This is the story of when Ian St. John took over as manager of Portsmouth in the mid-’70s. Originally passed over for the Leeds United job post-Revie, St. John was promised a decent budget to spend at Fratton Park. He hardly saw a penny of it. The club was in Division Two and had finished just five points above relegation in his first season. This is the second part and you can get part one here.
With no money to spend and no sign of a promised new ground, Portsmouth were three points adrift at the bottom of the table. Before the league season resumed in the New Year they had an FA Cup Third Round to negotiate.
They were drawn against First Division Birmingham City in the FA Cup Third Round. City were battling against relegation themselves so were in a similar position to Pompey.
Portsmouth managed to hold them to a draw at Fratton Park and then in the replay at St. Andrews, Saint had his finest moment as Pompey boss. The Fratton Park game saw the first goal for the club from local boy, Billy Eames. Trevor Francis equalised for the Blues.
In the replay at St. Andrews, Saint’s side pulled off a famous win as McGuinness’ first-half goal proved to be the winner.
Four days later they continued their form when Eames scored in a 1-0 win at home to Carlisle United. Three wins in their last five matches seemed to be a mini-revival. But it didn’t last and three defeats followed.
Amongst this run, though was the FA Cup Fourth Round trip to Charlton Athletic. A goal down at half-time, Norman Piper’s goal in the second half forced another replay. Over 31,000 packed into Fratton Park to see if they could reach the Fifth Round. But they were well beaten, 0-3.
St. John decided he needed more firepower up front and signed Martyn Busby on a loan deal from QPR. Busby had been out for 18 months after breaking his leg in a game against Fulham. In his second game, he scored in a win over Plymouth.
Pompey were finally off the bottom as York were on a long losing run. A week later they surprised everyone by winning again, this time 3-0 at Blackburn. Blackburn were sitting immediately above the relegation zone and despite their win, Pompey were still seven points behind them.
Time was running out.
Defeats to Chelsea and Notts County didn’t help things but then they managed back-to-back wins at Fulham then at home to Blackpool.
Just eight games to go and they were five points from safety. Next up was the crucial relegation battle with Oxford United.
Oxford were one place above, three points better off and still two points from safety. They were coming off the back of a win over Notts County and were clearly fighting hard for survival.
Try as they might Portsmouth just couldn’t break down the home defence. When Peter Foley scored, what proved to be, the only goal of the game in the second half, the visiting fans knew that was it.
Seven matches to go, four of them against sides in the top five, including the top two. This was going to be tough.
Promotion-chasing West Brom arrived at Fratton Park. Another 0-1 defeat came. Now the nightmare scenario for Pompey fans. The derby match with Southampton was next, and the Saints had the chance to virtually send Pompey, and their Saint, down.
Three days before the game Southampton had booked their place in a Wembley final for the first time in their history when they beat Crystal Palace in the FA Cup Semi-Final. Their promotion hopes were fading, having failed to win for the past six games. Post-Semi-Final celebrations were too enticing for Peter Osgood, Jim McCalliog and Jim Steele. They were promptly dropped by Lawrie McMenemy. St. John, himself, made three changes from the West Brom game but it didn’t produce the result they desperately needed. When the two met at The Dell back in September, Mick Channon scored a hat-trick. He scored again at Fratton Park in the last minute and a third successive 0-1 defeat had Pompey needing snookers.
What made matters worse for the home fans was Osgood’s replacement was Patrick Earles, who was making his first start, laid on the winner for Channon. Born in Titchfield, it wouldn’t have been lost on him how important his contribution was.
Goal difference was the only thing that could save them. They had to try and overturn an eight-goal deficit.
Oldham were up next in a must-win game at Boundary Park. The Latics had gone 11 without a win, was this the ideal time to be playing them? If it was, the Pompey players weren’t inspired and were 0-3 down at the break. This was where their season ended, as their fight for survival became a limp attempt. Kamara and Piper scored in the second half, but they imploded going down 2-5.
Relegation was confirmed. Their 14-year residency in Division Two was over.
The season got off to a disappointing start. Peter Denyer grabbed a late equaliser to draw the first leg of their League Cup First Round meeting at Crystal Palace. David Kemp scored twice for the home side and he would become an important part of Pompey’s season. More about that later.
The second leg back home wasn’t so pleasant. Future England manager (if only for one match) Peter Taylor scored the only goal and Pompey were out.
