DCSIMG

Saints savour 20 years at McDiarmid Park

PERHAPS it is the surrounding farmland and countryside of Perthshire which have given urbanites the misguided view that St Johnstone FC reside in football's backwaters.

The notion could not be further from the truth. Indeed, tomorrow the club celebrates the 20th anniversary of the day it blazed a trail Scottish football clubs have been following ever since. Two decades ago this week, the Fair City outfit leapt headlong into the unknown by moving into the first all-seated purpose-built arena of its kind in the country.

It was a bold move away from Muirton Park, a tidy ground with one of the best playing surfaces in Scotland, which was popular with regulars and visiting fans alike. It could create the kind of atmosphere that is so often missing in modern stadiums, with its single stand along one side of the pitch facing a traditional-style covered enclosure. When local rivals Dundee visited, the place would be guaranteed to come alive. A record attendance of 29,972 squeezed in when Dundee visited on Scottish Cup duty in February 1951, and then 11 years later the place was bursting at the seams when Dundee won 3-0 to claim the Scottish League championship and relegate the hosts to the Second Division.

Its replacement, McDiarmid Park, built by Miller Construction, was the new generation of football stadia envisaged in the wake of the Bradford fire and the Heysel disaster. Moreover, it transformed the whole notion of a football stadium as a venue for bi-monthly matches to a facility sweating its worth 24/7. It was the coveted out-of-town site, close to transport hubs, with 1000 free parking areas, spacious covered seating and corporate/conference lounges. It has since become the beau ideal, cloned and modified countless times UK-wide.

As he sits in the office of his firm, GS Construction, in Glencarse, Saints chairman Geoff Brown is aware of how important McDiarmid Park has been to the continued existence of a club he was first asked to join while attending a Second Division match in 1986 in front of 400 fans. It is two weeks before the first home game of the 2009/2010 season and the place has been going like a fair.

Over 8,000 Jehovah's Witnesses have just packed up following their annual pilgrimage to McDiarmid Park. The site's proximity to Perth Crematorium means there have also been funeral parties to cater for.

"The model has been a success," says Brown, 65, whose influence as a local house builder helped push through the controversial deal to move the club from Muirton Park, its home of 62 years, back in July 1989.

"To see its worth, you only need to go back the last seven seasons. We have survived in the First Division. That is very difficult," he says, delighted the club is looking forward to marking its 125th anniversary with Premier League football.

"People talk about the vision of it. I had been at a number of grounds with hospitality boxes and I was always of the belief that, if you had 20 games in a season, those boxes were only being used 20 times. We came down on the side that we would rather put them into lounges and suites that could be used daily."

While the business meetings in the nine suites, the weddings, christenings, rugby matches and the Elton John concerts have managed to turn Saints from a Second Division club with a 300,000 debt in 1986 to one of the only clubs in Scotland to have a positive balance sheet, Brown can still recall the angry letters when he outlined his McDiarmid Park ideal.

"At the time, we went for a 10,000 all-seater. I had a number of letters and bits in papers from critics saying I had no ambition and also from people who felt there should be standing areas. We were a few months away from completion and then we had Hillsborough. All of a sudden, we became the leading lights."

Six months after the club played its first match at McDiarmid Park against Clydebank, Lord Justice Taylor was at the stadium meeting Brown on a damp Saturday morning, informing his findings for the weighty Taylor Report. St Johnstone were forging a path which others were being advised to follow. CCTV was being installed along with electronic turnstiles.

One of the ironic things – and it still perplexes Brown to this day – is that although people sounded-off over the vision, when it was first suggested very few rejected the move away from Muirton when Asda offered to relocate them to the edge of the A9 and demolish the creaking old stadium and nearby ice rink for food halls.

"I got a call between Christmas and New Year. It came completely out of the blue," recalls Brown, who had just become chairman and ordered a rights issue. Having watched Willie Ormond's great team including Henry Hall, John Connolly and Fred Aitken at Muirton as a teenager, he expected to have to don his builder's hard hat at the agm a few days later. He bit the bullet, mentioning it under any other competent business.

"When I was standing up at that meeting, I had no shares, no control, nothing. Because I had no shares, I didn't even have a vote because it was a shareholders' meeting. I told them I had taken into account the amount of work that had to be done at Muirton and I felt it was worth consideration. Unanimously, it was backed. There was not one dissenting voice. It still surprises me. Saints had been down and were sitting in the Second Division and everything had been taken away from them. Even for our opening of the shares, we didn't sell 15,000 worth."

Despite early run-ins with Lord Mansfield – which Brown still regrets – moving home has proved the making of St Johnstone. When AS Monaco were held to a 3-3 draw by Saints at the stadium in 1999 it was an indication of how far the club had come in a decade since the flit. Upping sticks allowed them to establish the fiscal rectitude it maintains today. If it hadn't done so, who knows how much lower Saints might have fallen? As if to illustrate the point, Brown's mobile rings on his table. It is manager McInnes calling from Belfast, where the first-team squad have been ensconced this week. Saints have already shelled out 100,000 this summer on new faces

and in days gone by, all of those players would have been brought in on football revenue alone. With Saints having around 2,000 season ticket holders, it's easy to understand that a significant proportion of the cash coming in now is non-football related.

"Right now, I've got real problems," smiles Brown. "You have a manager wanting as many players as anyone else in the league and as much money as anyone else is paying. That is where our job is very, very difficult because you have to try and keep the lid on. That is hard."

Brown has always been aware of financial realities and always endeavours to ensure St Johnstone is run "on the right side" of the division between profit and loss. The fortunes on the park may have swung in his 23 years at the helm but the constant bedrock has been McDiarmid Park.

CLUB HISTORY

ST JOHNSTONE were formed by members of the local cricket team seeking to occupy their time once the cricket season had finished in 1884.

Club members leased a piece of land adjacent to the South Inch known as the Recreation Grounds, which became the club's first home. After several decades it became clear they had outgrown those grounds so, in 1924, they moved to the other side of Perth and built Muirton Park, which would serve as their home for the next 65 years before moving to McDiarmid Park in 1989 where they have spent the past 20 years.

The club has had little success in national competitions. They have never won the top league, nor either of the two major cup tournaments: the Scottish Cup or the League Cup. There have been two appearances in the final of the League Cup, losing first to Celtic in 1969 and to Rangers in 1998, but they have yet to reach a Scottish Cup final.

 
 
 

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