Ian St. John spent a frustrating three years as manager of Portsmouth in the mid-70s. His old boss at Liverpool, Bill Shankly, convinced him he should go for it.
But for ‘Saint’ he had “the worst group of players you have ever seen in your life” and what’s more when he got the sack he heard it first from some journos asking what was going on, rather than his boss.
Saint became a legend at Anfield after Shanks signed him from Motherwell in May 1961. Liverpool paid a club record fee at the time (£37,500). Shanks described the signing, and that of Ron Yeats, as the turning point for the club, then in the Second Division.
They won the Second Division title that year and the First Division two years later (their first for 17 years). The following season their first-ever FA Cup found its way into the trophy cabinet as St. John scored the winning goal in extra time against Leeds United.
Fast forward a further nine years and Leeds United once again entered Saint’s life.
By then his career at Liverpool had come to an end as Shanks set about building another team. His coaching career then saw him at Coventry, Tranmere (with Yeats) and finally back to Motherwell.
After a season at Fir Park, he got a call from Jock Stein. Stein, then Celtic boss, was seen as a point of contact for many English clubs and when he was asked who might be best to take over the reins at Elland Road, he put Saint’s name forward.
After three successive runners-up spots, Leeds had just won their second league title in six years. Throughout this period they were managed by Don Revie. But now Revie was leaving to take up the England job after Sir Alf Ramsey got the push.
It was the biggest job in football at the time.
In his autobiography “The Man, The Myth, The True Story”, St. John revealed what Stein said;
“Don Revie is going to run the England team. A contact of mine on the Leeds board has been on. I’ve put your name forward”.
Saint had a clause in his contract at Motherwell that if an English team came in for him he would be allowed to speak to them.
He met three directors of the club and things went well. Not only would he triple his salary, he would be taking over one of the finest squads in the country. During the previous ten years, they’d finished in the top two in the league seven times and been in four FA Cup Finals.
As a player, St. John had come up against them on numerous occasions. Despite their rivalry, he had great respect for the team. He wasn’t looking to make changes to what Revie had done, far from it. His plan was to continue the work their previous boss had created, almost as a tribute to him.
When he got back home Stein called and said he’d heard things had gone well. He was expecting to get the job.
24 hours later he, and the rest of the football world, heard the shock news they’d plumped for Brian Clough.
Saint was gutted.
His mood wasn’t lifted as he watched, open-mouthed, as Clough seemed to sabotage any chance he had of success at Leeds with his open disdain of the players and the way they’d won their medals.
Clough warmed the seat for just 44 days before the board admitted they’d chosen the right man but at the wrong time. By then St. John’s head had been turned again. This time by another legendary Scot.
“How would you like to go to Portsmouth?” he asked, “You know they’re a club with a great tradition and, though they’re in the Second Division now, they have fantastic potential. Their chairman has called me and told me about his plans and the money he’s going to put behind him. I’ve put your name in the frame”
Saint and Shanks didn’t exactly part on the best of terms when the player left Liverpool. Saint felt Shanks should’ve told him he was easing him out, making changes etc. But when the player was dropped to the bench for a trip to Newcastle, he felt the manager should’ve explained the situation.
Equally, though, Saint should’ve seen what was happening at the club and that the team needed refreshing. He felt he’d adapted his game to a deeper role which would make him immune from the chop. His manager didn’t agree.
“To this day I cannot shake the belief that, at the end, Shankly let me down.”
So maybe when the legendary Scot phoned his former striker, telling him he’d recommended him for the Pompey job, it was to repair some of the damage?
Chairman of Portsmouth at the time was John Deacon, a property developer rather than Queen’s bassist. He drove up to Scotland in his Rolls-Royce to tell Saint he had a budget of £400,000 to spend on the team. The British transfer record was only £350,000 at the time so this was a decent wedge for Saint to get his hands on.
Deacon wooed St. John with plans for a new stadium on the edge of town, away from the terraced houses which surrounded Fratton Park and restricted any expansion.
Saint was sold on the job, the potential and the freedom to create something. A chance he would never have had at Elland Road.
He explained to Deacon compensation wouldn’t be required for Motherwell as he had a clause in his contract and they’d already allowed him to talk to Leeds. But Deacon still paid the club £10,000.
On the face of it, it seemed a generous offer. But as we have seen so many times with ‘money men’ in football, these payments can often hide other inadequacies.
On the way down south Deacon showed St. John where the new stadium would be built. It all seemed perfect. He accepted the job without much hesitation.
Well, as you can realise Saint never did see the new stadium and neither have any of the fans at Fratton Park, still to this day.
But at the time the new Portsmouth boss wasn’t to know.
Things started to unravel when he cast his eyes over the squad. They were a mixture of average players and well-known names, clearly past their best.
