Saturday Interview: Jim Pearson on going from St Johnstone hero to Nike's UK trailblazer

As the World Cup sweeper for West Germany Willi Schulz had been imperious but in 1971 there was nothing he could do to halt St Johnstone’s greatest night - or the gallus cheek of Jim Pearson.
St Johnstone legend Jim Pearson at home on TynesideSt Johnstone legend Jim Pearson at home on Tyneside
St Johnstone legend Jim Pearson at home on Tyneside

Schulz’s Hamburg had initially queried the Euro credentials of their obscure opponents when “Saint John Town, ja?” couldn’t be located on a map and suddenly the men from the Bundesliga were being bundled out of the Uefa Cup by them.

Then to make matters worse, the teenaged centre-forward with the pop-star haircut and the boy wonder of old Muirton Park added to his goal with a stinging insult - relayed in the stopper’s native tongue.

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Pearson explains: “I pointed to the other Hamburg players and said to Willi: ‘Sie sind alt - They are old.’ He looked at me funny. How did this little runt know German? Then I said: ‘Und du bist sehr alt - And you are too old.’ That was condescending of me, I suppose, but I was young and just got carried away with the night. Willi might have chased me - and it wouldn’t have been the first time a centre-half did that.”

Pearson scoring for St Johnston against Ayr United.Pearson scoring for St Johnston against Ayr United.
Pearson scoring for St Johnston against Ayr United.

Willie Ormond’s Saints beat Hamburg 3-0 - 4-2 on aggregate - in the September of that year and seven months previously, in one of the crucial wins of the club’s charge to finish third and qualify for Europe for the first time, Pearson was to cause similar discomfort, and deliver similar quippery, to Billy McNeill.

“I was 17, having only just broken into the first team a few weeks before. Celtic came to Muirton packed with Lisbon Lions. I did think that day: ‘What the hell am I doing here? These guys have won the European Cup.’ Billy tried his psychology on me. He flexed that big chest of his and me being dead skinny I bounced right off it. He went: ‘Has anyone given you a lollipop yet, sonny?’ Then: ‘Don’t worry, when you’re back at school Matron will look after you.’ But in the tenth minute I got away and scored. As I ran back past him I turned round and pretended to lick a lollipop. Billy went mad and tried to catch me. There was a funny picture in the Sunday Post: ‘The Celtic skipper takes a dim view of Pearson’s enthusiastic celebration’.”

I’m talking to Pearson the day the postman delivers his copy of a splendid new book and surely every St Johnstone fan’s Christmas wish - Hagiography: The Great Saints, celebrating the 60 key personalities who’ve shaped the club’s history. “I’ve just sneaked in,” he laughs, “but I don’t know how. There’s this guy Jimmy Fleming, played for St Johnstone in the 1920s, who helped capture Rudolph Hess [when Hitler’s deputy, on a supposed peace mission in 1941, parachuted onto Eaglesham Moor]. How can I compete with that? You’d better stop this interview right now!”

Ah but Pearson, a Falkirk Bairn now 67, has a good story to tell. From Muirton he shot to England’s top flight with Everton and Newcastle United. He got into marketing and persuaded footballers to wear Nike. Then came coaching - via pal Ian Botham for the Sultan of Brunei. Finally his most rewarding job: helping disadvantaged kids.

Pearson scored in both legs of the the famous win over HamburgPearson scored in both legs of the the famous win over Hamburg
Pearson scored in both legs of the the famous win over Hamburg

A good story, also a poignant one. On the wall of the Tyneside home he shares with second wife Jan there’s a treasured photograph of Pearson as a boy with his father Eddie at the seaside. “Whitley Bay - our first foreign holiday. It was a treat if Dad could afford to take me and my brother Ted to see Falkirk play. He worked at the local foundry and, having played in the same school team as Eddie Turnbull, might have fancied becoming a footballer himself. So when I showed some ability he was delighted and would come to all my juvenile games, though always watching from a distance because there were eejit parents on the touchlines even then.

“I was 16 and coming home from the flicks the day my mum rushed towards me in the street to tell me he’d had a massive heart attack.” Pearson was deeply affected by his father’s death. “Dad was just 46 and he never saw me play. I wanted to make him proud. That I couldn’t was devastating.”

