Despite losing the Renfrewshire Cup Final to Abercorn, this was another fine season for the club but again the Scottish Cup eluded Saints with the defeat after two replays to Dumbarton in the quarter finals angering Saints to the extent the president Mr W Lang accused the referee of cheating at the SFA general meeting in February 1889.
Perhaps Mr Lang (of the famous Moss Street public house family) had a point. In the first replay against the Sons of the Rock just before Christmas 1888, Saints had two goals mysteriously disallowed but most shockingly was a challenge on forward Bob Brandon, which was so high and violent to his “delicate area” that he didn’t play again that season.
The team would play 44 matches during the season, losing just 5 and scoring 158 times. With James Hill and James Dunlop both becoming regulars along with the Brandon brothers, Andy Brown, John Paterson and the McBain brothers continuing to impress every week, this was arguably Saints strongest side in the first 40 years of the club until Dunky Walker arrived in 1921. Had there been a league championship this campaign, the team would have been right in the mix.
One point of historical significance during the season was Andy Brown passing the 100 known goals mark for the club with his 20 recorded strikes for the campaign taking him to 119. However, 71 goals for the season have no recorded scorer, so like every other season he had played for the club his total was likely to be much higher and the forward had probably scored at least 150 times by this point in his career.
Brown had dropped to half back on a couple of occasions this season however, and this is where the prolific forward would perform for a significant part of his career, all played at Saints, and he would gain international honours doing so, proving he was just a phenomenal all-round footballer.
Professionalism was now imminent however, and with English clubs realising they had an untapped ocean of amateur players they could pick up for free in Scotland, already a number of Scots had gone south to be paid as footballers and also have supplemented income from working in local factories. If Scotland didn’t turn professional soon, the game threatened to very quickly diminish as English clubs would continue to cherry pick anyone they wanted without any means of clubs rejecting the move never mind be compensated. Clubs in England knew this and were even holding trial matches in Scotland for the best players giving them a chance to make money from the game!
There was however stiff opposition in Scotland to turning professional. Some of the resistance was idealistic, like Queen’s Park wanting to play for the “love of the game”, something they would do from 1867 -2019, but others were protesting over trivial things like clubs offering a gift to players on the event of a wedding as they felt bigger ones could entice better players just for that as they had bigger resources. The same clubs also wanted a ban on players moving at all, arguing that membership of a club (effectively how players were “attached” before professional contracts) should be for life! Most of these clubs wouldn’t see the century out.
St Mirren though had a big decision to make over the next few years, just as their status rose to one of the best clubs in Scotland and most respected in the UK during this season where their form was sensational. Would they embrace league football and ultimately professionalism or stick to the amateur roots of the Scottish game?
Saints were invited to play a challenge match against Kilmarnock at the International Science and Art Exhibition in Glasgow on the 5th June, hosted at the Glasgow University sport fields, renamed the ‘Exhibition Grounds’ complete with a sold out 4,000 capacity temporary stand who witnessed a 2-0 victory for the Ayrshire side.
The highlight of July as always was the St Mirren Annual Sports Event, proving as popular as ever with around 10,000 in attendance over the 2 weekends. Saints would win the football tournament after beating Kilmarnock 1-0 on the first weekend and then Abercorn 3-2 in the final, which seemed to disappoint the Paisley Daily Express who had nailed their colours firmly to the ‘Zulus’ mast, even suggesting the nationally recognised and celebrated event which was they envy of football clubs the length and breadth of Britain, had been “unsuccessful”.
The previous week in an appeal to their Abercorn heroes, the daily newspaper printed an article begging them to win the Scottish Cup as they were the town’s only hope. Additionally, they had stopped printing Saints fixtures the previous season (Even Dykebar had this luxury) and rarely mentioned anything other than the score-line of Saints games. It was often easier finding out information about Saints from the regional newspapers in Dundee or from English newspapers who seemed to appreciate the Renfrewshire champions more than the PDE!
The season started for real this month and Saints returned to the International Art & Science Exhibition for the “Glasgow Exhibition Cup”, defeating Dykebar and Albion Rovers during the month before finally being beaten by Cowlairs in the semi-final on the 30th.