Peter Marinello was once described as the new George Best when Arsenal paid Hibs a record fee. A combination of enjoying the party life in London and a knee injury had stalled his career. Three years later he moved to the south coast.
Paul Went was a solid central defender, who’d spent his eight-year career at Leyton Orient, Charlton and Fulham. He was brought in to form a strong partnership with Malcolm Manley at Fratton Park. But Manley got injured early in his career and never played professional football again.
Saint noted Went had a strong reputation but “his instincts didn’t seem to be truly professional”.
Devon-born, Norman Piper was the club’s record signing in 1970. But once again he was “plainly past his best”. Up front they had Ray Hiron (“not good enough”) and Richie Reynolds, who owned a fish and chip shop where St. John was convinced he ate more of the product than he sold.
The goalkeeper was another headache. His knee would go after he made a dive or two so there was always a worry he’d never make it through a game.
Perhaps the hardest worker was Kenny Foggo. A winger from Perth in Scotland, he was in his 14th season as a professional having spent it at West Brom and Norwich City. Unfortunately for him and St. John, the arrival of the new manager had come just a season too late.
St. John at least had a big network of scouts and a decent budget to dip into. One of the scouts was Tony Barton, who would go on to replace Ron Saunders as Aston Villa boss and see them win the European Cup in 1982.
Barton identified one ideal target. Tony Woodcock was languishing in the Nottingham Forest reserves. He reckoned Forest would only want about £12,000 so St. John knocked on his chairman’s door to discuss it.
To his dismay, the flashy ‘look at my wad’ businessman told him;
“There’s a slight problem. My money is tied up at the moment in a business project. I’m trying to buy some land.”
St. John was incredulous.
Worse was to follow when the manager brought up the subject of the £400,000 he’d been promised when the chairman came to his house.
“I don’t think I said that, did I?”, said Deacon without a hint of embarrassment.
By this time he’d installed his wife onto the board and seeing as she was with him during the meeting, she just confirmed she didn’t hear him say it either.
St. John’s anger and fear he’d made the wrong move was suddenly ramped up to 11.
Portsmouth fans as well as others up and down the country, will be familiar with this scenario. Businessmen coming into a club waving their chequebooks around. Only for the club to discover those cheques are made of rubber.
St. John would claim in his book;
“It was the start of three years of desperate struggle, my worst days in football.”
The way St. John describes it seems almost pitiful and the stuff of fiction. But remember, even films such as Mike Bassett are based on some sort of truth.
“Portsmouth became a skid-row football club. The phone was cut off. We managed to keep my line open for incoming calls but if I wanted to make one, I had to walk over to a public telephone box. Sometimes I had to queue. Sometimes the players had to do their own laundry. An elderly woman was brought in to do the washing because the laundry company said they would only continue if we paid a bill that had been accumulating over months. The coach company withdrew their services and we had to use our own cars for match days.”
“Before games we stopped at a Happy Eater for tea and toast. We were operating as an amateur team.”
In all his three years at Fratton Park St. John managed to spend money on one player. Southampton manager, Lawrie McMenemy sold him Phil Gilchrist for £5,000. Even then Pompey had to negotiate to pay in instalments.
Throughout all this St. John was able to nurture some good young talent. They had a good youth system run by former Ipswich forward, Ray Crawford.
Alan Knight came through the youth system during St. John’s time. The goalkeeper went on to make over 680 appearances for the club, a record for a goalkeeper at one club. Other graduates were Steve Foster, who played for Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final and also for England in the 1982 World Cup. Graham Roberts won the FA Cup with Tottenham in 1981 and 1982 and also played for England. Chris Kamara also came through the system and went on to have a solid professional career.
St. John managed to coax George Graham from Manchester United. Perhaps it should be said it was more like he persuaded United boss Tommy Docherty to give him Graham in a swap with Ron Davies. Davies, capped 29 times by Wales, had been a prolific goalscorer at Southampton hitting over 130 goals. But by the time St. John arrived at Portsmouth he was another player whose best days were behind him.
He’d lost a yard or two of pace and also the spring in his step which made him a formidable opponent in the air. Docherty knew nothing of this and swallowed St. John’s assertion he was still the real deal.
Graham spent a year and a half at Fratton Park before he’d grown tired of the attitude of some of his teammates as well as the lack of ambition he saw in the club. He moved to Crystal Palace where Malcolm Allison and Terry Venables employed him in the same leadership role Saint had.
When St. John arrived they’d just beaten Nottingham Forest. Of course Forest were then managed by the man who’d taken the Leeds job St. John believed was his, Brian Clough. It was mid-September and only their second win of the season, ironically both against Forest.
