Where do we go from here?
It has been said and written ad nauseam that no-one in their wildest dreams expected St Johnstone to win two trophies and qualify for European competition last season. The fact that we have marks this out as unquestionably the greatest season in the club’s history. Unfortunately, it does rather bugger up our rankings in ‘Hagiography’, although to be fair I don’t think anyone else (certainly not Brian Doyle or me) thought that our top 60 Saints would be challenged for some time.
To be honest, at the start of the season, I suspect most Saints fans didn’t even harbour any expectations of even reaching a final. If you were like me, I imagine that you would have been happy with a top-six finish, although given our start then you were probably (also like me) more concerned about avoiding relegation after the first few months of the campaign. During those rather worrying weeks, I had the advantage of speaking to the manager as part of our work on Hagiography and he did tell me that he wasn’t worried because although our results were not great he could tell by the performances that it would come good. However, I doubt even Callum thought it would come good to the extent it did. His stock as a manager is unlikely to be as high ever again and we should not be surprised if he is head-hunted by a bigger club. Similarly, some of players have been brought to the attention of a much wider audience (although obviously not the people who pick the Scottish national side) and it would seem only a matter of time before the likes of McCann and Kerr are making big-money moves elsewhere. The challenge for Saints is how we can continue to prosper…
Now the most obvious way to prosper is to have a rich benefactor, preferably someone with a bottomless purse who can spend the kind of sums necessary to win the Scottish Premier title. If it’s true that the club’s owners would be prepared to sell, then, the question is, to what extent are attempts being made to actually do so? When Alex Lamond and his board realised that Saints needed new investment, they sought out a number of local businessmen, one of whom was Geoff Brown. The rest, as they say, is history. Could history repeat itself, but this time from a position of strength? Or, with the increased interest in “fan ownership” could the St Johnstone-minded public be persuaded to invest in their local club? Personally, I doubt the Saints’ fan base has the money to create a fund large enough to buy the Browns’ shares, unless some beneficent individual comes in from left field (who would then, presumably, want a degree of control). It all seems highly unlikely, but then again, we thought the chances of winning anything last season were highly unlikely.
As is the case with any business (which, let’s remember is what Saints are), what happens next season (and the next and the next) really does come down to money. From what I can glean online, winning the Leagueand Scottish Cups will have given the club £540,000 in prize money, far more than will have been budgeted for and doubtless with a fair bit more to come in from TV and the merchandise that we’ve all been queueing up to buy in the past few weeks. In the great scheme of things, those ‘make mine a double’ shirts, mugs, whisky etc. certainly won’t offset the club’s loss of c. £20K in the year to 31st May 2020 and they won’t even make a dent in what will surely be a substantially bigger loss in the current financial year. The money from the two Cups will help offset this, as will the reported increase in season ticket sales, but there are so many calls on the club’s money that it is entirely understandable why the board would want to cash in on their star players.
While fans might accept that, albeit grudgingly, they’ll also want to see some of this income re-invested in new players and, equally importantly, in youth development.
There are two things that come into play here.
Firstly, as we were reminded at the last shareholders’ meeting that we were physically able to attend, McDiarmid Park is getting old. In fact, it occurred to me that when my good friend Brian Doyle first started to go to Muirton Park (in the very late 1950s), it was actually ‘younger’ than McDiarmid is today! As a result, the ground and its infrastructure need work done to maintain them in a fit and safe state.
Secondly, it’s a fact that Saints pay lower wages than many other equivalent Scottish clubs. I don’t know for certain, but I suspect that money may have been one of the reasons why Scott Tanser went to St Mirren, while the grapevine (notoriously unreliable of course) suggests that in the last month we have already lost out to other clubs who were prepared to offer potential signings more money than we were.
On top of this, the worst thing that could happen would be the loss of the manager. While I hope this doesn’t happen, another halfway decent season in 2021-22 would certainly result in his waygoing - and who could blame him? The problem, of course, would be the uncertainty that this would cause, especially if it happens in the close season. We just have to look at the debacle at Celtic to see the impact this might have. However, while players might want to sign for Celtic on the grounds that, no matter who the manager is, they will be paid well and have numerous opportunities to win trophies, the same most definitely does not apply to St Johnstone.
My guess is that in the event Callum leaves some time in the next 12 months, Macca would be offered the job, but if he were to follow Callum to a new position elsewhere then we are back to square one. There are those who think that Liam Craig might step into the breach. I’m not sure either Liam or Steven, good people though they undoubtedly are, would be what’s required. Other than Steve Lomas, who was a success in his season and a half, the last two managers (Tommy and Callum) had considerable experience as either a manager or an assistant manager with various clubs at different levels of the game. Neither MacLean nor Craig have this yet, although, to be fair, neither did McInnes or Coyle a decade or so ago. You just need to look at the history of any club’s managerial appointments to realise that the vast majority barely pass muster and even some of the big clubs get it wrong on a regular basis. It would be great if Saints could continue to buck this trend, but history suggests not. Consequently, I venture to suggest that the next managerial appointment is arguably the most important in our history. If we can get it right then we can cement our place as a top Scottish side: but if we get it wrong then we could go the way of Ayr, Airdrie or Dunfermline.
So far, this has been a bit gloomy. The $64,000 question, in my view, is how bad the finances have become in the last season. It’s this that will determine where we go from here. The chances of us repeating the success of last season are remote. However, the likelihood is that, assuming the manager stays and we lose one or two key players, we’ll have a moderately successful, mid-table season. In an ideal world, we’ll not lose Kerr or McCann, nor anyone else, but instead will retain the same back-four (I include Zander in that), find (Lord knows where) a 20-goal striker and finish third. Not only would this be success on the playing field, I also suspect that, in the medium-term, it would actually make us more money, because another season of development by the likes of McCann and Kerr (and potentially others – Callum told me that Alex Ferguson is “going to be a top, top player”), would increase their value in the transfer market. Another successful season and twice as much money coming in to the club 12 months from now … if (and it’s a massive if) the board’s nerve holds and the club’s finances can be sustained for that period, we could just surprise all those pundits who say that there is only one way we can go now…