KEVIN O’NEILL looks back on St. Mirren’s unlikely Scottish Cup success of 1987 when they not only defeated European finalists, but also created a record that still stands to this day.
For St. Mirren, the very fact they turned the tables on hot favourites Dundee United to win the 1987 Scottish Cup final would be enough, by itself, to ensure immortality for the fourteen Buddies players used on that special day by their wily manager, Alex Smith.
The 1-0 victory, ensured by an extra-time winner by future Rangers star Ian Ferguson, would lead thousands of success-starved St. Mirren fans to the streets of Paisley in the ensuing days for the mother-of-all celebratory parties, as the club basked in only their third ever Scottish Cup final win, and its first since 1959.
Back then it was virtually impossible to imagine that the significance of the victory to St. Mirren and the wider Scottish game could gain any further weight in the coming decades. Quite rightly, the ecstasy felt by the club’s loyal supporters in the wake of the final would be enough, surely, to dine-out on for many years to come.
Yet, almost thirty years on, the importance of the 1987 Cup final – and St Mirren’s unlikely triumph – is that it remains the last time that a team comprising solely of Scottish-born players won the domestic game’s Blue Riband.
Since then, no other Scottish club has accomplished the feat, for which St. Mirren can remain justifiably boastful, with six clubs (Celtic 1988, Motherwell 1991, Rangers 1993, 1996 & 2009, Kilmarnock 1997, St Johnstone 2014, and Hibernian 2016) coming closest to repeating the achievement by fielding nine Scottish players in their respective Cup finals.
But to date, nobody has been able to match the Buddies’ all-Tartan army. And with the country’s leading clubs looking as unlikely as ever to reach the milestone in the future – it has not been uncommon, since the turn of the century, for Celtic and Rangers to field only two or three Scots in the final – St. Mirren’s 1987 Cup winning captain, Tony Fitzpatrick believes that the St. Mirren players of 1987 could well take their proud record to the grave.
Now the current club CEO – who retained a key behind-the-scenes role after a supporter-led consortium, headed by new chairman, the local businessman Gordon Scott, took control of the club earlier this year – Fitzpatrick said: “It is incredible to think that no team has managed to repeat our achievement in 30 years, and I cannot see it happening again in my lifetime. Scotland and the rest of Britain has opened up to the rest of the world in the last number of years, making it extremely unlikely that it will occur again.”
Indeed, while clubs like the Celtic, Rangers and Hearts have signed countless foreign players since the year 2000, it is now quite unusual for even the so-called smaller teams – like St. Mirren, Partick Thistle and Hamilton Academical – to take the field without players from various corners of Europe and even further afield.
For example, at the start of the 2016/17 Scottish Premiership, the Partick squad would contain players from Australia, Czech Republic, Guinea, Senegal and Sierra Leone. And over at New Douglas Park, players from Brazil, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Spain and Trinidad & Tobago were ready to represent Hamilton.
But that, explained David Winnie – St. Mirren’s former hard-working midfielder – is a sign of the times that looks likely to forever impede the progress of Scottish players.
“The free movement of players throughout Europe means teams have a far greater pool to choose from,” said Winnie, who put in an outstanding display in the ’87 Cup final.
“Furthermore, the modern culture of clubs (the successful ones anyway) is that they don’t develop their own players and simply want to employ the finished product; which in turn means chances for homegrown players is extremely limited,” added Winnie, who went on to play in Iceland before becoming a lawyer in London.
“It wasn’t like that in our day,” he continued.
“With the exception of Tony Fitzpatrick, Billy Abercrombie and Frank McGarvey, we had a very young side in ’87,” he added.
Indeed, a handful of the St. Mirren side were under 20 years of age, including Ian Cameron, Ian Ferguson, Brian Hamilton, Paul Lambert and David Winnie.
Dundee United, meanwhile, had a more experienced squad with seven players aged 27 or over, and the same number of players to have won the Scottish Premier Division with the Tangerines in 1983.
As a result, United – who would contest the UEFA Cup final against IFK Gothenburg the week after the Scottish Cup final – had been fairly hot favourites against St. Mirren.
“They had just knocked Barcelona out of the UEFA Cup, of course they were fancied,” said Winnie, who described the scenes as the St. Mirren team arrived at Hampden.
