THESE are surreal times for St Johnstone.
A first Scottish Cup final appearance in their 130-year history, almost 15,000 tickets sold for the showdown with Dundee United on Saturday, and a ballad penned for the occasion by a couple of local troubadours. Not bad for a club and a city variously described as sleepy, unfashionable and occasionally indifferent to Scottish football’s biggest dramas.
If there is anything to be learned from the fever that has gripped Perth these last few weeks, it is that crowds, their size and their fervour are a crude measure of passion. For most of their long and trophyless existence, St Johnstone have clung to a dream. Not visibly, and not in huge numbers perhaps, but they have clung to it all the same.
Suddenly, they have their chance. The wait is over. After so long on the outside looking in, the stoic, patient citizens of Perth, perennial also-rans in a game that has failed in the past to reward consistency and financial prudence, are gearing up for an occasion like nothing else the club has experienced since it was formed by a band of cricketers in 1884.
“People were talking about an Aberdeen-Dundee United final, but I actually think this is a better story,” says Tommy Wright, their manager. “St Johnstone in the final for the first time ever, small club, run the right way for years … I think it is reward for the club. Even the amount of tickets we’ve sold. People thought we wouldn’t sell more than 10,000 and we’re still going strong at over 14 now, nearly 15. I think it’s a great story that a club of this size, that has never won a senior trophy before, can actually be 90 minutes away from it.”
The excitement is palpable. Tales abound of Perth exiles hot-footing it back from Dubai and the Arctic Circle. In the aftermath of the semi-final win against Aberdeen, Wright was contacted by a former Linfield team-mate now living in Australia. “I hadn’t seen or heard of him since about 1985. And he is telling me about wee Willie in the pub, who is coming back to Perth for the final after 50-odd years away. He says ‘can you look after him when he comes over?’ What does he want me to do? Put him up? He’s coming over to our player-of-the-year do. That’s just one example of how this has caught everyone’s imagination.”
Wright is up to his eyes in it. He has helped to choose the matchday suits, despite an attempt by Steve Brown, the chairman, to muscle in (“have you seen his dress sense?”). He has chosen the shoes. He has planned every detail of the build-up, which starts tomorrow with clay-pigeon shooting, continues with a press day on Tuesday and gets serious later in the week when a Friday training session at Celtic’s Lennoxtown base will be followed by an overnight stay in the west.
That, though, is the way Wright likes it. After spending so much of his career in Northern Ireland, where football is part-time and money is tight, he is accustomed to getting his hands dirty. His last club, Lisburn Distillery, were in administration when he led them to victory in the Irish League Cup. In a show of appreciation, eight of his former colleagues attended St Johnstone’s semi-final win against Aberdeen at Ibrox.
“It is always important to remember where you have come from, where you have been,” says Wright, who has found a kindred spirit in St Johnstone. He is not the most glamorous figure to hug the touchline, but he is an honest man who has quickly earned himself a reputation for decency. The 50-year-old former Newcastle United and Manchester City goalkeeper also has had to play the waiting game. By his own admission, he was “not even close” to a cup final in his playing days.
Brought up as part of a working-class family in Ballyclare, just north of Belfast, Wright was a cross-country runner who only took up goalkeeping at the age of 19. After two years playing for Grange Rangers, as well as four years of limited first-team opportunities at Linfield, a surprise opportunity to sign for Newcastle led to an injury-hit career that could have earned him more than his 31 Northern Ireland caps.
His managerial career was no quicker in gathering momentum. He was a goalkeeping coach at Norwich City before returning to Northern Ireland where spells with Limavady United, Ballymena United and Lisburn were followed by another big break, this time in 2011, when Steve Lomas, the newly-appointed St Johnstone manager, needed an assistant.
By twice emerging from the relative obscurity of Northern Ireland, Wright is nothing if not determined. He understands the value of perseverance. He believes that opportunities can be earned. He is a workaholic. Soon after a gall-bladder operation in March, he was desperate to be back on the training pitch.
“I’ve always been brought up to think that there’s nothing wrong with hard work,” he says. “I’ve had to do it in my career because I didn’t have that background where I was a schoolboy international. I was 19 when I took up goalkeeping. When I went over to Newcastle, I was probably more known as the Ballyclare Barman than a goalkeeper. But I became an international through hard work and a stubborn belief in myself.”
Those qualities have paid off at McDiarmid Park. When Lomas left for Millwall last summer, Wright decided to stay put, hoping that he had won enough respect to keep him in a job. Having been “the middle man” between Lomas and Brown, he was closer to his chairman than most assistant managers.
“I could have gone to Millwall, but it wasn’t for me. I don’t like big cities. Somewhere like London, I probably would struggle to settle. It was a gamble, but I think it was a calculated gamble. The chairman didn’t speak to me about the job until after Steve left. Even then, it was a roundabout conversation of ‘Well, what are we going to do now?’”
Well, knock Rosenborg out of the Europa League for a start. Then reach the semi-finals of the League Cup, the final of the Scottish Cup and finish in the top six for the third season in a row. In one remarkable campaign, Wright has done all of that as manager, while Lomas has lost his job at Millwall.
Two more of Wright’s predecessors, Derek McInnes and Owen Coyle, also came undone south of the Border, which perhaps explains his reluctance to contemplate moving up the career ladder. He knows that St Johnstone are one of those clubs who have the framework and the ethos to bring out the best in managers.
“I don’t want to say it because you don’t want to be blasé about it, but I think every manager at St Johnstone would feel secure in their job. I’d imagine all the previous managers were the same. It has got a feeling that – just work hard, do your job and we’ll back you.
“I just want to do as well as I can here and see where that takes me. If it is five years here, ten years, so be it. I’m not one that says, right, if I do a good job here, I’ll be away next year. That doesn’t even enter my mind.”
Wright is happy where he is. He likes his relationship with the Fair Maid, as the club are called by The Shrugs in their cup-final song of the same name. If she and the manager have their hands on the trophy come Saturday night, it will be an affair that lasts forever.
“Just another normal day,
Another girlfriend gone astray,
She wanted more, she slammed the door,
And threw my Saints scarf on the floor,
She said, ‘will you, will you please
Sort out your priorities?’
So I bought a season ticket.
Fair Maid – The Shrugs