Saints of humble reality

FAN'S EYE VIEW - No 107: ST JOHNSTONE
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The Independent Online
To many outsiders, St Johnstone are a typical Scottish provincial club - i.e. no one has a clue where they come from. This distinguished trait was best exemplified in 1971 by the hapless players and officials of Vasas Budapest who, when journeying to Scotland for the return leg of a Uefa Cup tie against the Saints, laboured under the impression that their hosts hailed from a suburb of Glasgow.

St Johnstone are from the quaint and flower-obsessed city of Perth, with the club's name having its origins in the kirk of St John's which used to dominate the town, hence "St John's town". A trifle unimaginative, perhaps, but still a better idea than using the old Roman name for the city and ending up with a team called Bertha FC.

Another common characteristic of Scotland's medium-sized outfits to which the Saints faithfully adhere is an almost Calvinistic disdain of prolonged runs of success. Glorious moments are to be sparingly distributed throughout an otherwise tortuous 100 years or so of humble existence. St Johnstone's blip on football's seismic chart came in 1969 when, under the canny guidance of Willie Ormond, they reached their first and only national cup final (the League Cup, which they lost to the then all-conquering Celtic 1-0) and then a couple of seasons later they enjoyed their first and only foray into Europe. As well as coach-lagged Vasas, Hamburg were gloriously disposed of before normal service was resumed with a 5-2 aggregate hammering at the hands of Zeljeznicar Sarajevo.

Over the next decade and a half, Saints went about the process of admonishing themselves for the charge that they had ambitions above their station with awesome tenacity. In the Premier League's inaugural season, 1975/76, they managed to run up an all-time record low points haul of 11 (a 27- game run without a win may have had something to do with it) while in the 1980s, they achieved the distinction of being the only Scottish club ever to have been relegated in two successive seasons.

By August 1986, Saints had taken the paying penance thing to extremes. While it was all very well being done over by Stenhousemuir and Queen's Park on a regular basis, sitting at the bottom of the Second Division and propping up the rest of the Scottish League was just ridiculous. In marched a new chairman, Geoff Brown, who set about restoring us to our rightful place - which is an undefined grey area between the top end of the First Division and the relegation zone of the Premier Division.

Once again the club was in pioneering mode as they became the first in Scotland to wholeheartedly embrace the concept of building an out-of-town, purpose-built, all-seated stadium as Muirton Park succumbed to the bulldozers and the ubiquitous supermarket development. The move to McDiarmid Park in 1989 was quickly followed by promotion to the Premier Division. Quite why the presence of a few cantilever stands and rows of multicoloured tip-up plastic seats should have such a transforming effect on the 11 grown men regularly playing within their surrounds surely remains one of football's most sublime and under-researched mysteries - see Huddersfield for the latest example.

Of course, income from off-field activities was greatly increased, and recently we even had a rugby international - Scotland A v Italy A - which has breathed new life into those hoary old jokes about three points for a conversion every time one of our full-backs balloons a cross over the bar into the nearby crematorium.

For a few seasons, on the back of this cash bonanza, St Johnstone were nearly big time. There were Cup semi-finals, foreign internationals and spiralling admission prices. The danger signs of heady success were there for all to see, so they did the obvious thing - sacked the manager. Lo and behold, within a couple of years we were relegated and back in our First Division comfort zone. Another period in the wilderness probably beckons, but it would be nice to think that one day the Saints will finally put Perth on the map in the manner that Raith's Coca-Cola Cup triumph has done for the streets of Kirkcaldy.

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