Chapter Five – The Great Escape Part Two.

In an incredible turnaround, with four games to go Saints were actually in a position of safety following the thumping they gave Morton in Greenock. In the minutes after this match the players and Saints support greeted one another as though something very special was happening, and to be fair it was, the bond was back.

Reactions like that this are usually reserved for cup or promotion winning sides, but the ovation at the end of this match was merited as of course the team had clawed their way back from the brink, but in doing so had played some absolutely sensational football in the process. Plus we owed Morton, some of their fans had trolled Saints excessively for the past six months, revelling in the rarity of beating Saints and somehow us being actually worse than them, a true once in a three generation moment for the minnows.

In earlier chapters I spoke about a disconnection between the players, management and support under Alex Rae. Rumours of a clique in the dressing room, a manager who seemed to spend more time promoting himself as Mr Ranjurs than sort out the shambles on the park, players feeling the backlash of a disgruntled support after making mistakes.  St Mirren park was not a happy place.

Jack Ross understood this. He tried and eventually did bring the supporters back together with the players and his management team with honesty and hard work. He subtly called out the slackers in the dressing by telling the support he had no option to play kids as they had ‘feeling’ for the club. He dropped, discarded and returned most of the ‘Imposters’ from where they came and then found players he knew the fans would like and get excited about. And we responded.

The magic of watching football returned from late February onwards, and a unified club marched onwards. It was going to take something extraordinary to stop us. The best compliment I can pay Jack Ross and the supporters is that together we turned the incredible atmosphere at the crucial 2009 Falkirk away match, widely regarded as the most vociferous travelling away support in Saints modern history, into an elongated three month campaign of incredible backing.

With all that said however, we still had a big job on our hands. Four games to go, three of which were away from home against the top three sides in the division, with the other at home to Raith Rovers. This was going to be tight without a doubt.

First up was a trip to the ‘Fourteen Finger County’ and a tough away fixture against Falkirk. Again the fans turned up in large numbers, almost 1500 filling the away stand in the Blast Zone Dome.

Rory Loy opened the scoring in a pulsating start that could have seen Saints out of sight after twenty minutes, but Falkirk of course are very decent at home and our old foe Count Miller sunk his considerable teeth into Saints for allegedly the second time in the season and equalised late in the first half.

Saints responded well though, and early in the second period Stephen McGinn scored a magnificent goal to restore our lead. The match wasn’t finished however, off the bench came Billy-Bob McHugh and his late scrambled effort denied Saints a crucial three points. It was disappointing but Saints remained eighth on 35 points, so nobody was too upset after a fine display.

The following Saturday was one of those days where everything that could go wrong for Saints inevitably did during a 3-2 defeat at Tannadice. Early in the match United striker Mikkelson, an old fashioned aggressive and physical forward, literally cleaned out firstly Jack Baird, and then seconds later Gary MacKenzie before rifling the ball past O’Brien in the Saints goal, for the first ever strike in the new sport of murderball.

The latter offence on MacKenzie was a chest high flying kick similar to Cantona on the Palace fan twenty odd years ago, that grounded the defender for a few minutes. After the appeals and complaints died down, the Saints centre half raised his shirt to show the Referee, Barry Chuckle, stud marks raked down his chest as proof of the assault.

Mr Chuckle was having none of this, and immediately showed MacKenzie a yellow card for being booted in the upper body, a new SMA (Scottish Murderball Association) directive. Saints rallied hard after this, and from a Mallan free kick MacKenzie powered the equaliser home to level the match.

In the second half United restored their lead in bizarre circumstances after O’Brien inexplicably picked up a fifty yard pass back, and Tony Andreu fired under the wall to restore the Dundee clubs lead.

Young O’Brien had come into the side and performed well, but as you would expect from an inexperienced keeper he made a few mistakes, not many admittedly, but Langfield doubled his Scots lessons after this as a precaution.

The great thing about these mistakes was the reaction from the fans. No criticism, just encouragement for O’Brien to keep his head up and the big Welshman was clearly passionate about playing for Saints and cared what was happening. We did not forget this.

In an animated finish to the match, Saints equalised with a couple of minutes remaining thanks to a quite outrageous Josh Todd left foot strike, but Blair Spittal fired an injury time winner for the Arabs meaning by the end of play Saints had dropped to ninth again with Ayr United only two points behind. Saints next opponents Raith Rovers were a point ahead of Saints with a game in hand, and Dumbarton were now eighth, a further two ahead of Rovers.

Before Raith Rovers visited Paisley however, they had their game in hand to play against now Champions Hibernian at Easter Road. Rovers hadn’t won away from home for ten matches at this point, and on paper it looked like a home win.

However in the days before the match, Hibernian manager Neil Lennon announced he was going to rest his entire team that had played against Aberdeen the previous Saturday in the Scottish Cup Semi Final. Thanks for that Neil. Thankfully Lennon exaggerated, but as he would say it was just an honest mistake; he dropped only ten players and left Efe Ambrose in, nice one Neil.

In the previous chapter I spoke about bizarre things that happened outwith Saints control that impacted on our season, this was potentially another.

Lennon assured the media however that his full team would be playing the last home game, which just incidentally was against St. Mirren. How this is allowed is a mystery to me, and quite frankly there should be measures in place to stop the integrity of a competition being questioned, like they do in grown up leagues like England, Germany, Malta and San Marino.

Practically every Saints fan I knew was on Twitter, Ceefax or score apps that evening for updates, as the national broadcaster had decided that an under 10’s match between Celtic and Rangers was more important than actual real football that actual football players appeared in.

It was a nervy evening. Hibs led at half time, but Rovers then seemed to dominate the second half, finally equalising before Hibs scored again. Phew we all thought. Enter the pantomime villain Ryan bastarding Hardie from the bench and it was soon enough 2-2 after he scored, and this seemed like it was the ultimate Sod’s law; wherever Hardie played this campaign either for or against St. Mirren, he was having a massively negative impact on our season.

And then something nobody expected happened, Hibs reserves scored with the last kick of the match to win 3-2. James Keatings, we salute you.

So that was it confirmed then, a win against Rovers on Saturday would take us back out the bottom two and guarantee we couldn’t be automatically relegated as Raith played Ayr on the last match at Starks Park. All focus was now on Paisley this Saturday

Match day finally came. Did I think we would win? Yes I did. Did I think it would be nervy? Yes I did.  Did I have several pints before the match to calm those nerves? Oh yes I did. Little did any of us know that we were about to watch another absolute masterclass from Saints.

The first twenty minutes were scrappy to be honest, then the match and Stephen Mallan in particular exploded into life. Mid-way through the first half Cammy Smith chased a ball that looked as though it was sneaking out, but typically of the man he managed to cut back a lovely ball to Mallan who was calmness personified and it was 1-0 Saints.

Soon after it was 2-0. Mallan curled a free kick round the wall and it went the opposite corner from the diving Penska to double the lead. Alex Rae was obviously working for the Press Association that day as it was given as an own goal, and clearly only someone with no knowledge of football would class that as not Mallan’s.

I’m not sure anyone knows how it went in, TV replays are inconclusive even about a deflection but it was on target therefore it is not an own goal. One theory is there was no deflection, and the keeper was completely fooled by the trajectory of the ball making him dive the opposite direction.

Saints almost scored two more after this, Smith and Magennis firing narrowly wide, but half time wouldn’t save Rovers, this was destined to be a thrashing.

A few minutes into the second half it was 3-0, a Mallan corner found the familiar head of MacKenzie and his powerful header sneaked in via possibly Loy/Rovers defender and Penska who helped it in on its way. This was beyond our wildest dreams, but it was to get even better for Saints.

Mallan, already on a double and playing some quite wonderful football picked the ball up outside Saints dugout, played two one-two’s and from thirty five yards hit a curling dipping shot into the top corner for the undoubted goal of the season, and the best I have ever seen from a Saints player.

The goal will forever be etched on my mind like a fingerprint. It was devastating and breath-taking at the same time. You can actually hear the crowd gasp on TV replays as it is in mid-air and heading for the net.

Saints would score again courtesy of Morgan after some brilliant team work that ended with a Mallan flick into his path, game over and 5-0. A hat-trick and two assists from Mallan in one of the biggest matches in the clubs history,  this was one the greatest individual performance from a Saints player since Gerry Baker scored ten in a match in 1960, and it was an utter privilege to watch it.

