Appointed: July 1916 from Johnstone FC
Departed: April 1928 to Sunderland
No of matches managed: 460
– 1919 Victory Cup Winner
– 1922 Barcelona Cup winner
– 1926 Scottish Cup Winner
– 8 top half of the league finishes
– 5 top six finishes in the top league
– Longest serving manager in clubs’ history
– Signed the entire 1926 Cup winning side
John Cochrane is one of only two men to appear in this book who never played for the club (the other being fellow manager John McCartney) and his twelve year spell as manager is the longest in the history of St Mirren, but arguably also the most successful of anyone before or after.
Back in 1916 when Cochrane was hired to be manager of Saints, the concept of appointing ex-players to the position as happens now was an alien one as most part time clubs wanted someone who was a secretary first and then picked the team second, therefore skills we would expect today in a manager such as coaching, tactical ability and good recruitment weren’t necessarily the first attributes looked for by a hiring club who really wanted an accomplished administrator with a bit of authority thrown in for good measure.
That is probably how the post was sold to Cochrane, but in 1937 when looking back at his time as Saints manager he admitted to being “manager, gateman and groundsman” as well as doing his main job which he bluntly described as “trying to raise good footballers in order to sell them and thus keep the wolf from the club’s door”.
Despite having no real background in the game other than being secretary of Johnstone FC, Cochrane was given the job as club manager in July 1916 after Hugh Law had resigned, becoming the fourth manager in Saints history and the third who had been secretary elsewhere immediately beforehand.
Cochrane was born in Paisley in 1877, and lived in the affluent Carriagehill Drive in the south of the town, with his father Hugh who was a factory owner employing almost one hundred people, and mother Jessie. John was the second youngest of five children, and his two Aunts’ also lived in the large property with his parents. It is unlikely Cochrane experienced the widespread poverty prevalent in Paisley during his upbringing, and his education allowed him to become a draughtsman. However, it was football that was the real passion of Cochrane and he got involved with Johnstone FC, laying the foundation for his move to Saints.
In truth, Cochrane inherited a club going in the wrong direction at Saints, with two bottom position finishes in the previous five campaigns resulting in only a league vote saving St Mirren from a first ever relegation on both occasions.
Not helping Cochrane was WWI taking place as he took over management of the side, with several players deployed in the army including first choice goalkeeper and star player Willie O’Hagan, the prolific John Clark as well as the talented inside forward James Brannick who sadly wouldn’t return from the frontline. It is difficult to comprehend today what it would be like managing a dressing room or any workplace where young men would announce with no notice they would be leaving immediately to fight in a war and then weeks or months later you receive a telegram informing of their death.
That is the reality of what Cochrane juggled in his first few years at the club and even during a period where the expectation was that death should be shrugged off; Cochrane had to maintain morale in a dressing room where young men were coping with the passing of not only teammates but also brothers, uncles and friends as the slaughter in Europe continued unabated for four dreadful years.
The goalkeeping issue with O’Hagan away in Greece fighting was made plain to Cochrane in his first match in charge when Saints were trounced 5-1 at home to Celtic on the opening day of the 1916/17 season, but this was to prove no more than a blip as Saints finished seventh out of twenty top flight clubs in Cochrane’s maiden season, a position that would have better had Saints won any of their last seven matches.
Cochrane would guide his team to 11th and 10th in the next couple of seasons as the conflict in Europe finally ended, and with the Scottish Cup postponed during the war years the 1919 Victory Cup presented the senior clubs in Scotland their first chance of grabbing a national cup trophy since the 1914 Scottish Cup final.
This would see the competition start and finish between the 1st of March and 26th April 1919 as all five rounds were scheduled during this period, and helped by the return of Willie O’Hagan from the war effort, Saints progressed through the first round at the second attempt, a 1-0 win at Boghead courtesy of a Frank Hodges goal, a player still officially ‘guesting’ from Birmingham City as he hadn’t yet been demobilised and was stationed in Scotland.
Clyde were then defeated 3-2 at Love Street 10 days later thanks to winger Jamie Thomson and a double from John Clark; the centre forward returning to Saints only a few days beforehand after being top scorer in the 1914/15 season and guesting for clubs in Ireland as he was stationed here during the uprising. These were the first of eight Clark would score in as many matches in the remainder of the season, and was a player hugely missed by the club.
