Interview: Cancer battle hasn’t cowed Ian St John

Ian St John was delighted to be inducted into Scottish footballs Hall of Fame in 2008. Pcicture: SNS.

Ian St John was delighted to be inducted into Scottish footballs Hall of Fame in 2008. Pcicture: SNS.

1
Have your say

By the time I catch sight of Ian St John, he is already on the way out, hirpling down the steps of our appointed meeting place, the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool’s last word in faded grandeur.

That’s not a good start since he’d already wondered whether the interview, scheduled for 1 April, was an elaborate prank. “Are you going to turn up or is this a send-up?” he’d queried on the phone.

That’s the kind of horseplay which old chum Jimmy Greaves might have indulged in. But like St John, he’s had his battles of late and is now in a wheelchair following a stroke last year. St John, meanwhile, chronicles his own struggle with cancer, which has now spread into his bone marrow.

Having returned from feeding change into the parking meter, hence his about-turn in the lobby, he taps a protuberance beneath his shirt.

“I have this thing, it is called a stoma bag, to collect the fluid. I have had a lot of things taken away, my bladder, my prostate, so I’ve had a good dosage of chemo and I am getting a bit of time off at the moment. The doctor is hoping to get me on a new trial. I’m waiting to find out if I will have a go at that. The best thing is, it’s in tablet form.”

Then there’s the left knee that he hoists on to the sofa. He pulls up his trouser leg to expose a shockingly long scar meandering like the Mersey down his leg, from lower thigh to shin.

“During all that cancer stuff two years ago I got a new knee, which a lot of players have had to do,” he explains. “But they cocked it up – I cannae get it bent past there. It was a German surgeon, I am not going back. They might open it up again. I can’t be arsed with any more surgery. Maybe in six months I might look at it again. But it’s stopped me getting better fitness. I struggle to walk at any decent pace when I take the dogs out.”

It’s not such a funny old game, is it Saint?

But such troubles can’t keep a good man down. Nor do they mean the memorable chortle, so evocative of Saturday lunchtimes in the 1980s for those of a certain age, has been silenced.

The Saint at 77 is excellent, vibrant, gossipy company. He looks around the cavernous main court of the Adelphi, which today will be crammed full of Irish punters in town for the Grand National, and remembers when Liverpool club functions were held there.

St John once even ran into Mick Jagger and the rest of the Rolling Stones. “In those days I think they were all on drugs, Mick was just sitting there, gormlessly going ‘football, football,’” he says.

His interviewer happens to mention the last time he was in the hotel was for an Everton hall of fame do, mention of which leads St John to quip: “Didn’t know they had one!” Chortle, chortle. News of Ronnie Corbett’s death has just been announced, The Two Ronnies being the other double act from the 1980s to rival The Saint and Greavsie for profile when it came to the entertainment scene. They were good pals once. “I played golf with the wee man, went out for dinner together in Spain – I knew Ronnie very well. He was a smashing wee fella, another proud Scot who, like me, lived in England to work. But he’s had a very good innings, that’s the way I see it. ”

St John’s determination to look on the bright side of life seems to have been nurtured from boyhood, when a family of eight lived in the freezeblock living quarters of a small Motherwell tenement. Eight tragically became seven – St John, four sisters, a brother and mother Helen – when his father, Alex, died at the age of just 36, from pleurisy and pneumonia.

The day before he collapsed Alex had taken Ian to watch Motherwell play at Fir Park, where they got “soaked to hell” beneath “some ramshackle steel erection”. The outdoor toilet at home can’t have helped either, with St John recalling needing to “put on Wellingtons just to go the toilet – the Germans should have flattened it.”

If it hadn’t been for football options were limited. It was probably the steelworks, where his father worked all too briefly, but for long enough to develop a chest condition. “The borders of life threatened to be no wider than the shadows of a factory,” St John notes in his autobiography, Saint.

