Ian St John obituary: 'An iconic Liverpool figure who went on to illuminate TV screens'

By Phil McNultyChief football writer

Ian St John, who has died aged 82, was an iconic figure in Liverpool's history as part of manager Bill Shankly's construction of a football superpower, before enjoying a hugely successful post-playing career in television and punditry.

St John arrived at Anfield in May 1961, a then club record £37,500 signing from Motherwell, with Liverpool in the old Second Division at the time.

He helped Liverpool win promotion to the top tier, went on to win two league titles and scored 118 goals in 425 appearances - but he is best remembered for the trademark jack-knife header that gave Liverpool a 2-1 victory in the 1965 FA Cup final against Leeds and brought the trophy to Anfield for the first time.

After his playing career finished he went into management at Motherwell and Portsmouth - but in later years was best known as one half of the massively popular 'Saint And Greavsie' partnership, alongside former England striker Jimmy Greaves on ITV Sport, their Saturday lunchtime programme illuminating football coverage in the 1980s and early 90s with its mix of humour and sharp insight.

St John made his name as a youngster at Motherwell, scoring 80 goals in 113 league games as well as a hat-trick in only two minutes 30 seconds in a Scottish League Cup tie against Hibernian in 1959.

He was hot property - and when Liverpool's directors initially told Shankly they could not afford the transfer fee, they were informed in no uncertain terms by the manager: "We can't afford not to buy him."

Liverpool's League Division One Champions side: Back Row (from left to right) Willie Stevenson, Ronnie Moran, Tommy Lawrence, Gordon Milne and Gerry Byrne. Front Row (from left to right) Peter Thompson, Alf Arrowsmith, Ron Yeats, Ian St John, Roger Hunt and Ian Callaghan
Liverpool's League Division One champions: back row (from left to right) Willie Stevenson, Ronnie Moran, Tommy Lawrence, Gordon Milne and Gerry Byrne. Front row (from left to right) Peter Thompson, Alf Arrowsmith, Ron Yeats, Ian St John, Roger Hunt and Ian Callaghan

Shankly described St John's signing, along with the arrival of fellow Scot Ron Yeats from Dundee United in the same year, as "the turning point" as Liverpool came out of the Second Division to emerge as a dominant force in British football.

If Yeats was Shankly's defensive colossus - he invited reporters to go into the dressing room and "take a walk around him" after he signed - St John was the aggressive attacking spearhead, fearless, feisty and with every asset his manager admired.

He made his debut against Everton in the Liverpool Senior Cup, scoring a hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat.

St John formed a formidable partnership with England World Cup winner Roger Hunt, served by two outstanding wingers in Ian Callaghan and Peter Thompson while the likes of Yeats and 'Anfield Iron' Tommy Smith provided Shankly's steel core.

Liverpool made their mark in the First Division in 1962-63 after promotion and were title winners in 1963-64, St John scoring 21 goals.

They repeated the feat in 1965-66, Shankly's side adding to the colourful mood of the swinging 60s on Merseyside alongside the fame of The Beatles, the humour of Ken Dodd and a fierce rivalry with the great title and FA Cup-winning Everton sides built across Stanley Park by their enigmatic, secretive manager Harry Catterick.

The finest moment of St John's Liverpool career came on 1 May 1965 when Liverpool faced Don Revie's emerging Leeds United in the FA Cup final.

Liverpool captain Ron Yeats (left) St John show off the 1965 FA Cup trophy from the train that will take them from Euston back to Liverpool
Liverpool captain Ron Yeats (left) and St John show off the FA Cup trophy as they prepare to depart Euston station following their 1965 win

Liverpool struck first in extra time through Hunt but Billy Bremner quickly equalised for Leeds. It remained level until three minutes from the end of extra time when St John showed athleticism and technique to head in Callaghan's cross and land the big prize.

St John and Liverpool suffered disappointments, losing the 1966 European Cup Winners' Cup final to Borussia Dortmund at Hampden Park - but arguably bigger heartbreak came in the European Cup.

Shankly was convinced Liverpool were, at that time, the best team in Europe. They were on course to prove it in 1965 but lost in controversial fashion to eventual winners Inter Milan.

St John scored the crucial final goal in Liverpool's 3-1 first-leg win at Anfield just days after their FA Cup final triumph. It made them favourites in Italy but they were on the end of a series of questionable decisions as they lost 3-0 in the San Siro, Shankly going to his grave harbouring suspicions about how the game unfolded.

Liverpool were often at or near the top of the table in the years after their 1965-66 title but it was a barren period when measured in trophies and after a humiliating FA Cup quarter-final loss to Second Division strugglers Watford in February 1970 St John was one of several great players, including the likes of Yeats and goalkeeper Tommy Lawrence, who were moving towards the exit.

The performance persuaded Shankly it was time to dismantle one great side and build another, with younger stars such as Ray Clemence being promoted to the first team and new signings like Larry Lloyd, Steve Heighway, John Toshack and Kevin Keegan coming in.

After leaving Anfield, St John played for South African side Hellenic before signing for Coventry City in August 1971. It was a brief association but he still found time to torment the old foe with the winner in a 2-1 victory at Everton the following October.

He had a short spell across the Mersey at Tranmere Rovers, then managed by former team-mate Yeats, before retiring from playing in 1973.

St John won 21 Scotland caps, a meagre amount for a player of such talent, but it was a fate that befell many of the so-called 'Anglos' who appeared out of sight and out of mind to those in charge of Scotland selection once they moved to England.

He went into management and made such an impression at Motherwell that legendary Celtic manager Jock Stein recommended him as successor to Revie at Leeds, after telling them he was not interested in the job himself. St John thought he had the post before the Leeds board made their ill-fated decision to appoint Brian Clough.

He managed Portsmouth, where he was hampered by financial difficulties, and had spells as an assistant manager at Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday.

He left football - but then saw his career revived in the most spectacular fashion on television.

St John always had broadcasting aspiration and ability, narrowly losing a competition to become a BBC commentator at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico.

The biggest fame and acclaim came later at ITV when he was not only a shrewd analyst and co-commentator but established the partnership on 'Saint And Greavsie' that became an essential part of Saturday lunchtime viewing for football fans.

The pair mixed experienced observation with dry wit, St John playing the foil to Greaves but also demonstrating his own great expertise and good humour.

The programme, which ran from 1985 to 1992, had landmark moments such as the duo travelling to New York to make the League Cup draw with future US president Donald Trump - the latter looking vaguely bemused as he pulled the away teams out of the black bag.

Another show had St John training with old rivals Everton before their 1984 FA Cup final win against Watford.

It was all done with good humour, St John being soaked with buckets of water by Everton's players then sporting the club's rosette during ITV's coverage on the day.

Away from 'Saint And Greavsie', St John was always a highly respected analyst for ITV at major tournaments.

In later years he continued his involvement with the media at the local commercial radio station at Liverpool, often outspoken but always someone who had the ear of Reds fans.

St John was the man who had two great careers in football and will be forever assured of his place in Liverpool's Hall Of Fame.

Jimmy Greaves (left) and St John in Christmas hats
Jimmy Greaves (left) and St John were a formidable broadcasting duo
Around the BBC iPlayer bannerAround the BBC iPlayer footer


Join the conversation

These comments are now closed.


Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC