The Move from Muirton Park
In December 1986 at the club AGM came the dramatic news that an approach had been made to new Chairman Geoff Brown, offering to buy Muirton Park and turn it and the adjoining ice rink into a retail superstore. In return, Saints would be re-housed in a brand new, 10,000 seater stadium.
Crumbling Muirton Park was 62 years old at that time and with the tragedies of the Bradford City fire and the Heysel Stadium disaster still very fresh in the minds and with the club carrying a £200,000 cash deficit at the bank the benefits of such a move were obvious. Six months later, when Tayside Regional Council imposed a crowd limit of just 2,000 on the old ground (later raised to 5,000 following some remedial work) the need to find a new home for the club became even more obvious.
Debate followed as to where the new stadium could be sited and whether 10,000 was a large enough capacity but the move to secure a new home for St Johnstone was underway.
Virtually the whole of 1987 was taken up with extensive and detailed negotiations as Geoff Brown fought hard to get the deal he wanted for the club. Of course, the deal wasn’t just between the football club and the representatives of the prospective purchasers (Asda) – the ice rink was also to be re-housed as part of the plans and quite understandably their representatives were trying to do their best for the city’s curlers and skaters.
One of the most important pieces of the jigsaw was what was known as the Section 50 Agreement – a vital contract safeguarding Saints, giving us protection in law against the supermarket being built first before the new stadium was finished and possibly leaving the club high and dry.
The Section 50 agreement apart, there was also the not inconsequential matter of where Saints could move to. Local quantity surveyor Bob Reid brought the football club in contact with a client – who also happened to be his uncle – who owned farm land on the western fringes of the city and who had indicated a willingness to allow the club to use part of the land at his Newton of Huntingtower farm. A cash purchase of the land was mooted but eventually the land owner indicated that he would be willing to accept shares in the club and he duly received 30,000, £1 or 20% of the available share capital. The gentleman in question was Bruce McDiarmid and although he didn’t know it at the time nor requested it (indeed he would later show some reluctance to be honoured in this way), the new stadium would be named after him.
However, much more negotiation needed to be done between the main parties before Saints were in a position to take Bruce up on his offer not least in June 1988 when Asda announced that they wanted the football club directors to provide guarantees that the new ground would be built within a specified period – any extension beyond this period would see the directors have to stump up hefty financial penalties. Geoff Brown responded by telling the supermarket that if they wanted the deal to go ahead then they should build the stadium themselves to the specifications of the football club and only then could they have Muirton Park.
A fortnight without a response followed and it looked like the brinkmanship indulged in had led to the end of the deal. A fax to Asda gave them 24 hours to respond or the deal was off and that brought a quick response – they were still considering their options. However, finally, Asda came back and agreed to the deal. It had been an incredible piece of negotiation by Chairman Geoff Brown who was no doubt partly driven on by the knowledge that the very existence of the football club was in the balance.
Constructing the new stadium
The deal finally done, attention could now turn to the criteria for the new stadium. Geoff Brown was absolutely clear in his vision that the new stadium had to be a facility which could be used seven days a week to bring income into the club and not just open for business one afternoon every fortnight – as Muirton Park had been and many other grounds remain to this day.
The contract to build the new stadium was awarded to Miller Construction and they did remarkably well to build the stadium within a ten month time span. The work began on Monday 3rd October 1988 and before construction could begin 120,000m3 of subsoil and top soil had to be moved in a massive cut and fill operation. This was to compensate for the undulating contours of the site and to allow the pitch to be orientated on a north-south axis, so that players would not be affected by low sunlight on winter afternoons.
The stand structures were predominantly steel with reinforced concrete foundations and further extensive work was needed to ensure a level surface for the installation of the adjacent all-weather training pitch – an important part of the overall project which would not only bring in some rental income but also provide the base from which community coaching could be done.
Come the end of the work Saints had possession of a stadium complex containing 10,700 seats, including 500 executive seats, 20 disabled spaces, 100 coach and 1,000 car parking spaces.
Media interest in the new stadium was phenomenal. It was, after all, the first purpose-built, all-seated stadium in the United Kingdom and with the Hillsbrough tragedy having occurred during the period of its construction McDiarmid Park was seen as a model for other clubs across the country and beyond.
The Opening Season
The first ever game at the new stadium took place on 19th August 1989 and 7, 267 fans witnessed the inaugural game against Clydebank. The now defunct Bankies had the temerity to score the first goal on the lush new surface – Jim Hughes taking just seven minutes but in nineteen minutes midfielder Harry Curran wrote his name into the club record books by First Saints goal at McDiarmidscoring the first home goal on the Crieff Road, hammering the ball high into the net after a Grant Jenkins header from an Ian Heddle cross had come off the post. A second half penalty by Don McVicar ensured that the first match at McDiarmid Park ended in a home victory.
The first St Johnstone team to play at the new stadium was Balavage, Cherry, McVicar, Thomson, Nicolson, Johnston, Moore, Curran, Grant, Jenkins, Heddle. Subs: Thompson, Sorbie.