Despite losing at Wrexham on the opening day of the league season, a 2-1 win at home to Swindon didn’t suggest they’d struggle. But the following 11-game run without another win certainly did.
The only bit of business St. John had done in the transfer market was to sign striker Maitland Pollock from Luton. By November he’d only found the net once.
They managed to pick up a win when Chester travelled south to Fratton Park, but by mid-December they’d still only registered two wins from 18 matches and were third from bottom. In the relegation zone once again.
In November George Graham had finally grown tired of his teammates and was off to Crystal Palace. Coming to other way was David Kemp. The 23-year-old had started the season well with three goals in four games for Palace, but had lost his place to Steve Perrin. When he arrived at Fratton Park he found a team and a fan base desperate to accept him.
Kemp went on to become one of the fans favourite players. He was inducted into the Portsmouth Hall of Fame in 2016, and to this day the fans still sing a song in his honour to the tune of Scaffold’s Lily the Pink.
Pollock scored twice in their first away win of the season, a 4-1 victory at bottom club York City. Then just after Christmas Kemp scored his first goal in a home win over Brighton. This immediately endeared him to home fans as Brighton were top of the table at the time.
By then they’d reached the FA Cup Third Round, after beating Aldershot in a replay and then non-league Minehead. Their league form had seen them move up to 17th but now they were up against Birmingham City once again. The Blues were sitting eighth in Division On and much better prepared than they were at this stage the previous season. Howard Kendall’s goal in the first half divided the teams as Portsmouth gave a decent account of themselves, albeit in vain.
Back-to-back wins for the first time for almost a year consolidated their position in 17th. They were away wins too, at Tranmere and Chesterfield, and St. John was hopeful his side could battle their way through the season. But they were a long way off returning to Division Two as a 0-3 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday demonstrated immediately after.
As the season moved into March their position hadn’t changed, but the gap to the relegation zone was now alarming just two points. Kemp had a good month, scoring three times in five matches.
But then the goals dried up.
Goalless for three games and winless for four now saw them just a point from safety.
Rotherham arrived at Fratton Park in third, two points off top spot. Trevor Phillips and Alan Crawford had formed a potent partnership up front for the visitors. Phillips opened the scoring as the pair were on their way to hitting over 40 goals between them that season. Denyer and Kemp had the home side in front at the break. Denyer scored again in the second half, but it was two goals from Kemp to complete his hat-trick, which sent the home fans off with a spring in their step.
A 5-1 win was something no one saw coming. It was the biggest margin of victory his team had achieved during his time at Fratton Park. But the drop zone just wouldn’t go away. Once again they couldn’t build on the foundation as Tranmere arrived and paid them back for losing their home game. Ronnie Moore was among the scorers in a 3-0 Rotherham win.
Defeat at Bury now had Pompey in the drop zone with just five matches left.
Grimsby Town made the long trip down to the south coast. They were in a more perilous position than their hosts as they were rock bottom of the table.
1-1 at half-time made for a nervous second period. Nerves were shredded when Keith Viney put through his own net and Portsmouth never recovered.
The Rotherham win had been followed by two home defeats and now they were a point from safety, albeit with two games in hand.
Next up was a visit to second-placed Mansfield Town. Kevin Randall scored his 17th of the season to give the home side a comfortable win as they pushed for the title.
Fortunately for Pompey, Northampton lost too. They could only reach a maximum 35 points, two more than Portsmouth had. Plus, Northampton had just one match to left and that was against Mansfield. There was hope for the Fratton Park faithful.
The fractious relationship between manager and owner had now reached boiling point. During another excruciating exchange St. John finally snapped;
“That’s it. This is a joke. I quit”
In his book St. John admitted this was a mistake.
“The second biggest mistake since agreeing to join Portsmouth”
By resigning he was saying goodbye to any compensation. The next day he walked back into the ground to tell his boss he’d reconsidered and decided to carry on. He’d put in a lot of hard work and didn’t want it to end that way.
Unbeknown to him Deacon had already acted swiftly.
The local media outlets had already been informed he’d been suspended by the club. One of the most respected reporters, Pat Symes, later told The News in 2021;
“There was no press conference organised, we just drifted down to Fratton Park to get some reaction. It was mob-handed. The News’ Mike Neasom, cameras from Southern Television, Radio Victory, they were all there.”
Neasom had become a bit of a confidante for St. John. Through him the manager was able to get his message across on how the owner wasn’t fulfilling his side of the bargain in relation to promises made before the manager took the job.
