Stephen McPhee enjoyed a varied career, a successful one even. The Scottish forward, who strangely…
Things were looking rather bleak for St Mirren. It was the first week of the new year 2017, but all hopes of a fresh start had been blown away by a dismal 3-0 home defeat to Queen of the South. The result left the Buddies seven points adrift at the foot of the Scottish Championship, with the appointment of Jack Ross failing to provide a much-needed new manager bounce. Just weeks into his tenure, Ross did something at full time that suggested the situation was becoming overwhelming.
Amid all the frustration and fury, Ross clambered in to the stands to speak to a cluster of particularly angry Buddies. St Mirren chief executive Tony Fitzpatrick remembers his reaction upon seeing his manager confront supporters after the most damaging defeat to date in what was becoming a nightmare season. “I panicked,” admits Fitzpatrick. “I remember watching that game, getting beat 3-0 at home by Queen of the South…” he trails off, puffing his cheeks out. “I then got told that Jack was in with the crowd. I ran down the stairs, fearing the worst, but when I spotted him I saw that he was speaking brilliantly.”
As Fitzpatrick recalls, that was a turning point. “The next week, there were queues of fans for tickets. And Jack went and spoke to them.” It wasn’t just the supporters that Ross seemed to convince by taking a more direct approach, but the club’s board as well. After that defeat to Queen of the South, Ross was given the freedom to reshape his squad – 10 players went out and 10 players came in.
Now, St Mirren find themselves on the brink of a return to the top flight. They might have suffered a heavy defeat to Livingston at the weekend, but Ross has taken the Paisley side to the top of the Championship, 11 points clear of their nearest challengers. Barring a catastrophic collapse in the second half of the campaign, St Mirren will be a Scottish Premiership club again for the start of next season. The turnaround has been remarkable.
“People bring that up and think it was an argument. It wasn’t. I think everybody that was around me that day knows I spoke calmly and constructively to the supporter in question. After that I think supporters understood they had a manager who was prepared to put himself in the firing line” – Ross.
“Because I’m right in the middle of it, I don’t look back and think about how far we have come in a short period of time,” says Ross. “I probably don’t appreciate what a big turnaround it has been because I’m living it every single day. We’ve still got a bit of work to do, but the momentum we have at the moment is powerful. It’s about harnessing that.”
Ross’ arrival in October 2016 and the impact that has had on results is the purest manifestation of that momentum, but the watershed moment in St Mirren’s recent history came some four months before the hiring of the 41-year-old. It came in the change of ownership of the club in the summer of 2016, when Gordon Scott and the St Mirren fans completed a takeover following a failed effort by another fans group in the years previous.
Whether this counts as fan-ownership at present is down to personal interpretation. Scott is a St Mirren fan, but will be majority shareholder for a further nine years before passing full ownership to the St Mirren Independent Supporters Association (SMISA). This is a similar sort of model to the one used by Anne Budge and the Foundation of Hearts and was hailed at the time of the takeover as “a new dawn” for the Paisley club. So it has proved in the time since.
Things could have turned out very differently, though. With former chairman Stewart Gilmour looking to sell up, the vultures circled. There were consortiums from Argentina, Spain and one from England fronted by former Liverpool midfielder David Thompson and involving an advisor, Thavar Mohammed, who was jailed for six months in 2011 for fake business dealings. St Mirren very easily could have fallen into the wrong hands.
“I’ve met the Argentinean guys since and they’re fantastic people,” says Fitzpatrick, casting his mind back to the tug-of-war for control of the club. “I think they would have been good for St Mirren. But this club is the heart of the community and I think it’s important that the community that owns it.”
There’s a genuine community pride around the club. While many Scottish clubs are now detached from their public, as a mark of a wider trend in the modern sport, St Mirren have made an effort to be different. From the fan ownership model to the nature of their manager, the Buddies are taking their role as a community club seriously. “I grew up watching Junior football so I’m used to having a connection with players,” says Ross. “I know it’s not possible to say to everybody ‘come to Ralston whenever you want,’ but I’m quite relaxed with that sort of approach. Maybe that’s not natural at this level, but I grew up in a different footballing environment.”
“Leicester winning the Premier League was once in a lifetime. Well, see what happened to us? That was once in a lifetime. It was a miracle that we got out of that last year. You never want to go through that sort of thing, but it was probably necessary to become the team that we’re going to become” – Fitzpatrick.
