Appointed: June 1904 from Barnsley
Departed: January 1910 to Hearts
No of matches managed: 207
• First ever manager of the club
• Reached the 1908 Scottish Cup Final
By 1904, football in Scotland was now well under the grip of professionalism and the game evolving far beyond its amateur origins. Players were becoming full time at the bigger clubs and earning more money, stadiums were getting larger, the media coverage becoming more intense and the “committee style” management of team affairs was rapidly coming to an end.
In the summer of that year, Saints board decided to go with the recent trend and ditch the traditional way of selecting the team by replacing the club committee with Barnsley secretary John McCartney, who hence became the first ever manager of the football club.
Over the next century the role of manager itself has progressed considerably since these days, but McCartney was still expected to pick the side and formation, organise training, be involved in recruitment but also deal with tasks we would today consider the role of secretary or the administration staff such as registering players and ensuring competition rules are being adhered to.
McCartney already had experience of being a manager, having taken over at Barnsley in 1901 and for three years carried out the manager-secretary role at Oakwell, however the former Rangers and Cowlairs defender had no hesitation in taking the considerable step up, (according even to the English press) to a similar role at Paisley as Saints embarked on the new age of football.
“Mr John McCartney, who is now secretary and manager of the Paisley St Mirren Club, was again amongst his Barnsley friends on Wednesday night, and was the recipient of a handsome marble timepiece and roll-top desk from the supporters of the Barnsley Club.
After a stay of eight Years with the Barnsley Club, as player, and latterly as secretary and manager, Mr McCartney took the more lucrative appointment at Paisley. A testimonial fund was at once commenced and met with success, and, accompanied by several eulogistic speeches, the gifts named along with the addition of a gold and pearl necklace for his wife, were handed over to Mr McCartney”
It is widely reported that McCartney was born in Glasgow in 1866, however a number of newspapers state upon his death in 1933 that in fact Renfrewshire was his place of birth, but nonetheless the full back signed for Cartvale in 1884, a club based in the historic county at the time in the town of Busby, with an extremely striking kit of black jersey with a distinctive red cross badge along with white knickers and black socks:
A transfer to the Glasgow side simply known as ‘Thistle’ succeeded this start in the game, a club formed in 1868 and based in Dalmarnock who played in blue and white hoops, but McCartney was soon on the move again this time to Rangers in 1887 where he remained for two seasons before signing for another Glaswegian club, Cowlairs, who were founder members of the Scottish League along with Saints in 1890.
After three seasons as a regular with the Springburn side, in 1893 McCartney left Scottish football for Newton Heath of Manchester who of course would become Manchester United nine years later and had spells at Luton Town and Barnsley before hanging up his boots in 1901 to concentrate on management.
At Saints, McCartney inherited a relatively good situation, with the club averaging a sixth-place finish in the first fourteen seasons of league football in Scotland, and the previous three campaigns lived up to form with finishes of fifth and sixth twice. The hope within the boardroom was probably that with one-person concentrating solely on team matters the club could make a push for honours as the game in the country was effectively a blank page and the idea of almost universal domination by the big Glasgow clubs still many decades away, although the early signs were already looking bleak for an even spread of honours.
Disappointingly for the board of directors, the start to life with a manager at Saints did not go so well, and McCartney failed to win in his first five matches in charge, losing four of them. Whether the significant change of going from a committee dealing with players to just one man was the reason for this poor form is unknown, but it is probably too much of a coincidence not to be a factor despite people and footballers in 1904 being much more resolute than their modern counterparts.
The 24th September 1904 would finally allow McCartney to experience victory as Saints manager when a 1-0 win at Love Street was recorded over Morton thanks to a Hugh MacDonald effort, and the inside forward was the matchwinner once again the following week when his goal secured a victory at Ibrox, with Willie MacPherson and David Lindsay also finding the net during a 3-2 win.
Saints wouldn’t win again for four matches, but the 2-0 success over Hibernian on the 5th November 1904 started the best run of form for the season with Rangers thrashed 3-0 the following week at Love Street thanks to a Mathew Hall double added to by captain Thomas Jackson’s first ever goal for the club. Wins over Airdrie and Port Glasgow would follow these successes however the side would win only three more matches in the league that season and finished tenth of the fourteen clubs, a joint record low at the time for the club.
With the league size growing yearly at this point, the number of clubs increased to sixteen the following season and then eighteen the campaign after this with McCartney enjoying mid-table stability each time with finishes of eight and seventh, however the form in the latter part of the 1906/07 season was something of real note when Saints lost just one of the last fourteen league matches, consistency carried into the following season where McCartney led the side to just one defeat in the first fifteen Division One games.
Undoubtedly this kind form over one season (two defeats in twenty-nine matches) would be good enough to compete for the tittle and possibly win it, but the fractured nature of the run split over two campaigns ultimately meant nothing and the side replicated the 1906/07 position of seventh in 1907/08 after a run of form in the second half of the season just as poor as the first half results being good.
The Scottish Cup however was a different story. At this point it was the only knock out tournament in the country as the League Cup wasn’t introduced until after WWII and Saints had come close on several occasions in the last decade to reaching their first ever final, with single goal semi-final defeats to Rangers in 1898 and Celtic in both 1901 and 1902. Cup draws had been unkind to Saints in general, with the old firm drawn six times between 1890 and 1904, and on each occasion the club were eliminated from the competition, however 1907/08 was to prove different.
As the league form evaporated in late 1907 and any chance of a sustained title challenge gone by the New Year, McCartney could concentrate on the cup safe in the knowledge his side would probably comfortably remain in the top half of the league for the remainder of the season unless a complete capitulation occurred.