“I recall we were taken by police escort to the game – and it seemed like the whole of Paisley had descended on Hampden for the day with all the flags waving. It was a great feeling. I also remember the warm-up was quite odd, as there was a massive bagpipe band in the centre of the pitch and both teams were restricted to warming-up in a third of the park, for fear of running into a bagpiper! The nerves never really hit because the more experienced players knew exactly what to say, and when to say it, to the younger lads,” he said.
There were few signs of nervousness among the throngs of St. Mirren fans, who made their way to Glasgow in jovial form, knowing that the day was to be savoured in light of their apparently slim hopes of actually winning.
For long-time supporter Colin Haggerty, for example, the occasion turned to a real family affair.
“I travelled to Glasgow with my mother, grandfather, uncle, and my expectant wife; so it was special to have many generations of the family to witness a great occasion,” said Haggarty.
But aside from the off-field excitement, there was a very serious game to play. However, when it got going, not a great deal happened in a scrappy, scoreless ninety minutes, with goalscoring chances extremely thin on the ground until a flurry of activity in the second period of extra-time.
Firstly, with United beginning to up the ante after a dull 105 minutes or so, the late Ian Redford found some space behind an otherwise watertight St. Mirren rearguard.
Redford played a cute low ball across the six-yard box, searching for the onrushing Kevin Gallacher, but St. Mirren’s in-form goalkeeper, Campbell Money, got there first.
Money, however, could only push the ball into the path of the unmarked Iain Ferguson (yes, each team had a player of the same name), and he calmly tucked it into the net, with both Money and Gallacher on the floor near the goal-line.
United rejoiced, while the Buddies’ heads dropped in grave disappointment.
Somehow though, the ‘goal’ was ruled out by referee Kenny Hope, who adjudged the grounded Gallacher to have been in an offside position.
In the modern game, the ‘goal’ would have stood and even though the referee’s interpretation of the offside laws, back then, might have been correct, it was still a harsh judgement, as Gallacher’s position, relative to the flight of Ferguson’s close range shot and the speed at which it travelled past him (Gallacher), had absolutely no bearing on the ball hitting the back of the net.
“I think most of us thought it was a goal – and that we wouldn’t come back from it,” said dedicated supporter Alistair McPhee.
“To be honest, many of us had been half expecting a United goal, anyway. I felt strongly at the time, and haven’t changed my mind since, that it was a perfectly good goal. It should have stood, but thank heavens the referee got it wrong,” added Alistair.
The United players that surrounded the referee to remonstrate with his decision, would manage to momentarily regain their composure. And a moment later, Money had to be alert to intercept a cunning defence splitting pass by Ferguson, to thwart the hovering Gallacher.
But St. Mirren – buoyed by the effervescent battling of Abercrombie, and spirited displays from McGarvey and Winnie – just kept on going, and their Eureka moment would arrive in the 110th minute when their Ian Ferguson (otherwise anonymous in the game) would race free of the United defence to latch on to Brian Hamilton’s perfectly weighted pass and drill an unstoppable left-foot strike past the despairing dive of Billy Thomson.
Ferguson, who progressed to win ten Scottish League titles as a Rangers player, had been one of the Buddies most promising young stars, and had also scored in the semi-final win against Hearts.
But before his goal in the final, Ferguson had been largely unable to stamp his authority on the game.
“Ferguson was highly rated but, ironically, he did nothing in the game except score the winner,” recalled Alistair McPhee.
“For me, there were four or five stand-out heroes. Look, they were all heroes for what they achieved, but some of them stood out more, to me. I mean, Campbell Money made a couple of vital saves and Abercrombie was just fabulous. He was known as a bit of a hard man, but his passing in the final was exemplary. Winnie was terrific too, very solid and dependable in midfield, while Paul Lambert, who went on to play for Borussia Dortmund and Celtic, played very well but tired as the match wore on. It should also be noted that Ian Cameron, a substitute, only sat his final University exams on the morning of the game – and he could have scored on his introduction but for a good save by our former ‘keeper, Billy Thomson,” added Alistair.
With very little time left, and as their energy levels had been drained from a hectic campaign at home and abroad, a dejected United team could not muster another clear opportunity, and the Cup was on its way to Love Street.
“We believed that we could win it and the manager made us believe, too,” said defender Tommy Wilson, who now coaches in the United States.
“The feeling at the final whistle was ecstatic. It was surreal to climb the steps at Hampden, where I had trained so often as a young Queen’s Park player, to lift the Scottish Cup,” Wilson added.
