In June 2003 global superstar Ronaldinho moved from Paris St German to Barcelona in a £30 million transfer. During the same summer, St Mirren manager Tom Hendrie prepared for a second campaign in the old Scottish First Division by completing the signing of his own number ten, former Stirling Albion and Queens Park attacking midfielder Robert Dunn on a free transfer from Dumbarton.
Both players were 23 years of age at the time, but the contrast between the two was as extreme as you could get; one was already a multi-millionaire considered among the best players on the planet and had won the World Cup with Brazil only a year prior to this, the other a part time player who had just secured a return to the full time game. Yet they both had something in common; they were signing targets for Hendrie during his time at St Mirren.
Back in March 2001, Saints were battling relegation from the re-branded SPL as a newly promoted side having spent their longest ever period outside the Scottish top flight since football began in Scotland, a long seven years in a dismal 1990’s where financial concerns plagued the very future of the club situated at the heart of Scotland’s biggest town.
Under the astute chairmanship of Stewart Gilmour however, the Buddies had broken even for several seasons since the mid 1990’s, and were servicing hefty debt of around £2million inherited by the board after a frankly catastrophic late 1980’s and early 1990’s where the club attempted and failed to keep up with the mega spending Glasgow Rangers, a trend that affected many top division clubs in Scotland for the decades after Graeme Souness had long left Govan.
In late 1998, club legend Tony Fitzpatrick had been sacked as manager of Saints by Gilmour after a three year stint as boss, his second spell in the Paisley dugout which had turned sour after a promising start, following the best part of 15 years as player and a previous spell as manager in the two decades before this. With the club at the wrong end of the table in 1998/99 and in danger of stagnating, the Saints board turned to Alloa manager Tom Hendrie, a school teacher who had played for Meadowbank Thistle in the 1980’s, as the man to revitalise a talented squad that had lost its way.
Within a few weeks matters on the park improved considerably, and the team played with a new sense of belief forged by a new attacking style that quickly had Saints mid-table and the threat of relegation to the third tier for the first time was a memory by February. So impressive in fact were Saints, that two of their young players, sixteen year old Burton O’Brien and nineteen year old David McNamee, were tracked by Manchester United, Liverpool and Blackburn Rovers, who were recent Champions of England of course, and the Lancashire side convinced the pair to sign at Ewood Park.
The following season, 1999/00, Saints romped to the title in thrilling style, with Hendrie’s 3-4-3 system causing havoc as Saints scored victories as high as 6-0 and 8-0 in a remarkable season. The main strength of the side was a free scoring attack, in particular the preferred front three of heavy weight target man Mark Yardley, the jet heeled Junior Mendes and finisher supreme Barry Lavety. To back that trio up going into the SPL, young Steven McGarry, German striker Jens Paeslack and Irishman Paul McKnight had looked more than capable in the second tier and there was optimism for the clubs return to the top flight.
At boardroom level the message was clear at Paisley however; there would be no more overspending and the club would recruit on what they could afford, bucking the trend of the early SPL years where Scottish clubs believed the TV goldmine discovered in England would be replicated in Scotland. It didn’t of course, and over the next decade or so, there would be ten occasions of SPL or former SPL clubs going into administration, and two actually liquidated. Saints weren’t one of them.
In the pre-season between promotion and the SPL for Saints, out of contract Junior Mendes left the club for Dunfermline as they offered the forward three times what Saints did per week, and a crucial part of the attack was lost. The Pars would be one of the clubs that entered administration in the coming years. The prolific Barry Lavety was next, when the club decided not to sign him permanently from Hibernian due to injury issues, and suddenly two thirds of the extremely effective first choice strike force was gone. The remaining player of the trio, an ageing Mark Yardley, looked physically unprepared for such a high level of football as he had problems with his weight, leaving Hendrie scrambling about the free transfer market for suitable attacking signings.
