It feels like an odd thing to say about a man I’ve never met, but Tommy Wright has given me many of the best moments of my life. There was the time his St Johnstone team sent the Norwegian giants of Rosenborg crashing out of the Europa League. And that night in Luzern where Saints secured a 1-1 draw in scorching mid-July heat, before completing the job with a riveting penalty shoot-out under the McDiarmid Park floodlights. And, topping them all, the date that is permanently etched into the memories of all Saints fans: 17th May 2014, when Wright’s side became the first St Johnstone team in history to lift the Scottish Cup.
Yesterday, Wright’s era of unprecedented success as Saints manager came to a surprise end, when it was announced that he and the club had decided to go their separate ways. For the last few years, we Saints fans have lived in fear of the day when a bigger club would come calling and tempt our greatest ever manager away from us. As it happened, that day never came. Instead, we were given the conscious uncoupling to end all conscious uncouplings. And, with the club deep in the midst of Covid-19 lockdown, it meant we didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. One day he was there, and the next he simply wasn’t.
For a lot of fans outside the Scottish football bubble, Wright’s successes have probably gone under the radar. He’s not a publicity seeker, nor a touchline character, nor a skinny-trousered smoothie from the Guardiola mould. As the boss of a perennially under-supported underdog, he hasn’t had the chance to win trophy after trophy or make big statements in the transfer market. But I would confidently challenge anyone to name me a current manager who has done a better job at a British club than Tommy Wright has in Perth.
In Wright’s six complete seasons as manager, Saints never finished below eighth in the country. In four of those seasons, Saints finished in the top six, and for three years in a row we finished fourth. Within those six seasons we played in Europe four times, racking up the afore-mentioned triumphs over the vastly wealthier Rosenborg and Luzern. In the Scottish Cup, we reached at least the quarter-final stage in five attempts out of six, twice making it to the semi-finals and once going all the way to the final, where we recorded that historic 2-0 win over Dundee United.
It took a pandemic to prevent Wright from completing what would have been his seventh season in charge, and in some ways 2019/20 was looking like it was about to become his most impressive yet. After rebuilding an ageing squad and putting his faith in a younger, more dynamic line-up, it looked initially like the wheels were well and truly coming off the wagon. Saints crashed out of the League Cup at the group stage and didn’t win a single Premiership match until October. At the start of December, a 4-0 hammering from Motherwell left us bottom of the league and facing a relegation battle for the first time in eleven consecutive top flight seasons. Under pressure for the first time in his reign, Tommy Wright refused to panic – and what happened next was little short of miraculous. In the 15 league games that followed, Saints lost just two matches in a run that saw us surge up the table to seventh place. By the time coronavirus had brought the season grinding to a premature halt, Saints were sitting just three points behind fifth-place Livingston, with a game in hand. On top of that, there was yet another Scottish Cup run, stopped only by a narrow 1-0 defeat from Celtic in the quarter-finals. It’s highly unlikely we’ll ever get to find out how the rest of 2019/20 might have panned out, but who would have bet against yet another top-half finish for the Perth Saints?
Crucially, Wright has done it all under the very tightest of financial restraints. Of all the players he brought to the club, two were signed for small, nominal sums and the rest were all freebies. At times, the transfer window seemed like a recurring struggle, with Wright often left scrabbling for the cast-offs of richer clubs. In 2014, after selling prolific goalscorer Stevie May to Sheffield Wednesday for a six-figure fee, Wright was given none of that money to sign a replacement. In the season that followed it showed, with Saints managing just 34 league goals all season (that’s four goals fewer than the team who finished second from bottom). And yet, Saints somehow managed to finish fourth in the league that season, and qualify for Europe (again) in the process. That ability to adapt to the circumstances was a hallmark of Tommy Wright’s management of Saints. When one way of grinding out points was taken away, he simply got his head down and found another.
For some context, St Johnstone have rarely been a successful club over bygone years. Much of Saints’ history has been spent bouncing around the lower leagues, and on at least one occasion we almost vanished from existence completely. Tommy Wright wasn’t the manager who brought us back into the Premier League, but he was the one who turned us into a club that had not just the ability, but the self-belief, to challenge for trophies and compete in Europe. In Wright’s eight years at McDiarmid Park (including his first year as assistant manager to Steve Lomas), Saints played in Europe five times. In the 127 years before that, Saints had only made it into Europe twice. Yep. That’s twice. In 127 years.
While those magical European nights brought so much joy to the Saints faithful, they were perhaps also a rare source of frustration. The win over Rosenborg was followed by defeat from Minsk, and after dispatching of Luzern we were knocked out by Spartak Trnava. The campaigns that followed were similarly anticlimactic, with Saints falling first to Alashkert and then to Trakai. Among these opponents were surely teams that Saints could have defeated, but instead we were left to forever ponder what might have been. While winning the Scottish Cup was Tommy Wright’s crowning glory, a run towards the Europa League play-off round is arguably the one achievement that remains locked.
In a world where football managers often seem quickly disposable, it felt like Tommy Wright was the rare example of one who conceivably had a job for life, if he wanted it. I’d said in the past that he was potentially St Johnstone’s Dario Gradi or Alex Ferguson. It truly had reached that point where it was becoming impossible to imagine our club being lead by anyone else. Yet, here we are, in the scenario where Saints chairman Steve Brown must somehow find the person capable of filling a legend’s shoes.
It’s important to remember that Tommy Wright’s achievements didn’t happen in a vacuum. He wasn’t the sole factor in the club’s recent glories. Before he took the job, Owen Coyle, Derek McInnes and Steve Lomas had all done well and played their part in laying the foundations that Wright’s successes were built on. That’s something I believe all Saints fans should be able to take a lot of comfort from. Whoever takes the job on next will be arriving at a club where we know it is very possible to thrive.
In the meantime, all I want to say to Tommy Wright is thank you. It’s been a helluva ride.
Thanks to Stuart Cowper Photography for the Tommy Wright photo, and Norrie Panton for the Scottish Cup photo.