Ironically his father’s passing probably speeded up Pearson’s football career. Willi Schulz could testify to his fluency in German and the Falkirk High schoolboy with four Highers to his name had been destined for St Andrews University and a languages degree. “My plan was full-time study and part-time football but when Dad died and my mother had to go back to work, I decided to swap them around to bring in some money to help her - even if that was just the £18 a week I was earning at St Johnstone.”

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This is a conversation of laughter and tears with Pearson lamenting the deaths of Ray Clemence, an indomitable rival from Merseyside derbies, and Nobby Stiles: “‘Let’s have a pint,’ he said when he tried to sign me for Preston - a proper football man.” Bobby Charlton, who’s been diagnosed with dementia, had earlier tried to lure him to North End. “He came up to Muirton to watch me. Dad would have been thrilled if he’d been sitting nearby, although nervous too.

Celebrating an Everton goal with Bruce Rioch and Duncan McKenzieCelebrating an Everton goal with Bruce Rioch and Duncan McKenzie
Celebrating an Everton goal with Bruce Rioch and Duncan McKenzie

“You know, I never really got over my father’s death - not until just recently. It was so sudden and he was someone I loved dearly. But I still had my mother who was absolutely brilliant. Losing people in your life, though - many have had it tougher and especially this year. And another thing: ten weeks ago my fifth grandchild came into the world. The biased grandad’s view is that Finlay is a smasher - they all are. Life’s about them now.”

Pearson had been training with Hearts when manager Ormond nabbed him for St Johnstone. He walked into the club and knew immediately he was in the right place. “Everyone was chatting and laughing, the atmosphere was lovely.” For Pearson after his recent tragedy the homely feel of Muirton was to be cherished. “Those four years at Saints were the best of my life.” He remembers the first-day friendliness of Alex Rennie who died in 2018, Pearson delivering the eulogy at his old team-mate’s funeral.

“There were also guys like John Lambie and big Buck McGarry but I had to do a double-take finding myself in the same dressing-room as these two because not so long before I’d been cheering them on for Falkirk. And there was Henry Hall - he’d been my PE teacher.”

St Johnstone’s fantastic third-place finish in ’70-’71 was powered by the goals of Hall, John Connolly and, after his breakthrough, Pearson. “Henry was one of the best finishers around. We used to joke that all his goals were rubbish - off his arse or the back of his head and from never more than six yards - but he couldn’t stop scoring. John we all thought was the best footballer at the club. He floated everywhere with that lovely shimmy of his and when he got to the byline you just hoped to be on the end of his cross.”

Pearson loved his time at Everton when Bruce Rioch was both teammate and opponent, this time playing for Derby County with Archie GemmillPearson loved his time at Everton when Bruce Rioch was both teammate and opponent, this time playing for Derby County with Archie Gemmill
Pearson loved his time at Everton when Bruce Rioch was both teammate and opponent, this time playing for Derby County with Archie Gemmill

To illustrate the camaraderie of his Saints, who as well as beating Celtic that season did the double over Rangers to bump them into fourth place, he recalls the reserve fixture when still a second stringer: “We were at Ibrox with guys who’d been dropped from the first team, but everyone on the bus cheered when the result came through from Muirton - a 2-1 win. Then, when we found out Alex had scored for only the second time in approximately 8,000 games everyone laughed.”

And what of Saints’ manager? “The best I had in football, such a genuine bloke. Willie’s tactics were negligible but he was a fantastic man-manager. He came to Dad’s funeral which was brilliant. Mind you, I won’t forget the first time I spoke up at one of his team meetings. I’d been scoring goals for a while but not uttering a word so this day I said something. He glowered at me: ‘What? What? Do you know I only signed you because I fancied your mother?’”

The players were huddled around a transistor radio to learn of their reward for what is still the club’s best-ever league finish. “When we were paired with Hamburg everyone went: ‘Ya beauty!’ Me being only 18 I thought either this was a really glamorous draw or a dead easy one. It had to be explained to me we were headed for the sex capital of Europe.

