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.