WORDS: EUAN McTEAR
Relegation is usually a time for mourning, but as Saint Mirren return to the second tier of Scottish football they do so with as many fond memories of the nine years in the top flight as dire ones. One Saints fan reflects on the good, the bad and the Eric Djemba-Djemba deal…
Image: Stuart Chalmers (via Flickr)
It was a gloriously sunny and swelteringly hot – at least for a Scotsman – afternoon in a bar in the centre of Barcelona and I had the footy on the TV, a pint of beer in my hand and good company. There should have been no better place to be, except that there was.
2,000km away in Glasgow’s Hampden Park Saint Mirren had just won the Scottish League Cup, the club’s first trophy in my lifetime – their first, indeed, since 1987, when the Scottish Cup was won in the very same stadium. And I missed it.
I can and will explain myself, as you’d imagine. You see, two hours before kick-off I had completed the Barcelona marathon, which I had foolishly signed up for five months previously without thinking to check when the date of the cup final would be. Celtic and – back in the day – Rangers fans would never have dreamt of being busy on cup final day, but with Saint Mirren generally exiting cup competitions as quickly as England exit… well, cup competitions, there should have been no need for me to worry about double booking 17 March 2013.
Yet, with a team full of gallop, lower league opposition Ayr United and Hamilton were dispatched of, a dramatic penalty shoot-out was won in Aberdeen and an even more dramatic 3-2 semi-final win came our way against Celtic. For that reason, my beloved Saints earned a spot in the final against Hearts and had my marathon not been for charity, the flights home from Barcelona – where I lived at the time – would have been booked with gusto.
I had to complete the marathon, however, and with the need to get to the finish line, get home, get showered and get down to the only Scottish pub in Barcelona – and, thus, the only bar owner in the city I had convinced to show the match over Chelsea v West Ham – in time for kick-off, I had the motivation to complete the marathon in a not-quite-as-terrible-as-it-should-have-been time. Quite literally, I was racing to see the big match.
And see it I did. I saw Hearts take a painful 10th minute lead. I saw the now-a-Paisley-legend Esmaël Gonçalves net an equaliser before half-time. I saw the already-a-Paisley-legend Steven Thompson give us the lead within seconds of the re-start. I saw he-obviously-wants-to-be-a-Paisley-legend-too Conor Newton whistle a beauty in from outside the box to give us a two goal advantage. And I saw my nails erode unhealthily away in the final five minutes after Hearts pulled one back.
That is the story of how I saw Jim Goodwin lift the Scottish League Cup from a bar in Barcelona on Saint Patrick’s – correction, on Saint Mirren’s – Day in 2013, while half of Paisley was able to enjoy it from the stands of Hampden Park, as the other half awaited the evening’s open top bus parade around the town back home.
Was I jealous? Of course! I had been there three years previously when we lost the final 1-0 to a nine-man Rangers team. I had been there on a cold Tuesday night in October 2011 when we lost 1-0 to Ayr United in the same cup. I had been there when we suffered the even more humiliating 1-0 defeat to East Fife on a – cold again of course – Tuesday night in August 2007. Overall, the Scottish League Cup had not given us Buddies much joy over the years, so it was with sheer elation that I roared my team on from north-west Spain as probably the only Saint Mirren fan in the city. In the back of my mind, however, was the thought that if this feels so good, just how much more magnificent would it have been there in the stadium?
That’s football, though, and the highs are only high because the lows are so often so low. For that reason, in some strange masochistic way I love the lows, which is fortunate because my football club has dished out stacked portions of them in my time as a fan.
My first proper season of following Saint Mirren was in 2005/06, when I was 13. That was the season of promotion from the Second to First Division, which was just as well given that five seasons in the purgatory of the second tier had already taken its toll on a lot of the fans.
Although Saint Mirren had historically been a mainstay of the top division, not suffering its first relegation until 1935, after 58 years of existence, recent decades had been spent yo-yoing between the top two divisions in a series of cycles. There would be five or six years here in that division, then three or four years there in this division, before seven or eight years here back in that division.
The trend was to be slightly reversed between 1992 and 2006 and not for the better. Only one season – the 2000/01 campaign – between those years was spent in the top tier and it resulted in a last-place finish and thumping drop back into the division below, not helped by the fact that the January loan signing of a certain Brazilian prospect named Ronaldinho only fell through due to problems with his Brazilian passport. (Yes, really. Google it, smirk at it and wonder ‘what if’ at it like us Saints fans often do.)
So it took until the 2005/06 season for promotion to be achieved and, in the end, it was a relatively comfortable promotion with the league eventually won by 10 points thanks to the kind of talents you pay the entrance fee for, such as Charlie Adam, Kirk Broadfoot, John Potter and John Sutton.
The following five seasons were annual relegation battles, with the club finishing in the bottom three in each of its first five seasons back in the top division without suffering relegation. Then in our new stadium, Saint Mirren Park – after 115-year-old Love Street was sold to Tesco – the heights of an eighth place finish in 2011/12 under the stewardship of Danny Lennon left us all with altitude sickness before the more soothing depths of 11th place the following season brought us back into our comfort zone.
That finish was coupled with the claiming of the League Cup, however, ensuring that our recommended dose of success for that campaign had already been exceeded.
Lennon was afforded one more season in which our eighth-place finish was not as comfortable as it sounds; we only avoided the newly-introduced relegation play-off spot by four points. It was then that Lennon had to go, a manager who had never fully convinced.
Although some sections of the support had long tried to drive him out of the club, Lennon did at least manage to be driven around the town in an open top bus with the League Cup before his route was pointed out of Paisley. He had done a decent job, of that there was no doubt, but the club had failed to truly kick on towards the top half of the league and the consensus among fans was that it made sense for Lennon to be shown the door if a new and progressive boss was to arrive to piggy-back us to the next level.
Instead we got Tommy Craig.
Now, neither I nor my fellow Saint Mirren fans meant any disrespect to Tommy Craig, but as the 63-year-old assistant to Lennon, his appointment was hardly progressive. His presence among the increasing optimism around the club was like that of an old man in a new flashy hipster gastro bar who only goes every night because the new bar is on the site of the traditional old pub he’d been frequenting for decades.
Quite simply, Craig didn’t fit the profile of the man to lead Saint Mirren to the next level in an increasingly “small”-club-dominated top division. A medium-sized club like Saint Mirren had all of the scrabble pieces necessary to spell “top-half finish” with the absence of giants like Rangers, Hearts and Hibs from the top flight, yet Craig only took the club backwards in his ill-fated six months and by the time Gary Teale – again, the assistant – was promoted to take his place, the damage was done and the club was heading down.
But…rather than worry about trips to Alloa or Dumbarton, about playing in the Petrofac Cup, about the fine details of parachute payments, about the “need” to bounce back, about the reduced TV money, or about the loss of star players, I’ll instead look back fondly on the nine years at the top.
We won a cup, stayed up for longer than expected, christened a new stadium, produced some great players from our excellent youth academy, signed Eric Djemba-Djemba (who played a grand total of two matches) and saw our captain Jim Goodwin nutmeg David Villa.
It’s never been dull with Saint Mirren, and long may it continue.