When Gavin Reilly lashed the ball beyond former Saints goalkeeper Mark Ridgers to open the scoring and subsequently win the match against Inverness Caledonian Thistle on the sixth of January 2017, the Dumfries born striker not only scored his twentieth goal of the season after just twenty eight appearances, but joined a fairly unique and relatively small exclusive group of St Mirren players.
Scoring twenty times in a campaign is probably more or less the standard target for most forwards and some midfielders every season it could be argued, yet it has happened in Saints history remarkably few times considering the club is currently in its one hundred and forty first year, therefore the achievement of Gavin Reilly should be firmly acknowledged.
To put Reilly’s feat into perspective, this is only the thirty sixth time in Saints history I could find an example of a player reaching twenty goals in a season in all competitions, and with many of these players reaching this milestone on multiple occasions, incredibly Reilly is only the seventeenth individual player to score twenty times in a campaign during Saints entire history, and only the fifteenth when the War time records are discounted.
All official records ignore the two World Wars when collating such stats due to the perceived drop in quality during these years as many footballers joined the armed forces; however I have included these periods although the twenty goal target was hit with more regularity than at any other time, seven times during WWII alone for example, with Alex Linwood surpassing the milestone five times between 1939 and 1945 alone.
Surprisingly, no player manged to reach a twenty goal level before or during the first World War, mainly due to the small number of matches played in comparison to now it could be argued, and it was the decade immediately after the so called Great War that two of Saints finest ever goal scorers emerged and the twenty goal target was finally reached eight times during the 1920’s.
The ground beaker was Dunky Walker in season 1921/22, who started the season by scoring four goals in each of the opening two league matches, and Walker continued this incredible form throughout the campaign by netting a simply astonishing fifty six times in all matches including forty five in the league, and both totals remain club records to this day unsurprisingly.
Walker reached the twenty goal mark during this memorable season after only sixteen appearances, yet that is still not the fewest appearances required to reach the landmark number by a player, more of which later. Walker repeated his twenty plus form the following campaign before his remarkable exploits alerted richer English clubs and he was sold to Nottingham Forest in the summer of 1923.
The disappointment felt at the loss of such an incredible goal scorer did not last long however, and a twenty two year old chauffeur from Bridge of Weir named Davie McCrae was signed after impressing and scoring against Saints in a Scottish Cup match for Beith in early 1924, and this was the catalyst for the greatest scorer in Saints history to emerge from total obscurity to club legend.
McCrae scored twenty or more goals in a season on seven separate occasions between 1924/25 and 1932/33, including the opening goal in the 1926 Scottish Cup final when Saints beat Celtic 2-0 in front of the first ever 100,000 attendance at Hampden Park to win the clubs maiden major trophy.
Davie McCrae’s total of 252 goals in 352 matches for Saints is unlikely to ever be beaten, and although football is considered by many to be much weaker pre WWII than it is now, it should be remembered that Saints did not have any forwards of that quality or consistency immediately before or after Walker and McCrae, so was it really that easy?
When McCrae’s career came to an end, Saints suffered the indignity of being relegated for the very first time in 1934/35, but gained promotion back to the top division immediately in a flurry of goals in 1935/36, with Jimmy McGregor netting forty one times and Jimmy Knox on thirty one occasions making this campaign the only one where two players surpassed the thirty goal mark in the clubs history.
Knox in fact would score twenty goals or more on three occasions during the 1930’s, before Linwood took over during World War II along with Thomas Brady who managed to hit the milestone twice during a period where all sorts of weird and wonderful competitions emerged such as the “Emergency War Cup” and this is another reason official records tend to overlook these years.
However, it would be a travesty to ignore the exploits of Linwood especially, and it would be grossly unfair to penalise a player by deleting records from history as they happened to play football during a time Adolf Hitler decided he wanted to rule the world.
Perhaps an indicator of how difficult it was and still is to score twenty goals in a season is the gap between 1945 and the next twenty goal a season player in 1958/59, as this was during a period Saints had a consistently good side and finances were boosted by crowds regularly reaching over 20,000 and on many occasions pushing the limit of Love Street completely when close to 50,000 were in attendance.
The wait was worth it though I would argue. Young American striker Gerry Baker arrived from Motherwell in the autumn of 1958 for a small fee, unable to break into a Fir Park forward line that included Ian St John, and desperate to make a career in football after deciding against becoming a professional sprinter.
Baker wasted no time impressing, and after scoring on his debut against Hibernian in late November 1958 where he was up against his brother Joe, the lightening quick striker reached twenty goals in his quite astonishing first thirteen matches for Saints, which is the quickest any Saints player has reached the twenty goal milestone.
The striker, aided by a fellow forwards Alistair Miller, Jim Rodger, Tommy Gemmell and the brilliance of Tommy Bryceland continued this form over the season where he scored twenty eight times in only twenty five matches. Had he signed for Saints at the start of the season and scored at that rate, Baker would have reached fifty goals for the season.