To sum it up, with his goals and assists that day alone, Mallan contributed more to Saints league season in one match that Hardie, Shankland and Hutton did in 44 matches between them. This was the main difference between an Alex Rae side and a Jack Ross side. No passengers.

It was now crystal clear what Saints objective was; avoid defeat at Easter Road the following week and they were safe, and the unlikeliest of comebacks would be complete. The Saints supporters snapped up almost 2,000 tickets in the week leading up to the match, but I wonder how many the club would have shifted if they had an open allocation as Hibernian of course were receiving the Championship trophy that day, and the match was sold out days in advance, 20,000 people with both sets of fans wanting to party but only pressure on the away side.

True to his word, Mr Integrity, aka Neil Lennon played his full strength side unlike ten days previously against Raith Rovers, but this was all about Saints. If they wanted it enough surely they would get the result that mattered.

The match was cagey, Hibs started well and missed a sitter much to the relief of the Saints fans that could only mock Cummings in return, but it was a nervous reaction more than anything. Saints appeared to be managing the match, playing within themselves as they knew 0-0 was absolutely fine.

Half time came and went, still 0-0, Saints almost playing it like a tough away tie in the Cup, happy for a replay but willing to pile forward should they fall behind, and that that’s exactly what happened no more than a minute into the second half when Saints 2013 Cup hero John McGinn swung a ball into the box that Grant Holt knocked past O’Brien.

How would Saints react to this? The character of the side had been exceptional since February, and they had dug themselves out of a hole bigger than Lawrence Shankland’s shadow, but this was the real test. Forty four minutes to save themselves from the lottery of a play off.

We shouldn’t have worried, and as suspected the players game management skills were absolutely exceptional; we will do what is required to get over the line. Almost immediately they went at Hibs with the pace and intensity seen for the last two months, and straight away they had the Leith side pinned back. The supporters, who had made an incredible noise all day, sensed it as well, and within ten minutes Saints were level with a goal that summed up the comeback.

Demetriou started the move in his own six yard box, sweeping out a fine pass to Lewis Morgan a good seventy yards from Hibs goal, the young winger swivelled past a couple of Hibs players and with a thundering run forward that within seconds found Magennis on the edge of the opposition box, who in turn picked out Mallan, and panic descended in the Edinburgh backline.

The young Buddie danced past a couple of tackles now deep into the penalty area but before he could shoot, Rory Loy took over and placed a composed finish in at the far post for a magnificent equaliser right in front on the mass ranks of Saints supporters who lapped up the moment.

From here it was back to game management, but I honestly think if we had to win that day, the players would have delivered.  The final whistle was greeted with complete elation in half of one stand, and from all in red on the park. News filtered through we had finished in seventh position on goal difference from Dumbarton and Raith Rovers. The attacking philosophy had well and truly paid off.

Again the fans and players embraced one another, and again these were scenes more typical of a promotion party than escaping relegation from a league Saints have been too good to play in for most their history, but this was different.

The reason this was different was simple, both in context from where we were as late as the morning of the 25th February, the day we won only our THIRD league match of the season, but undoubtedly there was pure relief in there also.

In the final fourteen games of the season once the transfer window shut, from Dumbarton away in February to that match at Easter Road, the team played multiple ‘must win’ matches, and some definitely ‘not lose’ also, and really only Kirkcaldy away in very testing circumstances was a let-down in terms of performance and result. In two of those matches, absolutely crucial ones at home to Ayr and Raith Rovers, they won by an aggregate score of 11-2.

This was not the normal scrape yourself out of relegation via playing defensive or time wasting football; we simply battered our way to safety playing outstanding attacking stuff at the same time, and with real pressure on the players. The fans came back, particularly away from home but we are only tapping into what is possible, the away support will easily double again next season should Jack Ross and the players continue this form.

When it was all said and done, we only escaped a play-off on goal difference, and that means we had some very fine margins during the campaign, and some unsung heroes. For example Ben Gordon’s equaliser at Palmerston the night we won for the first time turned out to be crucial, as did Scott Gallacher’s fine late save one on one with Mark Stewart a few days later when we beat Raith Rovers. Without these two examples and many others like it, who actually knows what could have happened?

The play offs are a dangerous set up for clubs with plenty to lose, as Raith Rovers discovered at the weekend, and I am delighted we avoided it, but what could relegation have meant for Saints and why were so relieved?

It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Saints mount a serious promotion bid next season, even a title challenge. It is obvious that this could only be done if we weren’t relegated, however in the event we did go down, how soon would it before we would have been realistically challenging to get back in the Premiership again?  Five years? Ten maybe?

Already it looks as though Stevie Mallan has played his last games for Saints. In the last eight matches of the season he scored seven times and set up another seven goals. Over the course of the league season he directly assisted twenty one goals going by my own records, he won’t be easily replaced but we have a much better chance of doing that in the Championship after that sensational end to the season as it made the whole country sit up and take notice. Suddenly, St Mirren Park is a happy place again and this is attractive to other players.

I doubt Lewis Morgan would have stuck around in the third tier, or Gary MacKenzie or Stephen McGinn. We would have had practically no chance of signing permanently Cammy Smith, Billy O’Brien or Rory Loy. Would Stelios have fancied a crack at the Scottish seaside in January, swapping his home Mediterranean island for trips to Methil and Stranraer? I don’t know the definite answer but we have a very good chance next season of retaining these players and getting back to the Premiership, that in my opinion would have been years away had we went down.

When Jack Ross took over, we didn’t envisage him taking so long to turn the club back in the right direction but I don’t think as fans we appreciated how damaged the dressing room was, and how bad possibly the culture at the club was.

We had been fighting relegation from either the top or second flight for ten straight years, and losing as the cliché goes becomes a habit. It was perhaps ingrained in players and some good ones at that. The last two months of the season were the first time Mallan and Morgan played in a winning Saints side under a manager that utilised their attacking strengths, and just look how good they were. However, Mallan in particular required having his confidence rebuilt, and that took Jack Ross time.

Others at the club when Jack arrived didn’t want to be there, and others weren’t good enough, some even fitted into both categories and this had to be dealt with. No wonder it took twenty transfers in and out to fix the issue.

I am only speculating about next season, with my black and white tinted specs on of course. I do however honestly believe we will be challenging for promotion next season and optimism has returned to the club and the supporters. We are in a very good position to start next season from, but how far we can go will be dictated by who the manager brings in, but as he delivered possibly the most impressive transfer window in Saints history, he can be trusted to get on with the job.

As for finishing seventh in the league this season, we know it is not good enough. However, considering what Alex Rae left us with I think it can only be considered a successful conclusion to the campaign, but the greatest thing Jack Ross might do at Paisley is give the supporters a club they can love back, and that is something that should never be underestimated.

Chapter Four – The Great Escape Part One.

Despite the fantastic win and performance against Ayr Utd, we were still up against. The other teams in this relegation fight weren’t simply going to roll over and let Saints climb the table with ease, we expected absolutely no favours from anyone, but that said some pretty bizarre things happened outwith our control before the end of the season that would impact on Saints attempt to survive.

The first of these was already upon us, ‘The Raith Rovers Goalkeeping Crisis’. With Ayr facing the Kirkcaldy side at home three days after our own victory at Somerset Park, it was revealed Rovers had no fit goalkeepers and former Ayr midfield legend Ryan Stevenson was going to be in goals for the visitors.

How a professional club can allow this situation to happen is still open to debate, however at this point the Saints supporters were stuck between this being a good or bad thing depending on whether you believed Saints could catch one or two teams.

Some wanted Ayr to capitulate and were happy for Saints to enter the play offs, and others wanted as many teams in the relegation scrap as possible and were pleased Rovers chances of success in this match were diminished. I was in the latter camp, my Black and White tinted glasses were fixed firmly to my face, and I was looking at catching Dunfermline in sixth.

The truth however was an Ayr victory would put the gap back up to eight points, and Saints would be looking to beat Champions elect Hibernian the following night to cut it back to five, in reality it could have been a step forward followed by two steps back, and confidence was absolutely crucial at this stage of the season.