That game signalled the start of a successful season for Saints and a remarkable season attendance-wise as the Perthshire public turned up in their droves to cheer the team on in their new home.
The following week saw Forfar Athletic visit the Fair City and although the attendance was understandably down on the historic first day, a very respectable 4,310 turned up for the game – keep in mind that the visit of Meadowbank Thistle to Muirton Park less than a year before that had drawn only 1,694 souls to the game.
Other attendance figures during that first season included 4,470 against Albion Rovers in September, 7,011 v Falkirk the same month, 8,082 for the October visit of Morton and a remarkable 10,169 for the October top of the table clash against Partick Thistle. That crowd record would be broken on the last day of March for the memorable match against Airdrie as Saints took a significant step towards the First Division title.
Of course, an Official Opening for the new stadium had to be arranged and Saints tapped into the goodwill of former St Johnstone player Alex Ferguson who was three years into his reign as manager of Manchester United.
Official opening v Manchester UnitedOn 17th October 1989 Ferguson brought a strong United side to Perth and 9,788 fans turned up for the showpiece occasion and the evening was further enhanced by the appearance of Sir Matt Busby and Bobby Charlton. It was a tremendous occasion for St Johnstone Football Club and the City of Perth and not even a 20 minute floodlight failure nor the Brian McClair goal in a 1-0 United win could dampen the occasion.
The teams that night were:
Balavage, Treanor, McVicar, Thomson, Cherry, Johnston, Moore, Curran, Grant, Jenkins, Heddle. Subs: Maskrey, Blackie, Ward, Barron, McKillop, Thompson MANCHESTER UNITED: Leighton, Martin, Donaghy, Bruce, Phelan, pallister, Robson, Ince, McClair, Hughes, Sharpe. Subs: Gibson, Blackmore, Duxbury, Maiorana
The final game of that 1989/90 season saw Saints crowned First Division champions, having secured the title the previous week at Ayr United and the Championship trophy presentation was a fitting climax to the inaugural season at McDiarmid Park.
Notable Saints games
By the end of season 2007/2008 Saints had played 419 competitive matches since making the move to McDiarmid Park. Among the more notable:
21 August 1990
The first ever national cup tie at the new stadium ends in disappointment for Saints. Russian defender Sergei Baltacha’s debut for the club can’t prevent a 2-0 win for Clyde.
22 December 1990
Saints first McDiarmid Park win over one of the Old Firm clubs as goals from Steve Maskrey, Harry Curran and Tommy Turner secure a 3-2 win over Celtic.
26 January 1991
A drab 0-0 draw against Berwick Rangers but notable for the fact it is the first Scottish Cup tie to be played at the ground.
13 February 1991
The first televised game at the stadium as Sky cover the Premier League match against Aberdeen which the Dons win by the only goal of the game.
11 May 1991
Roddy Grant scores what remains the fastest ever goal scored at the stadium. Only 21 seconds are on the clock when he hooks the ball past Pat Bonner to give Saints the lead. Celtic go on to win 3-2.
21 September 1991
Falkirk’s Simon Stainrod scores from the half-way line. Mark Treanor has just scored from the penalty spot and as Kevin McAllister taps the ball to Stainrod from the re-start the Englishman fired the ball fully 55 yards over the head of a startled Lindsay Hamilton and into the net.
21 November 1992
The first game ever to be abandoned at McDiarmid Park as snow causes a Premier League fixture against Motherwell to be halted at half-time with the score of 0-0. Two other games have since suffered the same fate – identical cause and timing in February 2000 when Hibs were the visitors and then in October 2002 fog caused a League Cup tie against Livingston to be abandoned with just ten minutes remaining.
8 October 1996
The first Challenge Cup tie to be played at the Crieff Road venue is a semi-final tie against Montrose which Saints win 4-2.
1 January 1997
Saints are the first side to net seven times in a game at the stadium and there could be no better opposition. The New Years Day win over Dundee is achieved to the tune of 7 goals to 2.
19 April 1997
The 1996/97 First Division title is clinched with a 3-2 win over East Fife thanks to goals from Philip Scott (2) and Roddy Grant.
23 August 1997
A match against Celtic draws in 10, 265 fans and in the process the aggregate attendance at the stadium breaks through the 1 million barrier.
31 January 1998
The first win over Rangers, home or away, since 1971 is achieved as goals from John O’Neil and George O’Boyle secure a 2-0 win.
8 November 1998
Saints suffer their heaviest ever McDiarmid Park defeat as Rangers gain revenge for the defeat ten months earlier. There are five different scorers as the Ibrox side leave the stadium with a 7-0 win behind them.
23 May 1999
A record attendance at McDiarmid Park for the 5th time in the stadium’s history and this one remains in place to the present day. 10,575 watch Saints beat local rivals Dundee 1-0 to clinch 3rd place in Scotland and secure European football for the club.
26 August 1999
The first ever European tie at McDiarmid Park and the first in Perth since 1971. Finnish side VPS Vaasa are the welcome visitors for the second leg of the UEFA Cup 1st Qualifying Round. Two goals from Miguel Simao see Saints through to the next round.
