In what would be the final season before the Scottish League started, Saints arguably reached their peak as an amateur side. Despite losing outstanding full back Tom Brandon to Blackburn Rovers for free at the start of the season as the professional English sides took advantage of Scottish football’s amateur status, the Westmarch side had an outstanding side boosted by the promotion of the third McBain brother, William, to the first team. By the end of the season, three of Saints players had full Scotland caps and it could have been more had another two not left for England midway through the campaign.
The story of the season centred around the incredible form of Saints left wing combination of outside left Jimmy Hill and inside left James Dunlop. As covered before, these two grew up in Greenhill Road together and were best friends off the park, moving through the ranks at the club from the third team right into the first.
The youngsters had an almost telepathic like understanding, delighting the crowd wherever they played and gaining many admirers in the press. In the first 13 matches of the season as Saints reached the Quarter Finals of the Scottish Cup, Hill had scored at least 8 times and Dunlop 7 as they terrorised defences on a weekly basis. In this Quarter Final match at Hampden against the mighty Queen’s Park, the youngsters were so good the extraordinary 15,000 crowd were cheering them on by the end of the match.
Although Saints lost 1-0, yet again to the eventual winners, this match spelled the end of potentially the clubs greatest ever team which very well could have won the league had it stayed together. They had dominated the Spiders for almost the entire match playing a fabulous style which had caught the eye of everyone watching. However, to keep in the spirit of controversial exits from the cup during this period, it transpired that that referee hadn’t played the entire 90 minutes and allowed a delayed kick off to prevent the home side playing with 10 men, but Saints lost the appeal and they had probably learned to accept by now that the rules didn’t apply to certain clubs.
Within a few weeks of this defeat however, 17-year-old Hill had been lured south by Burnley where he turned professional, and within a few days, inside forward Tom Johnstone signed for Middlesbrough. Multiple clubs also attempted to take Dunlop south, but he refused. Around a month after this, young Alex McBain quit football at the age of just 19 after getting married. The core of Saints great side had been decimated and the team struggled for the rest of the season despite William McBain scoring at a rate of a goal a game.
The team had impressed significantly enough however that the Scotland selection committee remembered when the spring came around. Andy Brown, Dunlop and Richard Hunter were all capped in March as the club finally got the international recognition it deserved. Dunlop was still only a teenager and probably would have been joined by Hill had he stayed around, but the SFA were still “blacklisting” any player that turned professional.
Saints did win one trophy during the season, the Paisley Charity Cup after a 5-4 win over Abercorn at Underwood Park with Dunlop scoring a last-minute solo winner which provoked even the Abbies fans to applaud the genius of the St Mirren no 10. With the league starting in August however, Saints still didn’t have a settled team though following the loss of several players during the season and had used 42 players throughout the season. The big hope was they could last the summer without further “desertions” to England.
The Athletic newspaper reports that Tom Brandon is on the verge of signing for Sunderland, one of ten top class Scots players they intend to bring to the North of England for free as they raid Saints, Renton, Celtic and Rangers.
The Grand Stand at Westmarch catches fire from a spark of a passing train and is partially destroyed. The damage is estimated at £50, however the St Mirren Annual Sports day is now unlikely to go ahead. One solution is the team use Blackstoun Park as Abercorn have moved out due to the rent being increased. The Abbies have moved 100 yards up the road to Underwood Park.
After a special meeting a week later, the club agree to build a new two storey pavilion with dressing rooms, baths, committee rooms, a players lounge, and veranda with seating for 150 people. Cost will be £350 and a building application has been lodged with the town council.
On the 15th July, Blackburn Rovers sign Saints outstanding full back Tom Brandon. Despite gaining 7 county caps and a full cap in an “unofficial” Scotland match in his two years at Paisley, Saints lose the defender for nothing as the player and club are amateur. Brandon would win the League Championship at Rovers and gain 1 official cap. He had played 73 matches for Saints, scoring once. Within a month of his move the English press state Brandon is “the best back in the country”.
Saints held their Sports Competition at Westmarch and despite the fire damaged stand, attract a record 11,000 spectators which raises £290 in receipts, funding the new Pavilion! The football tournament was downgraded to 5-aside and won by the Saints selection.
