St Johnstone Win Trophy – Re-write the History Books by Alastair Blair

The following is an article published today by Alastair Blair co author of Bristling With Possibilities – The Official History of St Johnstone FC.

“Outside Celtic Park, before the Cup final, I bumped into John Litster. John, for those who are too young to remember, was Stewart Duff’s predecessor as Secretary at St Johnstone, back in the early days of McDiarmid Park. Although a Raith Rovers supporter, John, now residing in Norwich, had made the journey to see one of ‘his’ teams and he told me that he “had a good feeling about today”. He was just one of the famous 15,000, along with many others who had travelled miles hoping to see history made. And made it certainly was.

Now the dust is starting to settle, can we put this achievement in perspective and try to put Tommy Wright’s team in its proper place in the pantheon of St Johnstone’s (not very frequent) glorious achievements, alongside the famous SV Hamburg game and a certain 7-2 victory over that other team from Dundee?  It’s probably too early but as today’s Scotsman newspaper suggested that the club history should now be re-written, I’ll give it a go. Don’t ask me to re-write the whole book again though. That was seven years of my life which I don’t begrudge, but it’s time for someone younger to take up that particular challenge.

So, how good was last Saturday?

Well, it is, has to be, the most famous game and the best achievement to date in the club’s history. The fact that this current squad has now been in Europe for three seasons in a row is also a staggering achievement. They deserve every compliment they have been given. How do they compare with the past?

Well, I wouldn’t attempt to rank which of Saints’ great sides is the best, but football history, naturally, tends to be lived in the present so there is a natural tendency to think the most recent the best. Today’s game is always said to be more fast, more skillful and better all round than the game our fathers and grandfathers watched. I personally don’t buy the idea that the older players were any less skillful than the modern ones. Bobby Davidson, Sandy McLaren, Willie McIntosh (one of the ten best centre-forwards the late, great Bob Crampsey ever saw, which means he must have been exceptional), John Connolly, John Brogan, Sergei Baltacha, Roddy Grant, and indeed whoever is your personal choice, all have ‘legendary’ status. Even at those times when the club has not been in the upper echelons of the Scottish game, we still had players who went on to achieve real greatness and international recognition, such as Paddy Buckley and Ally McCoist. It was their luck to be at Perth when the club was not at its brightest, but their skill and subsequent achievements are no less impressive for that. Stevie May, in contrast, has his career ahead of them and may become one of the very best ever, but that is for the future, much of which, sadly, will be at another club.

Over the broader sweep of the club’s history, there have been four great teams. These are:

Tommy Muirhead’s 1930’s side, who are the only Saints team ever to head the top Division in the Scottish football league, in September and October 1934. It is hard to imagine, but we were then, seriously, being talked of in the press as a challenger for the League title. No other Saints team in history has ever been in this position. This was a really good St Johnstone team that for several seasons were, as now, a ‘top six’ side, recognised as such and for the first time in our history capable of being considered a team that might win the Scottish Cup – the only knock-out trophy available at that time. That same year, 1934, saw our first failure at the semi-final stage, to Rangers.

The second great team was the Willie Ormond’s fabulous side that I was lucky enough to grow up watching. John Connolly was, in my opinion, the best player I’ve seen – to date – in Saints colours, and his team – Willie Ormond’s team – were competing in an era when Scottish football really did hold its own at the top level. Being third in the league behind what was effectively the Lisbon Lions team is a real achievement, as was only being narrowly defeated by the same Celtic side in the 1969 League Cup final. And of course, this Saints team qualified for the first time for European competition, and competed successfully against the very strong Hamburg side that had two men who had played in the World Cup final against England only a few years previously.

Our third iconic side is Sandy Clark’s, although much of it was assembled by Paul Sturrock. Like Ormond’s team, this side only just failed to win the League Cup, overcome by two goals to one, by an immensely powerful Rangers side, full of foreign internationals that their current supporters could only dream of seeing at Ibrox today. They too qualified for Europe, but fell to the millionaires of Monaco, despite a thrilling 3-3 draw at McDiarmid. Like Ormond’s team, they were competing in a very high standard of Scottish football, when Celtic and Rangers had the likes of Laudrup, Larsson and Gazza in their ranks.

The fourth great side, of course, is the Cup Winning team from the 17th of May this year. Their place in the club’s history is assured by virtue of what they have done – become the first St Johnstone team to win a major trophy. It doesn’t matter whether the current players are better or not than their predecessors from earlier eras. However, the current squad, assembled by Derek McInnes, Steve Lomas and Tommy Wright (not forgetting John Connolly’s signing of Ando) contains some exceptionally talented individuals, welded into a tight, cohesive and superbly drilled and organised unit, and their place in history is assured. In many respects, it is this win that, in many people’s opinion will nudge them above the rest, but I think it’s invidious, if not impossible, to make comparisons.

In the aftermath of the Scottish Cup win, a common refrain from all the commentators has been that everyone in Scottish football is delighted to see Geoff Brown get his reward for his careful running and sensible stewardship of our club. Others have tried to buy success, often with short-term results, but in the long-term Geoff has been proven right. Hearts, Rangers, Dunfermline, Gretna, Dundee and many others have found themselves in financial trouble while Saints have gone on getting it right, being relegated rather than being imprudent with their money and then building again from a sound financial base. St Johnstone is, first and foremost, a business.