As it transpired, both of these things happened, with Ayr narrowly beating a Stevenson inspired Rovers who sadly quit football soon after, and Saints taking care of Hibs 2-0 with a fabulous performance at Greenhill Road the following night that should have been at least double the score had Saints taken their multiple chances.

Star of the night was left back Stelios Demetriou who scored twice, but the intensity and pace of Saints that night was incredible and on reflection this was the best performance of the season as they were playing a very good side and Scottish Cup holders and simply tore them apart.

The first goal was sublime, with McGinn using great skill to find Mallan who dissected Hibs right side with the pass of the season to the on-running Stelios, at the time he was an unknown quantity, but he cut back onto his right foot and fired beyond Marciano with ease. Magnificent goal.

Even after a couple of matches, it was becoming obvious that McGinn was going to be pivotal to the survival attempt. Not only could he play, but he was allowing Mallan to return to his very best, and that is a level that puts him at the most influential player in the division, bar none. I tweeted at half time that night they were an outstanding partnership, but they weren’t the only stars of this new Saints side which contained several new signings.

At centre half, a problem position for Saints for probably well over a decade, Harry Davis fitted in perfectly with Gary MacKenzie who had been playing at an excellent level for several months now. Whilst big Mac was dominating in the air and on the deck, Davis was the perfect foil as his reading of the game was so good, although defensively he was strong also.

Other new signings were also fitting in nicely, Adam Eckersley was the consistent reliable type we had missed at left back since Paul Dummett played for the club, and Demetriou was an incredible mix of explosive flair and unpredictably that fans simply adore, and he was a full back!

In midfield, Kyle Magennis had been converted to a makeshift right midfielder, and was growing superbly into the role, his pace and skill along with his tactical intelligence marking him as an outstanding prospect to the future.

Further up the field, Cammy Smith was vital to the new style of the side as his constant movement and driving runs at the opposition (like Lewis Morgan) were a throwback to a different era when wingers and attackers could beat a man on either side and be a threat. Smith seemed to move seamlessly from a central attacking position to either wing when asked, and it was a masterstroke from the manager to convince him to come to Paisley.

However it was the managers ability to get the best out of players already at the club and who were perhaps struggling a bit that says more about his man management. Gary Irvine and Stephen Mallan in particular benefited from this, the turnaround in their form was astonishing.

Next up for Saints was a a trip to Parkhead in the quarter final of the Scottish Cup, as Saints took on domestically unbeaten Celtic at The Restricted View Arena. In my opinion, the game came at the wrong time, I wanted to play and win league matches and was fearful of a cuffing that would dent the confidence of a team that was resurgent.

The 4-1 final score may be construed as a heavy defeat, but it only tells half the story. Saints led for half the match courtesy of a thirteenth minute Davis goal following a wonderfully worked set piece, and were then the underside of the crossbar away from doubling their lead on the 55th minute when Mallan whipped in a free kick, which had the whole country scratching their heads as to why Saints were bottom of the Championship. Saints fans had the answer to that however, Rae and Farrell.

Celtic had to bring on Roberts and Griffiths to turn the match, and despite the final score Parkhead manager Brendan Rodgers repeated on about five different occasions that Saints were ‘the best team we have played this season, including Premiership sides’. And Rodgers hadn’t been near Ian McCall and his pipe either.

A great compliment, but the notoriously hostile Scottish Press went into frenzy about this for the next 72 hours. David Tanner, the Ralph Wiggum of Scottish broadcasting, and anchor for Sky Sports ‘coverage’ of Scottish football had that permanent look on his face of panicked bewilderment, the type you would get if you have discovered you had accidentally periscoped yourself doing a shite, and laughed to Neil McCann ‘He didn’t mean that surely’ which is Scottish media talk for ‘He really means Rangers, right?’

Everybody had their say in the media, Radio Clyde descended into a farce, sorry my mistake that is every night, but suddenly the whole country seemed to be transfixed on Saints, and that made me uncomfortable as we had another massive match against Raith Rovers at Starks Park in the days after this.

Rovers had found a keeper by then, a Slovakian called Pavel Penska who had played practically no regular football in ten seasons even in the lower reaches of European football. This made me feel even worse, suddenly there was a bit of additional pressure on Saints to win, as if we needed that.

Backed by an away support of close to one thousand on this cold midweek, Saints dominated possession but couldn’t break the rigid Rovers formation down, even failing to test Penska once. It had an inevitably about it all in truth.

On the 69th minute, Rovers brought on Ryan Hardie, him of the hedge attitude, and we know the rest. It finished 2-0 to the Kirkcaldy side and the biggest waste of space in Paisley since the Piazza was built scored both goals. Collective rage from all Buddies on this one.

Next up was a home fixture against Dunfermline, a tricky match that ended 0-0, a completely fair result in truth, that was memorable for some extraordinary diving from the Fifers, Kallum Higginbotham in particular had three attempts and not once did he get a free kick or a booking. He was living proof that if you looked a bit daft, you acted massively prickish.

Suddenly it appeared as if the ‘second best side in the country’ had lost momentum again, no goals and one point from two matches where probably four would have minimum beforehand. It was the 11th March and Saints had now played three quarters of their fixtures, twenty seven matches and only twenty one points to show for it.

Going into the last quarter of fixtures, the final nine, Saints were still only four points adrift of Ayr, but Raith and Dumbarton had extended their leads to eight and nine points respectively, this was looking like a two horse race now between Jack Ross and Puff the Magic Dragon down the coast at Ayr.

With promotion chasing Dundee United next to visit Paisley during the week, this was a hectic run of matches. Many feared not winning and this could be the final straw again as Ayr would have a game in hand, this was how emotions were going at the time, it was boom and bust stuff.

The side never hit the standards they did against Hibs, but they didn’t need to and were still far too good for the Tannadice club. Goals from Davis, an outrageous Mallan free kick, and the mesmerizing Lewis Morgan gave Saints a well deserved 3-2 victory.

Suddenly and for the first time since the 1st Novemeber, Saints were within touching distance of second bottom spot, a solitary point behind Ayr, who admittedly had a game in hand.

The bad news however was a season ending injury to big Harry Davis, whose influence can be best summed up in his league stats. Played six, scored twice, and three clean sheets. The team only managed three clean sheets in the other THIRTY league matches, and big Harry deserves a special mention for that alone.

One of these other three clean sheets came on the Saturday at Dumfries as Saints won 2-0 despite being outplayed for the most of the first half, Stevie Mallan’s unerring opener on the stroke of half time was added to by Rory Loy from the penalty spot just after the break in a match Lewis Morgan was simply unplayable. There was definite steel in this side though to go with the flair, and the victory pulled another two points back on Dumbarton in 8th, but Saints remained bottom a point adrift as Ayr United also won that afternoon.

The following Saturday was Irn Bru Cup final time, and another match against Dundee United whose fans insisted they would not be taking this game seriously as they had once played Barcelona and were one of the biggestest sides in the whole world ever, so there.

Their fans were true to their word, and only a few thousand travelled, although the kick off time and venue were pretty unfair on the Arabs, but their players took it seriously enough and won a decent match 2-1. That was cup football over now, and the only job was staying up.

Later in that afternoon, Ayr United beat Dumbarton 2-1 stretching their lead over Saints to four points again with seven matches remaining. Ayr would travel to Paisley the following Saturday for what Sky Sports would have classed as ‘Relegator Armageddon Monster Saturday’, had they ever given a toss about Scottish football.

Anyway, before this meeting Ayr had a fixture at Tanandice, and in what seemed like a rare occasion when a score actually went our way, the home side won 2-1, despite a triple goal line clearance in the last minute of injury time from various United defenders that had Ian McCall back on the park again during the match believing his side had scored. Glorious, glorious stuff, and for the chain smoking McCall it was about to get much worse.

The 1st April 2017 could easily go down as one of the most important dates in Saints modern history. Defeat would more or less relegate us, maybe not arithmetically as Tom Hendrie would say, but psychology it would have been such a blow that there would have been no way back, seven points adrift with six matches remaining, even a draw would not be great.