30 September 1999
Arguably the finest game seen at the stadium. The cash-rich side from Monaco come to Perth having won the first leg in Monte Carlo 3-0 but they have to settle for a share of the spoils in a fabulous 3-3 draw. The side from the Principality side contains names such as Fabien Barthez, Marco Simone, David Trezeguet, Willy Sagnol, Sylvain Legwinski and John Arne Riise. A 5th minute own goal has Saints ahead but although Dado Prso draws the visitors level and then Riise edges them ahead, Nick Dasovic makes it 2-2. Legwinski makes it 3-2 to Monaco but 14 minutes from time John O’Neil scores to ensure a draw and maintain Saints record of not having lost a home European game.
31 January 2001
St Johnstone’s chance to make a bit of broadcasting history falls foul of the weather. The visit of league leaders Celtic to McDiarmid Park for the first game after the winter shutdown is due to be Scotland’s first ever pay-per-view television match. However, in the run-up to the kick off freezing fog descends on the stadium and referee John Underhill is left with no option but to call the game off just ten minutes before kick-off and with thousands of supporters already in the ground. Sky are left with the task of refunding customer’s £7.95.
Not just St Johnstone matches
The facilities available at McDiarmid Park combined with the central location of Perth has meant that the stadium has hosted a number of football matches not involving St Johnstone and also a number of non-football events.
The first international match to be played at the stadium was a UEFA Under 21 Euro Qualifier between Scotland and Norway and 6,137 watched the home side win 2-0. Five other Scotland Under 21 matches have subsequently been played at the stadium with Portugal, Belarus, Croatia, Lithuania, Slovenia all being given a warm welcome to the stadium.
Six months later the German Democratic Republic visited McDiarmid Park for a ‘B’ international match and in the years that have followed the venue has hosted numerous junior cup finals and schools internationals.
McDiarmid Park was one of eight Scottish venues for the UEFA Under 16 Championships in 1998.
The first competitive game between two other Scottish sides occurred in August 1991 when Stirling Albion met Hibs in a Skol League Cup second round tie, the Edinburgh side exercising their right not to play on Albion’s artificial surface at Annfield. Dundee did the same for a Scottish Cup replay the following year and again McDiarmid Park was the venue chosen.
Women’s football has been a very prominent part of the games played at the stadium in recent years since McDiarmid Park became the official home of all the SFA’s women’s and girls football activities but the first game involving the fairer sex took place as long ago as May 1992 when Scotland met Iceland.
Of course it is not just the round ball game that has been played at the stadium – the oval ball has also played a prominent part in the stadium’s history. The first rugby international took place in January 1995 when Scotland ‘A’ met Italy and in the intervening years there have been dozens of rugby fixtures played. Western Samoa, Ulster, Australia, New Zealand and France are just some of the countries that have come to Perth on rugby business and for a while McDiarmid Park became the home to Caledonia Reds.
However, the biggest rugby match to take place was the international match against Japan on 13 November 2004 – the first time a full Scotland match had been played north of the Forth. In a unique day, Saints played Ross County in a lunchtime kick-off before the ground was hastily turned around for the 5.30pm kick off. A bumper 10,218 watched the Japanese visitors trounced 100-8 – a record victory for the Scots.
Back with football and when two ‘smaller’ clubs have met in the League Cup semi-finals McDiarmid Park has been chosen as the venue on a couple of occasions: Airdrieonians and Raith Rovers battled it out in October 1994 and the now- defunct Lanarkshire side were involved again exactly a year later with Dundee the opponents on this occasion.
The Crieff Road venue has proved an ideal location for the final of the competition these days known as the SFL Challenge Cup and fans of other SFL clubs have made there way to the showpiece occasion at McDiarmid on four occasions: Dundee v Airdrieonians in 1994, Stenhousemuir and Dundee United in 1995, Inverness Caledonian Thistle and Airdrie United in 2003 and most recently Ross County and Clyde in 2006.
The issue of teams refusing to play on artificial pitch surfaces which brought Stirling Albion games to the stadium twice in the early 1990s raised its head again in 2004 but this time the game had a higher profile. Dunfermline Athletic switched their UEFA Cup Second Qualifying Round second leg tie against FH Hafnarfjördur to McDiarmid when the Icelandic side refused to play on the plastic pitch at East End Park but the Pars will not remember the occasion with much affection as they made a shock exit from the competition thanks to a 2-1 defeat.
And it is not just sporting occasions that have been hosted at McDiarmid Park. Evangelist Franklin Graham made his first visit to the UK in May 1999 and chose McDiarmid Park as the venue for his preaching and we are very fortunate to have struck up a great friendship with the Jehovah’s Witnesses movement and they have held their annual Scottish convention at the stadium over three days in July for a number of years now.
In May 2004 The Royal British Legion Scotland massed Pipes and Drums and Central Band performed the Beating Retreat aspect of their Freedom of the City of Perth commemoration day and within days of the launch of this revamped website, on 6th July 2008, Sir Elton John - arguably the biggest named star ever to visit the stadium - will take centre stage in the stadium’s first ever concert.