WELL, Perth sure feels like a proper football town now.
That tired old jibe, forever thrown in the face of St Johnstone supporters, looked pretty hollow yesterday as the locals flooded their city centre to shout loudly and proudly about their club. There was blue and white everywhere. Blokes, lassies, kids, grannies and granddads, dripping in Saints' colours. They were all drawn in as if the William Hill Scottish Cup itself was a magnet to them. "Hundreds of supporters are expected to line the streets," The Courier had reported on Friday, victory permitting. Hundreds? Some estimates suggested 15,000.
St Johnstone didn't just win the cup on Saturday, they righted a wrong. To have existed for 130 years without lifting a major trophy wasn't right. They wouldn't regard themselves as a big club, but they're too big to have nothing to show for it, too big to have never troubled the scorers. The club of Bobby Brown and Willie Ormond, of Alex Ferguson, Henry Hall and Ally McCoist, of Roddy Grant and Jody Morris, has entered the winners' enclosure at last.
A horse racing analogy seems right given the pastime of the man who was entitled to the broadest grin of all in Perth. Geoff Brown, the former chairman (an enthusiastic racing man) put in the hard yards for that club. St Johnstone has McDiarmid Park, named after the farmer who provided its land, and an Ormond Stand, named after their former manager, but the greatest debt of all is to Brown. Since 1986 he has been like a metronome for St Johnstone: steady, reliable, consistent. When he couldn't find anyone to take the club off his hands he passed it on to his son, Steve, an equally impressive figure with the same values and ideals.
When Steven Anderson and Steven MacLean scored the goals that sunk Dundee United Geoff Brown had his payback. For a quarter of a century he single-mindedly stuck to his guns on how a Scottish football club should be run. David Murray, Vladimir Romanov, John Boyle, Brooks Mileson, Angelo Massone and others: every one of them ought to have been dragged by the ear to the front door of McDiarmid Park and told "this is how to run a club".
In 2011 I remember asking him about Craig Whyte, who had just taken over Rangers. Brown knew nothing about him but made a typically forthright point: "Owning Rangers is the easiest job in the world. If I couldn't make it at Rangers I'd say I wasn't a businessman. F****** hell, you have 50,000 people there - 50,000! It's an institution. If you can't make that work …"
Brown paid a price for making St Johnstone work. Careful, safety-first chairmen don't win popularity contests with supporters. Plenty of stick came his way over the years. St Johnstone spent seven seasons out of the top flight because he refused to mire them in the sort of debts they would have needed to stay 'competitive'. There were times when he choked back the bile as a witness to the "glory" being enjoyed by the likes of Livingston and Gretna before they crashed under the weight of unpaid bills. St Johnstone did things properly, did things decently, and showed a level of class and self-discipline which was beyond many of their rivals.
The population of Perth is about 45,000. There is a hinterland for the club to draw on, too, but it's not a populous one. The Dundee clubs draw supporters away and the region is well within the Old Firm's catchment area. St Johnstone had 15,000 at the final. The hardcore fans were swamped by the day trippers who won't be seen again any time soon, as is the way with most cup-final turnouts. It made for quite a spectacle as they filled the Jock Stein Stand and a chunk of the North Stand at Parkhead. For Brown it must have been an incredibly moving sight.
There is a legacy issue when a club achieves something extraordinary. St Johnstone must renew their attempts to capitalise on the affection suddenly washing over them from the Perth community. It's astonishing to recall that in 1989-90 they averaged 5866 home crowds when they were in the old First Division. The following season they were in the Premier and averaging 7755 (in a 10,000-seater ground).
The newly opened McDiarmid Park captivated them back then but slowly the crowds dwindled. Last July they played Rosenborg on a warm summer's evening. They'd won the away leg and w ere on the brink of something remarkable against a team with Champions League pedigree. When they got 7850 that night, below their capacity, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that that figure was as good as it could ever get. Two thousand will come rain or shine.
Long after the final whistle on Saturday Tommy Wright, their talented, intelligent manager, spoke to a handful of us in a then quiet Parkhead. "This should encourage people to come back to St Johnstone," he said. "We had 15,000. If we could even get a thousand out of that, 1500, it would be brilliant. If we could tap into 10% of that crowd it would make so much difference to the finances at the club, to my playing budget."
Will they manage that? There won't be any dramatic leap in their crowds but hopefully a few hundred will answer the call. The new Scottish Cup holders deserve that.