“St. John appeared at the top of the wooden stairs which lead to his office. ‘What are you lot doing here?’, he asked.”
“One of the journalists asked him what suspended meant. He said he didn’t know what we were talking about, so we said we’d been told he’d been suspended.”
“St. John then said ‘That’s news to me’. It was clear he had no idea he was going to be removed, nobody had told him. Then he started to cry.”
“It was this farcical situation where there were at least six men, vying for position, and above us was St. John saying what are you talking about?”
“Instead of firing him, Deacon had suspended him. It was strange seeing this Glaswegian hard man reduced to tears.”
“You had to feel sorry for St. John, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he arrived at Fratton Park”
Those comments were made by Symes after the news of St. John’s death was announced in 2021. They also give an example of how few around Portsmouth blamed him for the club’s demise.
In the time Saint was rethinking his decision, Deacon had suspended him and put Jimmy Dickinson in charge. Dickinson held the record for most appearances as a player at Portsmouth (764) and had taken up roles such as public relations and secretary at the club. Presumably, Deacon thought he would be a popular appointment with the supporters.
His task was simple. Keep the club up. He had just three games to do it.
First up, Preston. They were ninth but with little more to play for, but they had Alex Bruce and Mike Elwiss in attack and they banged in 42 goals between them to that point.
Portsmouth battled bravely and came away with a 0-0 draw. News soon filtered in that Northampton had been beaten at Mansfield. The two clubs were locked together on points but Northampton’s superior goal difference was keeping them up. Two games to earn a point to stay up. But they might need more than that.
Reading were just a point behind and also had two games to go. York were Pompey’s next opponents. They were bottom of the table and all but down due to a fantastically poor goal difference.
Before then Reading were at home to Rotherham. A win would put them a point above Pompey. Good news for Portsmouth as Crawford and Phillips took their partnership to 44 goals with a 3-0 win.
Local boy, Clive Green had been a classic example of the problems St. John faced. Despite playing up front for a lot of the season, he scored just twice and nothing in the past six months. So when he put Pompey in front against York it came with huge relief for him and the supporters.
The second biggest crowd of the season filled Fratton Park to watch a game with so much at stake. The appropriately named, George Hope, levelled for the visitors and back came the nerves.
Kemp then calmed things as he put the home side in front and Green then chose the ideal opportunity to score again as Portsmouth won 3-1.
They’d won their battle against a second successive relegation.
Their final game of the season was in Wiltshire as they took on Swindon Town. The result was of no consequence for either side and it was the home side which were faster out of the blocks. Kenny Stroud, Ray McHale and Mickey French sent them in 3-0 up at the break.
The travelling Pompey fans may have feared a rout but a penalty from future Swindon player, Kamara got them back into it. Kemp then crowned his first season for the club with his 14th goal.
Kamara converted another penalty and the comeback was complete, but then Steve Aizlewood won it for Swindon. Two years later he would be a Portsmouth player.
For St. John, he was now severely disillusioned for football, especially management. He must’ve seriously doubted his judgement after failing to see through Deacon’s façade.
His wife, Betsy now voiced her concerns over whether football management was an “appropriate place for a grown man to earn his living.”
Then he received a call which changed his life. Paul Doherty, son of the great Irish player Peter, was head of sports at Granada Television. He asked Saint if he would like to appear on a Friday football show.
With nothing else occupying his time Saint agreed. It went well and he was asked back to cover the last few shows of the season. From that, they offered him a contract for the following season.
Things went so well for St. John he was selected to cover the 1978 World Cup in Argentina for ITV. From there he met John Bromley, who was head of ITV Sports. They forged a relationship which later set the seeds for the ‘Saint and Greavsie’ show which dominated sports television throughout the eighties before the Premier League changed things forever.
St. John was lucky the Portsmouth chapter didn’t last much longer. Despite having club legend Dickinson at the helm they couldn’t stave off relegation the following season. After an absence of over fifty years, Portsmouth were back in the bottom tier of the Football League.
Had he stayed in football his marriage may have suffered too as Betsy was becoming increasingly worried about the effect it was having on them both. Fortunately for them it all worked out in the end and the St. Johns enjoyed a period of popularity to rival anything ever achieved on the pitch.
To complete the story, Deacon remained as chairman until May 1988 when he sold his interest to former QPR owner, Jim Gregory. He died in 1997 aged 84.