Tommy Wright: St Johnstone boss with 'bulldog' spirit 'ready for step up'
You want to concentrate on Tommy Wright's words. You want to listen to him as he talks about the values of his St Johnstone team and how he likes to think that it's built in his own hard-working image, but there's a problem.
There's an elephant in the room. Well, not an elephant as such. Not an elephant at all, in fact. A bulldog.
The football chat is parked for a minute until we figure out why all these bulldogs are hanging about in his office at McDiarmid Park. There are bulldogs on a calendar behind his desk.
There's talk about a bulldog called Winston - and there's a toy bulldog draped in a union flag beside his telephone. There's a story that goes with that, he says.
Jack is memorabilia now. The 007 people have probably made fortunes selling replicas to bulldog lovers everywhere, such as the Wrights of Perth.
"My wife, Anne, got me him for Christmas," said the 53-year-old St Johnstone manager. "We have a real one of our own - Winston. Born on the day we won the Scottish Cup final. A pedigree dog. Has cost us thousands in vet fees.
"I've got asthma and I'm allergic to him, but he's fantastic. The boys here say he looks just like me.
"Actually, I might bring him in next week. He can go and chase Murray Davidson around for a bit."
Wright lords it over McDiarmid Park like a colossus, a big bear of a man who continues to do an outstanding job.
On a budget as tight as a gnat's behind, St Johnstone have, of course, gloriously and historically won the cup on his watch and have finished sixth, fourth and fourth in the league in his three full seasons.
They currently sit fifth, just one point off Hearts in fourth and only six behind Rangers in third. They go to Ibrox on Wednesday night.
We can add layers to that. In all competitions, St Johnstone had a win percentage of 48% in season one under Wright, then 39%, then 43% and now 44%.
They are two points ahead of where they were this time last season, which is a fair old feat in itself given that the league is stronger now than it was then.
The numbers would be better had they not lost to Kilmarnock on Saturday, a performance that had Wright fuming. Killie, for some bizarre reason, have become the unlikeliest of bogey teams, beating St Johnstone in four of the last five meetings.
Wright rated it as the worst performance of the season and maybe even the worst performance of his time in Perth. That's one thing about him - he doesn't mess about. No sugar-coating, no soft-soap.
Saints are in an awkward little run, losing three of their last four, including a cup exit to Partick Thistle, but only a daftie would bet on this continuing for much longer. They've been in ruts before and have dug themselves out.
We look at them now and almost take top-four for granted. Wright doesn't, but it's understandable why many others do.
|St Johnstone - last five league finishes|
"You mentioned the 39% from three seasons ago - we lost Stevie May, scored 34 goals (only relegated St Mirren scored fewer), finished fourth and got into Europe," he recalled.
"It may not be pretty, but we had a lot of injuries, so we adapted, we were ruthless, we won games 1-0, we won games from 1-0 down. To me, that was an achievement because somehow we managed with 34 goals to do what we did.
"The year we won the cup, we played 50 games and the 50th game was our 23rd clean sheet. People say you're organised. I don't see what's wrong with being organised.
"I'm not surprised, but I never take it for granted because you have to work so hard in this league. I'm pleased where we are."
'I don't go on about philosophy. Maximise what you've got'
Wright arrived into English football with Newcastle pretty late, as a 24-year-old out of Ballyclare in Northern Ireland. "I always felt I was behind the eight-ball a little bit and people were questioning my ability," he admits.
"I had that attitude that I was going to prove people wrong. You can't have success without a great work ethic, it doesn't matter how much ability you have.
"If you look at Celtic's quality this year - the work ethic of that team has gone up maybe 20 to 30%.
"I don't go on about philosophy. Maximise what you've got, that's it.
"We're mentioned as a long-ball team and we're not. How do you play long ball with Blair Alston, David Wotherspoon and Danny Swanson in your team?
"It's a perception of what we are. We're a strong team, we have players who are strong characters who want to win and put their bodies on the line.
"We all know it's a challenge to get top-six, but there's that fear of not getting it that drives me on."
'I know I'm capable of making the step up'
There's an in-joke about Wright at McDiarmid Park, a gag that gets a new airing anytime there's a big job available in Scotland or in the Championship in England.
"That'll be the gaffer away," the dressing room says. "Removal men coming today, Tommy, aye?"
Wright is going nowhere, not yet anyway. After Mark Warburton exited Ibrox, he got some mentions as the type of strong leader that Rangers need, but the Glasgow club look to be heading in a different direction. "When are you leaving?" is a question he gets a lot to the point that he wishes people would stop asking it.
It's flattering and all of that, but it's hypothetical. Wright is more nose to the grindstone than head in the clouds. "It's become a wind-up in here," he says. "With this dressing room, it's just constant ribbing.
"Somebody left a black bag outside my office the other day. (Stevie) MacLean says Anne was in to clean up my stuff. It very quickly passes - and they get plenty in return, trust me.
"The one thing I do know is that, if a club knocks on the door and wants to take me away from St Johnstone, I'll be ready for that.
"I've done the work, I know I'm capable of making the step up and that's no disrespect to the club I'm at, because I love it here. But I'm ambitious and if I wasn't ambitious then my chairman would be worried.
"I'm proud of the work we're doing. There's different aspects to management. There's the tactical side, but then there's getting the best out of people, man-managing people, exhausting every ounce, squeezing everything you can out of the resources you've got.
"The chairman can never say he doesn't get value for money, because I'll squeeze everything out."
'Rangers don't turn possession into enough goals'
On Wednesday, St Johnstone visit Ibrox. Win that game and they move to within three points of third place. Lose it and the gap rises to nine and maybe that chance of third goes out of the window.
It's a hard one to call. Saints are in a bit of a dip, but Rangers are in a trough. They've met four times in Wright's spell in charge and it's been a win apiece with the most recent matches ending in a pair of 1-1 draws.
"I look at Rangers and they have a lot of gifted footballers and they have a lot of possession of the ball and the one criticism would be that they don't turn that possession into enough goals," Wright suggests.
"They're still a good side that can hurt teams, particularly at home, because they have so much of the ball. I'm almost waiting for them to turn a team over, but it hasn't happened.
"I got on really well with Mark [Warburton], but it always looked like there was something just not right. Whatever that is, only Mark could tell you.
"I felt there was too many stories linking him with other clubs. Either somebody was being mischievous or it was genuine, but he probably had to answer too many questions about his future for too long. I was surprised when he went, though."
Wright picked up on some chatter linking him with the job at Rangers and he was flattered, of course, but he was hardly drumming his fingers on his desk and waiting for the phone to ring. "I'd take that call, but it hasn't happened," he admits. "I'm very happy here. "
Not news to the St Johnstone fans, of course, but surely music to their ears nonetheless.