With seven wins, eight defeats and 26 points to their name, St Johnstone currently find…
Tommy Wright cuts quite an intimidating figure. I’m sure he’s lovely company in person, but on the sidelines of McDiarmid Park the Northern Irish coach can be found patrolling the Perth stadium with a cynical and downright haunting pose.
With both hands tucked into his trouser pockets, shoulders hunched over and a glare across the field that would make even the boldest of players take note, Wright has the demeanour of a previous era. He may not be of the class of Alex Ferguson, Walter Smith or Jock Stein, but he’s definitely made of the same stuff.
However, for the best part of five years the former Newcastle goalkeeper has brought unprecedented success to St Johnstone. Pushing past more illustrious teams with larger budgets, Wright has planted the flag of St Johnstone firmly amongst Scotland’s biggest clubs and in 2014 he made history with a Scottish Cup trophy.
Yet what goes up must inevitably come down and although St Johnstone fans will never tire of his ‘pragmatic’ style of football, 2018 may very well see these glory days under the Northern Irishman come to an end.
Although there’s nothing to suggest that Wright couldn’t quite happily see out his days doing his utmost to keep St Johnstone in the Scottish Premiership’s top six for the foreseeable future, even the most ardent Saints fan would reluctantly admit that if there was a glass ceiling on what he could accomplish in Perth, then he’s almost certainly already banging on it.
If there is genuine frustration behind Wright’s cold stare then it came to the fore just before the year’s end, when he expressed notable anger at the club’s decision to deny him and his squad a warmer winter break abroad. “If I’m not given any money to do that then I can’t do it, which is disappointing, because I know the benefits of it,” noted the St Johnstone coach to the Press Association. “The club have to look after the purse strings, but I think the benefits would have outweighed by far the costs.”
Wright was undoubtedly blowing off some steam, but in what may have been a slightly exaggerated moan some truths unquestionably wrung true: his coaching ability has consistently outweighed the capacity of the club and although the club chairman, Steve Brown, may have every hope of matching his manager’s ambitions, they both know it’s almost certainly impossible.
As such, rumours are rife with Wright’s imminent exit. In fact, they’re not only common, but a cynic would suggest they’re gathering speed. In the past 12 months alone we’ve seen the 54-year old proposed as an ideal candidate for a number of positions.
Last February, Wright was among the frontrunners for Mark Warburton’s former job at Rangers, if the bookmakers were to be believed. A few months later, when Derek McInnes opened discussions with Sunderland over a potential move, the St Johnstone coach was swiftly run to the top of the list of potential replacements for the Aberdeen boss.
In October, when the Scottish FA sacked Gordon Strachan, Wright laughed and suggested “my agent must be doing well” when he found himself once again among the favourites for that job. A month later he was proposed as an outside bet for the Dundee United post.
Yet the most notable and perhaps most likely link so far has been that of Michael O’Neill’s job as Northern Irish national team manager. O’Neill, an Edinburgh resident and the apple in Stewart Regan’s eye, will most likely leave for Scotland or a job in England in the coming months. Once that first domino falls it’ll surely lead to a chain of events that should find Wright posed with the question of whether he’d to return across the Irish Sea to take up the call of his country.
Of course, none of these things could end up happening. McInnes could remain at Aberdeen for another three years, Rangers may look elsewhere when they tire of Graeme Murty and O’Neill may never leave his comfortable perch in Belfast. Yet that only leaves the entire English Football League to contend with.
Although players from Scotland have struggled in England in recent years, few things in the modern game assure a mid-table Championship side of an unlikely, plucky promotion run like an unknown coach from north of the border.
Indeed, England’s arrogance may have got the better of its appetite for Scottish players, yet coaches like Wright are always a cheaper, pragmatic option. And unfortunately due to the harsh realities of modern football economics they almost always get their man.
Football is an industry built on results. That means talent flows upwards and money, but mostly, shit flows down. It happens at Liverpool, Celtic and it’ll inevitably happen at St Johnstone too. Wright has worked wonders at McDiarmid Park and 2018 may well prove the year that someone decides to offer him a wider scope, bigger budgets and a fresh challenge.