St Johnstone Football Club may be an unfashionable name in the sport of football, particularly to fans outside of Scotland whose knowledge of the Scottish league is limited to the Old Firm.
However, the Perth outfit stands on the brink of a historic cup double this season and the most successful season in their 137-year history.
On the 22nd of May, St Johnstone manager Callum Davidson will take his side to Hampden to play Hibernian in the 2021 Scottish Cup final. A successful afternoon for the ‘Saints’ will see them win the domestic cup double; the first team outside Rangers or Celtic to do so since Aberdeen achieved the same feat in 1984, and only the fourth team to win the cup double in Scottish football history.
That alone makes for the kind of incredible underdog story that would leave Netflix producers foaming at the mouth, but the more you look at the story of St Johnstone’s history the more intriguing this successful campaign becomes.
Cup History Had Not Been Kind to St Johnstone
To understand the importance of the success they have enjoyed this season you have to go back further in the Perth club’s history. Prior to 2014 St Johnstone had never won a major honour in Scotland. Their history had the odd second-tier title here and there with a handful of minor cup wins.
In the top flight, St Johnstone had managed to finish 3rd, but only three times in their entire history. Whilst traditionally Rangers and Celtic have dominated Scottish football, St Johnstone seemed to play second fiddle to the likes of Dundee United, Aberdeen, Hibs and Hearts when they each enjoyed periods of success in their storied histories.
Not only had cup success eluded them, but cup final appearances were sporadic too. St Johnstone had never appeared in a Scottish Cup final before 2014 and the League cup offered little joy too with only two final appearances, once in 1969 and again in 1998, losing both narrowly.
After winning promotion back to the top flight in 2009, St Johnstone slowly started to climb the league table each season, achieving one of those 3rd place finishes in 2013 behind Motherwell in 2nd and narrowly ahead of Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 4th. The following season though St Johnstone’s cup fortunes were to finally change.
Former Newcastle United, Manchester City and Northern Ireland player Tommy Wright took charge at McDiarmid Park having previously been Steve Lomas assistant in Perth. One of Wrights first pieces of business would prove to be a historically important one, appointing veteran player Callum Davidson as his assistant manager. This proved to be a popular opinion among the first-team squad with then captain Dave Mackay saying at the time: “I’m happy that Callum Davidson will be Tommy’s No.2 as that is great stability and continuity at the club. The players love him.”
St Johnstone was to bring in several players too including Michael O’Halloran from Bolton and David Wotherspoon from Hibernian. Both would play an important role in the story that was about to unfold.
That season would end with St Johnstone beating Tayside rivals Dundee United 2-0 at Celtic Park in the clubs first-ever Scottish Cup final. The jubilant scenes will live long in the memory of ‘Saints’ fans and despite waiting 130 years to savour a cup win, it wasn’t anywhere near as long before St Johnstone fans would get to celebrate success again, but not in their wildest dreams could any of them have imagined what the current season would have in store for them when it kicked off in August 2020.
Callum Davidson had moved away from his role as assistant manager in 2018 to further develop his coaching career and worked for several clubs including Stoke City, Dunfermline Athletic and Millwall before returning to Perth for his first managerial role in 2020. His debut campaign would prove to be a memorable one.
Callum Davidson’s appointment would change fortunes
COVID restrictions meant the group stage of the League Cup was delayed until October, allowing the lower league clubs a chance to start their league campaigns later than the top flight.
St Johnstone was given what appeared to be a favourable draw in the group. Lowland League side Kelty Hearts, Brechin City – who were fighting for survival in the SPFL, Peterhead and Dundee United would stand in the way of the ‘Saints’ reaching the knockout rounds. St Johnstone qualified with relative ease, winning 3 of the 4 games and scoring 12 goals in the process. Stevie May, a survivor of that 2014 Cup-winning side, scored 5 of those including a hat-trick in a 7-0 demolishing of hapless Brechin City.
In the first of the knockout rounds, St Johnstone was drawn away from home against Motherwell. ‘Saints’ came from a goal behind to win the tie 2-1 thanks to goals from Callum Hendry and David Wotherspoon. All clubs qualifying for the quarter-finals were given a boost as cup holders Celtic were beaten at home by Ross County in a result that would begin to define their entire season.
St Johnstone was again drawn away from home for the quarter-finals, this time to Fife Championship outfit Dunfermline Athletic. St Johnstone went into the cup tie full of confidence after losing only one of their previous twelve games but this was to prove far trickier than most would have hoped. After 90 minutes the sides were locked in a scoreless draw, Shaun Rooney’s extra time opener was cancelled out by a late equaliser, forcing the game to penalties. Goalkeeper Zander Clark saved Dunfermline’s last spot-kick before Liam Craig slotted home sending the Perth side into the semi-finals. Penalty practice had clearly paid off, and not for the last time.