Looking at the sides, there was only one winner and that was Saints. Unbeaten in five against Ayr that season and had recently convincingly beaten the Ayrshire side at Somerset Park. Maybe this was on the Ayr players minds, but even so Saints came out like an absolute hurricane and blew the Ayrshire side away with as clinical, exhilarating and ruthless performance I have ever seen from a Saints side.

Mallan, MacKenzie, McGinn and Magennis had Saints four up at half time, and they could have had more. Rumours that Ian McCall spent half time in the car park smoking a full twenty pack of regal with nicotene patches glued to his eyeballs have never been denied, but Lewis Morgan added a splendid fifth just after half time and everyone in the stadium including anyone with anything to do with the Honest Men were thinking ‘double figures’.

As so often happens in football however, Saints dropped a level after this but the 6-2 final scoreline sent out a firm message, and not ‘Ian McCall, yer a plamfy wee helmet’ as screamed by that guy that sits behind me, but quite clearly Saints were more than up for the fight. Nobody would want to play us.

Nobody that is, except Dumbarton who were up next at St. Miren Park. Our bogey side who we had yet to beat this season, and had only managed one win against the previous campaign. World class time wasters, and a goalkeeper who is very talented at shot stopping and that other essential attribute Stevie Aitken likes in his keepers, do absolutely anything to avoid taking a goal kick within 100 seconds, but not if we are behind. It’s a real attribute on his version of FIFA.

In the previous match between the sides, the 2-2 draw at the Rock, Sons keeper Alan Martin broke the world record for ‘most times ones socks can be pulled up in an hour’ when he reached the figure of 5837 after 15 minutes of play, and still Aitken berated him on the sideline for going too quickly.

This match finished 1-1, but most memorable for me was Aitken furiously looking at his wrist watch around forty times in the space of twenty seconds, no exaggeration. The man is obsessed with time, and how quickly it goes. I’m convinced he curses at calendars.

The disappointment of this draw was cancelled out by the fact that for the first time in 211 days Saints were off the bottom of the league, this point closed the gap on Ayr and we were now above them on goal difference. Twenty six consecutive matches at the bottom of the league, and finally we were off it. We wouldn’t return either.

Now we had a game in hand, and at Cappielow the following Wednesday night. A place of many, many victories in the past, in fact probably the best ground for Saints to visit if we needed a win. I’d seen Saints win here more times than any other ground bar St. Mirren Park, and we handed out some real thumpings in the process. Additionally this was a chance to get revenge for what had happened previously in the season as every man, woman, child, cat/human hybrid in Greenock had seemingly lined up to kick us when we were down.

The players did not let the fans down, and with 2,000 Buddies in the ground what a magnificent sight it was. The opening goal was scored by Stelios, who seemed to be somehow playing left back and right wing at the same time, and he collected yet another defence splitting Mallan pass on the left, cut inside to his right, beat two men and with the composure of a veteran striker stroked the ball into the corner of the net in front of the Saints support, and as one, both Demetriou and the Black & White Army embraced each another as though they had experienced the greatest thing that had ever happened.

I was in the main stand watching this unfold, and was undoubtedly one of the highlights of my season. By full time it was 4-1, with Mallan, Sutton and the colossal MacKenzie adding second half goals to confirm a comfortable yet epic victory. And with that, Saints were up to eighth with four very hard games to play, the miracle was on. 

Chapter Three – The Transfer Window and Cup Boosts.

This could now go two ways. Either we go down, and by the looks of it fairly weakly, or we at least try to avoid what would be an indelible stain on the history of the club by being relegated for the first ever time to the third tier of Scottish football.

As Saints supporters most of us had probably not even thought about playing at that level. I’m not being disrespectful to those that have or do play in what is known as the ‘seaside leagues’ when I write or think that, but the fact is Saints have spent ninety nine of one hundred and twenty seven league seasons in the top division in its various guises since 1890, and the other twenty eight in the second tier. The third tier had never entered my thinking, until now.

That’s not to say we are too big or too good to down. If we were to be relegated we would bloody well deserve it, and have little complaint about it either after a catastrophic start to the season.

So what could we do about this? Stuffed 3-0 at home by Queen of the South, a watershed moment in perhaps the modern history of the club, if anyone was wise enough to poll the Saints fans in the hours after this match then even the most optimistic fan, even the face painted Superfan Derek, is more than likely to have us down at this point in the season.

The so called ‘comeback’ after the late win in Dumfries, had yielded a rather miserable two wins and two draws from six matches, and we were back on the slide following two defeats and a draw in the latter half of that run, including that 3-0 defeat to a Queens side that had not won since September.

As the days went on after this defeat, a bit of perspective returned. We could still escape this, if and it was a big if, Jack Ross and his assistant James Fowler completely reshuffled the squad and brought better quality in. This was realistically the only hope.

Already gone were Ryan Hardie and Tom Walsh, back to Rangers at the very first opportunity, announced weeks in advance of the transfer window re-opening. You kind of got the feeling Jack Ross would have carried them to Ibrox on his back if he could got them out of Paisley any quicker.

Personally speaking, I had nothing against Walsh, I thought he had good moments in a Saints jersey and could still make a career for himself despite being freed by Rangers almost immediately after returning to Glasgow. Walsh was almost unique in that he was one of the only players signed by Alex Rae for Saints that had progressed through the Ibrox youth academy (and there was lots of them) that could control a football, seemingly the last attribute they look for at Murray Park going by the dross that was brought here by Mr Ranjurs.

I realise for other Saints fans that the rather tame performance at Cappielow from Walsh was the final straw, but two very late goals in separate matches from the winger brought two very important points come the end of the season.

Hardie on the other hand, was massively disappointing. The media like to say stuff like this to be polite, so I will be honest, he was fucking brutal with a capital Booooooooo. If human traits could be compared to nature, I’ve seen better attitude from an actual hedge.

Hardie also scored an equaliser at Dumbarton that could be argued gained a valuable point, but had he not been playing we might have got all three that day.  That’s my theory anyway, and I will stick to that. He wasn’t freed when he returned to Ibrox, obviously his complete lack of ball control is acceptable, and he was sent out on loan to Raith Rovers and scored twice against us in March to continue the trend of useless ex Saints who always score against us, starring mainly Alex Bone.

The 3-0 defeat to Queens also ended the Saints career of two more players, goalkeeper/assistant Clan Leader and fluent Pictish translator Scott Gallacher who surprisingly joined Hibs, and Lawrence Shankland who returned to Aberdeen before taking his considerable shadow to Greenock much to the delight of the Morton support who believed they were getting some kind Gabriel Batistuta figure, clearly seasons in the seaside leagues had corroded their tiny little minds.

Shankland had scored twice against Morton for Saints however, one of them a Cappielow winner, and had shown decent form in the second half of the 2015/16 season so his time at Paisley was not a complete waste, although this term he had been about as impressive as Viktor Genev attempting a rabona.

Making his way from Aberdeen to Saints was Craig Storie, an actual living breathing central midfield player from another club that could run, and the striker Rory Loy who had been signed on loan from Dundee, obviously Paul Hartley had a conscience about getting Paul McIntyre sent off in 1995.

Loy had allegedly knocked back ‘high flying Morton’ (copyright all radio stations) for bottom of the table Saints, proving once more that class is permanent and form merely temporary, and both would make starting debuts against Dunfermline in the next league fixture, where another new signing, Norwegian Pal Fjelde was also added to the squad, a defensive midfielder who could also play centre half.

Fjelde had allegedly been signed after James Fowler posted an add on LinkedIn, a social media application for ‘professional networking’, which caused a bit of an outcry from some Saints fans that still own a Filofax machine and have those big Casio watches with calculators on them.

The match itself against Dunfermline was decent, and the Saints support were beginning to return to away matches in larger numbers. The 1-1 draw at East Park was gained due to the second Gary MacKenzie header from a Mallan corner in three matches, and a fine goalkeeping display by returning Clan Chief Jamie Langfield who thankfully won’t have that Dumbarton home match as his final ever Saints game, that would have been very unfortunate for the big Buddie.

Taking his place in the starting XI from here until the end of season was twenty one year old Welsh ‘keeper Billy O’Brien, signed on loan from Manchester City. Definitely not fluent in Pictish or Gaelic according to Football Manager, but would come under the protective gloves of Langfield who of course was goalkeeping coach as well as the alternative language tutor in the squad.