Similar to Dave McCrae before him, Baker also scored in the Scottish Cup final to help Saints win the trophy for the second time in 1959, although it should be noted Baker scored in every round. Aberdeen were the victims this time in the final by the score of 3-1, however it was the semi-final annihilation of Celtic 4-0 where all five forwards were on the absolute peak of their game that probably remains singularly the greatest individual performance by a Saints side, something highlighted by the much respected and iconic broadcaster Bob Crampsey in 1999 when he chose this as the greatest performance by a Scottish club in a domestic match during the entire twentieth century.
The legendary Tommy Bryceland also reached twenty goals in 1958/59 as well as scoring in the Cup Final, and the pair repeated the feat during the 1959/60 season where Baker scored ten times in one Scottish Cup match before leaving the field injured, but this record haul helped him reach a total of thirty five goals for the season.
The English clubs were circling again however and the American was transferred to Manchester City in November 1960 for a fee of £17k, a modern day equivalent of just under £400k, seemingly scant reward for Baker’s sixty six goals in eight five matches, and Bryceland would eventually follow Baker to England, and signed for Norwich City in 1962.
The loss of such quality again had a massive impact on Saints, and a second relegation eventually followed in 1967, but the club once again bounced back immediately scoring goals, one hundred in total in the league this time, with Peter Kane notching a very respectable twenty nine goals in 1967/68.
The side couldn’t sustain this form however, and relegation for a third time occurred in 1971 after a few seasons struggling to reassert themselves in the top flight.
A period of six years in the second tier followed, allowing four players to score twenty or more in a season; Ally McLeod on two occasions, Jim Blair, Bobby McKean, and in the season Saints were promoted back to the top division in 1976/77 under Alex Ferguson a young Frank McGarvey managed twenty goals in forty three matches.
McGarvey would repeat this form in the Premier Division the following season with twenty three goals; however once again Saints couldn’t hold onto their prize assets and the forward moved to Liverpool in 1979 although Saints board seemed to have learned a lesson from the Gerry Baker fee by receiving £270,000 for the striker, around £1.5million in 2018 currency.
The popular striker would return to Saints in 1985 however to finish his playing career, and the thirty one goals McGarvey scored in this spell was enough to push him over the century mark for Saints, becoming only the fifth and currently last player in Saints history to do so.
With the money from the McGarvey transfer in 1979 and other deals around the time such as Tony Fitzparick’s move to Bristol City, Saints decided to spend big on replacements. The most high profile of these was Frank McDougall from Clydebank for £180k, a Scottish record at the time and eyebrows were raised as Saints had outbid Celtic for his services. In 2018 terms, that fee is just short of £1million incidentally.
McDougall never did reach twenty goals in a season for Saints however, but his strike partner Doug Somner did on two occasions. Somner was signed from Partick Thistle around the same time as McDougall for a fee of £100k meaning for a short period in history Saints had the most expensive strike-force ever assembled in Scottish football, and two of only seven players transferred for £100k or more in Scottish football on their books at that time.
His debut season for Saints in 1979/80 was the pinnacle of Somner’s goal-scoring exploits, the striker hit thirty five goals in all competitions including twenty five during a league campaign when Saints could have won the title but had to settle for third place after a disappointing end to the season.
Saints also became the first and only Scottish side to win the Anglo Scottish Cup that season, thrashing then top flight Bristol City 5-1 in the final over two legs where predictably the deadly Somner netted two of Saints goals.
The following season Sommer again made it to the twenty mark, and he would be the last player to do so until Barry Lavety in 1992/93 when the young striker scored a late goal at Love Street against Cowdenbeath on the final afternoon of the season to deservedly sneak into the elite club.
The twenty five year wait between Lavety and Reilly for a twenty goal man is the longest since Saints inception in 1877 to Dunky Walker achieving it for the first time in 1921/22, further strengthening the case to acknowledge the achievement of Saints current top scorer in reaching the landmark.
Many players have been close to reaching the twenty goal target since Lavety; Mark Yardley in 1999/00 and Martin Cameron in 2002/03 both scored nineteen times, and Eddie Gallagher managed twenty two between December 1992 and October 1993, but failed to complete a full season at the club.
As mentioned before, Frank McDougall could not reach twenty goals in a season, or Frank McAvennie, Gudmunder Torfason, Steven Thompson, Robert Rankin, Don Kerrigan, Totti Beck or John Sutton therefore Reilly really is member of an exclusive club that many respected and often iconic players did not manage to join.
Gavin Reilly still has at least sixteen matches to potentially play this season, maybe more if Saints can advance beyond Aberdeen in the Scottish Cup, but I’m sure thirty goals is now his target for this campaign which would mean entry to an even more exclusive club as only three players have managed this post war; Gerry Baker, Ally McLeod and Doug Somner.
With ten league goals in twenty league appearances currently, in all likelihood Reilly will need to improve his goal to game ratio in the Championship from one in two at the moment to two goals every three matches to reach that thirty target, but having made history already this season it can not be discounted.