Interview: Ian St John - ‘I said I didn’t care if I never played for Scotland again, and I didn’t’

He ended his Scotland career early, but St John was a goalscoring hero in Spain 2, Scotland 6

IT CAN be surprisingly difficult to get a Scottish legend to talk about one of the greatest, most gobsmacking, most in-Dreamland scorelines – 14 June, 1963, Spain 2, Scotland 6. I’m in Liverpool’s Holiday Inn with Ian St John, trying to take him back to Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium, but we’ve hit a snag right away.

Denis Law didn’t score one of the six, he says. Did too, I say, although not with that amount of conviction for fear of annoying him. On the phone beforehand St John wasn’t keen on meeting up. Too busy, we hacks were too pushy and ‘63 was almost too long ago. He’d relent a bit, only to dig in his heels some more. He’d suggest the conversation might go better with some champagne – sorry, newspaper “eccies” – expenses – wouldn’t stretch that far. Eventually he agreed to the interview but in the man’s adopted city, scene of his glories in his first great Liverpool team, I’m expecting it to be brief and low on anecdotal colour, all the more so after I produce The Scotsman’s report from the game.

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“St John took a pass from [Willie] Henderson just over the halfway line. He raced through the Spanish defence and slipped the ball back to Henderson who hit hard into the net from 12 yards – the best goal of the game.” Sounds like a cracker, I say. He doesn’t remember it. What about his goal, the last of the six? He thinks, then: “Naw.”

Should I get the bill for our coffees, barely touched? Maybe not quite yet: “I thought it was Denis who was injured and therefore didn’t play but I’ve just remembered: it was Dave Mackay. And do you know what Dave did on the pitch, an hour before kick-off? His party piece was to spin a coin in the air, catch it on his toe, flip it onto his forehead – easy with his big napper – and from there let it slide into his breast pocket. All the Spaniards who’d come early loved it and shouted ‘Ole!’”

How Scottish is all of that? First, the legend won’t talk; he is grumpy. Then, when he does talk, he can’t remember a thrilling move but has pefect recall of a daft trick. St John, now 73, seems to have just encapsulated the national team in all their 1960s thrawnness and perversity and occasional chaotic brilliance. The team which can’t decide whether missing out on the Chile World Cup was a bigger tragedy than not qualifying for the England one. The team which was picked by committee. The team which lost one of its finest to a bolt of lightning. The team which could beat the world champs one day and concede nine the next. Those were the forgettably unforgettable Sixties, Scotland was that team – and you should have seen them on their summer tours.

“Oh boy, the tours were something else,” he says, and at this he emits a little cartoon chuckle, instantly recognisable from Saint & Greavsie and suggesting he’s starting to enjoy himself. “They were viewed as jollies and quite often, I’m afraid, the players didn’t give a toss. We’re talking about some of the greatest ones Scotland has ever produced but there was a complete lack of respect shown to the SFA and the team manager. It was very unprofessional. Liberty-taking, seeing how far you could push it.

“Mind you, we had what we thought were justifiable complaints. The entire Scotland set-up was a shambles with inexperienced managers put in charge of us, then having what little authority weakened by the team being selected by a committee. I remember Andy Beattie, when he was the manager, being reduced to tears by Jim Baxter. On the ‘63 tour Ian McColl was in charge. Nice man, but Jim turned up at the airport without boots and a grand he’d won at the gambling which he asked Billy McNeill to look after, otherwise he was going to blow it.”

The next drama of ’63 was mere minutes away. A bomb scare on the plane caused the team to be evacuated onto the runway with the joker Mackay quick to exploit the anxieties of the scared-of-flying: “What if they can’t find the bomb – will you dare get back on?” The first game was a 4-3 defeat by Norway in Oslo despite Law’s hat-trick. Adds St John: “There was all sorts of shenanigans afterwards, drinking and the like. Jim threw a pint of beer over someone and a committee guy said: ‘That’s enough, Baxter.’ ‘It’s Mr Baxter, to you,’ he said, ‘and you can stuff your team up your arse.’ He was walking out.”

By the time of the second match in Dublin, though, Slim Jim was back. Score: Republic of Ireland 1, Us 0. “I guess we were expected to have won that one, too.” And so to Madrid. What was McColl’s team-talk? “Oh I dunno. ‘C’mon, lads,’ maybe?” Another chortle; these were simpler times. “The warm-up back then, if it was a freezing January afternoon, was taking turns to sit on the heater. Not that that was an issue in Madrid.” Strategy was almost non-existent. He remembers it was on a previous Scotland summer tour that he first encountered a team – Austria – playing the offside trap. “No one could tell me how to counteract it, so I looked like an idiot all night.”

With Mackay injured for the Spain game and reduced to coin stunts, the XI to restore some pride featured Burnley’s Adam Blacklaw in goal, Baxter’s banker McNeill in an unusual right-back role with Davie Holt of Hearts on the other flank. The half-backs were Baxter, Frank McLintock and Ian Ure. All of the Anglos in that defence were tough opponents for St John in a Liverpool shirt. He remembers rounding Blacklaw in an FA Cup tie at Anfield, the Kop expectant, only for the keeper to rugby-tackle him. And then there was the time Bill Shankly tapped up McLintock while the centre-half was still at Leicester. “It was after they’d lost the [1961] FA Cup final to Spurs – in the team hotel, during the post-match dinner. Outrageous!”

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Shanks had got St John and his wife Betsy tickets for Wembley to round off a memorable week for the new Red, signed from Motherwell for £37,500. He was hurled down to Liverpool in the chairman’s Rolls-Royce. For his midweek debut, then, it was only polite that he make a good impression and a hat-trick was netted – against Everton.

