July 28, 2001. The leap for any lower league club to the top flight is…
On May 17, 2014 St Johnstone won the Scottish Cup for the first time in their history. An explicable mystique surrounded the final. St Johnstone had reached the final by beating Aberdeen 2-1 in a keenly fought semi-final at Ibrox. Both Saints’ goals were scored by local boy Stevie May, who coincidentally wore the squad number 17. When the second goal hit the net, he wheeled off to his left pointing at the back of his shirt, and there spookily for all to see was the date of the final – May 17.
May was St Johnstone’s talisman. He had been with the club since childhood, an age-group top scorer throughout his teenage years and then sent on loan first to Alloa Athletic and then Hamilton Accies, where he was top scorer with both. Ordinarily, this would be enough to canonise a player as a ‘cult,’ but May’s status has been usurped by his strike partner Steven MacLean, whose winning goal in the final against Dundee United, was not only historic, it was followed by celebrations that are now burnt into the memories of all St Johnstone fans.
This is how it unfolded: MacLean was bearing down on the United keeper Cierzniak, when a through ball from May rebounded back into open play from the legs of the diving keeper, and MacLean, already grounded, had a dexterous mix of good fortune and fast instinct to stab the ball into the net. The St Johnstone end – packed with 17,000 fans – erupted and McLean took-off on a personal odyssey that proved to be the ultimate winning celebration.
He stripped off his cup-final shirt and, pursued by May, ran bareback along the massed ranks of adoring fans. Then to his right he saw a flag bearing the words ‘Peebles Saints’; and so he ran onwards to the edges of the support and lunged himself into a posse of young lads, among them a small crew of exiled Perth fans now living in MacLean’s native Peebles. He knew them well. They often drove home together to the borders from St Johnstone matches and MacLean has since joked that he needed treatment for the fumes of alcohol he could smell on their breath.
After his celebratory run, which lasted no more than a few minutes, MacLean was predictably booked. All the ingredients of the true cult were there – an historic moment, a flagrant celebration, a breach of the rules of the game, a communion with the fans, and an emotional bond that only hard-core St Johnstone fans fully understood.
“MacLean has since joked that he needed treatment for the fumes of alcohol he could smell on their breath.”
The term ‘cult’ is over-used in football and often crumbles under the weight of analysis. A cult hero is not necessarily a successful player nor even a gifted one, but they must have a streak of individuality, a love of the unorthodox, and even a rule-breaking spirit that sets them apart. Even more evasive than that, they must have a special communion with fans, a bond that MacLean’s cup-winning goal so powerfully exemplifies.
St Johnstone has a long history of cult players, mostly unknown to opposing fans. Long before the term was in widespread use there was Sandy McLaren and Willie Imrie, two Scottish internationalists who in 1929 became the first and only two Saints players to appear together for Scotland. Imrie scored the goal that’s secured a creditable draw in Scotland’s first encounter with Germany in Berlin in 1929. Their status was elevated by a dogged localness, Imrie from Methil and McLaren from Perth.
They were men who were hewn in the old ways of Scottish football in the era before neon boots and cosy snoods. Then there was William ‘Buck’ McCarry, the unpolished hard-man of arguably St Johnstone’s greatest team in the early 1970s. His unique skill was bundling opposition goalkeepers into the back of the net in the days before ecology kicked in and goalies became a protected species.
Another major contender for cult status would be Roddy Grant nicknamed simply ‘The Legend’. In an article in the fanzine ‘When Saturday Comes’, Saints fan and cult observer Gary Panton once described him Grant as a “cripplingly slow, nicotine-addicted striker, who bagged 79 goals in two spells with the club and was rewarded with a testimonial in 2000.” The testimonial was against Gordon Strachan’s’ Coventry City. Roddy came back to haunt St Johnstone several times including a hat-trick for Partick Thistle and an unwelcome brace for Brechin City that knocked Saints out of the Challenge Cup.
“There was William ‘Buck’ McCarry, the unpolished hard-man of arguably St Johnstone’s greatest team in the early 1970s. His unique skill was bundling opposition goalkeepers into the back of the net in the days before ecology kicked in and goalies became a protected species. “
But none of that mattered. He had already won hearts. His exploits were legend. He was fined by manager Sandy Clark for bunking training to travel to Wembley to support Scotland and he danced a post-punk pogo on the tables of the now derelict 208 Bar after St Johnstone defeated Airdrie in a crucial championship match. Roddy settled in Perth and was rewarded with an honorary directorship at St Johnstone and well into his adulthood was recently diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, a restless condition he displayed in many memorable moments.
But it will always be MacLean for me. Not only for that historic cup final goal, but for so many seemingly irrelevant bits of detail that are fascinating to small club fans. For instance, he wears a reinforcing knee plaster in the club’s colours to protect an old injury and he once appeared on BBC Alba promoting a bowling club in the Borders.
His relationship with his dad is the stuff of electric and unfathomable love. His dad follows Saints home and away and generously shares both his time and his thoughts with other fans. One of his much circulated moans is that Steven is a good player but not ruthless enough in the six-yard box. There is little doubt about his talent. The football analyst Steven Thompson – once MacLean’s’ team-mate at Cardiff – has described him as “the best link-up player in Scottish football,” and therein lies his father’s moan. MacLean relishes the way his son brings others into play and acknowledges he is the master of the counter-attacking game but he also says that he deliberates to find space, rather than being selfish about scoring.
So in a way that reflects respect and love, rather than sit quietly with his opinions, his father berates him for not scoring enough. It clearly irritates MacLean who retaliates every time he does score, running towards his dad’s seat in the Mainstand at McDiarmid Park to mouth obscenities at his old man. At a famous away-game this season against Hibs at Easter Road, MacLean reprised his cup-final celebration. St Johnstone were desperate. They had failed to score in nearly 620 goalless minutes and were being mocked viciously.
“His dad follows Saints home and away and generously shares both his time and his thoughts with other fans. One of his much circulated moans is that Steven is a good player but not ruthless enough in the six-yard box.”
Murray Davidson scored with a header to in part relieve troubled nerves but in the dying minutes Anthony Stokes equalised from the penalty spot. The balance of the game had swung powerfully in Hibernian’s favour and the most likely outcome was a last gasp home win and more grumbling self-reflection. Suddenly, against the run of play, and with the referee poised to blow for full time, the ball once again broke off the keeper and MacLean stabbed it home to secure a precious away win.
Relieved to have scored and emotionally charged by stealing the points at the death, MacLean went on a near identical run. He stripped to the waist, waved his top triumphantly above his head, and then vaulted into a pandemonium of away fans. It was as the cynics say – delicious.
I have since spoken to a sour-faced Hibernian fan who tried desperately to claim that MacLean risked lives by nearly provoking a riot. I have listened to the Presbyterian sermons of a Motherwell fan I work with, who has since claimed it was ridiculous, an act which MacLean knew would earn him a booking. What a miserable reaction to such a greatly emotional scene. We are talking cult-heroes here, not choirboys, school prefects or dullard footballers.
Ask any St Johnstone fan – young and old – and you will struggle to find anyone who holds such po-faced views. We will never forget MacLean’s two impudent celebrations. They echo each other across our recent history, and for those magnificent runs alone he is a cult hero now and forever.