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  • Writer's pictureAlastair Blair

The real tragedy of St Johnstone's last two seasons

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

One the (few) advantages of being one of the club's historians is that you get to speak to people in power, both inside and outside the club. As such, you get a far broader picture of what has happened in the past and is likely to happen in the future. Moreover, you learn, if you didn't already know, that history repeats itself, and consequently one of the other advantages of being a football historian is that you tend to take a far longer and more contextualised view of events, players and the personalities connected with the club in any one era. In passing, that's why, if Brian Doyle and I were ever to re-write "Hagiography: the 60 Greatest Saints,"we would only include two, or at a push three, of the double-wining sides in our all-time pantheon. However, that's a mere detail and the issue at stake today, while not as grand as those periods in the 1920s and 1980s when the club's very future was at stake, is the swirling discord that surrounds the current team, the manager and his coaches and the results on the pitch since the last few months of 2021.

Those fans who circulate their views on social media tend to be the most vociferous and opinionated - on both sides of the current argument. Yet I would suggest that, even if the team were to turn the corner and start to put together the sort of consistent performances we enjoyed for many years under Tommy Wright and all the naysayers subsequently fall quiet, we are in danger of not seeing the crucial failing that is, in my view, the greatest missed opportunity in the club's history.

After Tommy Wright felt he could no longer stay at Perth, Callum Davidson's first, full season was, without doubt, the most successful in the club's history, culminating as we know in the

double cup wins. The work Tommy had done in getting the average age of the team down underpinned Callum's first season and, with some judicious signings and attention-grabbing results, the club's upward trajectory was a joy to behold.

As a result, Saints' stock was higher than it has ever been in Scotland (and indeed further afield). The consensus in the media was that Callum Davidson would be better to use his success as a springboard into a better paid job with a bigger club. Irrespective of whether he wanted to stay or go, it was clear that there was a great story to tell to any player or agent who was considering a move to St Johnstone. Yes, of course the pay would be poorer than at many other clubs, but there was the lure of European football and a team that seemed to be going in only one direction. It was at this point that it all started to go wrong...

There was huge excitement at the start of the season, with some superb performances, notably in the away legs in Europe, arguably making fans feel more confident than at any time in the club's history. However, I would argue that even in the European games there were signs of the malaise that was to come (and perhaps was already there). I was fortunate enough to be in the company of Gordon Whitelaw at the LASK game. After the final whistle, I said, to Gordon, "your team would have beaten this lot, wouldn't they?" "Well," he answered, "I don't know. They are a very good team. But we would have gone about it differently..."(my emphasis). Anyone who was fortunate enough to see Ormond's Saints would know the veracity of Gordon's point: Ormond's team went out to win; not to defend, (try to) score and then defend again.

After we were out of Europe, the sale of captain Jason Kerr was inevitable and necessary because he was heading into the last season of his contract and few would begrudge him the opportunity to make more money in England (and the club to make a six-figure sum from the transfer fee). However, the sale of our best player, Ali McCann, was not, in my view necessary. McCann had a long time on his contract and my understanding is that while he would not have been too pleased to have his (late) request to leave turned down, his personality is such that he would have knuckled down and given us another season. With him in the engine room, it's highly unlikely we would have been in the play-offs at the end of last season. Moreover, his value would have increased and he could then have been sold this summer for a lot more money than we actually received (and he might have gone to a bigger club than Preston). I understand the manager was not best pleased by the way everything was conducted at this time and it is believed that his anger grew considerably when the club put out a press release (quoting him about the transfer window), that he had not seen or had the chance to approve. To cap it all, the fiasco of the PR department putting out tweets about how delighted the club was at the signing of a replacement in the shape of Cammy MacPherson (a player who, I am reliably informed, was on offer at that time to any club who wanted him), put the tin lid on it and resulted in a shit-storm on social media (none of this is to denigrate MacPherson, but he is not in the same league as McCann).

History tells us that Sandy Clark was not a good manager for St Johnstone, despite the obvious evidence of success initially, based largely on Paul Sturrock's team. The club officials at that time told me that Sandy, unfortunately, did not plan ahead sufficiently to identify players to bring in to strengthen the team.This, plus other issues, were central to our subsequent relegation. Is history repeating itself? I don't know if Callum and the others tasked with identifying and bringing in new players are also deficient in this respect, but, once it was clear we were in a seriously bad position (essentially after the defeat to Celtic in the semi-final of the League Cup and our subsequent plunge to the foot of the table), it looks as if panic set in at all levels of the club and it is unarguable that our signings were, for the most part, poor and did nothing to improve the team (as was manifest in the results). In particular, our inability to score goals was painful in the extreme. But was the answer under the club's nose all this time?

Interestingly, when I spoke to the manager while writing Hagiography, he told me he saw Callum Hendry as a No. 10 rather than an out-and-out striker. It is easy to be wise with hindsight, but I believe the view at the club on Hendry at that time was that he wasn't what we needed, which is why he was constantly on loan (something similar seems to the be the case with Vertainen - although I'm not sure, from what I hear, that he's up to it at SPFL level). In the event, as others have sagely noted, without Callum Hendry, St Johnstone would be in the Championship this season. Yet despite this we are going into the current season with two older strikers who simply don't score enough goals (to put it mildly), plus a Canadian forward whom I understand Nick Dasovic told the club would take time to settle into Scottish football. As well as serious questions over our style of play, there ought to be a lot of additional concerns over our ability to coach our forward players. In addition, it's notable that without Conway (and latterly Wotherspoon), our ability to create chances from wide/wing positions diminished last season - and in my view every successful team has at least one high quality winger/wide player.

Not only were Saints not scoring goals, as I've noted, the football on display was dismal to watch. The mood music after the first two matches this season has not changed much from the end of last season, and if results continue to be poor then, even allowing for the cost of paying him off, I fear Callum will be toast. Clearly, the best possible outcome (one that I and, I am sure, all Saints' fans want) is for Callum and the team to turn the corner, prove everyone questioning them (including me) to be wrong and have a successful season and provide a platform upon which to build for a better future. The great tragedy is that we had just such a platform - the best, strongest and most publicly recognised platform ever in our history - and we blew it.

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