Next up was a Scottish Cup match away at Premiership side Dundee, which was seen as either a distraction or a welcome break from the league struggles depending on your point of view. However, with a fair number of new players already signed, it was a fixture that could be used to help them settle in, and that could only be useful.

In the previous round, Saints had hammered Spartans 5-1, continuing their quite magnificent cup form that before the Dundee match was sitting at played eight, won seven. In the quarter finals of the Irn Bru Cup, there was a major sign of recovery in my opinion, as the team came back from 1-0 down to Ayr United to score two late goals courtesy of John Sutton and win 2-1, but could have scored three more in a pulsating finish that had Ayr as breathless as their manager after a long draw of that pipe.

Before this match was played, as practically everybody knew by now, Jason Naismith was transferred to Ross County, the club deciding to ‘cash in’ as his contract was up in the summer and he could leave for nothing as he would be 23 by then.

Naismith had started his career well under Danny Lennon, but in my opinion had suffered along with Jack Baird and Stephen Mallan due to a number of poor managers that would succeed the 2013 League Cup winning boss, Gary Teale excluded. Additionally of course, Naismith had recovered from a serious injury and was reaching something near his best under Jack Ross, so it was a big decision apparently made by the manager to let him go. It would prove to be one of many inspired decisions this transfer window by Jack Ross.

Back to on the park action, and the trip to Dens Park was much more difficult on paper than any other Cup match played by the club this campaign, but Saints strolled to a 2-0 victory thanks to Sutton and Baird goals, however it was the performances of O’Brien and Storie that was most impressive and gave much hope for the league campaign ahead.  O’Brien became an instant hero to the support, and Storie already had his own song as well as being able to run, a good sign.

This was to be the last Saints match for young Kyle McAllister however, very disappointingly at the time sold to Derby County for a fee reported to be £250k with the almost mythical for Saints ‘add ons’, however it has been suggested that the fee may be considerably more than this.

At the time it stunk of the Kenny McLean sale to Aberdeen a few years earlier, but in hindsight the sale was correct as it allowed other players to join the club, most notably Stephen McGinn who returned before the next league match having been sold some seven years before hand. Jack was having a stormer.

Almost incredibly, McGinn was still only twenty eight years old and unfounded rumours emerged that he also may be related to former SFA president, Jack McGinn, but nobody from Setanta Sports could confirm. McGinn was joined that week by two more lower profile signings, Josh Todd from Dumbarton, and Stelios Demetriou a Cypriot full back with the same agent as Pal Fjelde.

Callum Gallagher left the club also, signing for Dumbarton, allowing Cammy Smith to sign on loan from Aberdeeen, another player with good pedigree and reputation who had done well at Dundee United earlier in the season and surprisingly became available.

With Gallagher now gone, if there was a Rangers clique still hungover from Alex Rae’s time at the club, it had now been firmly liquidated by Ross as five players with direct links to Rae and Ibrox had now left Paisley since the new manager arrived.

With all these new signings and a great cup win, optimism was high for the visit of Falkirk at the end of January. Cammy Smith nearly scored after five seconds, which would have surpassed Mark Yardley’s debut goal of 30 seconds in 1995, but Rory Loy’s first strike for the club was a mere consolation as Falkirk had already scored twice in highly controversial circumstances.

The opener came after Myles Hyppolite comically stole 15 yards to hurl a throw towards the Saints box that Alex Bone wannabe John Baird scored from, but the second was just as bad as it contained a clearly offside pass in the build up, and the ball going out of play before Count Miller hooked it back allowing Baird to score again. It was hard to take to be honest, and the feeling went back to deflation, with only fourteen matches remaining Saints were seven points adrift at the bottom, and the transfer window shut in only three days.

Stephen McGinn came off the bench that day for his second debut, showing some good composure and responsibility on the ball that had been sadly lacking in midfield since Paul McGowan left the club. Soon enough he would be made captain, ousting Storie from the first team, and to complete a hectic transfer window Jack Ross added former Hearts left back Adam Eckersley and Crewe centre half Harry Davis to his squad before it shut, and young Ryan Watters also joined making it ten in and ten out when all (including development loans outwards) was considered at the end of the process.

It was the massive overhaul most called for and our only real chance of surviving, but at least we were making a fist of it and not being relegated as lamely as a Tommy Craig press conference.

The manager and his staff now had the rather monumental task of getting the new players fit, and bonding them into a side capable of picking up twenty three points from the fourteen remaining fixtures, and that was based on getting the widely accepted figure of thirty six points for safety, as we currently only had thirteen points from the first twenty two fixtures. Basically we would need to produce title winning form for the rest of the season to survive.

Saints next four matches were a real mix and match, with Dumbarton and Ayr away from home in the league, sandwiched in between a Scottish Cup match against East Fife and an Irn Bru semi final against The New Saints from Wales.

The two league matches were simply massive as Ayr were the nearest club to Saints and seven points ahead at this time, and Dumbarton the place above McCall’s dragon chasers but four points further away still.

A large support would surely go to both, however the club were only handed 800 tickets for Dumbarton due to stadium restrictions and those lucky enough to get a ticket were treated to an entertaining 2-2 draw, with Clarkson and debutant Davis netting, played in cold conditions on the banks of the Clyde and Leven where Dumbarton turned time-wasting almost into an art.

Rumours were rife that Sons boss Steven Aitken would make goalkeeper Alan Martin clean Stuart Carswell’s hanky if he didn’t pull up his socks six times, tie his laces, blow his nose, and fake a finger injury before every goal kick. Martin obliged, until Saints twice took the lead and suddenly he was more eager than David Farrell inventing stats on national radio.

The full time whistle was greeted with an eerie silence, the supposed must win nature of the match clearly impacting on some Saints fans who believed that this was it, and we were now facing relegation.

The next two cup matches renewed faith however, a fairly comfortable 3-2 win at East Fife in conditions so cold Polar Bears were watching with jackets on, set the club up for a semi final clash against TNS in the Irn Bru Cup, where a poor first half performance allowed the Welsh club to be 1-0 up at half time and that dreaded feeling of impending doom returned, however this was to be one of the last times this emotion was felt all season, and the team came out transformed for the second half.

Inspired by captain McGinn, Saints blew the Welsh champions apart winning 4-1 and playing with such intensity and purpose that it would have been difficult to see many teams in the Championship cope with it. This was the last five minutes against Ayr United in the quarter final but for a full half of football, keep this up and anything would be possible.

Next up was that trip to Ayr, a simply must win match even more so than against Dumbarton as the Ayrshire club had pushed eight points clear of Saints whilst we were winning cup matches.

Not helping the situation were Scotrail, who decided to carry out ‘essential maintenance work’ on the lines between Paisley and Ayr that day, the worse management decision to affect Paisley since Kyle Hutton signed,  but Saints still took 1400 supporters and someone very clever decided to buy a drum.

Backed by constant noise for 90 minutes and a renewed sense of optimism following the Cup wins, Saints turned in their finest performance of the season so far and won as easy a 2-0 victory as could imagined thanks to Sutton and Morgan goals, but the manner of it was exceptional, Ayr simply couldn’t get near Saints on the day and Ian McCall was gracious enough to concede so after the match, before blowing it all and suggested we were buying our way out of trouble. Puff puff.

This cut the deficit to five points, but the Paisley club now had a game in hand. Raith Rovers had also been surprisingly dragged into it, and Dumbarton were also not safe.

Saints had twelve games to play, could this be the start of something special?

Chapter Two – Record Breaking Losses and Three Players Named Kyle.

So, with Alex Rae now gone, former Saints defender Jack Ross took over as manager of the club trying to improve on the four draws and four defeats from the opening eight league matches. This was a post war poorest start to a season, but still well short of the club record set in 1921/22 when it took until fixture twelve to achieve the first win.

“Jack would do this, no problem. He’d have us turned round and looking up before we knew it and Alex Rae would soon become an afterthought, a blip in the clubs recent history. The good times were coming”.

That was the optimistic me talking, the same one that thought Alex Rae would have Saints challenging for a play off place. The irrational black and white glasses tinted me that often looked at Scotland squads and tutted when Paul McGowan wasn’t included.

