White lines

Gary Panton reports on  two St Johnstone players alleged to have taken  cocaine as they and the club head to court over unpaid wages

It’s fair to say neither George O’Boyle nor Kevin Thomas can claim to fit into the “model sportsmen” bracket. The two ex-St Johnstone strikers, sacked by the Perth club at the turn of the year after being caught with a line of white powder in the toilet cubicle of a trendy local bar, recently attempted to swing public sympathy in their favour by telling a Sunday tabloid that the whole sorry incident had been a result of “drunken curiosity”.

By the players’ own admission, both had spent the day in question indulging in the kind of bender O’Boyle’s countryman and name­sake George Best would have been proud of. If the sob stories are to be believed (which is, in itself, open to debate), the pair downed 30 pints of lager between them before heading to the gents to powder their noses, as it were.

The question many St Johnstone supporters have found themselves asking is how the addition of copious amounts of alcohol to the equation is supposed to make the players’ actions any more ex­cusable. Even Dr Hilary Jones, daytime TV medic turned tabloid lum­inary, was inclined to suggest that for the players to embark on such a binge, they must have been regular heavy drinkers and were therefore guilty of cheating the fans regardless of other drug use. This point didn’t go un­noticed by Saints chairman Geoff Brown, who has been relentless in his con­dem­nation of O’Boyle and Thom­as from the beginning.

Ironically, Brown now finds himself the subject of accusations of hypocrisy, hav­ing refused to sack an­other player, Marc McCulloch. McCulloch was guilty of an arguably more heinous crime when he smashed into eight parked cars while three times over the legal limit on a night out in Edinburgh. The crucial difference, acc­ording to Brown, is that McCulloch wasted no time in going cap-in-hand to his employers with a full apology. By contrast, both O’Boyle and Thomas are yet to say sorry to either the club or the supporters, instead opting to con­centrate on self-pity.

While manager Sandy Clark and his re­maining players have done their best to get their heads down and carry on regardless with onfield duties, the problem shows no signs of going away. At least not yet. Brown is hopeful that the whole affair can finally be put to rest when O’Boyle and Thomas meet the club head-on at an employment tribunal sched­ul­ed for September. It will be the last chance for both players to win back lost wages, having already won an appeal lodged with the Scottish Premier League, only to see it overturned by the SFA.

The result of the tribunal could make for some interesting reading, both sides having publicly stated their confidence in winning. Saints’ attitude towards the affair appears to have grown in bitterness by the day, spurred on by a highly critical Scottish media. Rather than applauding the McDiarmid Park board for their stance on drug-taking in football, several high-profile newspapers have accused the club of using the situation as a cynical ex­cuse to cut the wage bill.

Indeed, more than one outside observer has asked whether the club’s actions would have been as final had the culprit been, for example, teenage strike starlet Keigan Parker. Both O’Boyle and Thomas were, after all, long-term injury victims with no guarantee of ever returning to previous form. However, one crucial point largely overlooked by the press was that St Johnstone, being a club of lesser resources than most of their SPL rivals, have a significant reliance on producing their own talent. How many parents would be willing to entrust their children to the club’s youth sys­tem, knowing that they were being groomed for careers alongside known drug users and heavy drinkers?

It’s also worth noting that O’Boyle, despite his many injury problems, had been a hugely popular player in his six years at the club. While Thomas was never anything more than a bit part player at McDiarmid Park, O’Boyle’s goals (if not attitude) will always be fondly remembered by the Perth faithful. The fact that the supporters have come out in numbers to support the sacking of such a player must surely fill the board with confidence that they did indeed make the correct decision.

From WSC 174 August 2001. What was happening this month