This brings me to my penultimate point. One of the things that I always knew, but didn’t really appreciate until I started to research the club’s history, is just how important the directors and chairman have been. Fans are often said not to care about the money; they just want results. Geoff Brown’s achievement, set against the backdrop of times when others sought and took instant football gratification, was to put the business first.

There is no doubt that it has been his stewardship, now passed to his son Steve, that has been central to St Johnstone’s success, both off and on the field. It is noticeable that whilst the players are, naturally, the focus of attention over the entire span of Saints’ history, in fact it is two administrators, Geoff Brown and Robert Campbell, who have been the principal reasons why St Johnstone are an established senior side, while others clubs have fallen by the wayside or drifted down the Divisions and show no likelihood of returning to former glories.

I cannot separate Geoff Brown and Robert Campbell in terms of their importance to the club. Campbell, a Perth solicitor, actually played for the team, oversaw its change to professional status in 1906, guided it to become a Limited company in 1910, helped secure Scottish League status in 1911, and crucially, along with his fellow directors, worked assiduously behind the scenes in the Eastern League in the summer of 1920 (the Scottish League Division Two, where we were before the war, still being dissolved at this time), to secure Saints’ future via a place in the Central competition for the following season when there was a very real chance they might no longer be able to continue as they would have no league to play in. This was as crucial to the club as the much better known rescue act which Geoff Brown performed in 1986 when the club was, once more, for different, this time financial, reasons, on the brink of going under. Since then, we all know just how important Geoff has been to St Johnstone. Crucial doesn’t do it justice and without him we would not have had last Saturday’s celebration. In fact, it’s possible we would not have had a club at all.

These two men, Campbell and Brown, held the reins at the club for many years, and these years, generally, were successful ones for St Johnstone. Such long periods of stability, good, indeed great, business management and loyalty to both the club and the men and women who support the team, have been crucial in St Johnstone’s success as it has been this financial stability (albeit at times it could get a bit hairy behind the scenes), that has created the platform for managers and players to do what the fans want – win games, and now, for the first time, win a major trophy.

Finally, I’d like to resolve, once and for all, the question of when the club was formed. The media and indeed everyone else, have told us, ad nauseam, that we have waited 130 years for this first major trophy. In

reality, there is absolutely no doubt that the club was formed in 1885. The date 1884 only appears once, in one sentence, in a book written in 1898, called ‘Football in Perthshire’, by Peter Baxter, an early stalwart of the club. This sentence reads, “The initial move in the formation of the present St Johnstone club was made one evening in the autumn of 1884 by John Colborn” (my italics). Later in the same paragraph we read, “and it was quite the custom for a time, after cricket was finished, for the football to be brought forth…..The cricketers soon acquired a liking for the game, with the result that a regular club was formed, goalposts purchased and a suitable piece of ground selected.”

In other words, the cricketers had a kick-about, then later decided to form a proper football club. The Perthshire Constitutional, one of three local papers at the time, records in its issue of 25th February 1885, that at the annual meeting of the cricket club, on the 6th of February, “it was proposed to start an Association Football Club. A meeting for that purpose was held last night, when the following office-bearers were elected.” St Johnstone began life on the 24th of February 1885. It has taken us 129 years to win a major trophy, and to be honest I really don’t mind that the press concentrates on the good story rather than the facts.

It is a story we can tell our children and grandchildren. Like John Litster, we were one of the 15,000. We were there and saw history being made. St Johnstone, once bristling with possibilities, have now seen off the ‘difficulties anxieties and struggles’ that Robert Campbell referred to at the Golden Jubilee in 1935. Then, he saw those ‘difficulties, anxieties and struggles…not as dark foreboding clouds but as cherished memories.” Today, his successor, Geoff Brown, and his son Steve, can lay claim to creating the conditions for the most cherished memory for all Saints’ fans, the Scottish Cup win at Celtic Park on the 17th of May 2014.”

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One thought on “St Johnstone Win Trophy – Re-write the History Books by Alastair Blair

  1. Bryce Mailer says:

    Hi Alastair

    ‘Tommy Muirhead’s 1930’s side, who are the only Saints team ever to head the top Division in the Scottish football league…’

    I’m sure I’ll be accused of pedantry but given how definite the above statement is I feel I have to mention that it’s not 100% true.

    Sturrock’s team did it on 16 Aug 1997 as can be seen here…
    http://www.statto.com/football/stats/scotland/premier-division/1997-1998/table/1997-08-16

    I appreciate it’s only after a couple of games and it was only for a very short period but, as can be seen, the records do actually show that Saints did lead the top Division in the Scottish football league that Saturday night.

    Sadly, somewhere in the attic, I’ve still got a photocopy of the Scotland On Sunday from the 17th showing us top as I expected it to be the only time I’d ever see it!

    Obviously it doesn’t compare with Muirhead’s achievement but it did happen so maybe a slight tweak of the above sentence is needed.

    Kind regards.

    Bryce Mailer

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