James and Robert Brandon follow their brother Tom out of Paisley to new clubs, with the former returning to Port Glasgow Athletic and Bob joining Clyde, although it appeared he was still not fit enough to play following his serious injury from the previous December. To counteract this, Andy and Eddie McBain’s older brother William is promoted to the first team. The third McBain is a very useful centre forward, meaning the three ‘Old Smithhills’ born siblings were now at Westmarch.
Saints kick off the season with a comfortable win at Ibrox followed by a 13-0 victory over Battlefield where Andy Brown grabbed 6 goals.
Permission is granted from the council to build a new pavilion at Westmarch, however the long running feud with Abercorn starts again as the Abbies arranged a fixture with Preston North End directly against Saints home match at the end of the previous month, despite both clubs signing a document agreeing not to compete for paying customers. Long term it wasn’t an argument the now Underwood Road based club would win.
On the 21st, Saints and Abercorn are stated by the Glasgow Evening Post as two clubs looking to form a competitive league in Scotland, with the possibility of going professional, although at this stage there still seemed overwhelming resistance to the latter going by the August SFA general meeting. The other clubs mentioned as joining the Paisley duo in at least forming a competitive league were at this stage Dumbarton, Renton, Cowlairs, Celtic, Third Lanark, Partick Thistle and Vale of Leven.
On the 5th of the month, Saints made their first ever trip to Underwood Park, the new home of Abercorn, based in Underwood Road about 100 yards from St James Church which still stands today. In front of over 6,000 spectators the visitors made a blistering start, taking a 3-0 lead thanks to Brown, Hill and Dunlop. Despite a late comeback from the Abbies, Saints held on a for a fine 3-2 win, their first at the home of their rivals since 1885.
Saints were also making good progress in the Scottish Cup, with victories over Kilbarchan and Pollokshaws taking them to the fourth round, where they were drawn against New Cumnock side Lanemark in the last 16, to be played the following month.
The month started with a thumping win over Renton at Westmarch by a score of 5-2, further strengthening the belief that Saints had now completely closed any remaining gap with the early elite of the game. The left side of Saints attack, featuring young Greenhill Road born friends Jimmy Hill and James Dunlop, was now becoming a real weapon and both players were called up for the Renfrewshire County match with Edinburgh.
Scottish Cup progression was also straightforward following an 8-2 victory over Lanemark with Dunlop netting a hat-trick. The press firmly believed the Scottish Cup could be won by Saints this season, but luck deserted the Paisley side in the draw once again as they were paired with Queen’s Park at Hampden in the Quarter Final, as Abercorn got Cowdenbeath.
On the last day of the month, backed by a huge support from Paisley, Saints therefore made the trip to Hampden Park (this was the second Hampden Park and became Cathkin Park, home of Third Lanark when the current Hampden opened in 1903) to take on Queen’s Park in a huge Scottish Cup match. Again, the press considered the victors of this tie to be favourites to win the cup outright, as with the two occasions Saints faced Renton at the same stage that decade. On both occasions they were right of course as the Dunbartonshire side did go onto lift the cup after beating Saint, and lightning would strike for a third time, as after a 1-0 loss to the Spiders, the Hampden side would go onto lift the trophy for the 9th time.
The crowd was an incredible 15,000 strong and the biggest in Scotland that season, larger than even the Cup Final, and only once in Scotland had a club match had more people attending it. In fact, it was the 4th highest club match attendance ever recorded in the world at that point! The match itself was a close one as the score suggests, but Saints had by far the better of it, and the performances of Dunlop and Hill once more had the press lavishing praise upon them. So good in fact was their interplay, the entire crowd was applauding their work on multiple occasions and the Scottish Referee commented that their play as “revolutionary”. Full Scotland caps should follow according to a smitten national media.
It emerged in the days after the cup match that Saints had lodged a protest regarding the result; firstly, on the basis the game started late and finished when it was dark, and secondly that each half-finished early by a combined time of almost 3 minutes. The club found an unlikely ally in the shape of the Glasgow media who believed the club were correct on both accounts, especially as Queen’s Park had delayed kick off to avoid starting with 10 men, however the appeal was lost 9 votes to 6 and the Saints wait for the Scottish Cup continued.
The undoubted quality of Saints players however was now universally accepted, and just as the Scottish League was upon the country with Saints one of the best teams without any argument, the English clubs looked to further pick apart the Paisley side just as it was destined for greatness.