Barry Lavety & Junior Mendes
Jose Quitongo, the nomadic and unpredictable winger was signed on the eve of the 2000/01 season, and a few weeks later former Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers striker Graham Fenton would join the club, but they failed to make the required impact. Paeslack meanwhile left Paisley in the autumn of 2000, amid strange rumours that the club had terminated his contract after a number of thefts from the Saints changing room; the German had scored just one league goal.
Of the other strikers at the club that season as the transfer deadline of 31st March approached, Paul McKnight had been injured practically all campaign, Surinamese forward Mikael Renfrum (a mid-season free transfer) had left the club after only one goal scored, as had French striker Moussa Dagnogo who managed a solitary strike against Dundee in January during his month long contract.
Young Steven McGarry remained a regular despite only scoring four times all season and Yardley as predicted looked off the pace and had managed just two goals by this point of the campaign. In fact between the seven strikers used that season they had scored just nine goals between them in thirty two league matches as the deadline approached.
Paul McKnight, Jens Paeslack & Maikel Renfurm
Not surprisingly with a severe lack of goals, Saints struggled most of the season and occupied the bottom spot going into April. They were not seriously adrift however, and only a couple of points separated them and Dundee United who had spent big to drag them off the bottom spot of the SPL and replace Saints in eleventh as the season moved towards a climax.
With survival a real possibility, Tom Hendrie made it known at the start of March through the media that he needed a forward on the cheap for the run in to help his side escape the drop, and the names started flooding in.
At first the players linked were mostly based in England; Welsh striker Simon Howarth from Wigan Athletic and Steve Kabba from Crystal Palace were the players primarily spoken about at the beginning, but Hendrie conceded that their clubs wage demands were well above what Saints could afford and the search continued.
They had better luck negotiating with West Ham over Paul Kitson however, and came to an agreement with the Hammers over the forwards wages for the last eight matches of the season; however in an act of utter foolishness, the English striker decided against swapping London for Paisley and rejected the deal. In a similar knock back, Nigerian forward Daniel Amokachi stayed at Paris St German despite the Parisian club agreeing to the terms with Saints over the short term loan of the former Everton man.
Former Celtic and Portuguese international striker Jorge Cadete who was at Premier League Bradford City then confirmed his interest in joining Saints, but again his wages were far outside the permitted budget of Hendrie, and the talks collapsed as soon as they started, as did similar discussions with Temuri Ketsbai and Benito Carbone.
From nowhere at the outset of March, Brazilian world Cup winning forward Bebeto then emerged as a possible signing for St Mirren, raising some serious eyebrows in the media. The striker was 37 year of age at this point and had just left Vitoria in his homeland, however despite the Paisley club agreeing financial terms with his agent, Saints cancelled the transfer when the man who had played in two world cup finals and scored one in two goals for Brazil refused to go on trial to prove his fitness to Tom Hendrie!
Bebeto, Daniel Amokchi, Benito Carbone, Temuri Ketsbaia, Paul Kitson & Jorge Cadete
In among these collapsed transfers was the foundation of Ronaldinho to Renfrewshire however. With news of Bebeto potentially signing for Saints reaching his homeland, and Paris St German aware of Saints need for a forward thinking player for the run in, a Paisley based agent working in South America contacted Hendrie to suggest that he could arrange a short term loan for the Gremio forward. With the club season over in Brazil, the 21 year old agreed to the possibility of a move to Paisley and the news broke to a stunned media in Scotland and beyond.
Back in 2001 Ronaldinho was not quite the megastar he would become over the next fifteen years, but at a time when Brazil still produced likable world class footballers he was seen as a potential successor to the real Ronaldo’s crown of the king of Brazilian football, and I remember watching on astonished in the 1999 Copa America as the youngster scored a sensational goal against Venezuela. Immediately I thought to myself, if Ricky Gillies could score double figures from midfield in the SPL even for a struggling side, what would Ronaldinho do?
