Hopefully this post will go down better than my last cut and paste job from the Times !
‘I see a lot of Sir Alex Ferguson in Jack Ross. I don’t say that lightly’
St Mirren chief executive Tony Fitzpatrick thinks very highly of the club’s young manager
Tony Fitzpatrick was summoned upstairs from the dressing room at Love Street, St Mirren’s old ground, for a meeting with the club’s new manager in the autumn of 1974. Aged 18, he didn’t expect it to end well and was already planning an alternative career as a painter. “I’d just come back from pleurisy and genuinely thought I was going to be let go,” he explains. “We were all sitting in the dressing room and I was first upstairs to see him.
“He looked at me, just like us two sitting here, pointed at me and said: ‘Tony, I’ve been watching you very carefully’. I thought, ‘Here we go’, but his words were: ‘You’ve great potential, like this football club. Not only will we be challenging Celtic and Rangers in future, we’ll be above them and you’re going to be my captain. Do you believe the things I’m saying?’. Then we went downstairs and he introduced me to the players as the new captain. I was married at 16 and I thought I was finished and going to be a painter, but he changed my life completely.”
Alex Ferguson soon pushed St Mirren into the Premier Division as First Division champions, with Fitzpatrick leading a vibrant side that also included Billy Stark and Frank McGarvey. Now 61, he’s St Mirren’s chief executive, after two spells as a player and two as their manager, and chatting at the Paisley 2021 stadium, less than a mile from Love Street, where Ferguson ran things his way from October 1974 to May 1978 before St Mirren became the only club to sack him. An industrial tribunal, which found in their favour, ensued after he moved to Aberdeen.
Fitzpatrick has seen 15 managers come and go since Ferguson’s era in Paisley, so he doesn’t compare Jack Ross, the current boss, to his old mentor without great care. “I see a lot of Sir Alex in Jack,” he says. “They are very strong, their own men, which you’ve got to be, but great in the community, with people. Stubborn at times, but he’s grabbed the club, as Fergie did, by the scruff of the neck and dragged it forward. It’s been an incredible journey.”
A year ago, St Mirren were bottom of the Championship and seemingly bound for League One. The transformation under Ross since has been startling and they now lead the race for an automatic place in next season’s Premiership. Fitzpatrick admits he’d have settled for sneaking into the playoffs at the start of the season.
“I deal with him daily and make no mistake he’s a tough boy inside as well. He’s got all the ingredients. When I speak about Sir Alex and say Jack’s like him, I don’t put that lightly. There’s been other good managers here who have done well but are nowhere near him. This guy is. I said Paul Lambert was a £1m player and people slaughtered me. We don’t want to lose Jack, but I look at the Scotland job, I know he’s young, but why not? He’s good enough.”
Ferguson was there for Fitzpatrick beyond football and long after their relationship as manager and captain at St Mirren ended. He twice tried to sign him for Aberdeen, before he went to Bristol City in 1979 and again when he returned to St Mirren two years later. It was shortly after his move back to Paisley that his son, Tony junior, fell seriously ill and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a form of cancer.
Two years of incredible bravery and suffering followed, with Fitzpatrick and Elizabeth, his wife, by their little boy’s bedside in hospital. He called his son Babakoochi and sat telling him stories. This later inspired him to write The Promise: Together Again — an elegiac children’s book dealing with loss through a character called Babakoochi Bear. A sequel, The Dream, which encourages children to follow their dreams, sees Babakoochi playing for Sir Alex Bearguson. The real Sir Alex wrote a moving foreword to it for Fitzpatrick.
“He was in touch with me every day and he came down to the funeral. He was there for me at every turn as was Ricky McFarlane [who managed St Mirren in Fitzpatrick’s second stint]. That’s why I feel so strongly about him as a person. That’s when you need people. That’s what I see with Jack, he’s always with his players, trying to help them, standing up for them. Everybody has worries and troubles, but if you have somebody at the helm who is strong and doing that bit extra for you, you’ll give them that bit extra back.”
Last Tuesday was the 35th anniversary of Tony junior’s death. He’d be 41 now, the same age as Ross. “Every day in life, I speak to him, I still feel he’s about me. People say time’s a healer, but it’s not, you just learn to live each day with it. Any parent who has lost a child will tell you that. You never, ever, get over it, but I’m a great believer in God and another place, so I believe Tony is there and that one day I’ll see him again.”
He could not articulate his grief back then and feels he let down his daughter Lorraine, Tony’s older sister, who was nine when he died, by being unable to help with her more. The Promise was his way of addressing this, a book for children, and their parents, that could help them discuss bereavement better.
“I’ve met incredible people through the book in similar circumstances to us, who are going through the same or about to go through the same. That’s been a real gift to me. Tony has left an incredible legacy for such a young person. People from as far away as America and Australia, plus hundreds of families from around Glasgow and Paisley, have said to me, ‘I can’t believe how much the book has helped us as adults and our other kids’.”
So how come he never followed Ferguson to Aberdeen? “When Fergie first went there, Celtic were interested and Aberdeen were interested, so I put in for a transfer and was hoping to go to Aberdeen because of my relationship with him. Myself, Jim Clunie, the manager, and Willie Todd, the chairman, sat down and the chairman said, ‘We’re not selling you to another Scottish club, there’s three English clubs interested in you’ — Aston Villa, who years before had told me I was too small, Leeds and Bristol City.”
Fitzpatrick might have won a European Cup at Villa, but viewed Bristol City, where he was coached by Roy Hodgson, as an “up and coming club”. That was before financial problems led to a firesale. “They sold Gerry Gow to Manchester City, Joe Royle to Norwich and I was next. Again, I was going to Aberdeen, but St Mirren weren’t going to sell Peter Weir to Aberdeen if I was going there as well and it got a wee bit messy.” He was content to come back to the club and town he knew so well, but then came Tony junior’s illness. “I had the big house, in Thornly Park Avenue, the car, my wife, son and daughter, a lot of money in the bank, went to Parkhead on my debut and won 3-1. You’re thinking, ‘Life’s fantastic’, but within a short space of time — bombshell. I wasn’t the same player after that, something died inside me.”
He will go to Aberdeen on Saturday, though, for an intriguing tie in the fourth round of the Scottish Cup. St Mirren enjoyed an adventure in the tournament last season, winning at Premiership Dundee, then leading their quarter-final at Celtic Park until the 58th minute. “I was in the tunnel afterwards and Brendan Rodgers said, ‘That’s the best team, domestically, we’ve faced’,” recalls Fitzpatrick. “Jack will be delighted to pit his wits against Derek [McInnes]. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve not been up to Aberdeen for a long time and it’s a great club.”
ON TV SATURDAY
Aberdeen v St Mirren
BBC One Scotland, Kick-off 12.15pm