The fortunes of FC Barcelona and St Mirren Football Club may seem a million miles apart. Well, geographically, the distance between Paisley and the Catalan capital is a tad more than 1,300 miles actually, but in footballing metaphorical terms, the gap is much wider. Strange as it may seem to some however, there are more than a few links tying the two clubs together. It’s one of those ‘strange but true’ scenarios that only football seems capable of throwing up, involving bidding for a Brazilian, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery and an invitation to a new home.
For instance, back in March 2001, a certain 21-year-old Brazilian footballer, named Ronaldinho, had left his contract with Gremio and was waiting to join PSG. The South American season was over and the mercurial Ronaldinho was at a loose end until he could link up with the French club. Seeing a gap and seizing the moment, St Mirren approached the player’s agent and offered a short-term loan deal to bridge the gap between Samba football and the Parisian joie de vivre, until the end of the Scottish season. A brief sojourn in Fenfrewshire, plying his trade for The Buddies, in an ultimately forlorn relegation battle, surely being every Brazilian superstar’s dream
A fee of some £15million was apparently even discussed. In the final analysis legal technicalities apparently scuppered the audacious scheme and instead St Mirren opted for a loan deal for Steven McPhee from Coventry City. The Glasgow-born striker would turn in out in seven league games for the club without troubling the scorers. One would imagine that if Ronaldinho had been persuaded to sample the delights of Kimball Island Midden Archaeological Site or the Deerhaven Campground in Paisley, he may well have fared a little better. Two years later, he would don the Blaugrana stripes of Barcelona, having never worn the black and white ones of St Mirren. Quite how close that surreal prospect came to being reality is perhaps something best left to conjecture. But, that’s not the only link.
In January of 2018, St Mirren were playing Dunfermline on the way to winning the Scottish Championship by eight points from Livingston, and gaining promotion to the Premiership. The game against the Pars was particularly memorable for the goal scored by Cammy Smith. A period of intricate play by Jack Ross’ team, including stepovers, third-man running and a back-heel passes, worthy of the magical bedazzling feet of Xavi, Iniesta, Messi et al, led to Smith putting St Mirren ahead. Delighted with the tiki-taka play, St Mirren cheekily tweeted the masters of such things. “Are we doing this right @FCBarcelona?” their social media postulated, along with a clip of the goal? The Catalans came right back with “Incredible @saintmirrenfc!. We love to see the Barca style away from Camp Nou!” Ever on the lookout for an opportunity – especially perhaps having missed out on Ronaldinho – the Scots then played their card. “Seeing as we are friends now, fancy having us over to the Nou Camp in the summer?” To date, the Catalans have played hard to get on that one. Strangely though, if the Paisley club had been invited to travel to the Camp Nou, it wouldn’t have been the first time that St Mirren had been invited to play Barcelona.
In 1922, St Mirren were invited, along with Notts County, to inaugurate Barcelona opening their new ground at Les Corts. The reasons for inviting The Buddies are somewhat lost in time but, after finishing eighth in the Scottish league, it would hardly be because St Mirren had qualified on any sort of league criterion. They would play two Friendly games against then hosts, before the ‘Barcelona Cup’ match against Notts County on 25 May 1922, marking the official opening of the £75,000 stadium.
Manager Johnny Cochrane took a squad of 17 players to the Iberian peninsula, with the Catalunya games providing the first part of an extended tour of Spain before moving across to the north west of the country for games in Cantabria and Asturias. With economic turmoil rife in the country and political unrest just twelve months or so ahead of King Alfonso XIII abdicating and passing power to the dictator Miguel Primo De Rivera, it would be a more than interesting time for the touring Scots.
The Catalans were the reigning Spanish champions and would be difficult opponents, but with the game against the English club being the one to decide the destination of the trophy, the scores in the games against Barcelona were not overly important, and provided an opportunity to win over the local fans to the cause of The Buddies.
Sure enough, playing consecutively on the weekend of 20 and 21 May, St Mirren lost both games by an odd goal. First, going down to a 1-0 defeat, and then following up with a 2-1 loss. For the first game, in a formation typical of the time, Cochrane selected Bradford in goal, with Hamilton and Birrell as the full-backs. Clunas, Barclay and Duff made up the half-back line, with Lawson, Gillies, Walker, Stevenson and Thomson as forwards. In the second match, Dodds came in for Barklay and Leslie replaced Stevenson. With a break before the game against Notts County due to be played on the following Thursday 25 May, there was time for Cochrane to reflect on his potential selection, and an opportunity to enjoy some Spanish – and Scottish – hospitality. The latter being provided by another group of Paisley exiles.
