Sunday, April 17, 2011

Opinion: St Johnstone FC - a club at a crossroads

As the final whistle blew at Hampden Park yesterday, St Johnstone exited a domestic cup competition at the semi-final stage for the fourth time in four years and for me, it is only right that we give the club the credit they deserve – this is a fine achievement from a side that has spent the majority of the last decade playing in the second tier of Scottish Football.

Two of those semi final losses came in the 2006-07 season under the stewardship of Owen Coyle. At the time the club was pushing hard for SPL football, playing some very nice stuff, and knocking SPL clubs out of the League and Scottish Cups left right and centre. In fact, the semi final defeats that year were also desperately unlucky as the Saints lost in extra time to Hibs in the League Cup and narrowly to Gordon Strachan’s Celtic in the Scottish Cup. 

The last two have come under the stewardship of Coyle’s successor in Perth – Derek McInnes. Of course, the current Saints boss did the one thing that Coyle couldn’t do – get the club promoted and back in the top flight for the first time in seven years. In their first season back in the SPL they were a breath of fresh air, playing open, attacking football and dishing out spankings to Hibs (5-1) and Rangers (4-1) at McDiarmid Park – also losing to the Champions at Hampden in the League Cup semi final.

Last season the Perth side had the fourth best goal scoring record in the league (57 goals) - outscoring third placed Dundee United. However, they also had the worst defensive record in the league (conceding 61) – even worse than that of relegated Falkirk. They finished eighth and a comfortable 16 points clear of the bottom side.

In some ways, 2010-11 seems a mirror image of 2009-10 with Saints currently sitting in eighth place, 15 clear of the bottom spot and having reached a domestic cup semi final.

In one way, things have even improved – defensively the team have been solid conceding only 39 goals to date.

In other ways, however, there are some real signs of concern. Well, specifically, one main concern: the fact that they’ve only scored 18 league goals in 37 games making the Perth men the league’s least prolific team – even worse than bottom side Hamilton.

An eighth place finish two years in a row would be an excellent achievement for the club – Fact

Another domestic cup semi final is fantastic for players and fans alike – Fact

So why the concern?

For me, St Johnstone are now, at a crossroads. Come the summer, veteran defender Michael Duberry will have left the club and with him, will take much of St Johnstone’s defensive security. Club Captain Jody Morris will be one year older and even less effective and up front St Johnstone will be faced with the cold hard factsthat Sam Parkin (despite being injured for long spells of the season) will be the club’s top scorer with 5 goals. The reason this is a problem is that St Johnstone operate with the lowest budget in the SPL – lower than that of any of the teams below them and Inverness Caledonian Thistle above them – and because of that will not likely be able to bring in the sort of quality necessary to allow the team to either kick on or, for me, maintain the same level of performance as they have this season and last.

The impending sale of star man Murray Davidson (it will happen, he’s simply had too good a couple of seasons not to be picked up by some of the English Championship clubs that have had him watched) will also leave a void in the team which McInnes will find difficult to replace.

If you factor in the likelihood that THREE teams will be relegated from the top flight next year, ahead of the SPL re-vamp, I really fear that Division One football once again soon be the reality for the Perth men.

I’ve spoken to a lot of Saints fans who are actually more comfortable with the realities of Division One – the competitive nature of the league, the fact that there’s always something to play for, that cup runs hold a bit more romance if you draw a “big team” and so on. For these guys, going to games would be exciting instead of, as one fan put it, “turning up and just hoping you don’t get spanked….but having to turn up out of a sense of duty instead of a burning desire to go along”.

Coincidentally, I’ve also spoken to a lot of St Mirren fans who have said the same thing. And to a lot of Hamilton fans who also concur. You can see their point and having experienced Division One this season, it is extremely good fun, very competitive and exceptionally exciting.

However, something these three clubs (along with many others across Scotland) also share is the fact that attendances are gradually dropping – regardless of the league they are in or the competitiveness of the football that is being played on their parks.

Sticking with St Johnstone - McDiarmid Park is on average only between 23 and 25% full on matchdays and has been for the last 4 seasons…including those fighting at the top of Division One.

Competitive football and “something to play for” is not the problem for St Johnstone though. They have unfortunately been punched in face and in the back of the head at the same time by two major factors – the incredible change in football as a business over the last 20 years and demographics.

Entry to McDiarmid Park for 1989 the top of Division One tie between Saints and Airdrie (relived via this blog earlier in the year) cost £3.50 to get into for an adult and was a sell out. In real terms, that ticket would cost £6.50 to go to today. In reality, it will cost you at least £20 to get in to see St Johnstone. Keeping fans when the price of entry has gone up five-fold (while the average wage has not increased at a similar rate….unless you are a professional footballer of course) is hard enough. When you factor in the demographic changes to the St Johnstone fan base, the low turn out is understandable.

This is a fairly crude generalisation and based on pure observation in a lot of ways but St Johnstone; as with many clubs I have visited this season, seem to have three types of fan:

  • Those of 60 and up who live locally and have watched their side week in and week out for years and will continue to do so until their health says otherwise.
  • Those of under 15 who live locally and go along in packs or with an adult – not because they want to necessarily see St Johnstone but because they like football and don’t live near Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge to go and see their real heroes – evidence enough by the fact that many of these kids will wear a Chelsea or United top into the ground  
  • Those between 16 and 40 who live locally and used to be the lifeblood of the club and in the majority, but now make up a small minority of supporter.

The changing nature of the Fair City over the last 10-20 years has meant that Perth is now less a place for people to live and work and more a place for people to either….work and commute to or mostly, live in and commute from meaning that those in the 16-40 category living locally will most likely already have a team. Those who maybe do support the club but don’t live locally are faced with increasing costs of getting to the stadium either via train or car and when they do arrive, are faced with a £20 entry fee. Hypothetically speaking, a father taking his two kids from Edinburgh to Perth for a home game could be looking at anything between £80 – 100 for the day. The reality is that it’s just not going to happen.

So what of the club? Chairman Geoff Brown has said on many an occasion that relegation and a sustained period in the First Division would result in a return to part-time football for the Perth men. A return to part-time football, of course, would result in a drop in competitiveness and potentially dropping further down the league structure.

The Armageddon situation, I suppose, would be that St Johnstone ends up with less than 1000 people each week watching the team playing part-time football inside a ghostly 10,000 seater stadium. It wouldn’t be unrealistic to rule these numbers out. There has already been around a 50% drop in numbers attending Saints games since the mid 1990s.

Two eighth-placed SPL finishes and domestic cup semi finals in two seasons – surely it’s an over-reaction to think might all go horribly wrong for the Perth Saints?

You could see it that way, I guess. Or you could just ask Airdrie. St Johnstone’s rivals that sunny day in 1989 at a packed out McDiarmid Park….

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