Ian St John was six years old and his father, Alex, was being carried down the stairs of their Motherwell tenement wrapped in a blanket, a red blanket. It was the last time St John saw him.
Alex St John died shortly afterwards. He was 36, a steelworker worn out by his job, worn down by his circumstance. The day before, Alex and his son Ian had been to Fir Park to watch their local heroes, Motherwell. It had rained and rained and they stood out in the open air being rained on. Two hours of it. "The death certificate said pleurisy and pneumonia," St John would say. "But they weren't the only causes of my father's death."
St John may have been known to millions as the chuckling straight man to Jimmy Greaves’ humour on ITV, but throughout this mischief St John remained angry at the conditions in which his parents were forced to live. In unheated tenements, the winters were “viciously cold”. Men died young. “Malignant social engineering,” was St John’s phrase.
A better life
Football gave him a way out, an economic pathway to a better life as well as glory on the pitch. The game gave him rich experience, but as he said: “I would never forget the blanket.”
It was 1944 when St John's father died, it was 1961 when Bill Shankly turned up on a Motherwell doorstep and virtually ordered St John to join him at Anfield. Liverpool smashed their transfer record to get the vivacious young Scot.
"James Cagney was his favourite," St John said of Shankly, "and I think that day he was playing Cagney - in real life. He was full-on: 'You're coming to Liverpool.' No mistake."
At St John's suggestion, he was sitting in the Shankly Hotel on Liverpool's Victoria Street. It was a couple of years ago. We had pots of tea and sandwiches in between recollections and nods and nudges from hotel guests about the man in the corner. It was the day of a game, Liverpool-Chelsea; Eden Hazard scored a wonder goal.
St John scored a few of those and when he died aged 82 a fortnight ago, there was deserving appreciation. Much was devoted to his Saint & Greavsie television partnership. Fair enough, the programme was funny and popular, but Ian St John was a bit more than that. He was an elite-level footballer who can be described, arguably, as among the most important 11 men ever to play for the club. Ian St John changed Liverpool and of how many can that be said?
What gets lost in the 24-hour red noise around the modern club is that in 1961 Liverpool were mediocre, treading water in the Second Division. Until Shankly won a boardroom debate to invest in players, just as Everton had done, Liverpool FC were dull. Then Shankly was enabled. He bought St John and Ron Yeats and black-and-white Liverpool had a rush of colour.
They were off: promoted in 1962, League champions in '64, Europe the next season (for the first time) and FA Cup winners in '65 (for the first time). It was St John who scored the winner in the FA Cup, which was greeted like an act of liberation by red Merseyside. He was bold, talented. Without him there might have been no promotion and without that, no title, no Europe and no modern institution. St John was a cornerstone figure.
He played another role in the re-invention of Liverpool. This involved colour, too, literally. With Shankly toying with the idea of switching the white shorts on the kit to red to match the jersey, St. John chipped in that red socks could work too. Red socks were called for, Yeats was chosen as the model and when he appeared in the new ensemble, Shankly declared: “Christ, Ronnie, you look terrifying. You look seven feet tall!”
Liverpool lore has it that the all red strip was first worn against Anderlecht at home in November 1964, but a few years ago the Liverpool Echo searched its archive and found Liverpool's socks to be white that night. By the away leg they were red and by the '65 Cup final all red was established.
“It had a huge psychological effect,” Shankly said of the block of colour. Red, he felt, spelled danger. It became a piece of the club; St John had helped alter Liverpool’s identity.
He had been in Glasgow for the famous 1960 7-3 European Cup final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt (a game at which Shankly's brother John had a heart attack and died hours later). From the days before, there is a photograph of St John, a Motherwell player by then, meeting Real coach Santiago Bernabeu.
Real’s all white kit clearly stayed in St John’s mind. “To me Real Madrid were the biggest club in the world. I was trying to move with times,” he said in the Shankly Hotel.
Also in his mind, though, was the red blanket wrapped around his father. St. John did not want to discuss this possible connection - it was the only moment he got a bit Cagney himself - but he had said before: “Who knows, that may have been the inspiration, buried deep in my memory.”
He could be sad as well as sharp. How you look mattered to men like St John and Shankly, the son of a tailor. Both understood that colour makes an impression and revelling in the subject, he told a tale of how “we used to get cloth from the lads on the docks. We’d have it up in the car park at the ground. Chelsea, Webby and all them, they got cloth from us - we were flogging it to them! Liverpool, we were the best-dressed team.”
Shankly and St John, the red Mods.
He was laughing and you can imagine him enjoying Scott Parker’s comments on Thursday about his touchline snappiness: “It’s something I’ve always taken pride in. There is a certain element that is important to me.”
And on Tuesday you could imagine St John joining the dismay at Juventus's kit as they disappeared from the Champions League. As former Real Madrid 'keeper Santi Canizares said: "They have been like their shirt - not worthy of their history."
This is true: compare the Juventus kits worn by Liam Brady or Roberto Baggio and 2021's is a blanched imitation. A jersey can say something about who you are, where your club is at. It can shape perception. "We looked like giants, and we played like giants," Shankly said after the new kit's introduction.
He and St John knew: do not forget; respect the classics; be bold.