For the second round in a row, the favourites had been knocked out. This time it was Rangers turn to lose to St Mirren. Both Saints sides were joined by Hibernian and Livingston in the semi-final draw and all four began believing that they could really get their hands on silverware.
St Johnstone would easily beat Hibs in their semi-final with goals from captain Jason Kerr, Shaun Rooney and Craig Conway handing the Saints a 3-0 win and a place in the League Cup final for just the third time in their history. Saints fans will be hoping that is a good omen ahead of the two clubs meeting again in the Scottish Cup final.
Livingston won the second semi-final setting up a final between two of Scotland’s underdogs. The two clubs have existed for more than 160 years between them and collectively managed just one major honour in that time with Livingston winning the 2004 Scottish League Cup.
Just three weeks before the cup final, St Johnstone would meet Livingston at the Tony Macaroni Arena in West Lothian. Scott Tanser and Shaun Rooney were on the score sheet that day to give the ‘Saints’ the points but Callum Davidson played down talks of the cup final ending in a similar manner telling the press that he expected the cup final to be “totally different”.
Due to the delay in the competition kicking off, the League Cup final was held at the end of February instead of it’s original place on the calendar in December. St Johnstone and Livingston travelled from Perthshire and West Lothian respectively to meet in the showpiece event. Unfortunately, as has been the case all season, no fans were in attendance because of the COVID restrictions in Scotland at the time.
Whilst everyone would have preferred to see a full Hampden Park, the lack of a crowd did not quell the excitement a cup final normally brings. St Johnstone even released a cup final song, akin to the 1980s rather than the 2020s. The song was written by life lone Saints fan Eoghan Stewart and is partially in Gaelic.
The final was settled by a single goal from St Johnstone right back, Shaun Rooney. In the 32nd minute, Rooney won the physical battle with Livingstons Jon Guthrie to be the first to meet Craig Conway’s corner. The imposing Scotsman headed past ‘Lions’ keeper Robby McCrorie to give the ‘Saints’ the only goal of the game and their first-ever League Cup.
An emotional Callum Davidson, told STV Sport after the final: “This is something we’ll probably look back on ten years time and say ‘wow, we won’, but just now I’m just over the moon we won and won a major trophy. I was assistant back in 2014 [When St Johnstone won the Scottish Cup] so to be able to do it in my own right, I’m just over the moon for everyone involved, my backroom staff, there’s six or seven of us, they’ve worked so hard for me so a big thanks to them.”
The Scottish Cup was also delayed due to COVID
By the time the Perth side had their hands on silverware the Scottish Cup was already underway, however, the ‘Saints’ participation in the tournament, which was due to start at the third round stage in January, had been postponed with the COVID pandemic impacting on the football calendar again. All football in Scotland below the Championship had been suspended in January meaning that the third round ties scheduled to take place in January had been suspended until April.
St Johnstone was drawn away from home against another of their Tayside rivals, this time it was Championship side Dundee. Israeli Guy Melamed was on the score sheet as Saints won 1-0 and set up a fourth-round home game with League one outfit Clyde. Melamed was on the score sheet again that evening as was Michael O’Halloran.
That set up a quarter-final tie with cup favourites Rangers at Ibrox. Rangers had knocked out Old Firm foes and cup holders Celtic in the previous round.
Both teams drew a blank in the 90 minutes so, as cup replays had been scrapped this season, the match went to extra time. Rangers captain James Tavernier opened the scoring deep into the second period of extra time but St Johnstone would again prove dangerous from a corner, as they had in the League Cup final.
Zander Clark, who had been excellent on the night for the Saints in goals had come forward for the last gasp corner and was unmarked inside the Rangers six-yard box. The keeper met Liam Craig’s corner kick, heading downwards and away from Rangers keeper Allan McGregor. The ball met substitute Chris Kane’s foot which sent it into the back of the net, sending the game to penalties.
Zander Clark rounded off an excellent performance by saving two of Rangers spot-kicks before young Northern Ireland International Ali McCann slotted home ‘Saints’ last kick to book a place in the semi-finals.
Just like the League Cup, both sides of the Old Firm, and cup favourites, were out before the semi-final stage and the remaining four sides all believed they could get their hands on this years Scottish Cup.
St Johnstone would again travel to Hampden for the Scottish Cup semi-final, this time against St Mirren. The national stadium was starting to become a home from home for the Perth side.