After the news initially broke, we are now aware that behind the scenes Saints were working hard to meet the terms of the loan, and Ronaldinho had agreed to come to Paisley on the average weekly wage of a Saints player, with a flat in the town and club car thrown in for good measure. What wasn’t good enough for floppy haired Paul Kitson (If you are under 30 years of age you will need to google him) was fine in the eyes of the best young player on the planet at the time. The club had agreed in principle a work permit with the home office in the UK, and now relied on the Brazilian FA to sign paperwork confirming the permanent registration of Ronaldinho as a PSG player to allow the transfer to happen before the midnight deadline of 31st March 2001, which just happened to be a Saturday.
It is regularly widely reported on English based ‘click bait’ sites that use this potential deal as a way to giggle at Scottish football (blissfully unaware that Shaquiri to Stoke etc is just as outrageous) that the transfer fell apart due to a passport scandal in Brazil, however as this only affected Italian transfers it is unlikely to have been the reason, and Tom Hendrie on multiple occasions has explained what happened.
Ronaldinhio in his Gremio and PSG days
In South America it was international week on their football calendar, and on the 28th March Brazil lost 1-0 in Ecuador in a World Cup qualifying match, a stunning upset. Hendrie has stated that when Brazil plays the whole country stops to watch, including their FA, and with the fall out from the defeat lasting days, the paperwork was not signed until after the 31st deadline, and the Scottish FA would not accept the transfer.
With no response from Brazil in the two days between the Ecuador defeat and the transfer deadline, Hendrie moved swiftly to add to his attacking options, and used his former Dundee teammate and Coventry City manager Gordon Strachan to sign young Scottish striker Stephen McPhee on loan for the rest of the season. It was a massive disappointment for Saints fans at the time, but McPhee made a significant difference after making his debut as a late substitute on the 31st March 2001 during a 1-1 draw against Dunfermline at Love Street.
In the last seven matches of the season Saints suffered only one defeat, a 1-0 reverse at Parkhead as Celtic clinched the league, but it was not enough to stop relegation by a slim margin as Dundee United matched Saints form in the run in. In the six matches McPhee started, Saints scored an average of 1.83 goals a game, compared to just 0.66 in the other thirty two. The youngster did not score, but like Junior Mendes he was quick and tricky, and his movement left space for players like Mark Yardley who scored twice in the last four games, the same amount he had scored all season in over thirty matches. It was really that simple; Saints had missed pace all season up front and had become easy to defend against. Not now though.
Relegation boiled down essentially to the penultimate match of the season, and as Saints were beating Aberdeen at Love Street, Dundee United were 2-0 down at McDiarmid Park meaning the Paisley side would go into the last match in control of their own destiny, however a second half collapse by the Perth side which still leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth in Paisley due to the poor second half performance of former United keeper Alan Main in the Perth goal, consigned Saints to the drop. They had left the signing of a quick striker to the last minute as the Ronaldino saga rumbled on for weeks, and it probably led to the only relegation from the top flight in Saints history after just one season.
Stephen McPhee and Mark Yardley
Ronaldinho of course went onto become a global sensation, but what about the others in this story? Stephen McPhee won the young player of the month for April 2001 in Scotland, but rejected the chance to sign for Saints after relegation and stayed in England by joining Port Vale, where in his third season the Scotsman scored twenty five league goals prompting a surprise move to top flight Portuguese side Beira-Mar in 2004. The following year he became the record signing at Hull City before injury ended his career at just 29 in 2010, by which time he was at Blackpool.
Mark Yardley spent another two seasons with Saints, but his best days were long behind him and the big striker was loaned to Forfar in 2002 before being freed at the end of the 2002/03 season where he joined Albion Rovers and finished his career, playing against Robert Dunn who had dropped back down to part time football with Dumbarton in 2004 and played the rest of his career in the lower leagues before retiring in 2009.
Tom Hendrie failed to return Saints to the SPL, and with the team clearly in decline was replaced with his assistant John Coughlin in 2002. In a football management career that had promised so much only two years before hand, Hendrie drifted out of the game and returned to teaching. I often wonder how it would have turned out for Hendrie had he signed Ronaldinho and kept Saints up. It’s a short life in football as they say.