Though the game had not been a great spectacle for the neutrals, the St. Mirren players and fans cared not one jot, particularly as the celebrations returned to Paisley in the evening.
“Going back there with the Cup was a special and emotional feeling,” said Tony Fitzpatrick.
“I have been lucky enough to have five wonderful children in my life and aside from their births, winning the Cup with St. Mirren was the best feeling I have ever known. Picking up that trophy, in Hampden, was so special, for me,” he added.
Strangely, the team had very little time to savour the moment, as they jetted out to Singapore the following day to take part in a previously arranged ten-day long end-of-season friendly tournament.
Heady days, indeed, for unfashionable St. Mirren, with David Winnie recalling: “We never had the time to catch our breath and take in everything. However, my best memory of the whole thing happened just before we left Singapore. We were all sitting in a little Chinese café shortly before our flight home. Alex Smith came in with Jimmy Bone (the assistant manager) and sat down. We had a blether and a laugh and shared some stories. Alex then stood up, which we knew was the precursor for a speech, and we all fell silent. He said that he was so proud of us, as a team, and he went around each and every one of us to shake hands, and to hug the younger players. He went on to say that we had given him the greatest moments of his life, and to hear those words from such a respected person in the game, well it’s not something you forget in a hurry. It capped a wonderful little period for us all, one that I am very proud to have been involved in.”
In Singapore though, the Cup winning side would play its last ever game together, as the team gradually broke up on their return to Scottish shores.
But their achievement in winning the Cup will always be remembered until such time that another team comprising solely of Scottish players lifts the domestic crown – a feat that, according to loyal Buddies follower Alex Stafford looks as far away as ever from happening.
“At the moment you would struggle to find a Scottish team without at least one foreign player, and I really don’t think an all-Scottish side will ever repeat what St. Mirren managed in 1987,” said Stafford.
“Maybe,” he added, “an all-British side could do it – but not all-Scottish.”
Ironically, St. Mirren – who now play in Scotland’s second tier – were one of only ten Scottish league clubs (of 42) to have just one or less non-Scottish players in their squad by the start of the 2016/17 season.
But mainly, Scottish clubs have somewhat lost their way, collectively, in the transfer market since the early nineties, with most, at some point or other, dabbling in the recruitment of foreign players, and in some cases from different continents.
Usually, these players, in the main, would only be in Scotland because they were deemed not good enough to play in England’s top four divisions.
Of course, many clubs were caught out, financially, in the quest to almost replicate the brash transfer policy undertaken by Rangers and their owner, Sir David Murray, from when they appointed the high-profile Graeme Souness as manager in 1987.
Using the English ban from European competition in his favour, the former Liverpool star’s spending as Rangers boss centred largely on convincing highly respected English players to swap the old First Division for life in Glasgow. The primary lure – apart from money – was the chance to play in the European Cup (UEFA Champions League from 1992), a competition in which heavy spending Rangers would compete for nine years running from 1989 after amassing nine consecutive Scottish league titles during a period of domestic domination not seen since Celtic’s nine-in-a-row between 1966 and 1974.
Although a large number of Rangers supporters would disagree, there is the widespread view that a combination of Rangers’ domination of Scottish football for the bulk of the nineties, coupled with a disconnect between supporters and their clubs due to the presence of so many run-of-the-mill foreign players in their teams, would play a pivotal role in the demise of the domestic game in the last few decades, which included a huge fall-off in attendances and the steady decline of clubs like Aberdeen and Dundee United, who went toe-to-toe with the Old Firm for much of the eighties (and very often came out on top), as well as regularly competing in the latter rounds of Europe’s most elite club competitions.
Those days, it sadly seems, are long gone with many Scottish clubs, including the once-feared Dundee United, Hearts and, of course, Rangers listed among a litany of domestic clubs to encounter grave financial difficulties in the last number of years (not forgetting, too, that Celtic almost went under prior to Fergus McCann’s rescuing takeover in 1994), which all helps to paint a rather bleak picture for what today’s Scottish league represents.
However sombre that picture might be though, it remains fair to assume that when the wider story of Scottish football is recalled in years to come, stories will be told about when the domestic game was a fiercely competitive and brilliantly supported spectacle, and of the great times when teams like St. Mirren, regardless of their overall inferiority to the Glasgow behemoths, could make their play for an eternal place in the annals of the once-great but now somewhat rudderless Scottish game.