The miracle of Perth – St. Johnstone’s historic double

ASK a lot of football fans outside of Scotland where St. Johnstone FC are from and they won’t really know. The answer is Perth, a city of 47,000 people on the River Tay, the longest river in Scotland and renowned for quality Salmon fishing.

Despite the success of Glasgow’s Rangers as Scottish champions, Perth can claim to be Scotland’s most successful football city in 2020-21 after winning two major trophies, the Scottish Cup and Scottish League Cup. St. Johnstone, a club founded in 1884, trebled its honours list by adding to their first major prize, the Scottish Cup, which was won in 2014. The city of Perth went berserk back then as the Saints celebrated their victory over local rivals Dundee United.

The city has an assortment of statues, but they might want to think about a memorial to Shaun Rooney, a 24 year-old defender who scored the winning goals in both competitions. Rooney, a native of Belshill, only joined the club in June 2020 from Inverness Caledonian Thistle. He scored the only goal in the League Cup final against Livingstone on February 2021 and did it again in the Scottish Cup final against Hibernian.

St. Johnstone’s achievement is very significant given the gulf between the “old firm” and the rest of the Scottish Premiership. For example, Celtic players average £ 900,000 annually in wages compared to the Saints’ £ 63,000. Outside the Glasgow duo, only Aberdeen have won the domestic cup double in Scotland.

St. Johnstone have a reputation for being a well-run, prudent club that lives within its means. In 2019-20, they lost £ 20,000 which was a reasonable figure given the covid-19 pandemic. In 2017-18 and 2018-19, they lost £ 258,000 and £ 149,000 respectively.

Over the past few years, they have built up a war chest of cash to enable them to overcome any crises and the timing could not have been better. In 2019-20, the club revealed it had £ 2.8 million in cash at bank, an increase of some £ 700,000 on 2018-19. However, the crisis has meant the club’s creditors almost doubled, largely due to involvement in the government tax delay schemes. The club’s chairman, Steve Brown, told the local media he is bracing himself for a big loss in 2020-21 and that there are a number of deferred liabilities that will erode the cash. A healthy European run in 2021-22 will surely ease the burden.

The club is the envy of many of its rivals. In addition to the sound financial principles, they also have some highly coveted young players, such as skipper Jason Kerr and defender Ali McCann, who has already played for Northern Ireland and is said to be a Celtic target. Goalkeeper Zander Clark has also caught the eye this season and defenders Liam Gordon and Jamie McCart have also attracted suitors. Whether St. Johnstone can hold on to these players remains to be seen, but manager Callum Davidson has hinted they may have to pay a price for success.

Davidson himself could also be on someone’s shopping list. He only took over in June 2020, replacing Tommy Wright, and for a while, it looked like a gamble as the Saints lost seven of the first 10 games under Davidson’s leadership. The emphasis is on teamwork and a strong defence. They don’t score too many, netting only 36 goals in 38 games in the Premiership.

Right now, St. Johnstone have one eye on the 2021-22 Europa League third qualifying round. If they lose that tie, they will gain entry to the new Europa Conference League. Exciting times on the banks of the Tay, especially if the Saints’ team remains intact.

Photo: ALAMY

Perth rejoices

St Johnstone 4They call Perth the “Fair City” and if you’ve waited 130 years for the local football team – St. Johnstone – to win a piece of silverware, it sounds like patience might also be one of its virtues. It is hard to believe that Perth is a city at all, because by modern definitions, it looks like the sort of market town you find dotted around northern Britain. But city it is – since 2012 – and right now, it’s probably one of the happiest cities around after the Saints beat Dundee United 2-0 in the Scottish Cup Final.

Come on Ye Saints

Perth was ready for this. In the days leading up to the final at Celtic Park, St. Johnstone shirts could be seen everywhere. Scarves adorned railings, shops proclaiming their love for the club in their windows and banners tied to trees on roundabouts. The local council also pledged their support for the club. It wasn’t exactly “cup fever”, but on the eve of the final, you sensed important something was afoot. In the High Street, a loan piper played “Scotland the Brave” to steel the locals for what was about to happen, while in the sports shop, people queued for their Saints t-shirts, replica shirts and even tickets for the game. “It’s been a lovely atmosphere all week,” said the barmaid in nearby Dunkeld’s Tay Bridge hotel.

