “goal” was disallowed when the referee spotted the linesman’s flag up for offside. They were not to be denied though and the Saints fans were ecstatic when John Bell scored 16 minutes from time. Ian Gardiner was the provider but the inside man showed great skill in controlling the ball before driving home from 10 yards out. 1 – 1 on the night and 4 – 3 on aggregate. At the end of the match jubilant Saints fans invaded the pitch to congratulate their heroes.
And so it was on to the semi-final against Rangers at a neutral Celtic Park on Wednesday 11 October 1961. Rangers were Scottish Champions and a team full of International players. Despite Saints superb cup form their League form was disappointing and going into this match were sitting in second bottom position in the table.
Manager, Bobby Brown pinned his faith in the following team: – Billy Taylor, Charlie McFadyen, Jim Lachlan, Jim Little, Jim Ferguson, Ron McKinven, Matt McVittie, Jimmy Walker, Ian Gardiner, John Bell, Joe Henderson.
Rangers lined up: Ritchie, Shearer, Caldow, Stevenson, Paterson, Baxter, Scott, McMillan, Millar, Brand, Wilson.
Saints team showed no fear of their opponents and took the game to the ‘Gers straight from the kick off. For the first 20 minutes or so there was nothing between the teams until Ritchie and Caldow had to desperately clear a Jimmy Walker effort from an Ian Gardiner head flick.
After Scott had fired a shot past Taylor’s post, Saints opened the scoring in 30 minutes. Joe Henderson was fouled on the right wing and when Jim Little’s free kick came into the box Ian Gardiner out jumped Paterson to head the ball past Ritchie into the corner of the net. 1 – 0.
Stung by this reverse Rangers mounted the pressure on the Saints defence but inspired by yet another superb display of goalkeeping by Billy Taylor, the Saints rearguard stood firm.
Gardiner had a chance to increase Saints lead but sent his shot past the post before the second goal St Johnstone was registered one minute from half time. It was John Bell who got it after Henderson and Walker had combined well in the build up. When the ball was slipped through to Bell, the youngster ran forward 10 yards, before sending an unstoppable shot low into the corner of the net from fully 20 yards out. The thousands of Saints fans in the crowd were delighted. Brilliant stuff.
2 – 0 Saints at half time and, as Arthur Montford might have said, Sensation!
The second half was only a minute old when Rangers got a lifeline. Davie Wilson scored from close range with a shot that went in off the post. 2 – 1.
It was really all Rangers now but every Saints player was giving his utmost to hold onto their lead. When Rangers did manage to get through they found Billy Taylor immense. Bell picked up an injury but with no substitutes in those days he took up a position on the left wing as something of nuisance value to the Rangers defenders.
Despite their gallant efforts the pressure was mounting and when Scott was brought down in the penalty box by Jim Lachlan, the referee had little option other than to award a penalty. Caldow gave Taylor no chance with the spot kick as he slammed the ball into the net for 2 – 2.
Saints managed to see out the final thirteen minutes of regulation ninety but Rangers power began to tell in extra time and when Wilson headed the third goal late in the first period it was really all over bar the shouting.
This was a wonderful team performance with every single Saints player giving his all. They could be proud of their achievements.
Rangers would go on to win the Cup defeating Hearts 3 – 1 in a replay after the first match had ended 1 – 1.
Sadly, Saints could not maintain their fine early season form and were relegated at the end of the Season on goal average.