IAN ST. JOHN became part of an exclusive band of footballers – he scored the winning goal in a Wembley FA Cup final, a crouching header that broke the hearts of Don Revie’s fledgling Leeds United and gave Liverpool their first FA Cup.
But St. John’s career in football went way beyond the usual route. After his playing and managerial career, he suddenly turned up in the mid-1980s as the co-host of the laddish football show, “The Saint and Greavsie”.
This duo became something of a characature of two former pros having a good time talking about the game they loved. Always smiling, always ribbing each other and extremely blokey. The fans loved them, even though their shows were a mix of cliché, jargon, Tarbuckesque jokes and a little loose banter. In an era when football was the leper of British sport, they provided some light-hearted respite. Then in 1992, as English football started to get serious, the veteran pair disappeared. Seven years wasn’t a bad run, though.
As a player, St. John was, for a while, one of the best centre forwards of his time, skilful, good in the air for a relatively short man and direct. He was signed by Liverpool from Motherwell in May 1961 just before his 23rd birthday. Bill Shankly, the Reds’ legendary manager, said the signing of St. John and Ron Yeats in the summer of 1961 was the turning point for Liverpool in the 1960s. St. John scored 64 goals in his first three seasons with the club, including 21 in their league title success of 1963-64.
He was never quite as prolific in the years that followed, often playing deeper and allowing the likes of Roger Hunt to benefit from his efforts. The most enduring image of the Scottish international remains the goal he scored to clinch the FA Cup after a gruelling and dour final. The game looked to be heading for a replay when he netted the winner: “St. John clipped in Callaghan’s angle centre off his plunging forehead with the clinical incision of a surgeon,” wrote The Times, who added that in scoring a landmark goal for the club, St. John had become the patron saint of Liverpool!
Sam Leitch of the Daily Mirror, who was critical of the approach of both teams, said St. John’s had scored a “header de luxe” that he had earned by toiling away against an uncompromising defence. One Liverpool banner at Wembley lived on many years after it first appeared: “Jesus saves, but St. John nets the rebound”.
A couple of days later, St. John was on the scoresheet as Liverpool beat Inter Milan 3-1 at Anfield in the European Cup semi-final first leg. They were beaten in an intimidating second leg 3-0 and lost the chance of a place in the final.
The FA Cup wasn’t St. John’s last medal with Liverpool as the Reds were league champions again in 1966. Although he was still a regular right up until 1969, the popular forward became a victim of Shankly’s rebuild, but it would take until 1973 for another trophy for the club. The Saint moved to Coventry, managed Motherwell and Portsmouth and then enjoyed that TV gig with Jimmy Greaves. He died on March 1, 2021 aged 82, but his place in Liverpool folklore had been assured years before.
The Liverpool team of 1965 is gradually disappearing. Six of the 11 have passed on in the last eight years: Tommy Lawrence, Gerry Byrne, Geoff Strong, Tommy Smith, Peter Thompson and now St. John. A reminder that genuine heroes should be appreciated while they are still around.