SCOTTISH Cup success still raises a smile for wholehearted St Johnstone boss
NEVER having met Tommy Wright before, my impressions are based almost entirely on those moments when the TV cameras cut to the St Johnstone dugout. And, waiting for him at McDiarmid Park, I’m trying to remember how you’re supposed to react when confronted by a bear. Run uphill or is it downhill? Curl into a ball? But what if he boots the ball, a lusty kick upfield like the goalie he used to be?
Well, he looks a bit like a bear. Big and gruff and gloomy. Very rarely smiles. Then again, maybe the Irishman is one of those guys whose smiles look like frowns, just as John “Yogi” Hughes, who got the better of Wright this week, could be one of those guys whose frowns look like smiles. Apart from a special day last May, of course, when our man’s smile was unmistakable and as wide as Perthshire.
He emerges from his chat with the chairman and thrusts forward a hand. Ouch. He leads me down a corridor, a bear with a sore leg – the consequence of the ten operations on his right knee which blighted his playing career – and now we’re in a room as modest as you’d find at the home of national cup winners anywhere. I’m hoping to get Wright, 51, to talk about the Scottish Cup but am anticipating being rebuffed or maybe even regruffed, given that the next round in Saints’ defence is still a fortnight away.
Guess what, though? He’s as warm, open and candid as they come. He speaks up for his club, their quiet, quaint ways, at every turn. He talks about his son who died at the age of five with such love and longing that your correspondent thinks he might weep. And the funny lines start right away.
We begin by talking about the goalkeepers’ union – Wright’s membership hasn’t lapsed. Would he have liked to be a custodian in this more-interactive, no-backpass era? “Oh aye,” he says. “Kevin Keegan once described me as the best sweeper-keeper in the world. Nine months later he friggin’ sold me. That summed up our relationship.”
Keegan was Wright’s manager at Newcastle United and I’m presuming our man didn’t learn much from him about being a boss. “Well, he had knowledge – all managers need that – but he was very off-the-cuff, no structure, the old Liverpool way of training with small-sided games. His attitude was ‘We’re better than the rest’ which can give you confidence but he didn’t take defeats well and back at training he’d mope around in the huff with Terry McDermott having to tell him: ‘Come on gaffer, the lads want you to join in.’” Wright interpreted this as ego. “He’d been personally affronted by losing; it was all about him.”
The journeyman goalie worked for spectacular names. There was Ossie Ardiles who, challenged by Wright on being left out, said he’d seen the keeper play for Northern Ireland and had been underwhelmed. “He told me the game, the date, the venue, but he’d got the wrong guy. I said: ‘Ossie, that was Allen McKnight.’” Keegan always had his favourites; Ardiles picked the same team without fail. What about Ruud Gullit? “You could say I got him the sack from Newcastle but that’s probably not quite true. I only played for him one game and bloody eventful so it was. Just before the Tyne-Wear derby he told me I was in. We were training, about to do set-plays, and John Karelse, who’d played until that point, trotted into position. Ruud said ‘No no, John – Tommy, you go’ and that was it. He didn’t deal with people, which cost him, because he left out Alan Shearer and Duncan Ferguson for that game and we lost.”
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Now, Wright isn’t saying he’s a better manager than these guys. For one thing they were managing, in Newcastle, a club which might well be unmanageable. But in his debut season as a boss he delivered the Scottish Cup, Saints’ first trophy. Cups occasionally require a buff with silver polish but you suspect memories of that triumph never will. This may be why Wright is prepared to break with one-game-at-a-time protocol and talk about next month’s tie at Queen of the South. You see, he wants to win the thing again.
Maybe I provoke him by asking if he thinks he’s suffering from difficult second season syndrome.
“Folk have asked me: ‘How do you top last season?’ I keep saying – though I don’t know if anyone believes me – that success is measured by the expectations of your club. St Johnstone have never really had a sustained period in the top league. First and foremost we want to be out of the play-offs – that’s what the chairman budgets for. We did well in Europe again this season – that’s two years unbeaten away from home now and not many Scottish clubs can say that. Clubs like Dundee get written about more than us right now but we’re above them in the league and, while I don’t like comparing budgets, I’m sure theirs is bigger. We’re top six and still in the Scottish Cup. We’ve actually got more points than at this stage last season and, although we haven’t scored as many, there’s a reason for that. If Ronny Deila loses Kris Commons who got 28 goals last season, I’d like to see him try and replace him with what I got given to replace Stevie May who scored 27.
“I’m not criticising. Although our crowds have increased they don’t ever spike up enough for the chairman to say: ‘Here you are, Tommy.’ For me, carrying on without Stevie is the challenge.” Maybe you think that St Johnstone will now slip back inside their burrow for another 130 years. Wright has no intention of allowing this to happen and adds: “Yes, we’re seen as unfashionable. We’re seen as a club who don’t play young players but our Scott Brown has played in Europe and no one mentions him yet they clamour about young lads at other clubs. This season, if I’m not going to get top six and I’m not going to win the Scottish Cup, hopefully others things will point to me having done a reasonable job. But I’ll tell you: I do want top six and I do want to win the cup.”
You know how in those dugout shots Wright’s face can crumple up so you can’t see his eyes? Well, they’re big and wide open and twinkling now. Mention of the old holey pail must do this. He can’t wait for the fifth round at Palmerston.
“Queen of the South play good football. It’s going to be a tough game. I think it’ll be a cracker.” Then comes that heavy-browed scowl we know and love: “To be honest, I’m disappointed it wasn’t chosen for live TV. They showed what they can do in beating Rangers and we’re the cup holders.”