This community responsibility extends to St Mirren’s approach to youth development. There are few clubs in Scotland who can boast such an impressive record in bringing through young players. From Kenny McLean to John McGinn, Stevie Mallan to Lewis Morgan, there are countless examples of St Mirren youth graduates who have gone on to bigger and better things. And by all accounts, there will be more examples in the years to come. Keep an eye on the likes of Ben Cameron, Ethan Erhahon, Kyle Magennis, Jack Baird and Cameron MacPherson.
“You have to be brave enough to give an opportunity to some you’re not sure about,” says Ross, elaborating on his approach to introducing fresh talent. “We want to get into a position where we don’t have to sell our players as part of the business plan,” adds Fitzpatrick. His use of the term “business plan” should be noted.
St Mirren is a club that depends on its conveyer belt of young talent. They have generated close to £1 million through the sale of three young players (Mallan, Morgan and Kyle McAllister) over the past year, validating the faith in their youth academy. This is contrast to the decision by a fellow Championship club this season, with Falkirk choosing to ditch their youth academy and instead focus on recruiting players who have been let go by bigger clubs.
Not so long ago, Falkirk followed a similar model to St Mirren. They too boasted a highly productive youth academy, with the business model of the entire club tied into that youth academy. But when the conveyer belt stopped rolling, the Bairns found themselves at a juncture. The decision they made irked many in Scottish football, including Fitzpatrick.
“It baffles me a little bit,” says the Buddies chief exec. “There was a time when we were tempted [to scrap the academy] because we were going down to oblivion. It was very similar to Falkirk’s situation. Relegation would have meant part-time football for us and that was frightening. When it gets to that, the first thing clubs tend to do is cut the youth. That’s the easiest thing to do because it can be expensive. To me, that’s short-term thinking. As far as we’re concerned, the youth academy will be the last thing to go.”
“We would have had to look at going part time. That’s how serious this was, I’m not over exaggerating. It would have been really catastrophic for this football club. Members of staff would have lost their jobs. That would have been a reality” – Fitzpatrick.
Of course, it’s not just young players who are given a platform at St Mirren. In a country which is lacking in green shoots of life poking through the managerial landscape, Ross has been widely identified as the vanguard of Scottish football coaching. Last summer, he had the opportunity to fast track his own personal development, with Dundee offering him the chance to go from the third tier, with Alloa, to the Premiership in the space of little over six months. The contract, it is believed, was drawn up, with an official approach made for the St Mirren boss. Many assumed the deal was as good as done.
Ross, however, decided to stay in Paisley, signing a new contract with the club until the summer of 2020. Just last week, the 41-year-old was presented with another chance to jump ship, with Barnsley making an approach. And just as before, Ross elected to remain where he is. Speculation is the sign of success, with the Scottish football collective unanimously lining up Ross as the natural replacement for Derek McInnes whenever he chooses to leave Aberdeen. There may be nothing in those specific suggestions, but they are a mark of how highly Ross is rated, even at this early stage of his career.
“It feels like there’s still an awful lot of work to do here before I can think ‘yeah, I’ve pushed this as far as I can push it.’ It’s a really good fit. There is a really sound platform for this club to progress” – Ross.
“The only single ambition that I can be clear about is that I would love to manage my country,” he replies when asked whether he wants to reach a certain level by a certain stage in his coaching career. “I wanted to play for my country when I was a kid. That was my biggest ambition right the way through my playing career. I got a B cap. In a sense it feels like I failed in my playing career. So now I’m in management, the ultimate goal is not to say I want to manage at a specific level or in a specific league, I want to manage my country.”
Fitzpatrick reinforces how Ross has transformed the club, verging on hyperbole with comments comparing the tenure of the former defender to that of Sir Alex Ferguson. “He’s hot property,” he admits. “When Jack takes us into the Premiership and into the top six, maybe even the top four which I think is achievable, then there’s going to be massive interest in him. Then he’s got a decision to make.”
For now, though, Ross embodies the energy and drive of a club heading back to the top flight. In the long term, St Mirren have big ambitions, with their return to the Premiership only one part of a wider vision. There are plans to further develop the Paisley 2021 Stadium, with the club hoping to fill in the corner corners that currently sit open. The idea is to turn the ground into a true community hub, with coffee shops and maybe even a club museum.
St Mirren find themselves in an enviable position. They own their own training ground, have a fairly new stadium and a youth academy which continues to provide the first team with talent season after season. “We want to provide these young players with the chance to play in the Premiership, to challenge Celtic, Rangers, Aberdeen for titles,” says Fitzpatrick. “People will say to me that I’m a dreamer. Yeah, I am a dreamer.” Considering where St Mirren found themselves a year ago, and where they find themselves now, one reckons there are now more than a few dreamers around the club.