Ian St John: Footballer who gave a new dimension to Shankly’s Liverpool

Ivan Ponting
·10-min read
St John (centre) walks out for the Reds in 1969 (PA)
St John (centre) walks out for the Reds in 1969 (PA)

What would you do if the Lord came down? Move St John to inside-left!

The earnest question was posed on a placard outside a Merseyside church in the 1960s; the mischievous response was scrawled beneath it by a fan of Liverpool FC, and it summed up the near-reverence in which Ian St John was held in the red half of his adopted city.

Such homage to one of the Kop’s most adored sons was an apt reflection of the passion with which the spikily ebullient, abundantly talented Scottish international centre-forward played the game, and his success after heading south from Motherwell entirely justified the faith of Bill Shankly in making him one of the cornerstones of the glorious 1960s Anfield renaissance.

As Liverpool’s evangelically enthusiastic manager put it, gleefully extending the biblical tone suggested by his countryman’s surname: “In the beginning, there was St John.”

Indeed, the combative, combustible spearhead, who matured later into a subtly destructive deep-lying creator, was one of Shankly’s first major signings, and arguably the spark that lit a flame destined to burn triumphantly for the next three decades and beyond.

Before the deal, when quizzed by his board about the wisdom of paying a club record £37,500 for The Saint, Shankly described him as the man the Reds couldn’t afford not to buy, the most urgently needed component of his brave new team. As the seasons rolled by, and the silverware piled up in the previously barren Anfield trophy cupboard, the visionary boss’s judgement was shown to be impeccable.

St John was sent off six times during his career, usually for retaliation, and his pugnacious outlook stood him in admirable stead as he grew up in a cramped two-room tenement in the flintily unforgiving environment of Motherwell, with his younger brother and four sisters.

Having lost his steelworker father to pneumonia when he was six, life was not easy for the family’s eldest son, or for his mother, who worked prodigiously hard, taking cleaning jobs to put food on the table.

At an early age, St John’s natural inclination to right perceived wrongs with his fists was channelled into boxing, at which he excelled but which soon he forsook in favour of his own and the national obsession: football.

Still, he did not graduate straight into the professional game on leaving school at 15, instead accepting a succession of jobs with which he had little empathy, first at a coachworks, then at a steel mill and finally with an engineering company.

Meanwhile, his game was developing at local clubs before he was spotted by top-flight Motherwell and dispatched to Douglas Water Thistle to gain experience. His credentials duly established, in 1957 St John signed on at Fir Park as a £6-a-week part-timer and was pitched straight into senior action, first as a winger but soon in his favoured centre-forward berth.

PA
PA

Short in stature but immensely muscular, he thrived at the higher level as the tough and pacy leader of a buccaneering forward line in which flankman Willie Hunter and inside-forward Pat Quinn also took the eye. Between 1957/58 and 1960/61, The Saint scored freely as Motherwell became a fixture in the top five of the Scottish First Division – one highlight was a hat-trick in two and a half minutes against Hibernian at Easter Road – and in May 1959 at Hampden Park he was rewarded by a full international breakthrough, shining without finding the net in a 3-2 victory over West Germany.

In remarkable contrast to the cosseted lifestyle enjoyed by leading footballers in the 21st century, St John continued to work as an apprentice fitter even when he was Scotland’s first-choice centre-forward, though his heart was not in engineering – on one occasion he was sacked for self-confessed skiving, though later he was reinstated.

Another scrape with potentially more serious consequences was narrowly avoided. In an era when star players were treated as cheap and disposable labour despite entertaining vast crowds and enabling clubs to swell their own coffers, there was a temptation to bend the rules to redress the balance. In this spirit, St John and some of his team-mates agreed to help fix the result of a game against Third Lanark as part of a betting coup.

However, the wrathful pre-match intervention of goalkeeper Hastie Weir and manager Bobby Ancell scuppered the plot, and Motherwell went on to win.In later years, St John – certainly a man of integrity, but who had been young and suggestible at the time – referred to the incident as a crossroads in his career, because if the plan had gone ahead and been discovered, the likelihood is that he would have been banned for life.

That would have been a terrible shame, not only for The Saint himself, but also for Liverpool, the club he joined in April 1961 and with whom he was destined to become a folk hero. At that point, the Merseyside Reds had just embarked on their stirring transformation, under Shankly’s gleefully inspirational guidance, from a slumbering mass of unfulfilled potential unable to drag themselves out of the Second Division into the dominant force in the English game.

When the new boss took over at Anfield in December 1959, the stadium was tatty, the training ground a wasteland, the team dismally mediocre and the board complacent, but now he was building a wonderful fresh side and he saw St John, whom he charmed out of signing for Newcastle United, as a key component.

From the night of the newcomer’s first outing in a red shirt – a Liverpool Senior Cup Final against Everton at Goodison Park – it was clear that he and his new employers were made for each other. He moved with a jaunty swagger, 5ft 7.5in of concentrated aggression topped by a severe crew-cut, and he scored a hat-trick. His rapport with the fans was instant and complete.

The opening matches of the 1961/62 Division Two title campaign showed that St John needed time to adjust but there was no doubting his quality. He was strong, cunning and courageous, devastating in the air for his size, and adept at delicate flicks which did much to promote a fruitful scoring partnership with Roger Hunt. The Scot notched 18 goals as the Reds went up, following that with 19 as a First Division new boy in 1962/63 and 21 in 1963/64 on the way to winning the league championship.

With Jimmy Tarbuck at Anfield in 2014Action Images
With Jimmy Tarbuck at Anfield in 2014Action Images

That season saw a turning point which meant that The Saint would never score as heavily again but would contribute even more significantly to the club’s eternal trophy quest. When schemer Jimmy Melia was injured, Shankly withdrew St John into a deep-lying role in which he revealed his full potential for the first time. Now he became the mastermind of the attack, feeding colleagues with possession and creating space for them to use it with his intelligent running. It didn’t mean that the goals dried up entirely – he continued to contribute memorable strikes, such as the jack-knife header which decided the FA Cup Final against Leeds United in 1965 – but simply that his vision, mobility and all-round skills were employed to bring a new dimension to Liverpool’s game.

Hunt continued to be prime beneficiary of his former front-running comrade’s talents, and together with wingers Ian Callaghan and Peter Thompson they formed an irresistible attacking force as a second league crown was lifted in 1965/66. That term, too, the Reds went agonisingly close to tasting European glory, only to be beaten by a freak Borussia Dortmund strike in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup.

Unfortunately, though St John had accumulated 21 full caps by the middle of the decade, his international experience proved less fulfilling. He believed fervently that with world-class performers such as Denis Law, Dave Mackay, John White and Jim Baxter at their disposal, Scotland should have attained colossal heights in the early 1960s, and he railed publicly against what he saw as a deeply flawed grace-and-favour system of picking the team by committee. His unrest culminated with a blistering outburst after a 2-2 draw with England in 1965 and, despite having reached a peak of footballing maturity, he was never selected again.

By the dawn of the 1970s, with New Liverpool’s first wave of honours behind them, St John was into his thirties and his fitness had declined but, used sparingly, he remained capable of transforming a game with his subtle touch.

But Shankly was ruthless in the necessary reshaping of his team, St John had not read the signs, and he was stunned when he found himself relegated to the status of bit-part player. The two fell out, St John’s hurt all the more raw because he had regarded the manager as something close to a surrogate father. The relationship was soured for good and in the spring of 1971 The Saint bowed out of Anfield nursing poignantly bitter feelings about a man he had long revered.

However, he was not finished, helping the Hellenic club, managed by former England inside-forward George Eastham, to win that year’s South African championship. After that came a brief stint as a player-coach with Coventry City, an enjoyable interlude which ended when he left on a point of principle following the harsh sacking of his friend and recruiter Noel Cantwell, the Sky Blues’ boss.

All that remained of his playing days was fleeting service with Cape Town City and Third Division Tranmere Rovers, working under former Liverpool comrade Ron Yeats at Prenton Park before a broken leg sustained in training ended his active contribution midway through 1972/73.

Aged 35 and an enterprising character who had proved forthright and articulate as a committee member of the Professional Footballers’ Association, St John looked to be prime management material and he was offered his chance by his hometown club, Motherwell, in July 1973.

He impressed in his first season, leading an ageing side to seventh place in the Scottish top flight, and when Shankly shocked the sporting world by resigning his Anfield post in the summer of 1974, St John was mentioned as a possible successor. However, he came closer to taking over at Leeds United following the departure of Don Revie, having been recommended by Celtic boss Jock Stein. The Saint was interviewed by the Elland Road board and thought he had got the job, only to find it had gone to Brian Clough. By the time the controversial Teessider had walked out after only 44 days, the Scot had committed himself to Second Division Portsmouth.

PA
PA

Later, claiming he had been let down over promises of massive financial resources and a new stadium, he described his decision to accept the Fratton Park offer as the biggest mistake of his life. After three terms of travail on a shoestring, encompassing relegation to the Third Division in 1975/76, he resigned in May 1977, feeling betrayed and sorely disillusioned.

In 1978 he began a year’s coaching under Jack Charlton at Sheffield Wednesday, before changing direction to become a hugely successful television presenter.

Having earned widespread praise for his fluency and insight as a pundit during World Cup tournaments, and as the frontman of a Friday night football programme for Granada Television, he was installed to replace the busy Brian Moore as host of ITV’s Saturday lunchtime preview, On the Ball.

He proved a natural, and his jokey chemistry with Jimmy Greaves, initially when the former England goal hero was a guest on that show and later in their own offshootSaint and Greavsie, made him a household name, even with viewers who didn’t follow the game closely. Essentially St John played straight-man to the more eccentric Greaves, and they proved steadily popular from the mid-1980s until Sky Television began to dominate football coverage in the early 1990s.

After that St John continued with media work, which he combined with after-dinner speaking and helping to run a nationwide football school, and although he mellowed with age, the characteristic fire which had defined the idol of the Kop still burned brightly.

Ian St John, footballer and broadcaster, born 7 June 1938, died 1 March 2021

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