Like most supporters, away from football I am not like this. I will dissect something and give opinion based on a fair and honest assertion, be it a song I have heard or how a t-shirt looks for example. Football isn’t like this, nor should it be.

I don’t want to look at a Saints squad and say ‘Hmmmm, the keepers are all useless, the defenders can’t defend, our midfield is rank rotten and our strikers couldn’t score on payday in Carnegies’.

What fun would that be? Imagine thinking you were beat before a ball was kicked, and that rare day in the sun will never happen? Without hope, without the blind faith football would be impossibly boring.

Truthfully though, I always wanted Jack Ross as manager. Before writing this I double checked my messages to friends at the time, and definitely I thought he was ‘worth the risk’, and based this opinion on the turnaround he had produced at Alloa and how well they had played against Celtic in the League Cup.

Looking at this evidence alone, and admittedly that is not a lot, I considered Alloa were miles better prepared and coached than we had been all this season, and arguably even Saints with this imbalanced gang of slackers and supposedly Rangers obsessed rejects on our books, had superior players to the Clackmannanshire​ side, even taking into consideration the probability Jim Goodwin alone would boss all of our midfield himself and still have time to needlessly hack down Andy Webster and get sent off.

This is what I thought, a logical opinion perhaps shared by many Saints fans. Fast forward a couple of months, and optimistic me was wrong again very wrong in fact, some of these players were not as good as Alloa had, but a lot happens before that.

In truth the supporters were split over Jack Ross being appointed, like me some warmed to the progressive nature of his style and tactics whilst others believed he was unproven at this level even pointing to Ross relegating Alloa, and a ‘safer pair of hands’ was former Saints boss Gus MacPherson who would stabilise the club.

Very few wanted Fullarton or McCulloch, most based this opinion on the fact they were almost completely unknown as managers and we had to get this appointment correct, probably an assertion I agreed with.

In an impressive interview on Radio Scotland with Gordon Scott around this time, the Chairman stated he wanted to ‘enjoy football again’ and also stopped going to Love Street in the 1980’s for a period due to the style of play adopted by Alex Miller. Taking these comments at face value, I immediately ruled out MacPherson.

This is nothing personal, wee Gus turned the club on its head when he took over and built a strong successful side, but enjoying football under him wasn’t the most common thing heard at the time. ‘Go to the cinema for entertainment’ he once allegedly told a room full of journalists, and even paying £13 for a coke was more pleasurable than the calendar year of 2007 when Saints managed only seven home goals from seventeen fixtures under Gus.

Then there is the nine man match nobody wants to talk about, so I definitely won’t.

Back to Jack Ross, and if first impressions were anything to go by then he was going to be an incredibly popular and successful manager. Immediately in press conferences he seemed to understand the club and it’s supporters, probably a relief as he had played here for two years, but he had charisma, eloquence and self belief not seen in the managers office at St. Mirren Park probably since Tom Hendrie. There was no talk of other clubs, no made up stats, and not once did he start a sentence with the word ‘Listen’.

So far so good, all Ross had to do was start winning matches, and soon. First up was a home fixture against Dundee United, who were bang in the middle of what has turned out to be their best form of the season by a mile.

The Saints performance was decent, probably the best of the season so far, but two defensive lapses let the Tannadice club ruthlessly exploit the fragility in Saints armour by scoring twice without having to work particularly hard to do so.

The second goal conceded in particular was farcical, with Gary MacKenzie finally reaching match fitness and being included in starting XI’s, the big centre half and Langfield somehow contrived to gift an open goal to Tony Andreu who made absolutely no mistake. As hinted in chapter one, big Gary would need to brush up on his Pictish.

Next up were Hibs away, and the same story. Decent performance especially in the first half, but a comfortable enough 2-0 victory for the Leith club at full time. Jack Ross spoke about making players better through his coaching at this point, and that he had faith in the players. Perhaps he underestimated the size of the job on his hands, and just how bad some of these players really were.

After this defeat was a trip to Morton at Cappielow, and that seventeen year unbeaten run to protect. By this point in the season Morton were absolutely flying, surprising everyone including themselves with their form, particularly at home. I prayed we could escape with a stuffy draw therefore keeping the record, allowing us to be in a stronger position when we met again. Deep down though, I could taste defeat like a bag of prawns that had been left out in the searing sun for 12 hours.

Since Saints were relegated at the end of 2014/15, Morton had failed in five attempts to beat as weak a Saints side there had been in perhaps the last fifty years. If they couldn’t win this one with Paisley confidence at rock bottom, would they ever?

The answer was they would win, and with considerable ease by three goals to one, as Saints worse performance of the season and probably the current century embarrassed the large support, and crucially the manager. Enough was enough, Jack Ross was a man who did not like to be let down.

Kyle Hutton was hooked at half time and has not been seen since in a Saints shirt. Shipped out on loan to one of Scotland’s new clubs, but not his favourite one, he would need to make do with Airdrie in the third tier. In contrast, his replacement that night and for the next few months until he was converted into a winger, seventeen year old Kyle Magennis has been one of the players of the season.

Also starting for the final time that evening in a Saints shirt was Tom Walsh, a player who had contributed positively to the season but the manager clearly had seen enough of the on loan Ibrox man and he was returned hastily to Rangers on New Year’s Day along with Ryan Hardie who fell astonishingly short of the required standard.

Other players would fall over the next few weeks, most notably Chief Pict Jamie Langfield, as Saints became record breakers for all the wrong reasons. Game twelve of the season passed with a defeat at home to Dumbarton as Saints missed about twenty great chances and gifted the Sons the points thanks to genuinely the most incredible goalkeeping mistake I have ever witnessed, by the aforementioned Langfield, sealing the 2016/17 teams destiny as providing the worse ever start to a league season.

November 2016 conjures an immediate image of darkness when I think about it, a truly horrific month as a Saints fan, and boy did the fans of other clubs let us know we were suffering. We simply had to take the constant mocking, but deep down our resolve was outstanding and the fans never gave up on the team. The worse we got, the more we loved the club. But incredibly it was still to get worse.

Not content with just this record bad start however, the 3-1 loss at Falkirk a few weeks later on the fourteenth match gave Jack Ross the unwanted privilege of becoming the first ever Saints boss to lose his first six league matches.

This was classic Saints from this period, go 1-0 up and then get a player sent off before conceding three second half goals. The fact that Jack Baird smacked the veteran vampire Falkirk striker Lee Miller in the face to obtain the red card was arguably the highlight of the season so far.

With game fifteen approaching quickly in midweek, and Saints stuck on an incredible tally of only four points to show for their efforts, a lot was happening.

The aforementioned Kyle Magennis had continued in the side and looked like a fabulous talent in central midfield next to Mallan, who despite being nowhere near his best had still set up well over half of all Saints goals in the season. Where had Magennis been all season was the question I and many others had.

The manager had also brought into the side yet another Kyle, the wonderfully talented attacking midfielder McAllister, whom even Alex Rae was unable to ignore and had given a debut to as a sixteen year old. Well done Alex, but you somehow seemingly still managed to sign the only sh*te player called Kyle in the whole of Scotland.

McAllister was holding down the right wing slot, and with Morgan on the left, along with Mallan and Magennis centrally in an all Saints Academy bred midfield, we finally had players in the side that could not only pass, move and control the ball, but they were incredibly two footed. Outstanding work, Mr Longwell.

Never has the argument that our academy trumps the rest been so strong. At this point over the last few seasons we have had awful players from the youth academies of Burnley, Rangers, Motherwell, Aberdeen and Celtic clog up our starting XI’s whilst these kids couldn’t get a game. Howieson over McAllister, Hutton or Carswell over Magennis, McMullan over Morgan and Hardie over anyone had stopped our own stars making a name for themselves, and Jack was only putting this right.

The manager mentioned in his post match interviews the necessity of playing these kids as they had a ‘feeling for the club’, a comment that said a lot about the outstanding attitude of the players from our academy, but probably more of the imposters they were replacing, see Chapter One.

Rumours of the ‘clique’ at the club still continued during this period including an extraordinary story where the players had allegedly been playing a ‘Rangers v The Rest’ match at training during the previous managers time at the club, but often ‘The Rest’ wouldn’t have enough players! Again, I am certain this story has no foundation, but Jack Ross clearly felt he had inherited some players who couldn’t care less about Saints and he didn’t like it.

