It was the name that got to me. It sounded like one word when my older friend and I traded our ‘swappers’ from the big 1969/70 sticker album with George Best (who else?) on the cover - ‘Sinjon’.
What a weird name, but one that rolled off the tongue and made you want to repeat it, listening to how it sounded. Then the discovery. It was actually ‘St John’, coming as it did in two parts. I had to say it quickly to realize it was the same person we were talking about.
Saying it slowly and deliberately, ‘Ian Saint John’ made it sound like a different name entirely. I always wondered if others thought the same. So although never a Liverpool fan, here was player who found a little corner of cult heroism in my six-year-old mind. I hadn’t even seen him play.
I did later of course, but it was only towards the very end of an illustrious career that took him from amateur football in the Scottish steel-town of Motherwell, to the professional club there, and onto a £37,500 move on to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool. Newcastle United’s board procrastinated when their manager Charlie Mitten wanted to bring him to St James’ Park (St John had agreed to the move) and he went to Merseyside instead.
Liverpool’s hierarchy had their doubts too, but Shankly’s immense powers of persuasion rarely failed and after he'd told the board, “It’s not can we afford him, it’s a case of we can’t afford not to sign him,” the deal was done.
That was 1961, Liverpool’s last season in the second division and St John was to prove his worth to the club over the next ten seasons. After an impressive haul in Scottish football scoring 80 times in 113 league games for Motherwell, he went on to notch 95 in 336 appearances for Liverpool.
His most iconic goal however came in the FA Cup. In extra-time of the 1965 final his twisting header, as he reshaped his body in mid air to meet Callaghan’s cross, sunk Leeds United. For the Yorkshiremen it was double heartbreak after losing out on goal average to Manchester United for the title. For Liverpool it was historically important and key. Their first-ever FA Cup success and it maintained the momentum set the previous year when Shankly’s resurgent team were crowned champions.
He was part of the increasing Scottish influence at Anfield. Shankly also brought in colossal centre-back Ron Yeats from Dundee United in that close-season of ‘61, and later described both players’ arrival as the “turning point” as Liverpool rose to challenge not only the best teams in England, but also the European continent.
Towards the end of his career, St John had two spells playing in South Africa, with Hellenic and Cape Town City, either side of a season in Division One with Coventry City, before finishing up on Birkenhead with Tranmere Rovers for whom he made 9 league appearances before hanging up his boots in 1973.
Ian St John also won 21 Scottish caps, scoring 9 times.
After modest spells as manager of hometown club Motherwell and Portsmouth, he embarked on a highly successful career in broadcasting, where punditry was followed by his own show jointly hosted with the great Jimmy Greaves, The Saint & Greavsie. It ran for seven years.
The show was essential Saturday lunchtime viewing for UK football fans as the pair, relaxed, down to earth and possessing endless humility, would mix their powers of observation with working-class dry wit.
St John was often the straight man to Greaves’ more comedic style, but his own sense of humour proved the perfect foil to the former Spurs goal-machine.
I’ll never forget the ribbing Greaves handed out to him during one particular show when St John had made the newspapers for the wrong reasons, after being apprehended by traffic police on one of England’s highways. St John according to a tabloid newsman had asked the policeman, “Don’t you know who I am?”
Greaves was never going to let his great pal off the hook with that one. But St John took it all commensurately and with good humour as he laughed off the banter from a sidekick determined not to let his opportunity pass.
On another occasion the pair jetted off to New York with a bag and a collection of balls to make the draw for the next round of the League Cup with..... Donald Trump!
Even then no-one wanted the bemused future US-president to pull out their number. The Donald was drawing the away teams.
Leaving the humour aside, St John was often a respected analyst for ITV at major tournaments; World Cup and Euros, throughout his broadcasting career.
The St John family statement issued this morning said: “It is with a heavy heart that we have lost a husband, father and grandfather. He passed away peacefully with his family at his bedside. We would like to thanks all the staff at Arrowed Park Hospital for their hard work and dedication during these very difficult times.”
Liverpool FC announced they are “deeply saddened” by the loss of a “true Anfield legend.”
Ian St John - born Motherwell, Lanarkshire, Scotland, 7 June 1938. Died Arrowe Park, Merseyside, England, 1 March 2021.