But this book was published over ten years ago. It isn’t why we’re sitting here, even though the future of steel has become a relevant, and critical, issue again. Rather, St John is preparing for a rare return to his homeland to participate in the Scottish premiere of The Bill Shankly Story at Musselburgh’s Brunton Theatre next month.

But the interview also seemed a good idea because fate has brought Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund together in a Europa League quarter-final, which, following Thursday’s 1-1 draw in Germany, will be won or lost in the second leg at Anfield next week. The tie comes 50 years after the teams met in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final. It is now recalled, if at all, for being played in a front of what was a comparatively sparse crowd.

This is strange considering it was staged at Hampden Park, where St John himself, just 13 years old, once crammed into, along with 136,273 others, to watch the 1952 Scottish Cup final between his team, Motherwell, and Dundee.

Yet only just over 40,000 turned up to see Borussia Dortmund win Germany’s first European trophy. It was a first European final to forget for Liverpool. Despite having four Scots in the team, they were cheered on by their own 25,000 or so travelling supporters and not many others on a filthy night.

St John has his own theory for the low crowd, over and above the poor weather conditions. “Because we knocked Celtic out in the semi-final, their fans stayed away. Later on, funnily enough, their fans began to have an affiliation with Liverpool. But at that time that was not the case. But you’d have thought their fans would have turned up to see the team they would have played in the final, but no, they stayed away. That doesn’t explain why the Rangers fans didn’t turn up, mind.”

Perhaps the Celtic fans were just still sore from the second leg at Anfield, when Liverpool overturned a 1-0 first leg defeat, helped by the ruling out of a late Bobby Lennox goal for offside.

“Every time I come to Scotland, and you are talking about half a century of coming back, a Celtic fan says ‘Oh I remember that game and the chalked off goal’. Bobby Lennox was about 20 yards offside! Our goalkeeper is going ‘don’t hit me’, because everyone had stopped. The flag was up! Tommy Lawrence was going ‘don’t hit me’. So Bobby sticks it in the net and turns round, and goes: ‘What is it?’ The Celtic fans are going mad.”

St John isn’t having any hard luck stories. In any case, Liverpool also suffered in the final and Celtic enjoyed plenty compensation in the European Cup the following season. St John, meanwhile, was cheered up just a few weeks after losing at Hampden when watching England lift the World Cup at Wembley. Come again?

“I can’t get it round my head that people think I might have wanted the Germans to win it – I mean, come on!” he says. Teammate Roger Hunt was in the England side, Ian Callaghan and Gerry Byrne were in the squad. So the fearsome Ron Yeats – “a good man to have beside you!” – and St John sat together in the stand, willing England on: “I drew the line at running on to the pitch though, ha ha ha!”

Like at Wembley, footage of the Hampden game a few weeks earlier shows fans invading the pitch as early as midway through the second half, after Liverpool, who’d won the English title days earlier, equalised through Hunt. But heartbreak followed in extra time when Yeats was unable to get out of the way of a 40-yard lob from Reinhard Libuda that came down off the bar and bounced off the Scot into the net. It would now be classed as an own goal.

“To lose a European final, your first European final, to lose it to a goal like that,” sighs St John. “Crazy is not the word.

“I wasn’t giving a damn who they were giving it to, they could have given it to the linesman for all I cared,” he adds. “It hit off big Ronnie and you think: what a way to lose a big game, how unlucky is that?”

Incredibly since, half a century later, the same complaints are still being heard, the pitch apparently didn’t help.

“Hampden was never the best surface to play on at the end of the season, because Queen’s Park played on it every other week,” says St John, before betraying the fact he rarely gets back to Scotland these days. “It was not the surface like it is today.”

Funny you should say that, Saint… “What, it’s still crap now?” he replies, shaking his head, then chortling once more. He has more insight to offer on the subject of Liverpool managers. OK, so who’s more charismatic – Shanks or Klopp?

