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?

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