Interview: Tommy Wright says Saints can challenge Dons and Hearts

St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has thrown down the gauntlet to his players. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright has thrown down the gauntlet to his players. Picture: Rob Casey/SNS
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TOMMY Wright walks out into the reception area, a big smile on his face and apologising for running slightly behind schedule. The St Johnstone manager is on a conveyor belt of interviews and before he can dive headlong into the next one he still has to have photos taken. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long, I’m not that good-looking,” he jokes. He likes a bit of banter and despite the steely grimace he often wears on matchday, it comes naturally to him.

The morning has been consumed by media commitments. Not what one would expect of a club that claims it doesn’t get the attention of others, many of whom could only dream of the success the Perth side have enjoyed in the past few years, including qualifying for Europe and winning the Scottish Cup. Today they face league leaders Celtic but the Saints are a story in their own right.

“Look, I don’t think even we can hide under the radar this year because we have scored 35 goals, we are scoring in every game and we are on this tremendous run,” Wright acknowledges. That run includes just one defeat in nine on league duty and, in all competitions, they have pieced together seven consecutive away wins for the first time in the club’s history, taking them into the League Cup semi-final and slap bang into contention for second place.

Currently lagging just behind Aberdeen and Hearts, they have set their sights on rectifying that in the coming weeks. Normally reticent about making such bold public pronouncements, preferring to take it step by step and seeing where it leaves them, the fact Wright has veered off course this term perhaps shows the shift in his team’s status, not in his mind but in the psyche of his rivals and the wider public.

“We have made a wee thing about being under the radar and not getting the attention of some other clubs but, look, it really doesn’t bother us and I don’t think there is any point in us trying to use that this year as a ploy.”

Instead, in a recent interview he talked about his ambitions for third place. Some would suggest he could aim higher still. “About a week before I did that interview I said to the players that we will keep doing what we are doing and we will see where it takes us. But I was asked a question: Can you challenge Hearts and Aberdeen? And in the run of form we are in, we can, so it’s not an outrageous thing to say. I know the BBC said we can get second place but I never actually said that and they had to quickly get that headline taken off.”

Friendly, but not to be messed with.

“The lads have ripped me about it and I suppose it is a wee bit of a challenge to them because the facts are, the club budgets for tenth place in the league but this group of players have achieved a lot more than that over the last few years. Our aim at the start of the season is not to get involved in the relegation or play-off spots but deep down we think we can get into the top six, and once you are in and around that, anything can happen.

“It was a wee bit left-field in that I said if we can continue this run then we can challenge Hearts and Aberdeen. It’s a fact but we need to be right on our mettle because I think they are two very good sides. We are also grounded and know the league well enough. Aberdeen had eight wins then had a dip and we went last year five defeats in a row so we know what could be waiting round the corner. But maybe I have thrown down a bit of a gauntlet for the players.”

The interesting insight is that Wright doesn’t honestly believe his players need to be prodded, but he figured it could do little harm to mix things up a bit. The fact is he trusts them. And they trust him. Trust is a big thing in Wright’s book and in this ongoing success story.

“They are driven and want success and they are a mirror image of me at times and we all absolutely hate losing, that’s who we are, and we are working hard to maintain the standards we have set this season,” he says of his squad.

Look back through Wright’s playing career as a goalkeeper and there are some notable names among his managers. From Kevin Keegan, Ossie Ardiles and Joe Royle at club level to Billy Bingham on the international stage. All have helped mould him, some by offering negatives he tries to bodyswerve, but others offered up a blueprint of the kind of boss he wanted to be.

There were minor scars inflicted by Keegan, at Newcastle United. They stop him from making promises he can’t keep. “I remember Kevin Keegan, when I played for him we were very successful and won the first 11 games of the season but then I got injured in about game 17 or something and Kevin said ‘Don’t worry, you will be back in the team as soon as you are fit’ but I wasn’t. So I will never make that promise to a player. The experiences you have in life help mould you and are part of who you are but they are not the whole part.”

In a world of spin and fakery, Wright seems like a man from another era. He has values that are sometimes considered old-fashioned and, for that reason, is the kind of man that prompts nostalgia and respect. For him, football is simple and not all about “philosophies”, the mere mention of the buzz word eliciting a small groan. He is straightforward, polite, he works hard, he is a great conversationalist, even if he says the Northern Irishman in him means that mostly, if two words will do, he uses two words. Mostly, he treats people the way he likes to be treated. It stems originally from his mum and dad and his working class roots in Ballyclare.

“I think if you are up front then people can have no comebacks. Callum [Davidson, his assistant] and my wife Ann will roll their eyes and say, ‘did you just say that?’ And I say ‘well, what did you want me to say? Did you want me to tell him something that isn’t true? Now they know where I stand’. That’s how I am with everyone. I say things to the chairman and then I think ‘maybe I shouldn’t have said that’ but I wouldn’t be true to myself if I didn’t say it and I told him when I got the job that I would always be honest with him and he is the same with me and we have a great relationship.”

As a player, he enjoyed his best relationship with manager Frank Clark, at Nottingham Forest, and it coincided with one of his toughest times, as a player and as a man. The European Cup winner had learned man management from Cloughie and that legacy lives on in Wright. “On the pitch I got injured and I’d gone in for a simple operation but poor rehab meant I had two and a half years in the physio’s room and, in the middle of that, Andrew died.” Andrew was his son. He was born prematurely with cerebral palsy and died prematurely, aged just five. Wright has spoken of him often and he is in his thoughts every day, offering his life light and shade, and providing perspective.

“Frank looked after me. Things like when Andrew died he just came in and threw the club credit card at me and said get yourselves away for a while. We went away for a day but then came back. I just wanted to try to get back to normal. But even when I was out injured he would know when to bring me into his office and say, I think you need a break. He just knew people and how to deal with them and how to get the best out of them.

“I would have gone through a brick wall for Frank because of how he dealt with me and others were the same. I learned a lot from him. One day he was so pleased I had come through everything and he came into the dressing room and put his hands out for me to go over and get a hug. It was embarrassing but if I felt I had to do that for one of my players I would do it.”

People have helped to mould Wright but he is his own man. Happy as part of a team, he was a talented cross-country runner in his youth, which helped prepare him for the more solitary roles he went on to play, first as a goalkeeper and then as a manager.

His father was disappointed when he gave up a scholarship and the sport he had introduced him to. “I don’t think he spoke to me for about three months! But I told him I had just fallen out of love with it. I also told him I would become a professional footballer instead. I don’t know where that came from but I suppose I did it so he couldn’t stay mad with me!”

Apparently he was never one to make promises he couldn’t keep.