Normally owners of football clubs tend to bray about how much money they have put in, or, as is more often the case, lost. But Geoff Brown is not a normal owner. St Johnstone are not like most football clubs.
When the former chairman was asked yesterday whether Saturday’s Scottish Cup final success had been worth the financial investment, Brown, who made his money in the building trade, was firm and to the point.
“I have never put a penny into St Johnstone,” he said. “When I took over St Johnstone, we did a rights issue. That was in 1986. That was the only money. I have never put another penny into St Johnstone. It’s all been traded.”
Indeed, he is prouder of having managed to avoid bankrolling the club, thereby steering clear of the pitfalls suffered by others. If he has any complaint now, it is that son Steve, who took over the reins as chairman three years ago, spends too much time on St Johnstone rather than GS Brown Construction business. However, Brown admitted that he was glad to avoid the fall-out from Rangers’ financial implosion.
“It was absolutely brilliant to hand over to him when the crisis with Rangers occurred,” he smiled. “I kept saying to him, it’s a good job your father’s a good builder because you’re never there. He spends so much time at McDiarmid.”
The modern football world dictates this, but Brown believes that ensuring that a football club survives should not be too complicated. “I don’t see it being any different at all from what you would describe as a normal business,” he said. “You’ve got a product. You’ve got the sales. You’ve to sell or return and go on and do the same over and over again.”
Of course, clubs have not always been good at following such sound guidelines, hence the number of administration events in recent times. “I go back to having guys who were substitutes in St Johnstone’s team going away to Livingston for three or four times what St Johnstone was paying, which was absolutely crazy,” said Brown. “At the end of the day, they bit the dust.”
When Brown originally agreed to join the St Johnstone board, the aim, he recalled, was “first and foremost, to survive”. Weeks before he took control, St Johnstone had suffered a lowest-ever home crowd at their old Muirton Park ground, when just 466 turned up to watch a Second Division fixture versus Albion Rovers. Even the Perthshire Advertiser referred to St Johnstone as “one of the least regarded clubs in Scottish league football” at the time. A 5-1 home loss to Meadowbank on the opening day of the 1986-87 league season only served to support such a damning indictment. When a local businessman agreed to inject £100,000, the only sum he claims to have invested, it was not a moment too soon.
Brown demanded overall control. He is not a fan of doing anything by committee, particularly running a football club. “The one thing I don’t appreciate is the way certain clubs are going, trying to bring in supporters’ groups and all the rest of it,” he said. “When you look at the state of Rangers right now, no-one knows who the boss is and who’s answerable to whom. I just believe strongly that it needs somebody to hold the rudder.
“A provincial club is never ever going to make profits,” added Brown. “All you can do is try and run a business. If you’re seen as relatively successful, you roll the money on and do your best to try and improve everything – players, facilities, the lot. And that’s what we have done.”
The trouble with St Johnstone is that they have struggled to attract the crowds that their performances have deserved. Frustratingly for someone in the construction trade, despite building a modern stadium, the fans have not always come. “I don’t know if Perth will ever be a football city but it should give it a wee bit of a boost,” said Brown, who was at McDiarmid Park yesterday to place the Scottish Cup trophy in its special casing.
“When you consider that our last game [on Saturday] was to win the Scottish Cup, and our first game of the new season at McDiarmid Park is going to be a European game, I would like to think it [the Europa League clash] would be all-ticket and I would like to think it will be a sell-out. If it goes on from that, great.”
Frugal until the end, Brown is concerned about the draw for the Europa League qualifying round. Not because it might pitch St Johnstone against strong continental opposition. Rather, he is worried that the club will again find themselves out of pocket, as happened when they were forced to charter planes to places like Norway.
“The sad thing for the Scottish sides is that we are into Europe so early,” he said. “When we are looking for planes, we are competing with the holiday season so the planes are very, very expensive. Last year it was Rosenborg, and Turkey the year before.”
Even after just a few short minutes spent in his company, it is not difficult to see why St Johnstone have prospered over time, while other clubs who followed a more aggressive strategy of seeking to speculate to accumulate have fallen by the wayside. “Miracles will not be achieved overnight,” Brown told those gathered at a special meeting of shareholders in September 1986. If it means taking over 25 years to reach a peak like last weekend, then most of those who packed the streets of Perth would surely agree that this has been a satisfactory arrangement.
But do not make the mistake of depicting Brown as a hard-hearted businessman, whose emotions are kept always in check. He said he was glad of the dark glasses he wears because they helped hide his true feelings as the open-topped bus toured the areas of Perth such as Letham and Muirton, where he once found a club playing in a dilapidated stadium to crowds of only a few hundred. There were as many present to simply wave the open-topped bus off at McDiarmid Park on Sunday.
“It was good to wear the glasses,” said Brown. “Because at least the tears weren’t showing the same.”