Between ’61 and ’65 there would be three Wembley visits for St John as a player which would stand as huge moments in his career – heroic, horrible and bitter. Let’s get the horrible one out of the way – England 9, Scotland 3. Sir Alex Ferguson, a spectator that calamitous day, told me recently he still thinks England’s fourth with the score at 3-2 shouldn’t have counted because they were “too fly” with a free-kick. “Alex is dead right, but after that we caved in, and the Anglos took most of the flak, which often happened.

“This will sound strange now but back then Anglos were regarded as second-class Scots. It was as if we’d thrown in the towel to come and play down here. ‘That’s me off then, finished with being a true Scot.’ We were always battling for places with guys from the Old Firm. And with an eye on the box-office the selectors knew that Celtic and Rangers players would draw bigger crowds.”

In ’65, Liverpool captained by Ron Yeats – Shankly would describe a Scotland Select vs The Army match at Falkirk when he talent-spotted the man-mountain centre-half in opposition to an equally precocious St John as the most significant game he’d witnessed – won the FA Cup for the first time in their history, with St John twisting in the air for a stunning headed extra-time winner. But that was also the year he walked out on the Scottish team for ever.

“I scored in our 2-2 draw with England but wasn’t picked for the summer tour.” This happened before to St John, right after his Scotland debut when he and John White were acclaimed as the team’s future. In ’65, though, he was raging. “I said I didn’t care if I never played for Scotland again, and I didn’t. That was my termination. The glory of playing for my country had come and gone, I suppose. That FA Cup win happened the next week. Either side of that Liverpool won the league. I was very happy playing for my club – and, yes, I was idolised there – so I didn’t think I’d miss the national team.”

In his TV double-act with Jimmy Greaves – “I still like having a laugh and joke with Jim but we don’t see so much of each other now” – St John was more or less the straight man. Content to chuckle right through the Eighties, he was rarely provocative, which was odd, because it’s never been a trait he’s lacked, as successive Liverpool managers who’ve fallen short of being Shanklyesque will testify.

Already Scotland’s centre-forward, he made headlines when he was sacked from a Motherwell engineering firm for “bone idleness”. A YouTube search for clips of his Liverpool goals throws up right hooks and haymakers. And Carlos Tevez isn’t the only sulking striker to have ever refused to climb from the bench.

Away to Newcastle in 1969, St John was stunned to discover his boots placed under the No 12 shirt. “I admit it, I was embarrassed. The first time in my career I’d been dropped. Shanks never said anything and that annoyed me. We fell a couple of goals behind and I was sat next to Bob Paisley who gave me the nudge: ‘You’d better get warmed up.’ I told him Shanks would have to come down from the stand and admit he’d picked the wrong team. He didn’t of course, and I never went on. We lost.”

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Like many notable Scots of that era, St John wasn’t the shy and retiring kind. With a keen sense of his own worth, he’ll tell you that his transfer fee enabled Motherwell to build a new stand. He wasn’t as wowed by the Beatles as the Liverpool team-mates who’d hang out with the Fab Four at the Kardoma coffee-bar, instead hailing Shanks as king of that town. And he was still a player when he fancied a TV role, narrowly losing a Sportsnight with Coleman competition to find a new commentator for the 1970 World Cup. “The contest was ‘blind’ so the judges didn’t know our identities. But the casting-vote went to Alf Ramsey who could tell I was Scottish and he hated us, didn’t he? ‘Bad luck,’ he said. I knew he’d had elocution lessons to make him less Cockney so I said: ‘Maybe I should have had voice coaching like you, Alf.’ He flashed me an evil look.”

St John is full of stories today. He started out by saying that Motherwell was ancient history but many of them hark back to his days as a Fir Park opportunist – goalscorer and fan. “The Old Firm coming to town was a great day for gathering up the empties and getting money on them from the Hairy Man’s or the Burns Tavern.” Post-war, St John’s young life was typically tough, and tougher than most with his father dying when he was six. But he knows he was wrong to wear wellies when the “collection blanket” for worthy causes was passed round Fir Park so he could slip dropped sixpences in the boots. “Deservedly, I got a clip round the lug from a big sergeant.”

He scored a 150-second hat-trick against Hibs. “We were losing at the time and two pals from the steelworks went up and over the big terrace for a Bovril and missed all three.” And, in another drama resonating with football’s here and now, he was among the ’Well players approached by betting scammers to throw a game against Third Lanark. Thankfully the plot was rumbled by the goalie, Hastie Weir. “Ah, Dinnae-be-Hastie. He was part-time, ran a company, and never saw a ball from one Saturday to the next. I can still see him hopping up and down at the edge of his box shouting at Pat Quinn and me as we were about to kick off, Hastie having let another one in.”

But let’s get back to ’63 and Madrid. Scotland gave Spain a goal of a start and then hit three in as many minutes. Along with McLintock, all five forwards scored. The Scotsman’s report (headline: “Scotland redeem themselves”) is on the brief side and sadly there’s no film of this glorious, “ghost” victory, so we should record the names for posterity: Law, Henderson (“The wee man was so quick”), Davie Wilson (“Great crosser”), Leicester’s Davie Gibson (“What a left peg”) and you-know-who.

His retirement from dark-blue duty meant he missed the ’67 win against England, although he travelled to Wembley as a fan, again in a Roller, this time driven by Till Death Us Do Part creator Johnny Speight alongside Jimmy Tarbuck. Did he regret parting from Scotland? “Yes, but not at the time because I was a stubborn get. It was only later, and especially when I was in management and became aware of the mistakes we all make, that I realised I should probably have kept my big mouth shut.”

Well, in the end, Ian St John hasn’t been a stubborn get and I’ve enjoyed our chat. Indeed, it’s just a pity we aren’t rounding off the day with some champagne.