Clark and O’Hagan played massive parts in the cup run, but the star of the tournament was Jamie Thomson, signed by Cochrane from Manchester United in 1918 and would spend almost the entirety of Cochrane’s Saints career beside him, and the winger was the deciding factor in both the quarter final win over Celtic and the semi-final one over Hibernian, before Saints thrashed Hearts 3-0 in the final to land what in every sense is a major honour, but the official record books say otherwise.
With the influential Jock Marshall sold to Middlesbrough soon after, Cochrane then had to be content with twelfth place from twenty two clubs the following season, but with Love Street being revamped this one of many sales to fund this project that hit the playing squad hard and 1920/21 saw Saints finish bottom of the pile again in the first division and only spared relegation for a third time in ten years by a league vote.
The board acted however to this catastrophe, and late in that season the Saints manager bought Dunky Walker from second bottom Dumbarton for a club record fee of £1,100 in what would prove one of the finest signings in Saints history (see the Dunky Walker section). The goals of Walker were the catalyst for nine straight seasons of Saints finishing in the top half of the table, with seven of them coming under Cochrane.
Recruitment seemed to be where Cochrane excelled as manager of Saints. When Walker was sold to Nottingham Forest in 1923, Cochrane signed Davie McCrae from obscurity to replace him, who went on to score 251 goals for Saints. With Willie O’Hagan falling out with the club in 1921, Cochrane replaced him with the forgotten but supremely talented Jock Bradford, a masterstroke in the same mould as Jock Stein taking the veteran keeper Ronnie Simpson to Celtic some forty years later.
Alan Gebbie, Andrew Findlay, Willie McDonald, Bobby Rankin and Jimmy Howieson would also all sign for Saints under Cochrane, who despite being an administrator had a quite uncanny eye for a footballer, in particular a goal scorer but the key to his success was longevity both from himself in the management position and within the team, where a number of players stayed at the club for close to a decade forming tremendous fighting spirit within the dressing room.
This was typified during the 1925/26 season when Cochrane led Saints to their first official major honour when the Scottish Cup was won, defeating Rangers in the semi-final and Celtic in the final. In addition to this Saints had beaten Airdrie in the quarter final, which may seem like no great achievement now, but the Diamonds had been league runners up for three successive seasons in the lead up to this season and again would finish up in second place in May 1926. They were without doubt one of the finest teams of the time, and Cochrane had negotiated past the best three sides in the country on route to glory.
Non-league Mid Annan, Arbroath (after a replay) and Partick Thistle had also been defeated on progress to this historic moment, and during a period where Cochrane’s ability to spot great attacking players is well documented, the team only conceded one goal in their seven Scottish Cups tie that season. Tactically, Cochrane had the ability many ‘proper football’ men could only dream of.
The foundation for the cup win was laid in the years leading up to this by Cochrane, with the team finishing sixth for three consecutive seasons and leading the division until Christmas 1925 that season, but ultimately settling for fourth place. The eleven players starting in the cup final were all signed by the manager and they peaked this memorable season, probably the greatest individual campaign in the history of the club.
The club had such a strong reputation back then that legendary Welsh international Billy Meredith, who was considered the first superstar of football, invited Saints to play Wales in his benefit match at Anfield in late 1925, an incredible honour for the club and proof that the more recent inclination of almost everyone in the media ignoring clubs in Scotland outside a select few is not how it was done in the previous one hundred years.
Saints were chosen for this match due to their outstanding form that season, but also as their 1922 Barcelona Cup triumph at the Les Cortes had enhanced the reputation of the club significantly, with the Spanish tour finely planned and executed by Cochrane who realised the benefit of spreading the name of the club beyond Scotland. Only the late 1970’s and 1980’s come close to this level of on-field success, and this was started by another football pioneer, Alex Ferguson.
Saints would finish tenth and fifth in the next two seasons, but perhaps believing his great side had peaked, Cochrane left Saints on the 5th May 1928 for Sunderland where he stabilised the almost perennially relegation threatened Wearsiders before winning the league in 1935/36, and adding the FA Cup and Charity Shield in 1937. He remains a legend in Sunderland, and like Saints is considered their greatest ever manager.
After eleven years in charge, Cochrane stepped down from his Sunderland post on the 31st March 1939 and but for a brief 13 day spell at Reading a few months later retired from football as World War II broke out, but John Cochrane had bridged the gap between both wars by becoming a history maker in both Scotland and England, securing immortality at two clubs in the process.