“Klopp is only a new kid on the block, a new Klopp on the block… ha ha ha! He shows his emotions, he gets angry, he gets happy, which I like. He involves the fans. He knows how important the fans are – he is not daft that way.

“He ropes the fans in, the way Shanks did. Shanks roped the fans in from the early days. He’d get on the town hall balcony and cry ‘we are doing it for you!’ The place would go mad.

“Klopp is saying the same type of thing so he is getting people on side. Not like some other deadbeat managers we have had…”

He is mainly referring to Gerard Houllier, with whom he had a long-running feud, and who churlishly reacted to some criticism from St John by pointing out he wasn’t going to be lectured by someone who’d managed only at the level of Motherwell and Portsmouth.

St John doesn’t stand on ceremony for anyone. Why should he? Still a radio pundit, he is a trenchant observer, one who’s earned his stripes, remember, over 30 years as a broadcaster, never mind the 118 goals he scored for Liverpool and nine for Scotland in 21 games. Still living on the Wirral with Bellshill-born wife Betsy, he doesn’t go to Anfield now, “not since I got ill”.

“I have not been to a game for a couple of years,” he says. “I used to go every other week. I have not met any of the current lot [owners] – I bumped into one of them at a restaurant about a year ago. Tom [Werner] I think his name is. I said ‘Good luck’. I told him: ‘You don’t know me, I am a former player, and then I said: ‘Get your wallet out!’ He probably thought: ‘Cheeky bugger’. I just moved on.”

It’s not difficult to sense disillusion with the way Liverpool have left their roots, their sense of community spirit, behind. “They sell shirts with your name on them, no one gives you anything. That can’t be right. They have a museum with stuff loaned to them by players. You don’t get anything for that.”

Of course, when the subject turns to the making of Liverpool FC, it all comes back to Shanks, who also felt slightly let down by the club after so much devoted service.

St John had his own run-ins with his fellow Scot but patched things up to the extent he was a pallbearer at his funeral in 1981: “Me, Big Ron [Yeats] and Tosh [John Toshack] and I think [Kevin] Keegan was also one funnily enough, me and Keegan to balance up the big fellas at the front!”

“Shanks knew how to build a team, he didn’t know how to break it up,” he reflects. “He didn’t know how to sit you down and say: ‘Listen son, you have done a great job for ten years, I need to rebuild. But I want you to help me, any new boy coming in you can help him’. He could have done that, I’d have been quite happy.

“But he just left me out of the team [for a game v Newcastle]! He didn’t so much as say a word, ha ha ha! Not a word! I said: ‘You never told me’. He said I was not in the dressing-room when he announced the team. And I was like: ‘Well what was wrong with telling me on the Friday?’

“He could have told me the day before instead of waiting to Saturday to read the team out when I was not even in the dressing-room. I was outside getting tickets for someone. I came back in and went to my normal place under the No 9 jersey and my boots weren’t there!”

But there’s no doubt Shankly was supportive of St John, sometimes to a fault. There’s an incident, outlined in Red or Dead, author David Peace’s epic portrayal of Shankly, where the manager gets Bob Paisley, then just a trainer, to rub some iodine mixed with boot polish on St John’s, erm, private parts. The reason? To explain why St John, an amateur boxer in his youth, had retaliated so violently as to swing a punch at a Coventry City player on the previous Saturday.

“The press were outside and Shanks said: ‘Come in boys and see the damage’. So the press came in, and were like, ‘Bloody hell, no wonder you reacted the way you did with those bruised bollocks!’ So that was my defence at the disciplinary tribunal!”

Peace’s doorstop of a book sits on the table between us. It’s a gift from 
The Scotsman to the Saint. Of course, he doesn’t need to read it. He was there.

■ The Bill Shankly Story is at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on Thursday 12 May. Tickets for the show (£23 with £18 concession) are available from the Brunton Theatre box office, 0131 665 2240. Or online at www.hubtickets.co.uk

Back to the top of the page