St Johnstone was largely convincing in their semi-final and stormed to a two-goal lead thanks to strikes from Chris Kane and a stunning free-kick from Glenn Middleton. St Mirren attempted to rally a late comeback but an 86th-minute goal from Conor McCarthy would be nothing more than a consolation from the Paisley club. St Mirren had made it to two semi-finals this season secured their place in the Scottish Premiership with several games remaining so Jim Goodwin and his players can consider this a successful season in their own right and hold their heads high.
The success of this season has not been lost on the supporters either. Jamie Beatson, administrator of We Are Perth, a St Johnstone supporters forum said: “A league cup trophy, a top-six finish and a Scottish Cup final would be a good haul for a decade for a club like St Johnstone. To do that in a season is beyond belief.”
Another Cup Final awaits St Johnstone
That win sets up another cup final for St Johnstone, the second cup final of the season and the second Scottish Cup final in the club’s history. Hibernian will provide the opposition on cup final day who last won the cup in 2016 ending a Scottish Cup drought that lasts well over a century.
Hibs have finished above St Johnstone in the league and already secured a place in the new Europa Conference next season but St Johnstone boasts the better head to head record this campaign having lost to Hibs just once in five previous meetings. The aggregate score stand’s at 7-3 in favour of the ‘Saints’ and includes three clean sheets in each of the last three meetings against the Edinburgh side.
This year’s Scottish Cup winners are guaranteed European group stage football next season which will take them up to December. The winners will enter the Europa League at the playoff stage which, if they win will enter them into the Europa League group stage and if they lose, will guarantee entry into the Europa Conference group stage. That added incentive will surely inspire both sets of players, not that the lure of a cup winners medal needs any extra incentive.
Jamie Beaton from We Are Perth continued: “It is definitely an added incentive but I don’t think it adds any extra pressure. The game will be big enough as it is without worrying about the prize at the other side.”
One thing is for certain, these players have already earned legendary status at the club after an iconic campaign. For some players in particular though the Scottish Cup final will offer the chance to cement their place as some of the greatest players in the history of the club. Michael O’Halloran, Stevie May and David Wotherspoon all played their part in the 2014 Scottish Cup triumph and the League Cup win earlier this year. Adding a third winners medal to their collection would ensure their status as legends among the St Johnstone fans.
Murray Davidson is the one player who will perhaps be more desperate than anyone else to play a role in the Scottish Cup final. Davidson has been a ‘Saints’ player since 2009 but injury has ruled him out of both previous club finals. Davidson will be hoping it’s the third time lucky for him come the end of May.
Fans Will be Allowed to Attend the Scottish Cup Final
The good news for supporters of both clubs is that fans are permitted to attend the Scottish Cup final after being frozen out all season due to COVID restrictions. Hampden comes under the control of UEFA on the 14th May ahead of the European Championships so special permission had to be sought before fans could attend.
Now the SFA have to ask the Scottish Government for special permission to allow more than 500 fans entry to the event as that is the current threshold as set out in level 2 restrictions. Whilst the final number of supporters is still unknown what is known is that the scramble for a ticket will begin now.
St Johnstone fans will be hoping that the core of this squad will stay together for next season not only allowing them to celebrate their success with their heroes but to see what Callum Davidson and his squad can achieve in front of the fans and in European competition which offers another level of challenge and excitement.
With Steve Clark set to announce his Scotland squad for the upcoming European Championships at the end of the month, it would not be a surprise to see at least one St Johnstone player named among the 26 man squad. Zander Clark, Shaun Rooney and Jason Kerr have all been in excellent form for the Saints during this historic campaign and anyone of them would be worthy of a place in the national team.
On the possibility of St Johnstone players being in the national team, Beaton added: “Our team has, at its core, young Scottish players who are playing exceptional stuff. Zander Clark has rediscovered his best form the past month.
He continued: “Scotland’s two problem positions are right centre back and right wing-back, Saints play a system broadly similar to Scotland and two of our stand out players are Jason Kerr and Shaun Rooney. He (Kerr) has only just turned 24 but has already captained his club to amazing success. Rooney has been a revelation this year… All three could certainly make their argument for inclusion. It will be a huge shame if we don’t have at least one in the squad given the success of this season.”
It’s never been a more exciting time to be a St Johnstone fan. Cup glories are becoming more frequent than ever and the potential European trips will have supporters excited as they start planning their dream trips and ideal draw scenario’s.
Callum Davidson will no doubt try to protect his players from all that noise though as they focus solely on bringing yet another piece of silverware home with them from another trip to Hampden.