How Callum got his groove back

Our friends over at the Preston North End fanzine The Nose Bag asked us to write a piece on Callum Davidson’s first year as Saints manager for their next issue. So here it is …

In October last year, Callum Davidson’s St Johnstone sat joint-bottom of the Scottish Premiership, having lost seven of their opening ten league games. Davidson had only been in the job for four months, but already some Saints fans were growing restless. His status as a Saints legend was already cemented, thanks to two successful spells in Perth as a player and a stint as assistant manager during which time the club won its first ever Scottish Cup. But could he cut it as a manager?

With the quiet, understated confidence that was typical of his playing days, Callum refused to panic. He stuck to his philosophy, kept faith in his players and made only minor tweaks to the system he was convinced would work. In the weeks that followed, it began to pay off. As the players settled into Callum’s way of thinking, results started to flow. By the turn of the year, this small, tight squad (Saints used fewer players than any other team in the division over the course of the season) had been knitted into a tough, well-drilled group who knew exactly what their jobs were and how to do them. 

From the end of December until the climax of the season, Davidson’s Saints lost just four more games (two against Celtic, one against Rangers and one against Aberdeen). In February, they won the League Cup for the first time in St Johnstone’s history. In March, their surge up the league culminated in a confirmed place in the Premiership’s Top 6 (for those unfamiliar with Scotland’s top division, the 12 teams split into two mini-leagues of six for the last five games). In May, they finished fifth in the league to qualify for Europe. A week later, they won the Scottish Cup, becoming the first non-Old Firm side to win Scotland’s domestic double in over 30 years.

It’s difficult to find the words that do justice to just how successful Davidson’s first season as St Johnstone boss was. Sure, most of the squad was assembled by his predecessor, Tommy Wright (who himself did a wonderful job during his six seasons in charge). It would do a gross disservice to Wright to suggest that Callum started from nothing. In truth, Callum inherited a good squad that needed only a few additions. However, what Callum went on to achieve with that squad is virtually unthinkable. 

St Johnstone are a small, well-run but historically unsuccessful club who hail from a provincial city, have limited fan-appeal and play in a league habitually dominated by two footballing giants whose spending powers dwarf the budgets of every other club in the land. It’s against this backdrop that Callum Davidson won both domestic knock-out trophies, in his first ever season as a manager, without spending a single penny on transfer fees. As a Saints supporter I’m obviously biased – but, to me, that ranks alongside any other sporting achievement I can think of. By way of comparison, when Leicester City won the Premier League in what is often considered one of football’s greatest fairy tales, the bookies’ odds at the start of the season were 5,000/1. The odds for St Johnstone to do the Double in 2020/21 were 10,000/1.

Davidson’s approach hasn’t been rocket science. He has essentially schooled his players in two similar systems, which the team switches between depending on the opponent or on how the match is going. Every player in the squad understands exactly how they fit into both of those systems, so changes to the starting XI cause little disruption. Crucially, under Callum’s watch, many of the players have looked that little bit faster, sharper and physically stronger. Much of Callum’s game plan involves pressing and harrying the opposition for 90 minutes, and every player needs to be seriously on their toes for that to work. That was never more apparent than in the Scottish Cup quarter-final against Rangers at Ibrox. Playing against a side that didn’t lose a single league match all season, Saints refused to give the hosts a second’s peace on the ball, and took the tie to extra-time after a 0-0 stalemate. When Rangers scored with just three minutes left, many teams would have thrown in the towel. Not Davidson’s men. In the final moment of play, Saints forced a corner and sent goalkeeper Zander Clark up into the Rangers box. Clark sent a header goalwards and Chris Kane knocked it over the line to send the game into a penalty shootout, which Saints won. That never-say-die attitude became a hallmark of Saints’ play as the season progressed, and that result at Ibrox became just one incredible moment of many.

Of course, it’s inevitable that bigger, wealthier clubs will have noticed Davidson’s achievements and will begin to circle, especially if Saints pick up the new season where they left off in May. On the other hand, there’s always the risk of Davidson’s second season being far tougher. Much of Saints’ success has come from flying under the radar, but with last season’s star performers suddenly the subject of increasing transfer speculation, Callum could yet find himself having to carry out a swift re-building job. That would be a crying shame for the McDiarmid Park faithful, who are desperate to see last term’s heroes in the flesh after being locked out of the stadium for the duration of the club’s greatest season ever.

However, if I was a betting man, my money would be on Callum’s time at Saints – and longer term career – only going from strength to strength. While season 2020/21 will surely prove impossible to replicate in terms of silverware, there’s still plenty to look forward to.

At time of writing, Callum’s Saints are about to kick-off their Europa League campaign with a mouth-watering encounter against Galatasaray. Victory in that tie would arguably be the club’s greatest moment to date, but even defeat would drop Saints down to the safety net of the new Europa Conference League’s play-off round. European group stage football in either competition would be huge for the club, and surely a challenge that Callum would want to stick around for.

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At last, a fairy tale I can believe in

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.

@garypanton

Thank you, Tommy Wright

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.

The world’s oldest football trophy, the Scottish Cup, looking bloody beautiful in SJFC colours.

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.

The Saints team of 2014 applaud the fans in Luzern.

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.

@garypanton