Greats graced Love Street. Johan Cruyff and Ruud Gullit swaggered to success in the UEFA Cup. King Kenny scored as then European champions Liverpool entertained in a centenary friendly.
There were main men sporting black and white too. Archie Gemmill spent four seasons there – making history in the process as Scottish football’s first sub.
Davie Lapsley, Frank McAvennie, future Champions League winner Paul Lambert, current Kilmarnock boss Steve Clarke and former Spain international Victor Munoz all delighted the home faithful.
In the dugout too, a big boss strutted his stuff. In an era more nightcap than knighthood, (future Sir) Alex Ferguson sent home attendances soaring, Fergie’s Furies delivering the 1977 First Division trophy.
Yet my endless love involves none of these great men.
No, mine centres on season 1999/2000 in the First Division and involves a trigonometry teacher by the name of Tom Hendrie and an XI anyone outside of the PA postcode would struggle to recall.
In the time of the fanzine, the cry for all-seater stadia and, whisper it, cycling shorts, an unknown, unfancied St Mirren side defied all the odds to win their first league title in 23 years.
Up against the spending power of favourites Dunfermline – whose squad included Stevie Crawford and St Mirren’s 1987 Scottish Cup goalscorer Iain Ferguson, and in a league boasting strong Falkirk, Raith Rovers, Livingston and Morton teams, St Mirren were second favourites for relegation after part-timers Clydebank.
And rightly so, as the seven seasons that followed St Mirren’s relegation in 1992 had provided little cause for optimism. Indeed, the trap door to the third tier had almost snaffled Saints up in 1998.
“When I was young I’d play games at the racecourse (St James playing fields) and you could hear the roar from the crowds,” says former St Mirren defender Barry McLaughlin.
“Your match would finish and they’d open up the gates at Love Street so you could run over and watch the last 25 minutes. I saw all the European games, it was a great era to be a young St Mirren fan.
“But the period after we got relegated was really poor, there wasn’t really the money to build a decent team. Then [manager] Tom Hendrie came in and it just seemed to all come together from there.”
Come together it did.
If a pre-season victory against inaugural Premier League champions Rangers was a nod to what lay ahead, the opening-day draw at home to Ayr United quickly returned the icy blast to the Paisley terraces.
But a thumping 6-0 demolition of Raith in Kirkcaldy the following week proved to be the first of 23 league wins as Saints amassed 76 points to finish top, five clear of the Pars, and they were at one point the highest-scoring team in Britain. Mark Yardley finished top scorer in the league with 19, his fellow forwards Barry Lavety (16) and Steven McGarry (9) also making a healthy contribution. There was a run of eight straight wins from October to December and an 8-0 rout of the Bankies, the start of seven wins in the final nine fixtures.
So how did Hendrie, a maths teacher from Edinburgh, take this team from zeros to heroes and deliver such bookie-bashing brilliance?
Previous promotions with Berwick Rangers and Alloa Athletic hinted at his talents, but this was his first full-time appointment, bringing John Coughlin as his assistant.
“The chairman wasn’t looking for miracles, just improvement,” explains Hendrie. “I used from Christmas 1998 to the end of that season to assess the squad. I brought players on loan back and said to them all ‘it’s a clean slate, let’s start from scratch’.”
Tache-touting, fag-smoking Tommy Turner returned from a loan spell at Queen of the South and was installed as captain and sweeper, while forward Junior Mendes was recalled from Carlisle.
Ian Ross, a former schoolboy star for Hendrie, was snapped up from Motherwell, and Hendrie’s lower league knowledge saw Scott Walker sign from East Stirling to bolster the defence, while repentant prodigal son Lavety made the move back from Hibs.
But with the personnel largely unchanged from the previous year, it was in the tactics and training where the transformation took place.
Hendrie says: “When I came in, their condition was poorer than the part-time players I’d worked with. I’d started life as a PE teacher and always felt that the players had to work hard at the physical side and if they did that they would reap the benefits.
“I’d been to university and had some know-how about physical conditioning and now had the time coaching full-time to dedicate to working in the gym, in the swimming pool and on the training ground.”
According to Yardley, often cruelly taunted over his size, this approach quickly paid dividends. He said: “Past pre-seasons we’d have been up the Paisley hills, but Tom Hendrie said ‘we play on flat grass, we run on flat grass.’ It was the fittest I’ve ever been pre-season, I felt fantastic and you could see it right through the team. The manager did every bit of pre-season with us and he was in his 40s so there was no way we were going to slacken off.
“I could sense his enthusiasm – having been given his first opportunity to manage full-time he wanted to show what he could do. He painted out a 400 metres track at a public park and he had us at the local baths where you worked your backside off running in the pool. He had every detail down, what to eat, when to rest.”
This was sports science long before football had embraced such thinking, argues Mendes. He should know, the Londoner now plying his trade in this role at Partick Thistle.
Mendes said: “I’d love to see the distances I covered back then as the gaffer wouldn’t let you get away with not tracking back. I can still see him on the sideline frantically waving his hands.
“He changed our training completely – we didn’t have sports scientists back then, but we were all stronger and eating better, timing our meals better. And his formation was a genius stroke, putting round pegs in round holes.”
Opting for a 3-4-3 set up when 4-4-2 was in vogue, Hendrie had continental keeper Ludo Roy launching attacks and encouraged Ross on the left and Iain Nicolson on the right to push up the park at every opportunity. Hendrie says: “It wasn’t a system I’d played with any team before, it just developed from the quality of players we had. Friends said you can’t win with that system, but we practised it every day. It’s strange to think, now Conte’s Chelsea use it and everyone raves about it, and I played that 18 years ago.