They wouldn’t win again for another 12 matches, scoring in just four of them. This was the season Manchester United were in the Second Division and so St. John would obviously have been happy with the goalless draw his side held them to at Fratton Park. They were able to draw seven of the 12 games they couldn’t win so he’d done a good job of making them hard to beat.
A win finally arrived when Andy Stewart scored the only goal of the game against Sheffield Wednesday. It was the only goal he’d score for the club but came in the same game Graham made his debut. It was followed by a 1-4 drubbing up at Sunderland.
When Sunderland made the return trip they found Pompey in a determined mood. Graham scored his first goal for the club as they came from behind to win 4-2. They then won up at Hillsborough as Marinello scored his first of the season. Graham was again on target as they made it three wins in a row.
It was the beginning of February and they were 17th in the table. They managed to maintain their position through to the end of March with back-to-back wins over Bristol Rovers and Millwall.
They didn’t win any of their last five matches but still ended up in 17th, five points clear of the drop. Forest finished immediately above them.
Season over, St. John immediately set about trying to do something about the lack of money. He reached out to call in some favours back home. The man responsible for him finding out about the Pompey job, Jock Stein, was his target as he asked Celtic to come down for a friendly. The Glasgow club brought 6,000 fans with them to swell the crowd to 10,000. They were at full strength too with Dalglish, McGrain, Aitken, Lennox, Glavin and Doyle starring. The home crowd weren’t too disappointed, despite seeing their boys lose 1-6.
In his aftermatch interview, the fans and the players were left in no doubt as to Saint’s view on his new club.
“Celtic were terrific, absolutely terrific, and I’m delighted the match went that way. It may prove to some of my big time Charlie’s the level they are playing at and how much they have to learn.’
‘Before the match some of them knew nothing about Scottish football but they weren’t prepared to,listen to me. I told them Celtic would work hard, come down here to win – perhaps they have learned a lesson tonight.’
‘Too many of my players thought they were doing me a favour coming in and training for this match but Celtic had world class players out there willing to play as if it were a cup final. Look at Danny McGrain. On Saturday he played against England, he played again on Monday night yet at the death tonight he was willing to race the length of the field just to link up the play – that’s the kind of attitude you have to have.’
‘Obviously we are disappointed at the gate, you get people who will travel 500 miles and others who won’t come round the corner. But those who stayed away were the losers. This was tremendous entertainment. I didn’t expect people to come and see us I thought they would come to see Celtic. I’m sure those who did are glad they took the trouble. That was a world class performance.”
If 1974-75 was tough, the following season was even tougher. After beating Fourth Division Aldershot in the League Cup First Round they went to Orient and won 1-0. Pompey fans would cheer just one more win before Christmas. Ironically it was again against Clough’s Forest.
It came at the City Ground where Bobby McGuinness scored the only goal of the game. McGuinness played under St. John at Motherwell and had been signed in the summer.
Another new boy this season was Chris Kamara. St. John had seen him playing for the Navy and the club agreed to pay the £200 buy-out fee to put him into the youth team. Kamara made his debut in the fourth game of the season when Luton Town came to Fratton Park and went home with a 2-0 victory. Kamara’s first goal for the club came in his fourth start in a 1-4 drubbing at Bolton.
They went on a run of 19 games without a win. Their poor run the previous season had seen them draw quite a few games, this time was different. It included a run of nine straight defeats, including a smarting 0-4 defeat to Southampton at The Dell.
They were rock bottom. Even beating Forest didn’t change that and they were seven points from safety, under a format of two points for a win.
Before the Forest victory, Peter Marinello scored in a 1-3 defeat at West Brom. Five days later he was gone.
In his book, St. John tells of Marinello being a factor in him being at odds with the Deacons. Saint had become increasingly frustrated at Marinello being brilliant in training, yet in a match he’d completely ignore the tactics and do his own thing.
Finally, the manager decided to sell him. But this wasn’t as simple as he thought. Not because there was no interest in another club buying him, but the major obstacle was the owner’s wife.
“I told the Deacons that Motherwell had come in with a decent offer and I strongly recommended selling him. There were three of us in the room. Dolly Deacon chipped in saying ‘Oh no John, we can’t sell Peter – I like Peter.’
The chairman nodded”
But Portsmouth did accept an offer from Motherwell and mid-December Marinello was back up north of the border.
Their next game was against the side immediately above them, York City. At Fratton Park Pompey lost a crucial game, 0-1.
The team and the club was a mess. But St. John was not getting any flack from the Pompey faithful. They seemed to be aware of where the blame lay. Deacon.
After the York defeat, they managed to bounce back with a Boxing Day 3-1 win at Charlton. It was the first game they’d been able to score more than one goal that season. But then defeat at home to promotion-chasing Bristol City left them three points adrift at the bottom and now eight points from safety.
Maybe 1976 would be a better year for them?
We will find that out in the second part of a Saint at Portsmouth.