Despite this defeat at Falkirk, I could feel it in my bones that victory was near and things were turning, and I knew it was going to happen the next match at Palmerston. Blind faith, the black and white tinted specs, call it what you want but I somehow knew. Even three minutes into stoppage time, I was relaxed. It was coming, and it did via the beautiful right boot of Stephen Mallan in the 94th minute. Absolute scenes is the commonly used term.

Next match, another win this time at home to Raith. The team now looked confident and geared up to pull the deficit back. But this was false confidence, Dutch courage almost, and self doubt was so deep rooted in some of the players it simply couldn’t be coached out of them. Others were simply not good enough to play for the club.

The following week at home to Ayr, a major crack appeared. Saints were the better side by a distance, but Lawrence Shankland who looked a shadow of himself in everything but appearance, hit a penalty wide on the hour mark at 0-0. Within a few minutes, it was 1-0 Ayr and it took John Sutton to head a late equaliser and save Saints skin to earn a draw, an invaluable intervention the more the season went on as it turned out, but Saints wouldn’t win again in the league until late February in the return fixture at Somerset Park.

Talking of crack, after the match Ayr boss Ian McCall threw down his metaphorical pipe full of the stuff to run across the Greenhill Rd playing surface and celebrate this 1-1 draw in extraordinary fashion.  The guy that sits behind me who thinks Jamie Langfield is some kind of Clan Leader, merely asked if McCall ‘was f*cking high?’

The spectacle of McCall outside the main stand half an hour later, his wee bloated face lit up by the fiery end of whatever he was drawing the life out of may have confirmed his suspicions, or it was a cheeky B&H, probably the latter.

Another self inflicted defeat at Tannadice on Christmas Eve laid the foundations for the next Renfrewshire derby and potential revenge time for Saints. 1-0 up at home and playing against ten men for the last half hour should have been the circumstances for Saints to comfortably see the match out, but panic engulfed the side and they invited Morton onto them allowing a last gasp equaliser.

It felt like a defeat, and one that could potentially knock the stuffing right out the side and lead to relegation, and had the manager allowed it to fester it would have. In Chapter One, I mentioned a 3-1 home defeat to Queen of the South as the worse home performance I had ever seen from Saints. By coincidence the Dumfries side were next up at Paisley and won 3-0, immediately replacing the 3-1 match as the worse I had seen. That Morton equaliser may indeed have finished some players off.  The old Saints were back, there was going to be no great comeback with this lot.

That night it all seemed lost. I went home stunned and sat in my kitchen listening to David Farrell on Radio Scotland boast about his made up win % at Paisley, with a hint of ‘You should have stuck with me and Rae’ about it.

Someone tweeted the show and told them the Rae/Farrell percentages were wrong, and named the managers with better records than them since Fergie, as this was also wrongly claimed again. The momentary silence from Farrell when it was read out confirmed my suspicions that he had no idea​ what he had been saying, and he blurted out ‘his pal’ had given him the stats. That cheered me up slightly, but that still remains one of the darkest days I have ever had a Saints fan.

As it turned out though, this was truly us ‘bottoming out’ and the late Morton equaliser followed by this heavy defeat at home to Queen of the South was a blessing in disguise. The manager was now about to rip the squad apart, knowing these players couldn’t save the club from their first ever spell in the Scottish third tier.

Chapter One – Alex Rae and the Imposters.

Alex Rae and the Imposters. Unfortunately​ not the name of an obscure 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll band, but in my view an accurate way to define in a few words the first couple of months of the 2016/17 season, that will simply go down as the craziest in the long history of St. Mirren.

Beginning with a change of ownership in late July, to the worse ever start in over a century of league football, a manager sacking, being cut adrift for two hundred and eleven days at the bottom of the league, being as much as eight points behind second bottom place on the 1st March, to the incredible comeback of the last few months, this is a story that quite simply could not be scripted.

Back in July 2016 before a ball was kicked, optimism for the forthcoming season was actually high among some fans, including myself, and a promotion play off place was a serious consideration with this section of supporters following a decent end to the previous campaign where relegation had been a possibility at Christmas 2015.

Alex Rae had replaced Ian Murray around that time, and although his appointment was met with indifference from the support, the former Rangers and Sunderland man got the job done by easily escaping relegation without ever really impressing the fans. The performances were dull and uninspiring even as the results improved, but he had done what was required and there was gratitude for this.

Off the park, rumours about a ‘Rangers supporting clique’ within the dressing room were rife, and following the 3-1 derby victory over Morton in April 2016, in what turned out to be the last league victory under Rae, two players (Stuart Carswell and Scott Agnew) immediately took to social media to offer support for the Govan side for their upcoming Scottish Cup match against Celtic.

It did not go down well with the supporters and frankly appeared disrespectful to the club, Rangers were in the same division as Saints after all, and Chief Executive Tony Fitzpatrick criticised the relevant players in the media whilst Celtic supporting assistant manager David Farrell quit twitter with little explanation.

This episode may seem insignificant now, but in hindsight it was indicative of the lack of harmony between the management team, a section of the players and the support. Personally speaking I was not happy that our employees felt comfortable enough to publicly declare support for a club we had played four times already that season and were due to play again in a few weeks time.

Deep down something just didn’t seem right, what kind of environment had been created at the club to allow this? Speculation I know, but these ‘clique’ rumours would persist even after Rae was gone.

Back to July 2016 however, and that optimism. Alex Rae had retained the services of David Clarkson and Callum Gallacher from the previous season to add to the players already signed for the forthcoming campaign, including Gary Irvine and Rocco Quinn signed by Rae months earlier.

Carswell and Agnew left the club, along with Alex Cooper as well as Saints legends Jim Goodwin and Steven Thompson who had been controversially frozen out by Rae.

Joining the club for 2016/17 were ex Saints youth player Ben Gordon and former Saints hero John Sutton, as well as three players Rae knew from Rangers; Scott Gallagher, Kyle Hutton and Gary MacKenzie. Rae also went back to his former Glasgow employer for youngsters Tom Walsh and Ryan Hardie who had eye catching loan spells in the Championship the season before with Dumbarton and Raith Rovers respectively.

Lawrence Shankland, who had scored most of his ten league goals the previous season after Rae had arrived, was resigned from Aberdeen on loan and suddenly Saints seemed to have an abundance of decent attacking options.

The signing of Gary MacKenzie appeared on paper to be both the pick of all the new players given his pedigree, but along with Shankland the strangest at the same time, as Saints already had three central defenders at the club, and four strikers if Callum Gallacher was counted, but these signings were revealed by Rae as the last of the pre-season despite glaring shortages in other positions.

It was a big gamble, and sparked concern with supporters as we had no natural left back at the club, and had practically no cover at all in central midfield. These concerns would be raised again and again as the season unfolded.

Other concerns some Saints fans had at the time was the fact Rae may have been a sensible stop gap appointment for the previous season, but was he the man to build on this and deliver a promotion winning campaign? The natural counter argument to this was that Rae had a decent first few seasons at Dundee almost a decade before, that would have delivered play off places had the system existed back then.

Before a ball was kicked, these were the debates, but the majority of Saints fans remained optimistic for the season ahead, and Rae was given the benefit of any doubt by the majority. On paper the squad looked strong in attack and on the wings, and potentially at least this could work.

Practically nobody considered 2016/17 would be a relegation threatened campaign, but with the League Cup groups back for the first time in over thirty years, a competitive start to the season of July 16th 2016 gave fans an early chance to gauge what direction the side was going.

Victories against Livingston and Ayr United, sides seeded below Saints in the group rankings were an encouraging enough start, but a 3-0 thumping by Hamilton at Douglas Park was the first real sign that things were not quite right.

Hamilton of course were a division above Saints, but the ease at which Accies cut through our non-existent midfield was both concerning and a sign of things to come. With Rocco Quinn injured long term following the Livingston match, the squad was down to just two central midfield players, new signing Kyle Hutton and the talented youngster Stevie Mallan. Already the fans concerns about squad depth and imbalance were relevant.

