Celtic Invincibles in Perth, Matt Corr’s St Johnstone memories…
On Sunday, 5 February 2017, Celtic travelled to Perth for a second clash in 11 days with St Johnstone, the midweek Parkhead game having been deferred due to the League Cup final in November. In 50-plus years of following Celtic, Saints had featured in more than a few memorable matches.
I first recall a glorious sunny day in August 1969, when over 60,000 crammed into the old ground to see the League Championship flag unfurled for the fourth successive year, before the clubs fought out a 2-2 draw. Such an attendance was unusual in itself, as other than Rangers or European ties, only a couple of games against Aberdeen over the next few years would draw similar crowds to Celtic Park, where 25-30,000 was the order of the day. To watch Stein’s teams. How times change.
This was the era of St Johnstone’s greatest side, under Willie Ormond. They would lose out to an early Bertie Auld goal a matter of weeks later in the Scottish League Cup final, their first appearance in a major final at Hampden. Their League form would peak with a third-place finish behind champions Celtic and Aberdeen in 1971, Saints then returning to Glasgow that September to inflict a rare home defeat on Celtic, thanks to a John Connolly goal.
Both Connolly and his successor, Jim Pearson, would later secure big-money moves to Everton, with Pearson’s post-playing career including a lengthy spell as Nike’s Head of Football, as they established a foothold in the UK. The Perth side would enjoy their finest European hour in 1971/72, knocking out Germans SV Hamburg and Hungary’s Vasas Budapest, before succumbing to Zeljeznicar Sarajevo in what was then Yugoslavia, now Bosnia & Herzogovina. St Johnstone’s fortunes would take a dip after Ormond succeeded Tommy Docherty as Scotland boss in 1973, and it would be the best part of 30 years before continental football returned to Perth.
Saints would taste only the occasional victory over Celtic in Glasgow in the years to follow. I suspect by far the most enjoyable match for myself and most long-suffering Bhoys from those horrible nineties – the decade from Hell – was the day we “stopped the 10,” in May 1998, Wim and Murdo’s side of Larsson and Brattbakk, Lambert and Burley, Rieper and Stubbs and baby-faced assassins, McNamara and Donnelly, providing some brief respite in an otherwise trophy-barren era.
But their supporters would be celebrating in that same Celtic Park arena 16 years later, when the Perth side, under current manager Tommy Wright, won its first major piece of silverware, beating Dundee United 2-0 to lift the 2014 Scottish Cup. Wright’s underdogs had disposed of Celtic’s conquerors, Aberdeen, in the semi-final at Ibrox, before defeating Tayside rivals, United – now managed by that same Jackie McNamara and featuring a trio of soon-to-be Celts, Gary Mackay-Steven, Stuart Armstrong and Nadir Ciftci in their starting line-up – to finally lift the famous old trophy at Parkhead.
Interesting team St Johnstone. They possibly share with Rangers the distinction of having more Tory voters than Labour one in their support, but unlike the other ones, their supporters are usually quite pleasant, if a little sparse on occasion!
Both Bobby Murdoch and Jock Stein are on record as saying that St Johnstone were the team, next to Rangers, who gave Celtic the most bother in the 1960s and 1970s. My memories include two mid week games at Muirton Park – one a 6-1 display of devastating football in 1968 when we were chasing the League and needed to score goals. And the other was the following year when we came back from 0-2 down to win 3-2. There are a few less happy memories as well!