St Johnstone’s young striker has a laid-back attitude to life but that hasn’t stopped him getting goals
STEVIE May is talking tattoos. The extensive artwork that covers each of his bulging forearms includes the Joker, a peace symbol and numerous other images that, despite the best attempts of his inquisitor, offer little in the way of psychological insight.
Take, for instance, the lobster eating a box of chips. If that carries any significance for the young St Johnstone striker, he isn’t letting on. “You know, some of them mean things and some of them I just like. I’ve got a few funny ones, and a few ones that I will look back on one day and think ‘they remind me of the good times’.
“I never really had any tattoos until the summer, when I came back from holiday. I just fancied a couple and it kind of blew up from there. I got a lot in a short space of time, and there will be more to come. That’s the kind of attitude I have for most things. I might as well just go for it.”
May is an all-or-nothing kind of guy. Last summer, when he decided that more body strength was needed, he worked so hard on the weights that he was almost unrecognisable at pre-season training. Likewise, his hair hasn’t been cut in years, making him part Claudio Caniggia, part Carles Puyol, sometimes with a beard thrown in for good measure.
The tumbling curls are a style thing now, but initially, it was a consequence only of sloth. Ask him which word best describes his personality, and he replies: “Lazy. Once I’m home and sitting down, I’m not moving. I’m very chilled out. Nothing seems to get me up or down. I don’t get bothered too easily. Most of the boys would probably back that up. I’m happy-go-lucky. If nothing bothers you, nothing can go wrong.”
Nothing has gone wrong this season. His first full campaign in Scotland’s top flight has already produced 20 goals, five more than Tommy Wright, his manager, thought realistic by the end of the season. Six months ago, May wasn’t even sure he would play every week. Now, at the age of 21, he is the best young striker in the country, coveted by clubs south of the Border and tipped for a call-up to the full Scotland squad.
It is by far the most eye-catching example of his reluctance to do things by half. While there are shades of his laid-back lifestyle in the way he takes his chances early and sometimes without a moment’s thought, you don’t score goals as consistently and reliably as May does without having an insatiable appetite for them.
Last season, which he spent on loan to Hamilton Academical, he scored 25 in 33 appearances. The year before, when he was farmed out to Alloa Athletic, the ratio was 19 in 22. This season, his longest run without finding the net was in December, when the “drought” lasted three matches. “I’d say you’d struggle to find somebody out there that wants goals more than I do,” says May. “If I’ve not scored, and we’ve won, I still think to myself, ‘I wish I’d scored’.”
If he adds another couple to his total against Dundee United at Tannadice tomorrow night, it will equal the 18 top-flight league goals Paul Wright scored for the club in 1991/92. It would also enhance his chances of winning the Scottish Premiership’s Golden Boot award. To do that with a club of St Johnstone’s stature would be quite an achievement.
An extra opportunity to increase his tally for all competitions will present itself on Saturday, when St Johnstone play Aberdeen in the semi-final of the League Cup. After several revisions of his target for the season, 30 is now the magic number. “At the start of the season, I’d have been silly to say 30 goals is what I want, but now, when you look at how many I’ve scored, that’s got to be where I’m looking. Billy McKay has shown already that you don’t need to be with one of the big teams to score a lot.”
With goals to score, matches to win, maybe even trophies to lift, May insists that he wants to enjoy a full season with St Johnstone, despite growing speculation about his future. He is having fun, gathering invaluable experience of first-team football and, above all, getting better.
May’s strength, apart from natural finishing, is running the channels with energy and enthusiasm, but he is also proving to be a quick learner. Since Steven MacLean, his link man, was injured in October, he has had to perform in a variety of attacking roles. He needs to improve his control, his heading and his lay-offs, but if the past is any guide, he will rise to those challenges.
“The thing I like about him is that he is confident, but he is also level-headed,” says Tommy Wright. “He knows he’s not the finished article. He knows what he’s got to do, and he works hard at it. That’s what I love about him. That’s the quality that I think can take him to the top.
“He’s also a listener, which is why he’s improving so rapidly. He listens to staff, to senior players, and he listens to his parents. A lot of players would get ahead of themselves with the kind of hype that’s been surrounding him all season. Stevie hasn’t.”
May grew up in Newburgh, a village of just 2,000 people on the banks of the River Tay. A pupil at Bell Baxter High School, he chose to become a footballer rather than complete his five Highers, a decision backed by his father, Graham, and his mother, Rhona, who still attend every game. They, more than anyone, are his inspiration.
“Just knowing that they’re watching, knowing that they’re so proud… it’s a big thing for me to reward them with all this after they have put so much into it. They have probably put as much into it as I have over the years, travelling all over the place with me as a youngster. It must have been a hassle at times.”
He also owes a debt of gratitude to St Johnstone. Although he was never a season-ticket holder, he had an affinity with them from the moment he played boys’ football on the artificial surface outside McDiarmid Park. He still lives in a house round the corner.
In October, when May could quite easily have allowed the final year of his contract to run down, he opted instead to sign a 12-month extension. It suited him, and it certainly suited St Johnstone, who now have no need to sell him in what remains of the transfer window.
Neither May, nor his club, want a transfer completed until the summer, when he will still command a hefty fee. Only a big offer, from a big club, could change their mind, but so far it has not materialised. The best that has been made public is a £500,000 bid by Peterborough United, which was swiftly rejected.
What a relief it will be for St Johnstone fans if nothing better comes along before Friday’s transfer deadline. The following day, he will be in the team that plays Aberdeen at Tynecastle, eager to take the step that has too often proved beyond them. May was a punter at the 2008 Scottish Cup semi-final, which Rangers won on penalties. He came on as a substitute at the same stage of the same competition three years later, when Motherwell won 3-0 at Hampden.
He doesn’t need reminding that St Johnstone, founded in 1884, have yet to win a major trophy. The Perth club have punched above their weight in recent years, riding so high in the top flight that they have qualified for Europe two years in a row, but there is still no silverware to show for it.
Now, more than ever, with a level financial playing field, the club that has for so long lived within its means yearns to be rewarded. The last four of this season’s League Cup gives them their latest, some would say best, chance yet. No Rangers. No Celtic. Not even Motherwell. If not now, when?
“This season is as good a chance as you’ll ever get,” says May. “The way it’s been drawn, if we can beat Aberdeen, there’s no reason why we can’t win the trophy. We’ve looked at teams like St Mirren win cups, and thought ‘why is that not us?’ The boys are confident. They feel that this could be our year. This could be our time.”