(first published, Feb 11th 2018)
St Johnstone are not having a good season. After years of top six finishes and, more often than not, qualifying for European football, the team that Derek McInnes put together is now virtually gone. Those players from Del's era who are still at Perth are now on the downslope of their careers. Those who have been brought in by Tommy Wright are not, in the main, of the same quality. This is a recipe for decline, and that's what we're seeing now.
Having been to Motherwell on Tuesday and Tynecastle today (pic above), I have seen that decline at first hand. Those who attended most of the previous matches this year (apart from the 4-0 romp at Albion Rovers) tell similar stories. Too many players off form, too many making hideous mistakes, a lack of the all-in-it-together spirit that previously characterised Saints' teams, and, crucially, an inability to create/fashion chances and take them, reflected in the paucity of goals over the last month or so.
Now, although I have written a few books about St Johnstone, that doesn't give me any inside knowledge or indeed any right to pontificate about what is wrong, but, having said that, it is the case that history tends to repeat itself and I can see some similarities in the way today's team is deteriorating and the way in which Paul Sturrock's team, the one that Sandy Clark took to Europe, also gradually fell apart under Clark and were subsequently relegated. We also saw the same thing when Jackie Stewart took over after Willie Ormond left Saints for the Scotland manager's job. Tommy has not fallen short the way Clark and Stewart did, but this is a serious test of his managerial ability. No sane Saints' fan will want him to fail. Finances have also dictated too many loan signings, with contracted players leaving to cover the cost. We need every ounce of the successful management style Tommy has demonstrated previously to galvanise the team and pretty quick too. Games against the other bottom six teams will determine whether or not we are good enough. Time will tell.
My understanding is that today the relationship between the manager and the chairman is not quite as good as it might be. The atmosphere behind the scenes at the club is not quite how it is portrayed in the media. Staff turnover has been too high, with some leaving for reasons that are hard to fathom. Most fans are vaguely aware of this. The manager thinks that the chairman is not backing him with enough money: the chairman thinks that the manager uses his friends in the media to plant stories of discontent, such as the unwillingness of the chairman to sign off the £50 grand or so it would cost to take the players away for warm weather training during the recent winter break. Both seem to me to be right. The chairman is probably right about some of the media stories and definitely right about not wasting money on a trip to Spain for the players to go on the piss, but there are other areas where I suspect the manager has real grounds for complaint, especially around the signing of players.
However, irrespective of whether you think that the problem lies with the chairman or the manager, there is also the fact that the more senior players are now, privately, wondering about some of the team selections. That's understandable: they see young players coming through who, they know, will eventually supplant them in the manager's selections. Like every other fan at Tynecastle, I was bemused by the decision to take Chris Millar off in the first half, when he was, by common consent of the Saints' fans around me, the one midfield player who was making himself available for the ball and looking like he might actually give us a degree of control in the game. Chris Millar has been a real star for St Johnstone for many years, but sentiment should have no place in football and, unfortunately, he, like several other senior players, is not, I suspect, going to be at McDiarmid Park next season. OK, I understand that, but I don't understand why he - and not someone else - was taken off today to allow us to get a second striker on the pitch.
Unfortunately, and here is where the manager and the chairman, but particularly the former, must take responsibility, the players we have brought in are, for the most part, not good enough to keep the club at the level it's been at for the last six or so years. Think of the players Del brought in and how they have been the bedrock of the team for ages. Can you truly see most of our recent signings forming a similar foundation for future success? To be fair, some have been signings which, on the face of it, no-one could argue with. A Hearts fan of my acquaintance agreed with me that Saints had acquired a really good player when we signed Blair Alston. Alston has rarely demonstrated the skills he showed with Falkirk. Similarly, Stefan Scougall was seen as an excellent signing who would bring creativity, craft and goals to the midfield. Can anyone say that he's been a success, even allowing for the fact that he might be better played in the centre of the midfield rather than out on the flank? Scott Tanser has not been a success and has cost us too many goals, including two today. Denny Johnstone is clearly not of the standard required. Michael Coulson wasn't up to it. Graham Cumins initially looked like a proper goalscorer but then got injured and never really recovered (and how much did it cost us to settle his contract so he could leave early?). Macca has carried the burden for years, but is now at the end of his career. Chris Kane, who at least tried his heart out today and played well with virtually no intelligent support, may be the answer but has not, as yet, demonstrated that he can score 20 goals a season.
Don't get me wrong. I don't think we have a divine right to success. I've studied St Johnstone's history long enough to know that we are not a big team who are expected to be consistently in the top flight of Scottish football. I also know that history repeats itself. What I want is for us to have a chance to become a club that stays in the top flight permanently, thus giving us more chance of attracting better players in the future. But to do that we need to stay up this year and regroup in the close season, and the manager then needs the chairman's backing, spending discretely but intelligently, to bring in players who will create the foundation of the Saints' side for the next six years.
Tommy Wright is St Johnstone's most successful manager. That didn't happen by luck. Unlike Sandy Clark, he has not allowed a team built by his predecessor(s) to wither and decline and he has made some very good signings as well as the less successful ones listed above. Steve Brown, unlike his dad, has not known difficult times for St Johnstone under his leadership. He too will be seriously tested in the next few years as, on current form, it's likely that we're going to return to the normality that Saints' fans of my vintage have known for most of their lives. The last few years have been the exception, and a glorious one at that, but I hope the chairman is not prepared to accept that a spell in a lower Division is inevitable. That may well mean dipping carefully into the club's reserves (we do have money in the bank), but we need to get the next tranche of signings right. If a clear out is required in the summer then we shall need a number of experienced players (of a similar quality to those McInnes brought) to allow us to compete for a place in the top half of the Premiership again.
On Off the Ball, Stuart Cosgrove says he's happy enough to see St Johnstone spend some time in the First Division if that's what happens. I am sure he doesn't want to see this happen, but he seems sanguine about the prospect. I'm not. We are not Dundee United, we are not Hibernian or Hearts. If we get relegated we will struggle to get back again in a hurry. That's what our history tells us. There are only two men who can really affect this: Steve Brown and Tommy Wright. Otherwise, whoever writes the next update of the club's history (not me, I'll be too old), may not treat them as kindly as their achievements thus far warrant. This is not the first time in the club's history it has a chance to become a permanent fixture in the top flight, albeit in a mid-table position for the most part, but it is one of the best chances we have had of so doing. For a start, we have a manager who, despite my criticisms about some of his signings, has managed to keep us at the top for longer than any other manager in our history. Unfortunately, on present form we're heading for one of those periods in the doldrums that Mr Cosgrove thinks is acceptable. He may be right, it may be inevitable, but that's not a reason to shrug our shoulders and think that's this is where we naturally belong once a decade. Why can this time not be different?