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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