Saints would go through the month unbeaten, including progression through the first two rounds of the Scottish Cup after beating Neilston and Dykebar as expected. The other fixtures in the month were perhaps more of an indication of how the season was going to go for the club however, with a strong performance at Boghead earning a credible 2-2 draw with the Sons, and at Westmarch a week later on the 15th, Ayrshire Cup winners Kilbirnie visited Paisley only to be hammered 6-1 by Saints.
In the final match of the month, a makeshift Buddies comfortably beat Hearts 2-0 in the Burgh proving the club had proper strength and depth unlike any other time in their short history. Indeed, Saints now had three teams playing on a weekly basis, which was in line with all the big clubs in the country at the time. In fact, the second XI, aka the “Strollers” were considered so good by the Referee newspaper that they were possibly better than the first team!
Another unbeaten month for Saints who really seemed to have built considerable momentum now in the season. In the Scottish Cup, Saints went to Arthurlie in round 3 on the 13th of October and won 7-0 in front of a packed 6,000 crowd. It was only a few years prior to this that the Barrhead club were the kings of Renfrewshire and considerably stronger than the Paisley side, but not anymore. The supporters of both clubs probably didn’t realise it at the time, but their futures were now going in completely different directions.
After another 2-2 draw with a member of the Scottish football elite when Renton visited Paisley on the 20th, where Andy Brown became the first ever Saints player to score 100 goals for the club, the Westmarch men travelled the short distance to the village of Kilbarchan for a Renfrewshire Cup tie in the last fixture of the month. The expectation was that the Paisley men would record a handsome victory, in fact there was talk of every player scoring during the match according to the Renfrewshire Gazette, however in front of a packed crowd at Over-Johnstone Park, the villagers caused Saints all sorts of problems and as the match approached the hour mark, only one goal separated the teams in favour of the Buddies when James Brandon crashed into Kilbarchan half back Buchanan with his fists and knees, knocking the Habbies man clean out. There was then considerable concern for the villager as he didn’t regain consciousness and a crowd of spectators surrounded him until he was finally carried into the club house and the match abandoned.
Thankfully Buchanan recovered, however on a weekly basis the newspapers were reporting deaths occurring on the football park, mostly in scratch matches, but also in big games such as this where 3,000 spectators were in attendance and some were so concerned, they broke the barriers to try and help the stricken player.
As was becoming normal, November was a month for the Scottish Cup, but unlike last season when the entire period was taken up by eventually beating Hearts at the fourth attempt, Saints had a rather easier passage this time, beating Kilbirnie 6-1 (again) in round 4 and then Queen of the South Wanderers in round 5 to set up a quarter final tie with Dumbarton at Boghead the following month.
Before the Dumfries side were knocked out, the week prior to this Saints returned to Kilbarchan for that Renfrewshire Cup tie and won 11-0. It seemed grossly unfair on the Habbies who had done so well in the hour played in the original match, but half back Buchanan played all the 90 minutes and had recovered from his alarming injury.
The reputation of Saints had never been so strong going into their quarter final match with Dumbarton on the 15th. The written press didn’t regard the Glasgow Exhibition Cup as “proper” fixtures, therefore in their opinion the Buddies were the only unbeaten team in the country at that moment after 17 matches played. Even if these exhibition games were included, only 1 defeat from 23 wasn’t exactly poor either.
In previous seasons, the press would have considered the tie a comfortable victory for Dumbarton, but not this time and the Paisley side suddenly found their status elevated to a similar one of their opponents, a position Abercorn also enjoyed after once more reaching the previous round, but there was now general acceptance that the two Paisley clubs and Third Lanark were now just as good as Dumbarton, Renton, or Queen’s Park.
At this stage in history, Rangers weren’t in the same class, with Abercorn and Morton thrashing them that season and Saints not even considering them worthy of playing. Celtic on the other hand were only months old but had also reached the quarter final of the cup at the first attempt.
A considerable support followed Saints players to Boghead for the match and they watched on frustrated as Dumbarton took a first half lead, but Andy Brown didn’t waste any time in equalising as the man with the “demon” shot rattled in a quickfire leveller to prevent any self-doubt sneaking in. Saints now had the measure of their illustrious opponents, and midway through the second half Tommy Johnstone gave the Paisley men a deserved lead to the delight of the large contingent from Renfrewshire.
