Last weekend’s Scottish Cup Quarter-Finals saw Aberdeen secure their place as losing semi-finalists to Celtic, while Hibernian will face a tasty-looking Edinburgh derby thanks to Hearts’ shock victory over Rangers. The Gorgie Boys have been rooted to the bottom of the Scottish Premiership for most of the season, but Oliver Bozanic’s goal extinguished Steven Gerrard’s hopes of bringing a first major domestic trophy to Ibrox since 2011.
It’s all a far cry from the days of yonder, when the blue half of Glasgow rarely had to wait more than a season without lifting a cup or two. For teams in Scotland’s lower leagues, a cup draw against the mighty Rangers was met with a rush of excitement and a sigh of resignation, so predictable was the forthcoming result.
This week’s guest takes us back to the afternoon an unlikely cup shock almost came to pass. Alan McCredie is a freelance photographer and has seen his work published in four books, including This is Scotland: A Country in Words and Pictures, a collaboration with football writer Daniel Gray. Alongside spending his time documenting life north of the border, Alan is also a lifelong fan of St. Johnstone, and was among the home support at Muirton Park when Rangers arrived for a Scottish Cup Fourth Round tie on Valentine’s Day 1981. When is a defeat not a defeat? When a game pans out like this…
St. Johnstone 3-3 Rangers
Scottish Cup Fourth Round
14th February 1981
Sometimes losing is not the worst thing that can happen over 90 minutes of football. Defeats are, of course, gloomy affairs but sometimes the depth of the gloom varies. A narrow defeat away from home against a top of the table side is much easier to take than a humping at home by relegation certainties (which almost invariably take place on cold March afternoons, with a bit of late winter sleet thrown in for good measure).
Sometimes though, throwing away a lead is worse than losing. A lead can be thrown away in seconds, whereas a defeat usually takes a little more time, and a little more effort to squander. Effort that my teams St. Johnstone and Scotland are more than happy to undertake.
My most painful defeat was not even a defeat – it was a draw, that even almost four decades later stings worse than any actual defeat I’ve had the displeasure to witness.
The day was February the 14th 1981. My hometown team St. Johnstone were languishing mid table in the old Scottish First Division (which was actually the second division…) when we were drawn to play the mighty Rangers in a fourth round Scottish Cup tie. For me this was memorable for three main reasons:
- The match was all ticket. This was new and exciting territory for me at the time. This was still the age when your dad could lift you over the turnstile so an all-ticket match was like something out of the European Cup.
- We were playing not only higher league opponents but also one of the Old Firm. Again, to my child’s mind this was ACE!
- Finally, and by far best of all, the match would be on the telly. This was the sunlit uplands of the Elysian fields. St Johnstone were to be on the TV! This was the absolute height of glamour to my young mind.
There I was, quite literally ‘walking up the Dunkeld Roooooaaaaaaaaad…. to see the Muirton aces’ as one of our songs still has it even now. To say I was nervous was something of an understatement – there were Rangers fans everywhere and I was convinced I’d be getting my head kicked in, because that’s what the fans of the big teams did, wasn’t it? To make matters worse I had just seen my school mate Gavin draped in a Union Jack and wearing a Rangers top. I actually thought it was quite clever of him to use the flag as a cape because it matched the colours of his Rangers top. ‘Nice accessorising’, I thought. We both loved The Jam at the time and I presumed he was making a clever nod to Weller and the fashions of Carnaby Street. Oh! The innocence of youth! He was happily pointing at me and singing (in quite a falsetto voice I seem to remember) “You’re gonna get your flipping head kicked in!” And yes, he really did say ‘flipping’. He was with his mum.
I’d never seen so many people inside Muirton Park – in fact the old ground would never be that full again. It was to be demolished in 1989 and the 17,595 crowd that squeezed into the ground that day hasn’t been beaten since, and no longer can be as the capacity of McDairmid Park is now only 10,000. I’ve since been at Old Trafford, and the Nou Camp but nothing ever seems as big or as noisy a crowd as that day did in Perth.
The old main stand at Muirton Park had two standing areas down near the pitch, either side of the tunnel with the seats all in the upper part of the stand, and that was where me, my dad and my brother Colin stood (my dad presumably miffed that he had to buy tickets for me and Colin rather than lifting us over the turnstile).
And then the match begins – that shrill whistle followed by a huge cheer always brings a tingle to the spine. For some reason Saints were in their all-white away kit, which to this day is still my favourite strip of theirs. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting St. Johnstone to win, it just seemed that these things never happen to your own team, always to some other plucky giant-killer. This was reinforced when Rangers quickly raced into a 2-0 lead with goals from Colin McAdam and Ian Redford (of him, more later). I was resigned to our fate. Even at such a tender age I still bore the scars of the Scotland defeat to Peru in the 1978 World Cup (the event where I first realised that adults lie, as I had been ASSURED we were going to win the the thing). So I knew the script – I already carried the world weary resignation of the average football fan.
But then… What was this? A great Saints move beats the offside trap, Jim Morton (I think) cuts the ball back and there is Jim Docherty to side foot into the net. It’s 2-1 Rangers at half-time. At this point I would have been inevitably asking my dad if we could have a pie (Why? They were beyond horrible) and here my memory fades but it would not be entirely implausible if he had instead produced a thermos flask, sandwiches and a Mars Bar (already neatly cut into three pieces).
Suddenly, like something that happens outside of time and space, St Johnstone have drawn level. John Brogan has found a yard of space in the box and his stabbed shot rolls goalward. At this point, the Rangers keeper Peter McCloy, aka ‘The Girvan Lighthouse’ begins to fall on to the oncoming ball. In the time it takes from the beginning of this manoeuvre until he finally hits the turf, entire galaxies have formed, existed and then died. Empires have risen and fallen and even watched pots have boiled. The ball squirms under his body and ends in the net. It’s two each and my chunk of Mars Bar has fallen from my open mouth.
A young Ally McCoist then chips the Rangers wall from a free-kick and the ball bounces around in the box for what seems an eternity before somehow John Brogan again has the ball in the net, past a flapping McCloy. It’s 3-2 to St Johnstone and I don’t think anyone can quite believe it.
And if only that were that. If only the match, played out on that faraway February day, ended with nothing more of note to report.
Somehow with seconds left Rangers hoof the ball into the box. George Tulloch, the Saints keeper comes for it, but too slow – oh, too slow George! And then rising up, boyhood St Johnstone fan Ian Redford gets his head to the ball and it arcs lazily, as if unaware of its own importance in the drama, over the line to equalise for Rangers – and to break my young heart. We should have known. We always should have known.
A gutsy draw they said. Another bite of the cherry in the replay they said, but we knew that was our chance and Rangers duly won the replay 3-1 a few days later.
Not a defeat then, but something far far worse. An impossible dream that flickered into life for moments before being snuffed out. As the ghostly sound of Gavin’s falsetto echoed round the emptying ground – “You’re gonna get your flipping head kicked in” we walked home to have our tea and watch Metal Mickey on the TV.