On the 19th December it was reported that Jimmy Hill had left the club to sign professional terms with Burnley. Although it wasn’t true at this exact time, Hill would make that move early the following month. Despite being only 17 years of age, he had scored at least 24 times for the club in 35 matches, with his goal scoring total likely to be greater, however record keeping wasn’t great at the time. This was an excellent return for a winger or occasional inside forward, and although Hill would be banned from playing for Scotland after turning professional, he would go on to have a long career in the English top-flight lasting over a decade.
Two days after this shock, Mr N J Ross of Preston North End was in town, hoping to secure the services of James Dunlop on a wage of £4 per week and signing of fee of £30. The young Saints forward rejected the move and multiple others over the next 18 months, stating the immortal line “I will live and die a Saint”.
Additionally, the superb inside forward Tom Johnstone signed for Middlesbrough on the 22nd of December, with the promise of a lucrative job in the Northeast English town. The skilful forward had played over 225 times for Saints, scoring at least 34 goals. These three “transfers” broke within the space of 3 days, so it was probably no surprise that the team lost 4-1 at home to Third Lanark on the 27th, the match where the new pavilion was officially opened.
With two of Saints forward line away to England and no recompense forthcoming due to their amateur status, the club had selection issues ahead of the rest of the season. Both Hill and Johnstone had come through the ranks at Westmarch, appearing for the 3rd and then 2nd sides before making the break into the first team. Andy Brown, all three McBain brothers, James Dunlop and Richard Hunter also took the same route and the Buddies had already stated they “believed in the junior ranks” which had won much admiration within the press. This approach to running the club however would stick for the next one and a half centuries.
Saints first fixture in the final decade of the 19th century was against Kilbirnie and Saints stuck to their principles by promoting James Morrison and Thomson to the first team as well as recall trusted old warhorse John Paterson to act as an auxiliary forward. Morrison repaid the committee’s faith by grabbing a double during the 6-2 win.
The following week the team travelled to Glasgow for their first ever fixture against Celtic with further absentees, meaning two more youngsters were promoted for debuts and they played well despite the 1-0 defeat. Rangers would inflict a then rare defeat against Saints at Westmarch the week after, with another youngster called Jones grabbing the only goal during a 3-1 loss, but after looking so strong only a month ago, the team was now in a period of transition as the committee searched for replacements from within the club structure, resulting in a humiliating 6-1 thrashing against Abercorn in the semi-final of the Renfrewshire Cup.
The team was idle until the 15th February when Saints biggest issue in its first decade returned; player unavailability. With an already weakened team due to what the press labelled “desertion to England”, four regulars were also out for the visit of Partick Thistle who comfortably dispatched the patchwork Saints side 4-1 which was even further hindered by playing with 10 men for the first half. This made it 8 defeats out of the last 10 matches and to put that into context the team had lost only 12 matches in the 27 months from the start of the 1887/88 season until the defeat at Hampden Park in November 1889 against Queen’s Park, which triggered the demand for Saints players from English clubs.
A few days later, talk re-emerged in the national and UK press about a Scottish League with Saints again mentioned as a founding member. Renton were now accepted as the driving force behind this move and included both Paisley clubs. On the same day it emerged Richard Hunter, Andy Brown and James Dunlop were in the Scotland squad for the forthcoming trial matches ahead of the internationals scheduled for the spring.
In the last game of the month the team finally found some form, thrashing Kilbirnie 7-2 in Ayrshire with William McBain scoring four times.
On the 1st of the month, young James Dunlop increased his chances of being capped for Scotland when he scored in a 3-2 win for his “Light Blues” side against the “Stripes” during the international trial matches. Andy Brown and Richard Hunter played in the other game which finished 3-3 between the “Whites” and “Blues”. Later in that week, Dunlop and Brown would be selected for the final trial match.
On the same day as these trial matches on the 1st, Andy McBain should have been playing for a Paisley select team along with his brother Eddie, Cameron, McFarlane and Morrison, but sensationally quit football that morning with immediate effect. The fine centre half had been married a fortnight before and was rumoured to have made the decision with this in mind given the “danger” of the game at that time. The man known as “Sandy” had played 101 times for the club and gained 3 county caps as well as winning the Renfrewshire Cup and was the younger of the McBain brothers at the club being only 19 years of age.
