Perthshire might be known to many for a stone which has not sat in the region for many years. The imminent return to Perthshire of the fabled Stone of Destiny notwithstanding, the area had – until very recent years – a common trait with its professional football side. Both were as well known for treasures missing as for affections present. In footballing terms, St Johnstone football club is old. It was formed in 1884. Nevertheless, it was not until 2014 that the Perth side won their first major honour. Goals from Steven Anderson and Steven MacLean ensured a 2-0 victory for the Saints over Dundee United in that year’s Scottish Cup Final. Fittingly, the victory came in what was the Perth side’s 130th year of competing on the football field.
With the Scottish Cup resting in Perthshire for the first time, St Johnstone football club could at last point to an artefact which made sense of its long story. The club had won something long fought over by countless claimants. McDiarmid Park had, as it were, its own ‘stone of destiny’.
Of course, St Johnstone’s story didn’t end in its 130th year. Those who study the acts of Scottish football might have read of the next chapter in this club’s recent successes. Last weekend’s Scottish League Cup final was contested by clubs representing markedly different communities. St Johnstone, an ‘ancient’ club from an ancient city faced Livingston – a club who’s most recent form dates back as far only as 1995. The former had not once won the trophy. The latter had triumphed in its only appearance in the competition’s final in 2004.
The showpiece of the 2020/2021 competition was won by a towering header from St Johnstone defender Shaun Rooney. A 1-0 victory in a game of fine margins and few chances saw to it that the Saints won the Scottish League Cup for the very first time. Having gone without a single domestic honour for over a century, the Perthshire side now has now won two within a decade. Such has been the predictable nature of Scottish trophy presentations in recent years that St Johnstone – by winning those two major honours – has become the second most successful football club in Scotland in the last decade.
Fine management, discipline and skill have all played their part in St Johnstone’s recent successes. Nevertheless, those are points which can be read elsewhere. This article started with one comparison between the history of Perthshire and that of its professional football team. It will finish with another turn to history.
To this writer’s mind, the most interesting thing about St Johnstone football club is neither its longevity, nor its success…but its name. ‘St Johnstone’ is not a title which could be born of contemporary culture. It is a name which is at home in the modern Scottish game, but whose roots go back to a time long before a leather ball was kicked between two posts in Perthshire.
The name ‘St Johnstone’ is a derivative of another name for the city of Perth; St John’s Toun. So the city was called by many in medieval times due to the presence of a significant church dedicated to St John the Baptist. The nomenclature of those who named St Johnstone Football Club could not but be formed by an awareness of the city’s centuries-long connections to the Baptist. He, who upon seeing the Christ exclaimed: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29), is the patron saint of the city of Perth.
A cursory glance at the crest of St Johnstone football club will determine the presence of two eagles facing in opposite directions. A more discerning look at the crest, as well as at the city’s coat of arms, will find in the centre an image familiar to the religiously versed; a lamb holding a flag. The image - which cannot but prompt the words ‘Ecce Agnus Dei’ - is to be found in the centre of St Johnstone’s crest. The man who uttered those words is found in the club’s own name. Deliberately or otherwise, the club is one born of Christian symbolism and utterance.
Far from dismissing Christian traces found in Scottish settlements and their football clubs, the modern Scottish Catholic ought to embrace them when he or she finds them. We might not immediately appreciate them, but they are relics of a time of faith…and so are testament to a still living faith – even if it appears absent among football supporters or anyone else. A Christian past is a promise of a Christian present and the seeds of a Christian future.
Christianity in Perth and many places in Scotland might seem to have been easily forgotten. It might seem still more difficult to be recalled. Its traces are, however, signs of hope. A hope that might take years or decades to bear fruit, certainly…but hope all the same. After all, it took 130 years in the wilderness for St Johnstone’s hopes to be realised, but weren’t they that and more.
Ruairidh MacLennan is a Glasgow-based multimedia journalist who previously worked in independent television production. Ruairidh graduated in modern languages and cultures at postgraduate level from the University of Glasgow, where he researched the interplay of reason and religion.