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“In the away leg Willie wanted us to play our normal game: ‘Same as usual boys, attack them.’ Lambie set me up for our goal and said: ‘Peary, I’ve just made you a star.’ I thought the return would be busy but Muirton was jam-packed. That game was very nearly half a century ago and just thinking about it still sends shivers up my spine.”

Despite Pearson’s youthful impudence, Schulz went on record as predicting a big future for the kid - and McNeill would later urge Jock Stein to sign him for Celtic. Stein capped him for Scotland Under-23s but his way out of Perth in 1974 was to follow John Connolly to Everton. “I’d been very happy at St Johnstone but Willie having already left made it easier to go.”

A £90,000 signing, Pearson loved atmospheric Goodison, the Toffeemen fans and Bellefield, the club’s smart training ground. “I’d come from training in a public park next to the Tay and sometimes schoolboys playing a match would boot us off.” But Ormond, something of a father-figure, was always going to be a tough act to follow and he didn’t hit it off with Billy Bingham. He had a secondary role behind Bob Latchford - “I did all his running and he got all the glory” - and suffered a series of injuries.

Pearson's treasured photo of him as a boy with his father EddiePearson's treasured photo of him as a boy with his father Eddie
Pearson's treasured photo of him as a boy with his father Eddie

During rehab one day Bill Shankly - who lived near Bellefield, had retired as Liverpool supremo but could never get football out of his system - joined Pearson for a jog. “It was a lovely crisp November morning. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘it’s great to be alive. I just want to get fit again. I want to die fit, son. When I’m lying in my coffin and folk are walking round me I want to hear them say: ‘By f**k, Shanks is lookin’ well the day.’”

In 1978 he was following his chum Connolly again, this time to Newcastle, but injuries would soon catch up with him and at 27 he was forced to quit the game. “Geordies I meet sometimes say: ‘You didn’t score much for us.’ I always reply: ‘Four in 12, that’s one every three matches - same as [Alan] Shearer.’ It was disappointing to have to finish up so early but I count myself lucky having ten great years in the game and an interesting life after football.”

The Nike gig came about by chance. The monster brand which began by selling running gear from the boot of a car at Oregon track meets made its move into the UK football market from similarly modest surroundings. “I was playing non-league in Gateshead where the company had hooked up with Brendan Foster. It all happened very quickly: my name was suggested and when I asked Brendan how I should go about the job he simply handed me a blank piece of paper.

“In the beginning there wasn’t a budget so I called in a few favours. Ian Rush and Glenn Hoddle started playing in Nike boots, as did Mo Johnston and Charlie Nicholas. Ian Wright was brilliant, kissing his boot for the cameras after scoring for Arsenal. Then Eric Cantona jumped into the crowd at Crystal Palace wearing Nike. I’ve auctioned those boots seven times - no, that’s a joke. I did wonder if he’d have to be dropped, but then I thought about the incident differently … ”

Pearson continued to be proposed for jobs, the next time by Botham: “Nike got into cricket, too, which was how we became friends. After ten years with the company he phoned me up: ‘Come on, we’re going to Brunei.’ The Sultan wanted football developed there so I set up a team for him.”

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Three years later Pearson was back in England helping Wigan supremo Dave Whelan open indoor six-a-side centres. Then a change of scene: for Northumberland Council he became a chaperone for seven-to-12-year-olds whom life had already dealt an unfair hand. Even a trip to the swimming pool was viewed as a treat and Pearson was able to arrange stadium tours for the football-obsessed. “Seeing little eyes light up was a tremendous privilege,” he says. And a reminder that he’d known his father for 16 years and enjoyed a wonderful relationship with him; others weren’t quite so fortunate.

Happily retired now, Pearson keeps in touch with his fellow heroes of ’71, including Gordon Whitelaw, scorer of the “absolute beauty” which finished off Hamburg. “When we met up for the 40th anniversary we enjoyed it so much we decided to make it an annual event. There are only eight of us left now but because of Covid it hasn’t happened this year but I’ve just suggested we hold two reunions in 2021. Kenny Aird said to me: ‘Peary, you being the youngest, are you going to enjoy these get-togethers when it’s just you with your pint on your lonesome?’ I hope that’s some way off yet but, yes, maybe I’d have to keep the thing going. It was such a great victory, after all … ”

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