Ian St John, who has died aged 82, was a key member of the great Liverpool team built by Bill Shankly and will be remembered at Anfield for scoring the goal which brought the club its first FA Cup; later, he had a long career as a television presenter for ITV, notably in tandem with Jimmy Greaves.
Together with the giant centre-half Ron Yeats, St John was regarded by Shankly as the most important signing that he made. He saw the pair as the missing pieces of the jigsaw he had been trying to solve since being appointed Liverpool’s manager two years earlier in 1959, with the Merseysiders seemingly mired in the Second Division.
Shankly remembered having seen the young St John and Yeats play against each other a while earlier, and in 1961 paid Motherwell £37,500 for the former, then aged 22. This was double Liverpool’s record transfer fee, but when the board queried his judgment he told them that St John was not just any centre-forward, but “the only centre-forward in the game”. His confidence was amply borne out.
St John’s principal assets were an ability to read the game that made him both a creator and finisher of chances, and a combativeness that allowed him to outmuscle defenders often much larger than he. St John stood just 5ft 7in, but he attributed to his youthful training as a boxer the strong legs which enabled him to leap unexpectedly high for headers and his refusal to be intimidated by brutal challenges. Not that his behaviour on the pitch was always saintly; he was sent off half a dozen times in his career, largely for retaliation with his fists.
At Liverpool, he rapidly forged a lethal partnership up front with Roger Hunt. This paid immediate dividends when the side swept to the Second Division title in 1962. The next season, they gave notice of the force that Shankly had harnessed when reaching the semi-finals of the FA Cup, only to be denied by a brilliant performance from Gordon Banks in the Leicester goal.
The year after, however, they won the league title for the first time in almost three decades, making up 17 points on Manchester United, and with St John scoring 19 times in 40 matches. Then in 1965 came the Cup, St John sealing the 2-1 victory over Leeds near the end of extra time with a snapped header from Ian Callaghan’s cross.
The trophy was compensation for defeat to Inter Milan in the semi-final of the European Cup, which St John always attributed to dubious refereeing. The following season followed a similar pattern as the side claimed a second league championship, but went down to Borussia Dortmund at Hampden Park in the final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup.
By now, St John was beginning to play further back, scoring fewer goals but helping to orchestrate the sharp, powerful attacking football for which Liverpool would become renowned and which would enable the club to dominate competitions in England and Europe for the next 20 years.
It was he who suggested the addition of red socks to what became the famous all-red strip, and he established a singular bond with the fans. “What will we do when the Lord comes?” ran one line popular on the Kop. “Move St John to inside left.” And when a sign outside a church read “Jesus Saves”, someone wrote underneath: “But St John scores on the rebound.”
The team’s success reflected the buzz that the Beatles had brought to the city, but by the end of the Sixties both were starting to fade. St John, who had scored 118 goals in 424 appearances, was increasingly troubled by an old knee injury, yet even so he was shocked to find himself dropped from the side.
He especially resented discovering it from Jackie Milburn, the Newcastle great who had become a reporter, rather than from Shankly himself, and his bond with his fellow Scot was never fully repaired.
Ian St John was born in Motherwell, near Glasgow, on June 7 1938. One of six children, he was the son of a steelworker who died of pleurisy when Ian was aged six. Accordingly, he grew up in some hardship, in a cold-water tenement block, helping his mother to make ends meet by taking on odd jobs from an early age. Even so, there was not enough to go round to pay for shoes to be mended when they had holes and he had to cover these with scraps of linoleum.
He left school at 15, first for a job at the local coachworks and then for one as an engineering apprentice, a trade he loathed and from which he skived frequently. Nonetheless, these being the days before millionaire footballers, he stuck at it for five years, sometimes coming in to work the morning after having played for Scotland.
For from an early age, it had been clear that he had the potential to be an outstanding sportsman, and as a boy he had been a keen cricketer as well as a promising boxer. Yet football was his first love, and at 16 he was taken on by his home town club. The manager, Bobby Ancell, had assembled a highly talented group of young players who, while never quite fulfilling their potential as a team, won many admirers for their dashing approach to the game.
St John scored 80 goals in 113 matches for Motherwell, including what remains the quickest hat-trick in Scottish league history, rattled in against Hibernian in 1959 in some two and a half minutes. He won his first international cap the same year, aged 20, and went on to play another 20 times for his country, scoring on nine occasions. He might have played more often but for critical comments about selection policy.
After leaving Anfield, St John saw out his playing days in South Africa, and briefly at Coventry, before a broken leg in training while with Tranmere Rovers forced him to hang up his boots in 1973. A largely unhappy spell in management followed, first back at Motherwell and then, having lost out on the Leeds job to Brian Clough when believing it was his, at Portsmouth.
Disputes with the board about promises of money for transfers soured his appetite for club football and it was with some relief that, in 1977, after brief stints as assistant manager at Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday, that he made the move to television.
He worked initially as a pundit, and then with the former England striker Greaves presented ITV’s Saturday lunchtime football preview show Saint and Greavsie from 1979 until the era of Sky dawned in 1992. Banal as their banter often was, the programme nevertheless attracted audiences of more than 5 million and helped to confirm that ITV had broken the stranglehold over the sport held for so long by the more formal style of the BBC.
As was well known, at the time Greaves was still recovering from his battle with alcoholism, and his relaxed approach to his presenting duties meant that show depended much on St John’s unwavering professionalism. Even so, he was almost caught out when commentating in 1978 on the World Cup match between Scotland and Peru only for the link to the television audience to fail.
Having decided, as a joke, to continue his commentary for the benefit of the engineers but with rather more colourful appraisals of the players’ abilities, St John was appalled to discover afterwards that the link might have been restored without warning at any moment.
As his memoir, The Saint (2005), co-written with James Lawton, made clear, St John positively prided himself on the forthrightness of his opinions, especially when it came to the way in which the Liverpool team should best be managed. He himself ran the Ian St John Soccer Camps for many years.
Away from football, he relaxed on the golf course, often playing with his wife Betsy. They had married when he was 20, and she supported him loyally in all he did. Latterly, however, he had been suffering from bladder and prostate cancer.
Ian St John is survived by Betsy and their daughter and son. Another son died in infancy.
Ian St John, born June 7 1938, died March 1 2021