J & P Coats were a thread-making company based in the club’s home town but with a mill situated in San Andres near to Barcelona. The company had offered their compatriots hospitality before and after the games, but now arranged to celebrate the club’s visit to Spain by laying on a special welcome party. A large marque was erected and the players and officials were feted with traditional Scottish scones and tea. If it was a gallant ploy by the company to make the St Mirren party feel a little more at home, the attempt may have foundered. The hot Spanish summer sun beating down was hardly reflective of a more typically tepid May in Renfrewshire.
For all that, when Thursday came around, the St Mirren players were ready for the game. Cochrane shuffled his pack slightly. Leslie was moved into the half-back line, replacing Dodds and Stevenson reclaimed his place among the forwards. A reported crowd of more than 20,000 fans, many of them Cules of the host club, others being employees of J & Coats invited by St Mirren to repay their hospitality, packed into the new stadium for its official opening and to see the two British clubs face off against each other. St Mirren’s eighth place in the Scottish league may not have been mind-blowingly successful, but compared to Notts County’s travails in the English league, finishing 13th in Division Two, they were certainly the form team, although County had got to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
If the hot weather was broadly alien to the Scots, the English players from Nottingham were hardly used to much better weather south of the border, and both teams seemed to suffer from the heat in a goalless first-half that hardly set the standards for things to follow at Les Corts. The half-time break though, would be significant in the final outcome of the game.
When the referee’s whistle went to end the first 45 minutes, the Notts County players hurried to the comforting shade of the dressing-room. Cannily though, Cochrane prevented his players leaving the field. This was no Phil Brown histrionics, playing up to the crowd, and berating his team in public view though. Cochrane realised that the players would be best served by staying out on the pitch and retaining their adaptation to the conditions rather than seeking the sanctity of the cooler air in the dressing-room and then have to acclimatise all over again. The move also endeared The Buddies to the fans, and in the second period, they would be shouting for the Scottish team.
Cochrane’s ruse appeared to work to have proved fruitful ten minutes after the restart when the legendary Duncan ‘Dunky’ Walker scored. The forward would go on to be the club’s all-time record goalscorer, and between 26th November 1921 and 14th January 1922, scored 17 goals in just 11 matches. He would finish the season with 56 goals. These were the days before the inauguration of UEFA’s Golden Boot, but had it existed in those days, Walker would have been awarded it. He would score nine of St Mirren’s 15 goals during their time in Spain and, on this occasion, it was powerful header from a pinpoint right-wing cross that put St Mirren ahead.
For much of the remainder of the game, it seemed that the goal would be the deciding factor, St Mirren were the stronger team and had chances to go further ahead, but the English club held on and, with eight minutes remaining, deflated The Buddies and their new Spanish fans by equalising. The organisers had made provision for 30 minutes extra-time to be played and if the scores were still level after that, the victory would be granted to the team that had won the most corners. It’s something that sounds a little off-centre in these times of penalty shootouts, but given it was a way of favouring the more attacking team, rather than having a Russian Roulette penalty competition that merely rewards the best purveyors of shots from twelve yards, there was a large element of logic in the format.
Fortunately for all concerned, it was Walker again who spared the officials having to count up the number of corners kicks awarded, when he notched the late winner to give the trophy, valued at 12 guineas, to St Mirren. The monied amount may seem quite small, but a few days later, the trophy would have much greater value to the St Mirren party. Fireworks and a band accompanied the lifting of the Barcelona Cup and the fans – both old and new Buddies, all – acclaimed their favourites, and especially, Dunky Walker.
With the trophy packed into their luggage, St Mirren left Catalunya and travelled to Santander where they would play two games against a ‘Northern Spain Select’ team. They would narrowly win 3-2 on 28 May, before a more than controversial 2-2 draw followed, two days later. Given that the first game in Cantabria was to take place a mere three days after their efforts at Les Corts, and the less than comfortable travelling involved in the 336-mile journey, both games had brought more than reasonable performances and results. They were admirable for other reasons as well, though.
