The footballer and television personality Ian St John, who has died aged 82 after suffering from cancer, was a pivotal figure in the restoration of Liverpool football club as a leading force in the mid-1960s, both scoring and making goals in a partnership with Roger Hunt that brought three major honours to Anfield. “Saint” made a total of 425 appearances in the red shirt, scoring 118 goals, including the one in 1965 that brought the FA Cup to Anfield for the first time in Liverpool’s 73-year-old history.
Eloquent and passionate, St John was a blunt, combative, highly intelligent character, brave sometimes to the point of idiocy, combustible enough the following year to flatten Fulham’s Mark Pearson with a single punch after the latter had pulled his hair at Craven Cottage. St John then took himself off to the dressing-room without bothering to wait for the referee to pass sentence. “I had a quick temper,” he once acknowledged. “Which was a bad thing. The fact that I wasn’t afraid of anybody was a good thing.”
St John went on to be one of the first ex-players successfully to make the crossover from playing to broadcasting, joining ATV as a co-commentator and presenter in 1979. Six years later he established another celebrated partnership, this time on TV, with Jimmy Greaves, in Saint and Greavsie. In the sparse football coverage of that era, this Saturday lunchtime pairing of two genial, authoritative former strikers was compulsory watching.
Ian’s boyhood in his native Motherwell was one of hardship. His steelworker father, Alex, died at the age of 36 and his mother, Helen, raised him and his five siblings on a widow’s pension supplemented by cleaning work. Ian was soon delivering milk and bread on a horsedrawn cart for the Co-op to supplement the family income.
In early adolescence, the pugnacity that enabled him to thrive in a tough environment brought him success as a boxer. However, his mother’s horror at the sight of her 14-year-old son after one particularly vicious battering, combined with an already prodigious ability at football (fostered, inevitably, on the streets of his home town), persuaded him to switch his sporting ambitions.
He left school at 15 to work in a factory and then a steel mill, where he was a self-confessed skiver “mostly reading novels in one of my hideaways”. This was soon combined with a burgeoning playing career at the local club, Motherwell, where by the age of 18 he was an established member of the first team.
In 1961, Liverpool under Bill Shankly splashed out £37,500 – more than double their previous spending record – to bring him south of the border. At the time, Liverpool’s glory years were becoming a nostalgic memory: League champions in 1947, Division Two since 1954. Shankly always claimed that it was St John’s arrival that was the catalyst for Liverpool’s renaissance as a football force.
His first season ended with the Second Division title, with St John providing 18 goals in 40 appearances. At 5ft 8in, he was short for a centre-forward but with a gymnast’s spring and the ability to head with accuracy if not power. More than that, his expert positioning and precise passing created space and opportunity for the more prolific Hunt. Two seasons later, in 1964, came the first League title of the Shankly era.
Significantly, St John spent a lot of the subsequent season injured and Liverpool managed only a seventh place finish in the League, though he contributed five goals in their first ever European Cup campaign, which ended in a 4-3 defeat by Inter Milan in the semi-finals. That season, too, brought Liverpool’s first FA Cup.
The final against Leeds United went into extra time and at 1-1 with nine minutes left, St John produced the diving header that made him an Anfield immortal. He was, though, clearly more than a goalscorer; his passing and movement created space and opportunity for Hunt, who hit 30 the following season as Liverpool regained the League title.
Inevitably, Shankly’s mid-60s glory side grew old, St John among them. In the summer of 1967, Tony Hateley arrived to take over the No 9 shirt and St John moved back to become more of a playmaker in the continental style. Two seasons later came the most painful moment of his career. He was dropped for a league game at Newcastle, but the first he knew of it came only when Jackie Milburn, Geordie superstar turned sportswriter, told him that his name was not on the team sheet just handed out by a club official.
According to Norman Giller, his biographer: “He and Shanks were like father and son until the day Bill dropped him without telling him to his face. Saint never forgave him. He was an intelligent, proud Scot, and carried all the complexes and emotions that seem to come with that territory.”
St John left Liverpool for Coventry City in 1971 and two years later, with Motherwell, embarked on a career in management – to his lasting regret, the least successful period of his working life. But as a pioneering player-turned-broadcaster he was something else again.
“Most footballers who try their hand at television struggle to cope with talkback from directors,” said John Helm, with whom St John often worked as co-commentator, “but because the Saint had such an acute brain, as symbolised by the way he played the game, he was able to adapt to this demanding art of the profession very quickly.”
St John approached his television work as he had approached his football, conscientiously and with authority and focus. Comfortable with the big occasion and a natural on autocue, he carried the Saint and Greavsie double act, Ernie Wise to Greavsie’s Eric Morecambe, supplying the straight, factual information while the naturally witty Greaves bounced out the punchlines.
Away from the studio, the roles were reversed. St John was the convivial one who revelled in the celebrity golf circuit while Greaves lived the quiet life.
Their show ended in 1992 when ITV lost the rights to the Premier League to Sky Sports, though in subsequent years St John’s trenchant, tell-it-like-it-is comments could be heard on radio, an astringent counter-melody to the hype that now surrounds the game.
He is survived by his wife, Betsy, and their daughter, Elaine, and son, Ian.
• Ian St John, footballer and broadcaster, born 7 June 1938; died 1 March 2021