Europa League qualifiers 2012


The following are passages from ‘Manifest Destiny: the official history of St. Johnstone FC’ by Alastair Blair and Brian Doyle.


Eskisehirspor


Steve Lomas’ Saints side, like Clark’s before it, owed much to his predecessor.  However, as we’ve seen, Lomas had had to restructure his squad considerably at the end of his first season, especially in attack.  The draw was not kind, with Saints paired with Turkish side Eskisehirspor, a club with far greater financial resources and, like all Turkish teams, a fanatical support.

Fanatical they may have been, but they were also friendly. The Saints fans who travelled in droves found their hosts extremely engaging and ‘Bar Street’ resounded to noise and laughter, captured on video and available on YouTube, as each set of supporters taught the other their own songs and chants.

Steve Lomas recalled how he was short of strikers going into the first leg of the tie in Turkey. Having signed Gregory Tade (who brought new meaning to the word mercurial), he was then unable to play in this match, so Sean Higgins, who had only played a handful of league games in the previous season (and was to leave the club a few weeks later), started up front. He was in for the proverbial ‘tough shift’.

While the atmosphere in the stands (building on the hard work done earlier in the bars) was one of mutual respect, the Es-Es team were professional in their approach and clearly a better side than Saints. This was not an easy introduction to the joys of European competition: in front of a crowd of over 18,000, the Perth side lost two (deflected) goals, one in each half, and it seemed that the second leg looked lost before it began.

Nonetheless, 6,023 fans filed into McDiarmid to continue the party atmosphere, with a ‘call and response’ singalong between both sets of fans helping the mood during the match. Tade was back to replace Higgins, and another new signing, Nigel Hasselbaink, who had come on as a sub in Turkey, also started. 

Saints made a much better fist of things in this second leg, being the better side in the first half and, courtesy of a header from Tade, going in 1 – 0 up at half-time.  However, although Saints had a number of other good chances, Sari equalised for Eskisehirspor to put the tie beyond doubt. A BBC reporter at the game summed up the outcome well, noting “For Saints, the focus turns to the domestic campaign, but the standing ovation from the fans at full-time suggests there is no shame in their European exit. In fact, it seems only to have whetted the supporters' appetite for more of the same.”

That July 2012 Europa League tie, and especially the trip to Turkey, was arguably the one that has had the most lasting impact of all the recent European matches, partly because it was the first for a new generation of fans but especially because of the amazing relationship that developed almost from the moment the Saints’ supporters landed in Turkey.  While the club’s officials were given the red carpet treatment in Eskisehir – a welcome reciprocated at the return leg in Perth – many of the supporters of both sides have remained in touch through social media and followed the progress of each other’s clubs in subsequent seasons.  The sight of Turkish Eskisehirspor fans in the middle of Slovakia, supporting a Scottish team they’d probably never have heard of until 2012 sums up the extraordinary bond between the two clubs.

That bond extends into the colours that Saints have chosen for their second strip for every season since 2012. After this European adventure was over, one die-hard St Johnstone supporter, Kevin Heller, wrote to the club suggesting that the team adopt Eskisehirspor’s red and black striped jerseys for the away kit.  This was enthusiastically endorsed and these were the regular change colours  until season 2015-16. 

The continuing friendship between the two clubs saw Saints fans nominating ‘Es-Es’ for a UEFA Fair Play Award while the Turkish side took to the field in a subsequent game carrying a large banner stating “We are all St Johnstone fans.” As Saints’ chairman Steve Brown noted, “Fans and club officials really hit it off over the two games. We were treated like royalty over there and we did our best to show them true Scottish hospitality when they came to Perth…No one who travelled to Turkey for the match will ever forget the experience….”