When St Johnstone completed their historic cup double in May 2021, the world seemed to be the club’s oyster. There was money in the bank from those two cup runs and a fifth-place Premiership finish; a genuine chance of European group stage football for the first time in the club’s history; a playing squad packed with potentially saleable assets; an unprecedented opportunity to attract exciting new signings; and – in Callum Davidson – a young manager who seemed a dead cert to be head-hunted by a bigger club sooner rather than later.
Fast-forward little over a year, and all of that feels like a very, very long time ago. The club slumbered through the summer 2021 transfer window and failed to bring in the extra one or two players of genuine quality who might just have made the difference in Europe. Fans were enraged when two key members of the double-winning squad – Jason Kerr and Ali McCann – were sold just as the window slammed shut, leaving no time for adequate replacements to be signed. And, after the highs of those wonderful but ultimately fruitless European nights, performances rapidly nose-dived. Come mid-January, we were rock-bottom of the league, seven points from the safety of 10th place and out of the Scottish Cup thanks to a humiliating defeat from Kelty Hearts, a club from four divisions down.
On Saturday, after kicking off season 2022/23 with a predictable 1-0 defeat from Hibs, Callum Davidson pointed out to BBC Radio Scotland that our slide of last season had been successfully halted. In a sense, he was right. A raft of (largely short-term) signings were recruited in January, a rejuvenated Callum Hendry returned from loan to score the vital goals we’d been missing, and (perhaps crucially) our main relegation rivals sacked their own manager only to replace him with someone worse. The up-shot of it all was that we stayed up. By the skin of our teeth, via the play-offs, granted. But we did stay up.
That play-off win against Inverness Caley should have been used as an opportunity for Davidson to depart on a relative high. Sure, it had been a tough season hallmarked by football that was awful and results that were even worse, but after walloping ICT at a packed McDiarmid there was a brief but almost tangible feeling of forgive-and-forget. Departing heroes lapped up one final ovation from the crowd and waved goodbye, heading off to new adventures with the best wishes of the Saints support. And Callum Davidson should have waved goodbye on that night too.
But, as we know, that’s not what happened. Davidson was given pre-season to put things right. It was an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and come up with a blueprint for taking the club forward into a new era. A chance to find a new system, build for the future, add some quality (rather than quantity) to the squad, and fix our goalscoring issues.
Sadly, early indications (provided by our woeful League Cup group stage performances and Saturday’s Hibs game) are that yet another pre-season has been wasted. Of the eight first team players recruited this summer, four are 32 or older and three are here only on loan. That hardly smacks of planning for the long-term. Meanwhile, key positions such as centre-forward and centre midfield remain unstrengthened, with Davidson bizarrely stating last week that “we have got a really good attacking threat now”. That statement came despite the questionable decision to start the season with just two fit strikers, both of whom were largely left on the bench last season and neither of whom have any recent scoring record to speak of. A third forward, who appears to be permanently banished to Davidson’s bad books, has been sent out on loan to Linfield at a time when he surely could have been utilised and developed. And, perhaps worst of all, the manager seemingly remains wedded to a ponderous, predictable and inflexible system that barely produces any attacking play at all, let alone goals.
Watching Saints last season, there appeared to be no plan for actually getting the ball into the back of the opposition net. Our 24 goals were by far the lowest scored in any of the SPFL’s four divisions. Even Dundee, who finished bottom, scored ten goals more than us. Ten. For that to be the case last season was bad enough, but to carry that same issue into the new season, with little or no apparent effort to make a significant change to the way the team plays, is borderline unforgivable.
Saints’ current issues are not entirely Callum Davidson’s fault. It’s not his fault that key players have gone, or picked up serious injuries, and it’s not his fault that his team have been on the wrong end of some appalling refereeing decisions (but don’t all football teams face those same obstacles?). What Davidson has had, though, is time, and the sort of budget that his predecessor was barely allowed a fraction of. But that time has been spent reinforcing a system that does not work, and the budget has been squandered on players at the ends of their careers who can be neither developed nor sold on for a profit. This is Davidson’s team now, set up to play Davidson’s style of football, and it has become very, very clear that that style of football is not going to change.
Free-flowing, all-out-attack has rarely been Saints’ way, and if it takes a stuffy, backs-to-the-wall approach to keep us where we need to be then so be it. But that style needs to be accompanied by some way of actually grinding out results. Under Tommy Wright, we often struggled to find the net, but were still able to adapt our system and make the right changes at the right times to pick up more good results than bad. Where Tommy seemed able to outfox opposition managers and get the best out of his own signings, Davidson’s one-note approach has been found out by our rivals and his signings often seem to make bright starts only to quickly go backwards.
Over recent years, the Saints board has rightly earned plaudits for giving managers time. Steve Lomas and Tommy Wright both went through sticky spells where some may have pushed the button, but Saints held their nerve and showed faith in them to turn things around. However, there comes a time when a football club board must recognise that things don’t always turn around without intervention.
We all wanted Callum Davidson to do well here. He’s probably as close as we’ll ever get to having an actual Saints fan in the dugout. His success in his first season as a manager will probably never be matched by any other St Johnstone boss, and for that he will always, rightly, be considered a Saints legend. But now, while the season is still new and there remains a month left of the transfer window, is the time to make a change.