After winning just once in twelve league matches between late October 1907 and early 1908, the league form picked up after this just in time for the first-round Scottish Cup victory over Third Lanark, and it was onto Fir Park following this success in round two. After drawing 2-2 in Lanarkshire, Saints progressed once more thanks to a 2-0 win at Love Street in the replay and the quarter final draw paired McCartney’s Buddies with Hearts in Paisley, where a 3-1 victory put the club into another semi-final.
On this occasion, the luck of the draw was kinder to Saints as they were paired with Kilmarnock during a time when semi-finals were played at the ground of whoever came out the hat first, therefore McCartney travelled with his squad to Rugby Park on the 28th March 1908 for Saints fourth Scottish Cup semi-final and our first avoiding either of the Old Firm.
A cagey 0-0 draw resulted in Ayrshire, and on the 11th April, only one week before the final was scheduled to be played with Celtic waiting to find out their opponents, Saints defeated Killie 2-0 at Love Street to progress to their first ever national cup final and McCartney was the name on the lips of all Saints fans who toasted him that afternoon.
Saints had little time to prepare for the final however, and the Scottish league had squeezed a midweek fixture in for the club against Rangers in Paisley, which was hardly ideal circumstances considering the momentous occasion awaiting the club in only a few days’ time. Perhaps this scheduling played a part in the final, with a 5-1 hammering at the hands of the champions Celtic in front of 58,000 spectators, the second highest ever attendance recorded in Scottish football at the time.
McCartney would naturally have been disappointed; however, he is the first of only six men to have led Saints to a Scottish Cup final and the first to ever walk out at Hampden Park as manager of the club in a national final.
For the next eighteen months McCartney maintained the same level of consistency expected at Saints, finishing seventh of eighteen clubs in the 1908/09 season and then gathering 20 points in the first eighteen matches of 1909/10 (2 points for a win, modern equivalent would be 29 points) before deciding to accept the offer to become manager at Hearts of Midlothian in January 1910.
McCartney left Saints in a good position, indeed had Saints continued to accrue points at the same rate over the final sixteen fixtures they would have finished fifth that season. However, the form was so poor after McCartney moved to Edinburgh that it was probably his early season performance that stopped the club finishing in a relegation place as his replacement Barry Grieve struggled to adapt to management at the club following his switch from Kilmarnock. For the next few years Saints struggled badly after the departure of McCartney, finishing bottom in two of the next four seasons and only being saved from relegation twice by a league vote.
Perhaps this dramatic slump highlights just how good our first ever manager was, and it took until 1916 when John Cochrane was appointed as boss (the third man to try and replace McCartney) before the club recovered fully from this first ever management change over six years previously.
At Hearts, McCartney also flourished, building a brilliant young team that was destined to win the Scottish League until the outbreak of WWI in 1914 and the subsequent formation of McCrae’s battalion, famously made up almost entirely of his young Hearts players with the majority killed or injured in action.
After finishing third in 1913/14, Hearts led the league in November 1914 the following season when the war broke out and the battalion of predominately ‘Hearts men’ (this battalion also contained several Hibs and Raith Rovers players) was formed that month. Despite the loss of many key players, McCartney’s side challenged for the title right up until the penultimate match, when a 1-0 defeat at Love Street courtesy of a John Clark goal ended their brave challenge.
Sadly, McCartney finished his Scottish football career with no honours, with his closest effort at Hearts occurring after reaching the 1919 Victory Cup final, however despite being the favourites and perhaps a fitting winner, ironically it was Cochrane and Saints once more who triumphed thanks to a comfortable 3-0 win at Parkhead.
McCartney resigned from his position as Hearts manager shortly after this match, probably the heartbreak and strain of watching so many of his players never return from war too much for the great man to be reminded of daily, but he handed the managers jacket to his son Willie who remarkably was a referee before this after being injured early in his own playing career as an amateur.
The popular younger McCartney managed Hearts for sixteen years before taking over at Hibernian in 1936 where he signed and developed the ‘famous five’ frontline of Smith, Ormond, Reilly, Turnbull and Johnstone. With Hibs top of the league in January 1948, Willie tragically collapsed at died from a heart attack at Cliftonhill following a Scottish Cup tie. Hibs went onto win the league that season and added to this title in 1951 and 1952. Between them, the McCartney’s failed to win any honours as managers despite shaping three clubs, an unfortunate failure which the Glasgow Herald described as “unthinkably cruel”.
John McCartney meanwhile resurfaced as a manager in England with Portsmouth in 1920, guiding the southern club from the regional divisions to the top division in only seven years, but resigned before he had the chance to manage in the English First Division due to ill health on medical advice following an accident where his leg was amputated.
However, later in the year McCartney took over at Luton Town, but only 18 months later retired from football after his other leg was amputated following another short illness. John remained involved in football as he wrote for several newspapers and penned two books; ‘The Sport in War’ which was published in 1930 and prior to this in 1918, McCartney wrote ‘The Hearts and the Great War’, dedicated to his young players who had lost their lives during the brutal WWI conflict.
On the 18th of January 1933, John passed away aged sixty-six at home in Moat Street Edinburgh, forever to be remembered as a remarkable manager and pioneer for St Mirren football club.
“A very well-known figure in the football world, Mr John McCartney, one-time manager of several English and Scottish clubs has died in Edinburgh in his 67th year.
Mr McCartney had for a long period been a personality in football as a player/manager and latterly writer, when he gave up active participation in the game.
After a playing career both in Scotland and England, he became manager of the Barnsley club and later acted in the same capacity to St Mirren and Heart of Midlothian. Subsequently, he managed in turn Portsmouth and Luton Town, and with each club recorded a big measure of success.
A native of Renfrewshire, Mr McCartney began his playing career with the now defunct Cowlairs club. He was a full back of fine playing ability and uncommon resolution……….”