IT WASN’T the hostility that surprised Steve Lomas, it was the source of it. He had anticipated it on foreign fields, but he hadn’t expected to hear his own fans calling for his head and certainly not just five games into a new season.
But football is rarely predictable. After spending last summer rejigging his inherited squad, he was taking the club into Europe and the first stop was Turkey.
Notorious for their enmity towards the opposition, it was a shock for the St Johnstone manager to see their hosts for that Europa League qualifier, Eskisehirspor, offer the players a warm welcome as they took to the pitch to suss out the playing environment. And despite losing the tie, it remains one of the more cherished memories of a campaign which, despite an uncertain start, now sees St Johnstone on the brink of securing European football for the second successive season.
But if that memory provokes a smile, Lomas’s face tightens up as he recalls the reception he was afforded by the Saints supporters and some pundits and journalists when that European sojourn was followed up with a new SPL campaign and five games without a win. There were calls for his sacking, the bookies slashed the odds on him being dismissed and his case was not helped by commentators in the media and on forums and phone-ins lumping in some of the previous term’s results to blacken the statistics further.
“If I wasn’t so media-friendly I could have just blanked you boys totally for the year but I didn’t think that was right,” he says. “I just put a lot of what was written and said at that time down to poor journalism and down to people not looking at the big picture.
“Adding in results from the previous season was a little bit naughty. The odds of St Johnstone finishing in fourth last season weren’t good when you look at the teams we were up against in the top six, when we had a lot of injuries, suspensions, people had been sent off and everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. It was disappointing but I thought adding those to the stats was a bit off.
“If we are being honest, we didn’t start this season great but again people needed to look a wee bit deeper because we were playing well although we only got two points from 15, which isn’t good enough. But whether it calls for someone being sacked that early on in a season… but that’s when you get a wee bit pressure. But next up was Celtic and, thankfully, we beat them here and that was the kick to our season.”
If they had struggled to secure a victory in the first five games on domestic duty, they did nothing but win in the following six, giving them their best winning run in decades and elevating them to the lofty heights of second place. With one SPL game day left, Motherwell have guaranteed themselves that slot but third place and another taste of European football is still within St Johnstone’s grasp. Rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle are third but results today could see Lomas’s men leapfrog them as the curtain falls.
“We have a group of winners, and not just the playing staff,” says Lomas. “Everyone at the club works hard. We want to have a laugh and a joke but ultimately come a Saturday, bam, that’s what it’s all about. And we go out here and give it our all.”
A glance at the league standings confirms that commitment has led to success greater than the sum of the parts at McDiarmid Park, and Lomas says his club epitomises that selfless approach. “Working with the lads has been a joy. No matter what, they give you everything. As a manager it helps if you have self-motivated people and this is a pretty unselfish group and the idea that they are even in with a chance of finishing third and getting this club into Europe for the second year in a row is a remarkable achievement and I don’t think anyone should lose sight of that.
“A lot of the focus has been on Ross County and Inverness but we have just gone about our business quietly and professionally and the boys have worked tremendously hard, especially when you consider the pressure we were all under after those first few games.”
At that stage Lomas had been at the club for a matter of months and spent the summer manning a revolving door as around 16 players exited the club, some through choice, others deemed surplus by Lomas, and others simply too pricey for a budget that was again being squeezed. He brought in 12 players to try to fill out the squad and knew it would take time for them to settle but he always believed they would be good enough.
Stressing to them that he had faith in them, he needed them to watch his back too as the vultures circled.
“You definitely learn who is back in your corner with you in those situations,” he says.
“I have been at a lot of clubs and I was at West Ham, with the reserves, and there were a lot of people there who weren’t like that and I could see when I went in that West Ham would struggle because of that. I could see the type of characters they had and there weren’t enough of the Mark Nobles, the wee Scotty Parkers or the Robert Greens to override the wrong ‘uns, as I call them.
“They had made a mistake. But here, although we have had some ups and downs this season, on the whole the lads have been spot on.”
Results breed confidence and Lomas has a keen mind for matches and moments where his season has ebbed and flowed. He says there were only two or three games when his men didn’t show the right attitude and he can re-live them in painstaking detail.
Perhaps surprisingly, given his place as early season fodder for columnists and bloggers, he is a man devoid of any overt bitterness, but while he may forgive he doesn’t forget. At the moment his gripe is with the SFA compliance officer and the BBC. He believes they have conspired to unfairly deny him the services of defender Fraser Wright for this afternoon’s key match with Motherwell and while he accepts there is nothing he can do about it now, the affable Lomas can’t resist wee digs.
Going back to the fledgling days of the campaign, when the stuttering start was replaced by that confidence-bolstering winning streak, he said he simply told his players to keep doing what they had been doing and the results would come.
“The fact they trusted me and we did turn things around was good for me as a young manager. The key game was the Celtic game but one of the biggest highlights was following that up with a win up at Ross County. We had a man sent off after 30 minutes that day, which was an absolute joke – another one – and not only did we rally, we went up the other end and Fraser powered a header in and he did that jumping with his arms up I might add, so it was obviously allowed that day or maybe it was just because the Sportscene cameras weren’t there because they certainly didn’t catch the incident where Rowan Vine got sent off!”
But having overcome the odds and defied the doubters, he has a right to his wee jibes. At another club he may have been shown the door before he was given the opportunity to showcase his managerial abilities. “We have seen that before. Look at Paul Lambert, he might have been finished after Livingston but he has been given another chance, others like Steve Kean don’t get time. Who knows where Blackburn might have been if they had stood by him. Maybe they would already be back up, maybe they would be in the play-offs, we’ll never know, but you look at Alex Ferguson. Manchester United gave him time.”
Lomas and Ferguson are men at completely different points in the managerial careers but both their clubs stood by them when others might not. Manchester United have enjoyed their rewards. St Johnstone are hoping to reap them today.