If you were one of the small band of fans who attended the session on Saints' history at Perth Theatre a few weeks ago, you'll have heard me expostulating about the club's continued insistence that it was founded in 1884. The club's website states clearly "Established in 1884, St Johnstone is now one of Scotland's top football clubs." The second part of that sentence is true. The first part is false. In fact, as I said at the theatre, it's about as false as claiming that Saints actually beat Celtic in the 1969 League Cup final.
What is almost certainly true is that the men of St Johnstone Cricket Club did try playing football in the winter of 1884-85. This was not uncommon: several famous clubs (Sheffield Wednesday amongst others) owe their origins to cricketers taking up football in the winter months. However, the only evidence we have that the Perth cricketers did this is contained in the book "Football in Perthshire," written by Peter Baxter and published in 1898, some 14 years after the alleged event. As shown in the photo above, there are only a few sentences in that book that refer to the cricketers playing football:
"The initial move in the formation of the present St Johnstone Club was made one evening in the autumn of 1884 after cricket practice by John Colborn...his suggestion was mooted to Andrew Dunn, David Lambert, William Thomson, Wm Imrie, and others. As the cost of a ball was not an insuperable obstacle, the article was soon got, and it was quite a custom for a time, after cricket was finished for the night, for the football to be brought forth, and promiscuous kicking indulged in. 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."
Baxter then goes on to describe Saints' first game, but he gets that wrong, saying it was against "the Hibernians, a club on the other side of the walk." He also states, erroneously again, that John Colborn (who we have subsequently discovered was actually called Colbron) was the first captain of St Johnstone. That is not to cast doubt on his recollections about the cricketers kicking a ball about. However, there is a world of difference between indulging in "promiscuous kicking" - a kick about in other words - and forming a club. Baxter states "a regular club was formed, goalposts, purchased," etc. but does not give any indication as to when this happened.
As the club's official histories make clear, "the answer to when this actually happened can be found in The Perthshire Constitutional. This was a massive paper, far bigger than today’s broadsheets and published twice a week, on Monday and Wednesday evenings. All through January 1885 there are numerous reports of matches such as Fair City Athletics vs Western (Glasgow), Callander Rob Roy vs Oban, and Breadalbane vs Erin Rovers. Then, in February, the edition of Wednesday the 11th notes that St Johnstone Cricket Club held its AGM on the preceding Friday (i.e. the 6th of February). Nothing else is recorded about this meeting in that evening’s paper, but then a few weeks later, in the issue dated Wednesday 25th February 1885, the answer to the question is made clear. The text reads as follows: 'At a meeting of St Johnstone Cricket Club held on the 6th inst. it was proposed to start an Association Football Club. A meeting for that purpose was held last night, when the following officebearers were elected:- Captain, Daniel Scott; Lieutenant, David Lambert; Secretary and Treasurer, William Imrie, 10 St John’s Place, Perth; Committee – Messrs A Dunn, G Robertson and W Thomson.'
"From this we have a date – Tuesday, the 24th of February 1885 – as the actual start of our club. It is worth stating that there are still some other inconsistencies in the contemporary evidence. For example, Baxter’s book states that John Colborn (sic) was the first captain, but we believe that it is highly unlikely that a newspaper report of the previous night’s proceedings would be inaccurate when it contains such a definitive statement."
Similarly the local papers make it clear that the first match took place on the 7th of March 1885 and was against Caledonian.
I think that there is a tendency to believe that someone suggested in 1884 that a football club should be formed. However, Brian Doyle has read every detail from the three local Perth papers from 1884 and as he, I and others have discovered, the first sign that a club should be formed came, as noted above, on 6th February 1885. This was when it was mooted that a club be formed, which happened a few weeks later.
It should also be noted that, again as recorded in the official history, St Johnstone celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 1935. There were people attending the Golden Jubilee dinner (notably Robert Campbell), whose association with the club went back to its very earliest days. Why would they have celebrated this milestone in 1935 if they believed the club was founded in 1884?
Just why there is a reluctance at the club to acknowledge the truth is something that surprises me, although I think there is a reason for it. The history section on the club website says "given the clear indication that the St Johnstone Cricket Club members played football prior to the official formation of the club, 1884 continues to be shown as the year of formation on the club crest and on merchandising." I think that the last part of that sentence explains a lot of the club's reluctance to admit that 1884 is wrong. Changing all the branding and merchandising is not cheap. However, as I noted at Perth Theatre, there is a commercial opportunity for the club here . For a start, properly managed, there is the chance for some good PR around a story about the club getting younger, and, more importantly, there is the chance to rebrand everything and then sell it again. Call me an evil capitalist if you like, but you know you'd buy it all.
Incidentally, such confusion does not only apply to St Johnstone. Rangers have had a similar issue with their date of foundation (and before everyone starts shouting about them being only a few years old, you all know exactly what I mean). They were founded in 1872 and this was actually acknowledged in club handbooks until the 1920s (a bit like Saints' directors celebrating the 50th anniversary in 1935). However, when John Allan wrote Rangers' jubilee history he was either running late or was simply misinformed and changed it to 1873. Consequently, the first history of Rangers was published in 1923 and the club continued to claim 1873 for many years, even celebrating their centenary in 1973. There are apparently thousands of Rangers' fans with 1873 tattoos and social media accounts that refer to 1873 (and I know there are some Saints' fans with 1884 tattoos - sorry!). Subsequently, the Rangers' club historians established the truth, which was ultimately accepted by the club and from about 2010 they reverted to 1872. It is time for St Johnstone to do the same with 1885.