“Look up into the sky right now. Higher. No, higher still. Do you see that? Way up there. Way up, above the clouds. That’s rock bottom. And we are currently way down here.”
That was the running joke from John Oliver on ‘Last Week Tonight’ during last year’s US elections but it could so easily have been used to describe much of St Mirren’s season.
Rock bottom was probably reached in November when Morton finally ended their 17-year wait for a Renfrewshire derby victory. From was in January when Queen of the South cruised to a 3-0 win in Paisley followed by Buddies boss Jack Ross wading into the crowd to have a chat with some irate fans.
That defeat, with little more than a third of the season to go, left the Paisley side rooted to the bottom of the table. With just two league wins all season they were seven points behind Ayr United and 11 points behind Dumbarton. A first ever relegation to Scottish football’s third tier looked inevitable.
And yet, in little more than three months, Saints not only hauled themselves off the bottom but all the way up to the heady heights of seventh place to ensure there will be Championship football in Paisley next season. The turnaround has been remarkable.
When Ross arrived from Alloa to replace Alex Rae in mid-October he inherited a squad that could kindly be described as unbalanced. There was no natural left-back, a plethora of strikers, few fit centre midfielders and a complete lack of confidence. Despite the excellent cup form, Ross and his new charges were still looking for a first league win when December came around and had just four points to their name.
If he was managing in the English Championship, Ross could well have been out of a job before the first league victory arrived against Queen of the South at Palmerston – and he’d certainly have been long gone before managing a third win at Ayr in mid-February. However, the board and many fans seemed willing to cut him some slack until January arrived and he could bring in his own players.
It was the sort of rebuilding job that would have the gang from ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ think twice. Ten players were signed and just as many left, although two – Jason Naismith and Kyle McAllister – were sold rather than binned. Few tears were shed over the rest, but there was some confusion that some players managed to find deals at teams higher up the league. In the end, only Ryan Hardie would prove a success elsewhere.
As Morton found out a few years ago, changing your squad mid-season won’t guarantee improvement. Ross had to take gambles. Signing Stelios Demetriou paid off spectacularly. Pal Fjelde and Craig Storie barely played but were the exceptions, with all the other signings all playing some part. Even Josh Todd, who didn’t get much game time, scored what could have been a priceless equaliser in the late defeat to Dundee United.
While there were no real failures, two arrivals proved particularly crucial. Rory Loy, no longer wanted by Dundee, scored seven goals – including the crucial equaliser against Hibs that was enough to keep the Buddies up. The return of Stephen McGinn was even more vital and was down to his relationship with former team-mate Ross. Like Stephen Dobbie at Queen of the South, he’d be operating at a higher level were it not for an emotional attachment to his old club. Not only did McGinn add much needed grit and steel to the team, his presence gave Stevie Mallan, Lewis Morgan and Kyle Magennis more freedom to go out and express themselves.
It took a few games for Ross’ new look side to click into gear. The crucial moment was half-time in the Irn-Bru Cup semi-final with Welsh side TNS leading. McGinn, by now promoted to captain, looked ready to go postal on his team-mates when he left the field at the break. Ross’ team-talk must have been better than Al Pacino in ‘Any Given Sunday’ because his side looked transformed after the break and romped to a 4-1 victory, McGinn leading by example with a stunning equaliser.
The following week confirmed the fightback was on. Saints headed to Ayr knowing a defeat would leave them 11 points adrift and as good as down. Instead, a huge travelling support roared their team to a 2-0 victory. The feelgood factor could have been ruined by the farce of Ayr beating a Raith Rovers side without a goalkeeper a few days later, however the following night the Buddies blew away future champions Hibs on an evening that also marked the birth of cult hero and double scorer Stelios.
There was a brief blip – a gruelling Scottish Cup defeat at Parkhead, where Saints opened the scoring, being followed by a disappointing defeat to Raith Rovers and a goalless draw with Dunfermline. But just as it looked as if the hard work might be undone, back-to-back wins over Dundee United and Queen of the South kept the dream alive ahead of the Irn-Bru Cup final defeat to the Arabs.
Any Saints fans wondering how that loss would affect things need not have worried. Seven days later they thrashed relegation rivals Ayr 6-2, scoring four goals in the first half, to close the gap at the bottom to a point. A draw a week later against Dumbarton ended six months at the bottom and a 4-1 revenge thumping of Morton at Cappielow lifted Saints out of the relegation places entirely. Forget scraping into the play-offs, now outright survival looked possible.
However, there was still a tough final four fixtures to be negotiated. A game at Falkirk yielded a point and it looked as if a trip to Tannadice would produce the same only for the hopes to be dashed by a last minute goal. That dropped Saints back to ninth behind Raith Rovers, who suffered a similarly agonising defeat in their game in hand at Hibs.
That set up a penultimate weekend clash between the two teams in Paisley and, as with the game against Ayr at the start of the month, St Mirren simply demolished their relegation rivals as they romped to a 5-0 win with Mallan scoring a spectacular hat-trick. The win ensured they couldn’t finish bottom and, having been 19 points adrift of their Fife rivals at one stage, they went into the final weekend two points clear and knowing a point would be enough to secure survival.
Just one problem. Saints were at champions Hibs, while Raith hosted as good as relegated Ayr. It was set up for a day of drama and it didn’t disappoint. The momentum swung to and fro, and at one point the Buddies dropped back to ninth as they fell behind before Loy’s equaliser after an hour pushed them to within touching distance of survival. After a nervy final half hour of the season, Alan Muir’s whistle confirmed that the great escape had been completed.
The ecstatic scenes that followed at Easter Road and in Paisley later in the evening were not to celebrate avoiding relegation or finishing seventh in the Championship. They were to mark the completion of an incredible escape act that not even the most optimistic of supporters could have foreseen in January. Other teams collapsing, society ganging up on Raith Rovers and title winning form were all needed to have any hope of escaping the drop and that’s exactly what has been produced, Ross picking up the last two manager of the month awards.
Yes, he has made mistakes and it has to be acknowledged he was in charge for several winless games, even if it wasn’t with his squad. However, there was no guarantee the squad turnaround would work and the success he made along with that along with the improvement in the team’s fortunes deserve huge praise. So too does the way he has transformed the relationship between the players and supporters, arguably the highest it has been in years. That day he climbed into the crowd seems a long time ago now.
Ross is already setting his sights high for next season and is talking of a promotion push. Given the form over the last few months there is no reason why that can’t be done with a few key additions. The main problem will be keeping the current squad together. Loan players will be returning to their parent clubs, although the likes of keeper Billy O’Brien is keen to stay. Others will attract attention from elsewhere. At the time of writing Mallan is almost certainly away to Barnsley and it would be a surprise if there’s no interest in Morgan or Magennis, who have played more must-win games this season than they’ll do in the rest of their careers. There’s even concerns from some fans that Ross could be the subject of admiring glances elsewhere. It’s a long time since supporters were worried their manager would be off to bigger and better things.
For the last few months there has been a sense of optimism in Paisley around Saints, despite the club’s precarious position. For the first time in years fans have looked forward to going to games, some even joking that they wouldn’t mind if the play-offs beckoned because it would mean the season lasted longer. The supporters backed the cause superbly which may go some way to dispensing with the reputation they have for booing at the slightest mistake.
After sleepwalking their way through the last few seasons since winning the League Cup, it finally seems St Mirren can dream of greater things than reaching rock bottom.
Written by Stuart Gillespie