If anyone doubted the interest in cup finals on May 17, either side of the border, they should have been in Perth or North London when the two teams lifted their respective trophies. For St. Johnstone, it was all about making history for the club had never been to the final before, let alone win it.

Beating the neighbours

St. Johnstone and Dundee United are only 20 miles apart along the Tay, a “real river” where people stand in the water up to the waist and fish, which incidentally costs a packet. Of course, this is Scotland, where salmon come out of the dark, cold water ready-smoked. But the fact it was Dundee United in the final gave the game an extra edge.

The Arabs, as they are known, finished fourth in the Scottish Premiership and the Saints two places below them. In their four league meetings, St. Johnstone won three (2-0, 1-0, 3-0) and Dundee United one (4-0).

The two sides are very different: manager Tommy Wright named no less than five players over the age of 30 in the Saints’ starting line-up at Celtic, while United had six under the age of 25. Some of United’s talented youngsters have been interesting bigger clubs, but manager Jackie McNamara and his chairman insist that the club will not cash in on them. Players like Ryan Gauld, Gavin Gunning, Andy Robertson and Ryan Dow have all won praise for their performances in 2013-14.

That said, St. Johnstone have a jewel in their crown in Steve May, who hit 27 goals during the campaign. May, who looks like he might be more comfortable in a heavy metal mosh-pit, is also coveted by more senior clubs.

While the final was Saints’ first, although they have reached two League Cup finals, it was Dundee United’s 10th, of which they have won only two of the previous nine. The last of those was in 2010 when they beat Ross County.

St Johnstone 2 (400x241)Punching above their weight

St. Johnstone are backed by G.S. Brown Construction, a family business that dates back to 1970. Their support allows the Saints to compete in a division where the average gate is way above the 3,806 that regularly turn up at McDiarmid Park. It’s a neat, functional and attractive stadium, very much of its time. You could argue that the Saints are actually very well supported. Perth has a population of around 43,500 and the near-4,000 average gate is almost 9% of that. There were expectations that between 15 and 20,000 people would be travelling to Celtic Park for the final.

The journey to Glasgow was interesting. I sat among St. Johnstone fans who were declaring their undying love for Stevie May, as well as their fierce hatred for all things English. I kept quiet, images of Mel Gibson and Braveheart going through my mind. Judging by the mood on the bus (ScotRail had decided to really help fans get to the game by having only a handful of trains in action) and by the noise at Glasgow Central station, all good natured and keen, the final itself would have an excellent atmosphere.

The game

According to the commentators, the vibe at Celtic Park was much better than Hampden Park, which is currently prettying itself up for the Commonwealth Games. Almost 48,000 people attended, which given that there’s no “Old Firm” club involved, was very good. In the past 50 years, this scenario has only happened nine times, such has been the dominance of Celtic and Rangers.

St. Johnstone conquered any nerves they might have in the early stages, but in the 33rd minute, Dundee United hit the woodwork through Ryan Dow. In added time in the first half, Steven Anderson opened the scoring for the Saints, heading home from five yards after Dundee United’s Polish keeper, Radoslaw Cierzniaki, flapped at a corner.

Dundee United struck the crossbar in the second period with a free kick from Nadir Ciftci, their Turkish striker. Six minutes from the end, though, the cup was won when the determined Steve MacLean chased a loose ball, challenged Cierzniak and turned the ball into the net as he lay on the ground. There was no coming back now for the team in orange.

May’s force will be with you…

St. Johnstone spent Sunday May 18 parading the gleaming Scottish FA Cup around the streets of Perth. There was more good news for the thousands of people who joined the celebrations. Scotland’s Young Player of the Year, Steve May, does not see a good reason to leave the club. Europe awaits Tommy Wright’s heroes!