The following Saturday, Dunlop and Brown played for the “Improbable” Scotland side against the “Probable” one, with a 6-6 draw probably telling the selection committee both sides could score but not defend, however the Saints duo made their mark with Brown scoring twice and Dunlop recording the goal of the match with a blistering long-range strike. The final decision on the squad would be made imminently. At the same time, William McBain scored all of Saints goals as they beat Port Glasgow 6-1.
On the 16th March the SFA announced that Dunlop and Brown would become the first ever international players of St Mirren when they were selected for the match against Wales. Also, for the first time ever, a Scotland game would be held outside Glasgow or Edinburgh, when Underwood Park in the town was selected as the venue. The duo didn’t have long to wait as the match was the forthcoming Saturday. Richard Hunter was selected for the Ireland game in Belfast the next week, finally giving the club some richly deserved international recognition.
Holton’s Hotel in Glasgow was the venue for one of the most significant meetings in the history of Scottish football on the 20th, when the first ever Scottish League Committee was formed from 7 of the 12 clubs present, who had agreed to start a league competition beginning as soon as the autumn of 1890. Mr Archibald Towns of St Mirren was in attendance and appointed to the committee along with representatives of Dumbarton, Renton, Celtic, Third Lanark, Rangers and Cowlairs. The other 5 clubs were Abercorn, Hearts, St Bernard’s, Cambuslang, and Vale of Leven. The status of the competition at this point would be amateur, unlike the professional English set up, and gave clubs little protection from keen representatives down south willing to take the cream of talent in Scotland for free.
History was made again two days later on the 22nd at the home of Abercorn, when Andy Brown and James Dunlop started for Scotland in the 5-1 win over Wales in front of 7,500 spectators. Both men had fine matches; with Brown having a goal disallowed at the start of the second half while Dunlop set up the final two goals with his customary defence splitting passing, in what was a marvellous day for the town and St Mirren as their status as a top club in the country was ratified.
Saints highly anticipated match with Abercorn at Westmarch on the 29th of the month was tragically abandoned at half time after a spectator, Samuel Murray, who resided in Collier St, Johnstone, collapsed in the main stand, and after being carried onto the pitch by fellow St Mirren supporters so he could receive medical treatment, sadly passed away from suspected heart disease. Mr Murray was a corporal in the Johnstone Rifle Volunteers and left behind a widow. Both clubs agreed the match should not continue and they would play a benefit match to raise money for his wife, which they did do in late May.
As this tragedy was unfolding in Paisley, Richard Hunter became the third Saints player capped that week when he played in the 3-1 win over Ireland in Belfast.
With Saints committee still tinkering with the starting XI to try and find the right replacements for Johnstone, Hill and Andy McBain, a familiar surname returned to the first team, that of the clan Brandon. The club hadn’t resigned one of the brothers however, this was their cousin Harry Brandon, also from Kilbirnie and a 19-year-old half back or wing back who had come through the club ranks. Perhaps to help his cousin settle, James Brandon agreed to “guest” for a few games until the end of the season from Port Glasgow.
Towards the end of the month, Saints faced Abercorn again in the Paisley Charity Cup final which was played at Underwood Park on the 26th of April with the Westmarch side very much the underdogs. In an enthralling match, the Buddies had been pegged back from 4-2 up to 4-4 late in the game and approaching full time and a potential replay, James Dunlop went on a run and after beating several Abbies defenders unleashed a shot from distance high into the net to seal a sensational win. The goal was so good, even the Abercorn supporters applauded.
Dunlop had now scored two winning goals in derby matches, one of which won a trophy, and made his Scotland debut in the space of only six months at the new Underwood Park. The youngster lived yards from the ground in his Greenhill Road home, in fact he could probably kick a ball from his front door to the playing field, how young James must have loved passing this place every day on his way to work at Paisley Cross in his bank.
It was officially announced mid-month that the first ever Scottish League season would start in August 1890 with eleven clubs entering. After playing each other home and away, where 2 points would be awarded for a win and 1 for a draw, the winner would be the team with most points at the end of the 20 matches.
The competing teams would be as follows; Abercorn, Cambuslang, Celtic, Cowlairs, Dumbarton, Hearts Rangers, Renton, St Mirren, Third Lanark & Vale of Leven. As predicted by the press, the league criteria would be “amateur clubs” only, undoubtedly in the hope of tempting Queen’s Park, but the Spiders had refused on the grounds it would inevitably lead to professionalism and the extinction of most small clubs. Eight of the eleven formative clubs would indeed cease to exist, the majority within the first ten years of the league starting.