Such is the lot of a football manager in the beautiful backwater of Perthshire. “Last season, everyone seemed to be prophesying an Aberdeen-Dundee United final because that was the one they wanted. That was the big story but I thought we were the bigger story, never having won anything before. I remember the letters in the days before the final: ‘I’m not really a Saints fan but my granda was and he supported them for 40 years and I’m going to the game.’ Or: ‘My uncle was a fanatic and he passed away last year so I’m going.’ A lot of folk seemed to make a pilgrimage on behalf of someone else.”
So how many times has he watched back the Tangerines-trumping triumph? “Actually only once, in the wee small hours after the game.” A completely sober re-assessment? “I might have had a cup of green tea,” he laughs. “But I was looking for things I missed in the mayhem at the end, like the players coming back onto the pitch with their little ones.” Afterwards, back in Perth, cuddling the cup, Wright paused to remember his son Andrew, just as he’d paused on the final whistle of the semi win over Aberdeen to think about the boy who died 21 years ago, and no one could have been left unmoved. “Andrew was born premature. He had jaundice and the doctors reckoned that’s what caused his brain damage. He had a lot of difficulties for sure but when I moved to Nottingham Forest and he started at the same special-needs school as John Robertson’s wee girl, me and my wife Anne came to appreciate there were a lot of kids worse off than him.
“Andrew couldn’t speak but he could communicate to us with his eyes and with his smile. I always knew he wasn’t going to live long and he took really ill when I got knocked out in a game up at Sunderland. I was in one hospital and he was in another, struggling to breathe. When I got down to see him he was wrapped in silver foil and the doctors were asking to turn his machine off. Anne and I were waiting for him to die but he didn’t, not right then. He was really fighting for his life and kept fighting for another three months. So whenever I hear players moan about extra training I feel like saying: ‘Look, you’re not going to die from another run in the cold and the wet and the wind.’ Andrew will always be around, putting everything in perspective, making us feel lucky to have known him.”
Like most football men, Wright talks a lot about luck. The luck you need in a five-match run to cup glory. The luck you need in getting your bad performance against Dundee United out of the way early, first league game. The luck Wright needed, too, in meeting Anne back in Ballyclare, Co Antrim when she joined the staff of the pub where he worked. “She’s originally from Belfast but her dad and her family were in the police and had to move because of the Troubles. Nothing good came out of the Troubles but I’d never have met her otherwise.” Anne later got herself a good job in the civil service but gave it up to accompany her man on a near-30-year, peripatetic, have-gloves-will-play footballing adventure. “Fair play to her for sticking with me,” he says.
Then there was the good fortune of him taking a phone call he was going to let ring, an offer of yet another loan spell, this time at Reading, from where he got back in the Northern Ireland team and performed so defiantly against Euro 96 champs Germany in Nuremberg that Jurgen Klinsmann famously remarked: “Who boarded up these goals?” Just recently, pals sent him a funny snap from the game. “There were 60 photographers behind my goal and none at the other end.” On and on Wright went, to a misbegotten Manchester City unconcerned with “global reach” and simply seeking a nearby school hall for match-day warm-ups out of earshot of the fans’ abuse, until the goalie’s dodgy knee finally gave out for good.
As a coach he came from nowhere. Well, strictly speaking the likes of Ballymena – the last place he hurled a rubbish-bin across a dressing-room in anger. He was part of the so-called Irish invasion, at its height running almost half of Scotland’s top-flight. “Now I’m the only bloody one left!” I’m also currently the oldest manager in the league. But maybe my story can give hope to other guys who start out at the grassroots.”
As a manager, his story has barely begun and yet he’s already immortal. He’s also managed to fit in a pretty spectacular fall-out with Steve Lomas when, as No 2, he declined to follow the former McDiarmid gaffer to Millwall. The pair haven’t spoken since. But what about Stevie May, now of Sheffield Wednesday – does he keep in touch with him? “I text him when he scores. I miss Stevie, the guys miss him, everyone does.” Lomas had earmarked May for going out on loan; the new boss gave him his chance and was repaid with those 27 goals, none more valuable than the semi-final comeback double. Wright remembers being almost redundant during that half-time team-talk. “Sometimes the players do it for you. I think [Steve] MacLean’s words were: ‘There’s no way we’re losing this. I’m not going to be lying on a beach in a couple of weeks with these feckers in the final.’”
Maybe you won’t be surprised to learn that Wright believes in fate and is more than a little superstitious. “The guys think I’ve got OCD. When I got the manager’s job the chairman said ‘Of course you’ll have to win the cup’ and I said I would. It was a joke, but we kept repeating it. There was the significance of ‘May 17’ – Stevie’s shirt number was the date of the final. Also, the final was to be my 50th game.
“After the semi, everyone had to stay in the same hotel rooms for the final. Something else from the semi: the team bus drove off without our sports scientist Colin Levey, him running after it in the lashing rain, so come the final we recreated that, never mind that it was sunny. And on the journey to Celtic Park we passed a street called John Wright Avenue – my dad’s name.”
It had to be St Johnstone and it was. Afterwards he and Anne decided to get a new pet, discovering later that the bulldog had of course been born on 17 May. “The guys say Winston’s the spitting image of his master,” he laughs. What, Tommy Wright’s grumpy? I’m not having that. He rubs his bad knee, having been sat down too long. “All that destiny stuff – it’s history now. We go again.”