Ian St John arrived at Anfield from Scotland in May 1961 in a Rolls-Royce. Once he set foot on the field 72 hours later he immediately began to play like one.
His debut was against Everton at Goodison Park in front of 70,000 in the final of the Liverpool Senior Cup. Everton won 4-3 but Liverpool’s new forward scored all his team’s goals on the back of a single training session.
As for the Rolls, St John had been the passenger. Behind the wheel was Bill Shankly, the Liverpool manager, who wanted to sign the young Scot from Motherwell so badly he borrowed the car from a club director to fetch him. The fee was £37,500 — more than twice a club record — and the Liverpool board were unsure they could afford a player who was still only 22.
Liverpool legend Ian St John (pictured at Anfield in March 2014) has died at the age of 82
Cup hero: leading the celebration in 1965 after Liverpool beat Leeds in the FA Cup final
‘Gentlemen,’ said Shankly. ‘We cannot afford not to have him.’ And with that familiar directness, one of the most important signings in Liverpool’s history was made.
Shankly’s team were in the old Division Two and St John was part of the rebuild that also included the signing of defender Ron Yeats that summer.
St John, who died at the age of 82 on Monday night, is remembered by a generation of television viewers for his place behind a desk on the Saint and Greavsie show. A Saturday lunchtime staple for seven years, it commanded five million viewers at its peak. It was, at the time, groundbreaking sports broadcasting.
But on Merseyside, St John is remembered for what he really was, a granite tough forward of standing. He scored 118 Liverpool goals in 425 appearances. He helped the club back into the top division in his first season and to two First Division titles in 1964 and 1966. In 1965, meanwhile, he scored the winner against Leeds to bring Liverpool their first FA Cup.
St. John cleared the ball in a flurry of snow as they played under testing conditions at Anfield
St John had been born and raised in the Motherwell tenements. There were eight of them in the house. The toilet was at the bottom of the yard. He soon knew what real life was about. His father Alex, a steel worker, died from pleurisy at the age of 36. ‘The borders in my life threatened to be no wider than the shadow of a factory,’ wrote St John in his autobiography.
Football changed things. More than 100 league games and 80 goals for Motherwell. A decade at Anfield. Twenty-one games for Scotland. But his innate toughness never left him. He tussled with Denis Law in front of the Kop, he could be fractious with team-mates. ‘I was not frightened of anybody and I think that helped me,’ he once said.
For sure, St John understood football and came to understand Liverpool. In an interview in these pages just two and half years ago, he spoke of the importance of the Anfield crowd. ‘Always raucous,’ he said. ‘They made you play harder, run harder. Don’t let them down.’
He was part of Shankly’s first great Liverpool team, a side subsequently described by Sir Bobby Charlton as ‘the most relentless in English football’.
St John beat Watford’s defenders to head the ball during their FA Cup 3rd round match in 1967
St John scored a header in extra time against Leeds in 1965 to win Liverpool’s first FA Cup
St John was eventually moved on bluntly. It was often the way at Liverpool and an FA Cup defeat at Division Two Watford in 1970 prompted Shankly to break up his team. St John was never formally told, merely walking into the dressing room for a subsequent game against Newcastle to find someone else’s boots sitting beneath the No 9 shirt. But his relationship with his manager never soured. He was a pall-bearer at Shankly’s funeral in 1981.
Briefly, St John was a manager. He was close to getting the Leeds job when Brian Clough succeeded Don Revie in 1974. Ultimately, spells at Motherwell and Portsmouth were as high as he climbed and it was television that became an unexpected new home.
His partnership with Greaves began in 1985. Both had appeared as pundits on ITV’s World of Sport before being offered their own show. St John —always in jacket and tie — was happy to play stooge to Greaves’ spontaneous and rather unpredictable foolishness. It was an unlikely and irreverent recipe and looked at now, some of the outtakes were very much of their time. But its success was extraordinary.
‘We were just two old players playing off the cuff,’ St John told the Times last year. ‘Jimmy played it more off the cuff than I did. I had to listen to the count in my ear…’
St. John (left) and Jimmy Greaves in a Frank Bruno headlock on train home after FA Cup win
St John (left) with others sitting at a railway carriage table with the trophy on May 2, 1965
The duo were immortalised by Spitting Image puppets. When Greaves was unwell at Christmas 1990, his puppet took his place — worked from beneath the desk by commentator Peter Brackley. In 1992, with the duo in New York for a World Cup function, they held the draw for the Rumbelows Cup in a nearby hotel. Donald Trump pulled out the numbers.
Greaves’ descent into ill health has been well-chronicled. His friend, meanwhile, revealed his own cancer diagnosis in 2014.
St John did not mellow greatly, mind. His opinions remained as strong and deep as his love for the club where he made his name.
A fact not largely known is that it was St John who, in conversation with Shankly, first floated the idea of Liverpool playing in all red. Previously the shorts and socks had been white. The change was made for a European game against Anderlecht in 1964 and St John scored the opening goal. It was typical.
‘Success in football isn’t everything,’ St John once said. ‘But it’s a long way ahead of what comes next.’
TV presenters Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves for TV programme ‘On The Ball Tartan terror’