With just four minutes remaining however, Dumbarton grabbed a fortunate deflected equaliser to force a replay at Paisley the following week and although it wasn’t a bad result at all, there must have been huge disappointment that the players hadn’t reached the semi-final considering they had outplayed the hosts for much of the match, however they now had a great chance at home to go one step closer to Scottish Cup glory.
Controversy was never far away in cup matches back in Victorian times however, and following another 2-2 draw in Paisley on the 22nd of December where Saints played with 10 men for the last 15 minutes following Bob Brandon being kicked off the ball in a “dangerous region” by McMillan, the Sons were 2-1 up and the home side had had two goals disallowed, but the Buddies still forced a replay after relentless pressure when Dumbarton defender Stewart headed into his net in the last minute.
The fallout from this game would last weeks, with Dumbarton protesting that Saints ‘East’ crossbar wasn’t wide enough therefore the Paisley side should be expelled, while Saints protested about the violence of the Dumbarton players and the 2 disallowed goals. The SFA dismissed both appeals, however Bob Brandon wouldn’t play again that season and there was serious discussion in the newspapers that so horrifying was the incident that the Police were going to charge Dumbarton defender Tom McMillan with serious assault, which of course was witnessed by 7,000 members of the public.
Eventually, after the second replay at Ibrox on the 29th of December, Saints would be knocked out 3-1 with the loss of Bob Brandon given as the specific reason by a sympathetic press who believed the Paisley side were the better team despite this loss. Comforting words, but the harsh reality was Saints had missed another chance to win the Scottish Cup.
On the 22nd of the month, Saints president Mr W Lang spoke at the general SFA committee meeting regarding referees, clearly still rankled by the Scottish Cup exit. On his first point of order, Lang moved to have Mr William m Imrie, the St Johnstone referee, struck off the list as the Perth man had claimed false expenses from St Mirren on the distance he had travelled to Paisley. After a vote, the members agreed and Imrie was expelled from the organisation.
Point number two was even more controversial; that he had proof the match referee for the Dumbarton cup matches, Mr T Y Brock of Queen’s Park, was a confirmed Dumbarton ‘supporter’ and the outcome had therefore been fixed. The Saints man then went as far to say if the “association doesn’t deal with this matter, the St Mirren will do so in another place”. The gloves were now well and truly off!
This was another unbeaten month for the team, which included a trip to Ireland where Saints took on Distillery and won 3-1 just before they progressed to the final of the Renfrewshire Cup after beating Morton following a replay. The club withdrew from the Paisley Charity Cup however after Abercorn were readmitted, the Abbies hadn’t played in the tournament for 4 years after refusing to reschedule the final over Saints.
The main fixture within the month is the Renfrewshire Cup Final, once more against Abercorn and again scheduled to take place at Cappielow on the 23rd of the month. The perils of scheduling a match even 20 miles from Paisley during Victorian times is fully exposed by heavy snow on the day, meaning only 2500 turned out for the match in Greenock, although according to the local press it was the neutrals that stayed away.
Disappointingly, Saints would lose 3-2 after leading for much of the match, with the winning goal slowly passing goalkeeper James Cameron effectively ushering in the end of his time in the first team. The rivalry between the clubs was of course already extremely intense, but this took a new twist after the match when the Abercorn fans invaded the official presentation of the trophy in a Greenock Hotel, bringing chaos to the proceedings as their heroes collected medals by drunkenly standing on the plush dining tables used by the RFA resulting in them collapsing!
With nothing left to play for that season, Saints continued with their schedule which involved a trip to Sunderland where they beat the hosts 2-1. Later in the month, they faced Abercorn again, but with a weakened team at Blackstoun Road were hammered 4-0, cementing the belief that the Abbies were once more the top club in the town.
Abercorn and Saints meet again in the final of the Sports Day held at Blackstoun Park on the 18th. Although it wasn’t an “official match” or on the fixture list, the usual high interest was paid to it by the supports therefore it would have been pleasing for the Westmarch side to record a 3-0 victory and win the medals.