“We were the only team in Scotland building from the back. The system suited the players we had and they all had a distinct role to play, which they enjoyed. If ever we lost our way the players were told to hit the diagonal for Yardley and we scored numerous goals from that alone.”
It wasn’t just the shape or the science which marked out Hendrie as ahead of his time. Defending was zonal, detailed reports were collated on every opponent and, as Steven McGarry recalls, practice made perfect even when it came to taking throw-ins.
“We worked relentlessly on our shape and on set pieces as the manager knew how pivotal and productive they could be,” says the former St Mirren and Motherwell man who went on to clock up more than 100 appearances for Perth Glory and is still playing and coaching in Australia. McGarry’s shoulder drop and strike from an attacking shy proved successful on several occasions.
He explains: “That was straight off the training ground, we were the set-piece specialists of that season and I’ve stolen some of Tom Hendrie’s throw-ins for my coaching manual.
“It was a special year – you could feel it building as the games were progressing, that something special was going to happen. And we were always up to mayhem, well nothing too crazy, just your normal carry-on.”
During the course of the Skype interview, McGarry comes clean as the culprit behind a hotel fire extinguisher ‘incident’ which turned Mendes and Roy into snowmen and admits to trashing the manager’s office and downing his champagne once the league was won.
He also fondly recalls the ‘Friday club’, where each week a squad member would select an eatery for a team lunch, with points gained for freebies gleaned, and forfeits for establishments which failed to make the grade.
McGarry adds: “It’s mental to think that the full first team on a Friday were going for a Chinese or a Pizza Hut. Nowadays you’re drinking two gallons of water, eating chicken breast and pasta; back then it was all curries and naan breads. But it helped to take our minds off events on the field.”
On the field, Saints had lost just once by December and were six points clear. Back-to-back 2-0 defeats against Falkirk and Livingston appeared to be just a New Year hiccup, followed up with a win over Caley Thistle, a huge away point against the Pars and two goals in the final minutes in Kirkcaldy to somehow snatch victory from the jaws of defeat after Raith Rovers went in front with just five minutes to play. But by March, the title tilt was wavering as a Crawford brace at Love Street saw the Pars leapfrog Saints into top spot.
It was to be a mad month, Saints immediately returning to the top thanks to a thumping eight-goal win over Clydebank – only to play out a goalless draw against the same side a fortnight later – all the more embarrassing as Clydebank were ground-sharing at Cappielow, and with the kit man failing miserably in his duties, Saints were forced to don luminous yellow Morton away tops.
Back home in the black-and-white stripes, new signing Paul McKnight scored on 87 minutes to sink Falkirk in front of almost 7000 supporters. Two weeks later, he struck the winner again, this time leaving it until the 94th minute before volleying home against Ayr United at Somerset Park.
That secured promotion, and the following week Yardley, McGarry and McLaughlin sealed the title at home to luckless Raith, who’d lost all four encounters against the Saints, conceding 14 goals in the process.
“Everything we hit went in,” said Mendes. “Normally you get days like that when luck is on your side, but for us that was happening every week.”
“The longer it went on, the more the players felt we can do this – not just get promoted, but win the league,” added Hendrie. “We kept our head as the momentum was building and when we did lose, we had the right attitude to go and win the next match. Yes, there were a few close calls, but we always played the same way and had the belief that we would win the league.”
It was fairytale stuff, but there was to be no ‘happily ever after’ for Hendrie or his plucky charges, whose free-flowing football came unstuck against the money and might of the SPL after just one season. The squad soon broke up and Hendrie harshly was shown the door, returning to part-time football and life managing the classroom.
Since then, there has been further silverware to cheer for St Mirren, including a League Cup and two promotions, the most recent this season by Jack Ross’ charges which is clearly comparable in taking a side from rock bottom to champions in such a short space of time.
But for myself and thousands of doting Paisley Buddies, nothing can eclipse the millennium experience. That was in evidence recently when Renfrewshire Council ran a competition to name the streets of a new housing development being built at the site of the old Love Street ground. More than 6000 votes were cast and two of the four winning names came from the class of 2000: McGarry Terrace and Yardley Avenue.
“I still get tingles down my spine just thinking about that special season and I’m incredibly proud to have been a part of it,” says McGarry.
“I remember the open top bus round Paisley with the trophy as if it was yesterday,” adds Yardley. “My wife’s family were there decked out in black and white and my two stepboys were with me waving to thousands of supporters lining the streets.”
Hendrie says: “Whenever I bump into a St Mirren supporter they tell me how grateful they are for that season and that nothing has ever come near that feeling. It’s nice to know how much they enjoyed it and that it is still held in such high regard.”
McLaughlin was the final goalscorer that season and crowned player of the year, so it seems fitting that he should have the final word.
“For me personally, my mum passed away in the pre-season and at difficult times during games I’d look up at the sky and I think my mum was looking out for me with the way some of the results went. I got married at the end of the year so went from one extreme to the other.
“No-one in that squad had a history of winning things. We were really just a bunch of daft boys, there was a stack of local guys, not just west of Scotland, but guys from Paisley and Renfrewshire – our sort of version of the Celtic 1967 team if you like. It was quite simply a crazy season when everyone expected the bubble to burst…but it didn’t.”