Regular followers of Scottish football will be familiar with the media’s hankering for a true “fairy tale story”. Once upon a time, in the early 2000s, it was Livingston’s rise through the leagues that had pundits reaching for the Hans Christian Andersen references. A few years later, it was Gretna’s turn to “live the dream”. As it turned out, both clubs were spending money they didn’t have, and both clubs saw their success turn back into a pumpkin as swiftly as Cinderella’s carriage.
In the middle of it all, plugging quietly away, often unnoticed, was my team, St Johnstone. The Perth club has turned flying under the radar into an art form, regularly punching above its weight but seldom taking the plaudits. Chairman Steve Brown, following in the footsteps of his father and club owner Geoff, has often frustrated fans with his single-minded refusal to break the bank by chasing success. While other clubs (including even Rangers) have staked their very existence on the quest for silverware, the Browns have sat sagely by, trusting in their own model, never buckling under pressure to spend that little bit more than their tight ship allows. But there’s no excitement in that, is there? Try telling that to the Saints fans who have experienced this incredible last decade-or-so.
Since our club’s promotion back into the top flight under Derek McInnes in 2009, the McDiarmid Park faithful have been treated to eight top six finishes, five European campaigns and the club’s first ever major trophy win. And this season, the first under the stewardship of rookie boss Callum Davidson, has been the one to top it all. 2020/21 has seen St Johnstone achieve the unthinkable: it’s the year we did The Double. A League Cup victory in February, followed by a trip back to Hampden yesterday to win the Scottish Cup. The most decorated football club in Scotland this year is not Rangers or Celtic: it’s St Johnstone. Just think about that for a second. The sheer magnitude of that statement. At the start of the season, bookies were offering odds of 10,000/1 for the Perth Saints to win both of those trophies. By way of comparison, Leicester City’s odds of winning the English Premier League in 2015/16 – an achievement often considered one of football’s greatest ever shocks – were 5,000/1.
So, I find myself asking a question that may sound ridiculous, but go with me on this for a second. Is St Johnstone’s 2020/21 Double win the greatest, unlikeliest, most eye-popping accomplishment in the history of football? Think about it. Sure, shocks happen in football all the time. The little guys do sometimes win. That’s a big part of why many of us love football in the first place. But in the modern era, as the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever larger, and the obscene sums of money being thrown around grow ever more obscene, it’s becoming harder and harder for the underdogs to upset the odds.
Of course, this isn’t the first time that a small club has had its day. But often, when you look beneath the surface of a footballing “fairy tale”, money has been the overriding factor propelling the little fish briefly to the top of the food chain. Leicester City’s title-winning squad cost an estimated £54 million. That may be a modest sum in comparison to the transfer budgets of the teams around them, but still evidence of a club with serious spending power. Some may point to the rapid rise of Hoffenheim in Germany, but it took the investment of a billionaire to get them there.
By comparison, the St Johnstone side that has just won two cups (and also finished fifth in the SPFL Premiership) is almost entirely comprised of youth products and free transfers. Of the 20 players listed in the Saints squad for yesterday’s cup final, only two (Jamie McCart and Murray Davidson) were signed for transfer fees (and small, nominal ones at that). Five of the players (Zander Clark, Jason Kerr, Ali McCann, Chris Kane and Stevie May) came through the club’s own youth system. Three of the players (Liam Gordon, David Wotherspoon and Stevie May) grew up locally as Saints fans. And every single player named in the starting XI was born in Scotland. It’s this group that has become the second-most successful team in the country over the last 10 years, and it’s all been done with no sugar-daddy investor, no quick fixes and no fuss.
Callum Davidson is rightly taking the acclaim for guiding his team to such unparalleled glory, but this hasn’t all been achieved in one year. Davidson is the latest in a string of managers who have found McDiarmid Park to be a breeding ground for success. Managers here might not be given a blank cheque book, but what they are given is time, and an environment where they can develop and grow. It’s over 15 years since St Johnstone last sacked a manager. Since then, four managers (Owen Coyle, Derek McInnes, Steve Lomas and Tommy Wright) have come and gone, and each one has steadily built on the work of the last, gradually adding their own pieces to the jigsaw. While other clubs (and quite a few Saints fans, in all honesty) would have been dishing out P45s at various points along the road, Geoff and Steve Brown have stood by their men. They’ve shown that you don’t need to have a revolving door to achieve your goals.
On the pitch, too, there’s been a level of stability virtually unheard of in the modern game. Recent seasons have seen club legends like Steven Anderson, Dave Mackay, Chris Millar and Murray Davidson all granted testimonials for long service. Several players have passed the 300-appearance mark for the club during this spell of success, and numerous others have returned to Perth for second and even third spells after discovering that the grass was definitely not greener elsewhere. This might not be a club where players earn their fortunes, but all evidence points towards it being a club where players are happy, and that has translated into results. Big results.
Inevitably, questions are already being asked about what Davidson will do next. How can he possibly take a club of St Johnstone’s size any further? Surely he’ll need to jump ship while the going is good? But those questions miss the point entirely. What makes Saints’ success so impressive isn’t one good season. It’s that the club has been having good seasons year after year after year for over a decade now. It’s a success that transcends different managers, has made legends of multiple generations of players, and even continues when the one factor that should be a constant – the fans – is removed for a year.
It’s St Johnstone who have given Scottish football it’s real fairy tale story. Perhaps 2021 is the year that the ugly duckling is finally recognised for the swan that it is.