Tommy Wright: St Johnstone will miss Northern Irish manager

Tommy Wright
Tommy Wright spent nine years at St Johnstone, seven of them as manager

Back in January, Tommy Wright, down at the bottom of the league and trying to stay cool amid a crisis, responded to a text looking for an interview.

"Is this for the BBC website?" the now former St Johnstone manager asked. "Yes, Tommy. The full bit. Online, radio, TV," we confirmed. "Not interested," came the answer.

That wasn't the last word, of course. "Come round tomorrow," he said in his next breath. "I've a bone to pick." For 10 minutes, the Northern Irishman got it off his chest. "Youse are never at our press conferences. You say it's a resource thing but youse are never out of Motherwell. It's as easy to get to Perth as it is to Motherwell."

He said his wife, Anne, told him to drop it, but he couldn't. This grievance was eating away at him. "If I think somebody has wronged me or my players or my club then I'll stand up. My mum, God rest her soul, would be looking down on me and saying: 'Good on you.'

"I'll always defend the club. I've had barneys with people but, you know, 99 times out of 100, it's sorted out and forgotten about. Anyway, that's my rant over. Another cup of tea?"

We sat talking for close to two hours. And that, in a nutshell, is Tommy Wright. He had a problem, he aired it, he made the tea. And found some biscuits, too.

The force of his personality, and the cleverness of his management, will be sorely missed at McDiarmid Park now that he's decided to move on after two years as an assistant manager and the past seven as the most successful manager the club has ever had.

Already they're talking about naming a stand after him. Why not? He brought them a Scottish Cup. He lifted them to three fourth-place finishes in a row on a budget that shouldn't have allowed it. He managed to withstand the loss of one key player after another - and still found a way to compete.

Stevie May was top scorer in 2013-14 and left the season after. Michael O'Halloran was top scorer in 2014-15 and later went to Rangers. Danny Swanson in 2016-17, Steven MacLean in 2017-18 and Matty Kennedy in 2018-19. All topped the scoring stats, and all left.

Media playback is not supported on this device

From the archive: Wright leads St Johnstone to Scottish Cup

Standing firm while others wavered

In January, sitting a room in McDiarmid Park, St Johnstone were 12th. Wright was unperturbed. He said they'd go on a run soon and that they'd end up pushing for top six again. His belief was absolute.

And he was right. He leaves them in seventh, one point behind Hibs in sixth and three points behind Livingston in fifth with a game in hand over the pair of them.

There's no doubting things had become a little fractious behind the scenes. That won't have helped. Seven years in the manager's chair is a long time, though. Wright fought every battle and eventually there comes a time when you need something new in your life.

While Wright stood firm at St Johnstone, there was a revolving door at other Premiership clubs. In his time in Perth, Hamilton Academical have had three managers; Celtic (counting Neil Lennon in two different spells), Motherwell and Ross County have had four; Hearts five; Hibs and Livingston six; Kilmarnock and Rangers (including the interim months of Kenny McDowall, Stuart McCall and Graeme Murty) have had seven; and St Mirren have had eight.

When Wright took over in Perth, Ally McCoist was still in charge of Rangers, Gary Locke was in charge of Hearts, and Pat Fenlon was in charge at Hibs. Where others have flapped, St Johnstone have been rock solid on Wright's watch.

He doesn't have a new challenge yet, but he's deserving of one. He has to believe that he's got a shot at the Northern Ireland job whenever they get round to assessing the candidates to replace Michael O'Neill.

If he's not already at the top of the shortlist, he won't be far behind. From this distance, and with his track record, he looks like an ideal fit.

Media playback is not supported on this device

Watch: Wright in fiery clash with McCann

There's an image of him as a big bruiser, a physically intimidating character who'd bite your head off if you looked sideways at him while he's in throes of battle. There's an element of that about him, no doubt. But it's only a small part of the picture.

"You pick up bits and pieces from all the managers you played under," he said a few years back, when asked about his influences. "Billy Bingham, for instance, made a team like Northern Ireland feel 10ft tall when we went out to play. He made you feel good about yourself. That's so important."

He learned something about man management from Bingham. He learned something about keeping a sense of humour despite football's innate absurdity from Ossie Ardiles, his manager when Wright was a goalkeeper at Newcastle. He has stories from his footballing past that make you hoot with laughter.

"You'll like this. Ossie's my manager but he's not picking me. He was the type of manager who stuck by his first XI, which was great - if you were one of the XI. Pavel Srnicek was first-choice goalkeeper. Eventually Pav got injured and I came in. We lost 1-0 at Middlesbrough but I played really well.

"Ossie says he wants to give me a new contract. I say: 'OK, but I want you to tell me why you haven't been giving me a game.' He said he'd seen me playing for Northern Ireland a while back and he wasn't impressed. I'd had a poor match, he said.

"He told me the game, the date, the venue - but he'd got the wrong guy. I said: 'Ossie, that was Allen McKnight, not me.' He said: 'Really?'"

Tough man with tender times

Wright's wife, Anne, split her time between Perth and Belfast
Wright's wife, Anne, split her time between Perth and Belfast

He's a tough man, because he's had to be. In 15 years as a professional footballer he was injured for seven and a half seasons and had 10 operations on his right knee alone.

Wright could pen a book on how to bounce back, not just from professional upset but personal tragedy.

Here was this robust character talking about the minutes after the greatest moment of his footballing life, when St Johnstone won the Scottish Cup in 2014: "The final whistle went and this might sound strange but there was a few seconds there where I had a real empty feeling. I had a moment of, I don't know, sadness, maybe.

"Me and my wife, Anne, lost our son, Andrew [in 1994]. He was five. Eight weeks premature and then born with severe disabilities. He couldn't talk but he could, if you know what I mean. With his eyes. With his smile.

"Eventually it got too much for him. He was such a fighter. You don't forget. People who have lost loved ones will tell you that images pop into your head at the strangest times. And that was one of them. The final whistle. And then Andrew."

For all the games he oversaw, all the wins and losses and draws, all the press conferences, all the contretemps, that tender and heartbreaking image of a man lost in thought about his late son in the hour of his greatest triumph wipes the floor with all others.

Not many managers get to walk away from a football club with the unanimous gratitude and undying love of the support. Wright is one of them.

His exit is a surprise, but it's probably the right time. Good luck to his successor. He'll be a hard act to follow.