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.