Hope springs eternal in St Mirren legend Tony Fitzpatrick

Tony Fitzpatrick is St Mirren's patron saint of unquenchable optimism. The 61-year-old has enjoyed a religious devotion to a club he has served in every capacity over the past four decades, doing so now in the capacity of chief executive. Fitzpatrick knows that every available shred of evidence points to his beloved Buddies taking a battering in their Scottish Cup quarter-final at Celtic Park this lunchtime, in a runaway Premiership leaders versus bottom club in the Championship contest. And yet he retains a blind faith in the ability of his Saints to perform miracles.
St Mirren legend Tony Fitzpatrick had a small but well remembered role in cup final success. Picture: SNS.St Mirren legend Tony Fitzpatrick had a small but well remembered role in cup final success. Picture: SNS.
St Mirren legend Tony Fitzpatrick had a small but well remembered role in cup final success. Picture: SNS.

“Look at 2009. They had beaten us 7-0 in the league and yet within a week we put them out of the Scottish Cup,” Fitzpatrick said. “This is life at St Mirren. Every supporter will tell you, it is a journey here. When you are least expecting it, it happens for us. We have done it since 1877. I am not shouting ‘We are going to beat Celtic on Sunday’ I am just saying you never know. It is a big, big pressure game for them because this treble is really burning them and they need to beat us to continue on their journey.”

Celtic were still in the hunt for the domestic clean sweep when losing that tie in Paisley eight years ago. Equally, they were chasing all domestic honours when St Mirren shocked them in the League Cup semi-final of 2013. On each of those occasions, their form wasn’t in the same stratosphere as now, when they can boast an entire unbeaten domestic season of 33 games, 32 of them won. Equally, Fitzpatrick’s club weren’t struggling to stay in the second tier when responsible for those upsets.

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Four straight wins have given St Mirren hope of escaping the drop, and given them a Challenge Cup final against Dundee United, as well as their trip to Parkhead to look forward to. Fitzpatrick doesn’t pretend that his club haven’t endured a desperate campaign that cup adventures cannot compensate for. Yet, he sees a new St Mirren emerging since Jack Ross, who replaced the sacked Alex Rae in September, was able to reshape the squad in the transfer window.

“I’ve got a feeling in my stomach about this one. Celtic have got to get beat at some time by the law of averages,” he said. “Celtic are a machine just now. Six against Inverness [in the last round]. I am a great believer, though, it is what happens on the day. Who knows, [Moussa] Dembele might have a bad curry or something or doesn’t feel like it, or whoever doesn’t feel like it? They are human beings.”

Fitzpatrick himself is an individual who represents the best of humanity. He also stands as a huge figure in the history of his club thanks to his substitute appearance in the 1987 Scottish Cup triumph, and two, admittedly troubled, spells as manager. A rare highlight during the first spell, which he said he wasn’t ready for, came at Celtic Park, indeed. It took the form of a 3-0 cuffing of the home team by his men in April 1990 that makes him the last St Mirren manager to enjoy a win at the ground.

“Nobody gave us a chance that day but it was 3-0 going on 6-0,” he said. “I have fantastic memories of that day. But I had a feeling that week we could go there and win and I’ve got that again this week. I can’t believe I’m the last St Mirren manager to win at Parkhead so it would be great for Jack Ross if he could take that mantle from me. I told the players that day just to be brave. Footballers have all got massive egos and want to show their class but they have to be brave and take the ball. Enjoy the occasion and don’t be intimidated. What a gift we could give our supporters on the back of a horrendous season if we could beat Celtic. Sunday is a fantastic day for everyone at the club, financially as well. I can picture in my head the boys celebrating...”

Fitzpatrick can produce another portent to give him hope that his team today could deliver the 50-1 shock – the price given by one bookmaker for St Mirren this afternoon – by inflicting a first domestic defeat on Brendan Rodgers as Celtic manager.

“We were near relegation at times but the cup gave us the impetus to do well,” he said of the Alex Smith-led success against Dundee United. “Now we’ve got new players in, we’ve reached a cup final and now we have the Celtic game and I think these will all help us. It’s created a great atmosphere around the place. No disrespect to the 1987 team as I was a part of that squad, but it wasn’t a great St Mirren team. You look at the sides before that with [Frank] McAvennie, [Frank] McDougall, [Peter] Weir, [Frank] McGarvey and others who were probably better teams. But it was ours that won that cup.

“I never played in any of the cup ties. If you look back that year I was injured, had major injuries, and had given up playing. I had been with the team, I was club captain and Alex kept me in training and things like that. Then I got the wires out of my jaw and he saw me in training and said why don’t you get involved. I hadn’t expected to be anywhere near it. Guys like Peter Godfrey and [Paul] Chalmers had scored goals and never made the squad. So I was blessed. It was a godsend to me. Just to get off the bench was incredible because I hadn’t been playing.”

Now rarely a day goes past that Fitzpatrick isn’t asked about his late cameo. “Every supporter, and even the young kids when you go round the school, they have got grandfathers and grannies who have told them about it,” he said. “It is the one thing as a player that gets you remembered for ever more, winning the Scottish Cup. You could have the worst career but they remember that about you.”

Tony Fitzpatrick was speaking at a William Hill media event. William Hill is the proud sponsor of the Scottish Cup.