The final League Cup group match was against league newcomers Edinburgh City, and the Paisley side had to win by four clear goals to qualify. Given they were three up after just half an hour and then failed to create a single second half chance, then it is perhaps understandable that the easy victory was not greeted with much enthusiasm and Saints went out by a solitary goal and a bit of a whimper. Next up was the League opener at home to rivals Morton in a weeks time, and a seventeen year unbeaten derby record to protect against the Greenock side.

By this Saturday, the club had been sold after being put up for sale six years beforehand. Stewart Gilmour, who had done so much to revive the fortunes of the club in the 1990’s and 2000’s sold the controlling majority of shares to former director Gordon Scott on the promise he would allow the fans to buy him out after a period of around ten years. Off the park, optimism was as high as it had been in perhaps decades.

The pressure was now on Alex Rae to deliver. He was not appointed by this new board of directors, and even the most hostile Saints fan would concede that this was a difficult situation Rae found himself in at no fault of his own, but he had to deliver and quickly. Unfortunately for the manager, the only thing that would be delivered was the least mobile spine of a football team in history.

On the Saturday, Saints were outplayed for long spells by Morton, their energetic midfield seem to bypass a Saints engine room almost completely dependent on Mallan as Kyle Hutton suffered a very difficult debut where it appeared he was running with concrete boots on and possessed the composure of a rabid weasel. And this was one of his better matches.

John Sutton came off the bench to rescue Saints from the unthinkable and grab an undeserved share of the spoils, but concerns about the squad were growing already, and when Raith Rovers inflicted a heavier than the scoreline looks 3-1 defeat the following week, real concern was beginning to set in.

Hibs were next to defeat Saints, an easy 2-0 win at Paisley where the players simply looked disinterested, in fact I’ve seen Dumbarton take a goal kick with more urgency than Saints that day, and even three league matches into the season Radio Clyde’s favourite resident Ranjursman was in deep trouble such was the appalling nature of performances.

The following week at Ayr, as fans debated how long Rae had should we be defeated, a last minute Tom Walsh equaliser left Saints with just two points from the opening four matches, but more worryingly something just felt very very wrong, this was clearly not a good side.

Things got worse from here, a scrambled Challenge Cup win in extra time over third tier Albion Rovers was followed up by an abysmal and quite horrific 3-1 home defeat to Queen of the South.

At the time I considered it the worse home performance I had ever seen from a Saints side, and I had been going since 1984. It wouldn’t be the only time I said it this season.

That day Andy Webster in particular struggled. An experienced former international defender who quite simply looked out of his depth even in the second tier, and the outstanding Stephen Dobbie tormented the former Rangers and Hearts player during a very painful ninety minutes when his lack of pace and positional sense was cruelly exposed so often you could do nothing but feel sorry for him.  I’m sure big Andy, or Slothy McSlothface as he was being called around me, would not be grateful for this sympathy either.

One of the major positives of the new stadium was the opening in April 2016 of the 1877 club. It was in here after this match that a group of Saints fans debated if this was the worse Saints side ever. Some agreed, some disagreed, but worryingly it was a genuine conversation. For the record, already I thought it was on course to be the worse side I had ever seen, surpassing the shambles of David Hay’s early 1990’s disaster.

For his part Webster was sarcastically applauded from the field by a section of fans when Rae correctly subbed him near the end, I thought this was harsh as despite his struggles Webster at least gave 100% effort, but the disconnect between the fans and players was growing by the week.

Again rumours resurfaced in Paisley about a ‘clique’ in the dressing room, and the following week stories circulated that the management team spent the hours immediately​ before the Queen of the South debacle locked in an office watching Celtic demolish Rangers.

Most fans chose not to believe these rumours, they sounded simply too ridiculous and even for a manager who went on radio every other day to talk affectionately about another club, this seemed far too unprofessional.

However, this type of whispering is never a good thing even when the message is untrue, but the discontent towards Rae and Farrell from the support had really grown following this defeat in any case, and it wasn’t going to take much for the support to turn overwhelmingly on the management team.

The worse start Saints ever had to a league campaign was 1920/21 when it took until the twelfth league fixture to secure a victory, but the following week a 1-1 draw at Dumbarton made it six matches without a win (eight including the previous season) and this was too much for the new board, and most of the support. Alex Rae and David Farrell were sacked the following day.

No shock in Paisley this news, but plenty of sympathy in the media for the duo who of course were and still are regulars on many radio and TV shows. What followed was a bizarre string of claims from both of them on their win % at Paisley, ranging from 40 to 55 per cent depending on what day of the week it was, and even claims they were the most successful Saints management team since the Alex Ferguson days.

The fact is this; in the league their win ratio was 35% and achieved exclusively in the second tier, placing Rae and Farrell comfortably in the ‘least successful Saints manager ever’ category. Also, six managers since Ferguson have a better win rate in the league than the duo. For the record Tom Hendrie, Tony Fitzpatrick (2nd spell), Jimmy Bone, Alex Miller, Ricky McFarlane and Jim Clunie.

Win percentages can be misleading of course, so to put it bluntly the shape and set up of the team was woefully wrong; from tactics and balance to simple team cohesion.

For example, the communication between goalkeeper and defence was so bad the guy that sits behind me was convinced Langfield and Gallagher spoke a different language from the back four. He reckoned Gaelic, but with a 1.1% chance of that being correct I dismissed this as nonsense as it must be something so obscure it had been truly lost over the ages, Pictish perhaps, but the image of Langfield sitting on his couch with a beer arguing with the BBC Alba commentary is one I like.

In defence, a right back, Gary Irvine, was playing left back and not in a similar way to Manchester United icon Denis Irwin as Rae would laughably claim weeks later on radio, but more like Dennis Pennis; it was uncomfortable to watch at times and gave most a good laugh, usually not the Saints support though. To his enormous credit, Irvine never gave up.

The central defenders, whichever ones were fit at that point, looked less of an effective partnership than Jay Z and Barry Chuckle; the midfield was so far apart the opposition could have smuggled in James Corden, Eamon Holmes and probably even Jabba The Hut without being noticed, but it was the lack of effort from some players that was shameful, and genuinely embarrasses and angers me to this day they were allowed to wear a strip with the same badge on it as David Lapsley, Jackie Copland and Hugh Murray before them. Thankfully most of these players do not remain at the club today, and these were the imposters.

Too many of these players weren’t appearing to be taking it seriously, and were acting as if they were too good to play for a club with only a brand new stadium, Youth Academy, and training complex. It was almost as if they had something more important to do than play for the club, like perhaps appear on Radio or write a column for a newspaper about how they love other clubs, no sorry that was the management team, my mistake. However the point remains if the manager appears like he is doing it all half-hearted, then the chums he brought in are going to be the same.

Of course, Rae and Farrell can’t be completely responsible for this lack of effort, there is such a thing as professional pride, but everything else wrong highlighted above lies with them. The negativity around the club at this point was overwhelming and even going to matches was something I and probably most others almost dreaded, but we still went. This is our club, and we were determined to do our part to help improve things. In sickness and in health after all.

With Rae now gone, the search for the new manager started. In the meantime, head of youth development and former Hearts defender Alan McManus took interim charge, and performances improved even if the league results didn’t.

His first match was a 4-3 defeat at Dunfermline, where some fine attacking play was undone by a cruel Andy Webster own goal and a devastating late winner where the hapless Kyle Hutton produced his first assist in Saints colours, but unfortunately it was for Dunfermline as he presented Farid El Aalgui with an open goal that mugged Saints for at least a point.

The following week, Saints drew with Falkirk at home thanks to another late Tom Walsh goal, giving Saints only their fourth point of the season on the 1st October after eight matches. Shudder.

By this point, Billy Davies, Neil Warnock and John Hughes had allegedly been interviewed or more accurately linked to the vacancy by the media, but all had ruled themselves out. This left a supposed shortlist of four, former Saints players Jamie Fullarton and Jack Ross, ex-boss Gus MacPherson and Lee McCulloch​.

As we now know in the days after the Falkirk match, former Saints right back Jack Ross was announced as the next manager of the club, but would take current club Alloa for one more fixture before starting his new post.

McManus would therefore oversee Saints fine victory at Easter Road in the Challenge Cup that Saturday as Jack Ross emerged victorious from his final Wasps match, and the Paisley club were now set to welcome their fifth permanent manager in only two years.

Amazingly though, the league form was about to get worse.