On the train journey from Barcelona to Santander, the club’s guide and interpreter had left the party in search of refreshments during a stop at a small station. Being late May, the heat had now notched up a level or two since their time in Catalunya and the players took the opportunity to fling open the carriage doors, loosen clothing and remove their boots and socks to get some fresh air to their feet. To their dismay however, a group of Spanish Civil Guards approached the train gesticulating aggressively and threatening the group with their rifles raised. As mentioned, it was a time of heightened political tensions, and bereft of anyone who could understand the increasingly urgent commands of the Civil Guards, the party were becoming increasingly concerned, looking around nervously for the interpreter. Eventually, one of the party hit on the idea of showing their armed assailants the Barcelona Cup, managing to explain with movements worthy of a charades party game that they were a football team. The ploy reduced the tension, and when the interpreter returned shortly afterwards, he was able to bring matters to a close, explaining to the players that, in Spain at that time, displaying bare feet was deemed less than courteous and was mainly the preserve of the sorts of vagrants and ne’er do wells that the Civil Guard would normally detain. Socks and boots repositioned, the journey was able to continue.
In the first game, despite concerns of fatigue, Cochrane had justifiably retained the same eleven that had overcome Notts County a few days earlier, trusting that 120 minutes of play in the heat hadn’t drained their fuel tanks too much. Despite what have been described as some ‘strange’ refereeing decisions, goals from Duff, Clunas and Stevenson saw The Buddies home. A similar, but more significant, controversy over refereeing would raise its head in the second game.
This time, Cochrane moved things around. Leslie and Dodds were added to the forward line, with the former shuffled forwards from the half-backs. Thomson was omitted, as was the unlucky Stevenson, despite him funding the net 24 hours earlier. Findlay came into the left-back berth and Birrell slid forward into the half-back line. The new structure seemed to be working well and, thanks to goals by Walker and Dodds, St Mirren were ahead into the second period. Then a soft penalty was awarded against them and Jock Bradford was beaten to bring the Select team back into the game. Increased pressure on the visitors’ defence looked like being forlorn until just into the last minute another disputed spot-kick meant a chance for a draw. Heroically however, Bradford saved and St Mirren thought they were over the line with a second victory. The Buddies players began to leave the field, but the referee insisted that the game as not over. St Mirren officials all pointed at the time insisting the 90 minutes were up, but the referee was unmoved. Expecting a mere few seconds to be played, the St Mirren players returned to the field. It wasn’t just a few minutes to play though.
The referee deemed there was still plenty of minutes to play and the game went on, and on. In the tenth minute of added time, another hotly disputed spot kick was awarded to the Select team. By now the St Mirren players were convinced that the only way they were ever going to get off the pitch was if they conceded. Jock Bradford was having none of it though and plunged to save the kick. The ball bounced free though, and was tucked away for the equaliser. As the ball hit the net, the referee blew for full-time. No-one on the St Mirren side of the pitch was surprised, and the referee hastily scampered off the pitch to avoid any unpleasant consequences of the elongated game.
The tour then moved on to Gijon in Asturias, a journey of another 100 miles or so. This time, at least the players had the opportunity of five days without a game to regather their strength before playing on consecutive days against the local Gijon club. On 4 June, Dunky Walker helped himself to a double hat-trick, netting six goals in a 7-2 thumping of the Spaniards. The following day, with many of the party exhausted by the unremitting itinerary of travelling and games, the tour was brought to a close as Gijon gained a measure of revenge with 4-1 victory.
Returning to Renfrewshire, the party were hailed as heroes for their ground-breaking adventure in the sun and, of course, for bringing back the trophy they had won in Barcelona. Four years later, in front of a crowd of 100,000 at Hampden Park, Johnny Cochrane would lead his side to Scottish Cup glory, defeating Celtic 2-0. By now though, the prolific Dunky Walker had left the club. He joined Nottingham Forest in May 1923. He would however not regain the scoring prowess he had enjoyed with The Buddies, scoring a mere 24 goals in 74 games for the club as they struggled, and eventually failed, in a fight against relegation. His time in the limelight had passed.
Perhaps Barcelona may think again about that tweet from St Mirren and offer an invitation to return to the city and play in the stadium that succeeded Les Corts. If they do however, it’s highly likely that St Mirren won’t take the opportunity to repeat their extended tour of Spain from 1922. You never know, though.