“The whole thing is absolutely crazy,” Ian St John says as he mulls over the possibility of Donald Trump becoming US president. “There surely must be someone inside the Republican party who’s a more suitable candidate than him – they’d only need half a brain.”
Sadly not, it seems, and in two weeks’ time Trump could be elected to become the most powerful man on the planet. It’s unlikely but possible and St John is among the thousands on both sides of the Atlantic shaking their head in bafflement at the prospect.
“Someone like Donald shouldn’t be able to get anywhere near becoming president but he knows how to get to the top so I guess it’s not a big surprise,” St John adds with a sigh. “Let’s just hope Hillary Clinton stops him getting to the very, very top.” We can only hope, Ian, we can only hope.
What’s that you’re asking? Why on earth am I discussing Donald Trump’s presidential ambitions with the former Scotland and Liverpool striker Ian St John? Because he met him, 25 years ago, in New York, and for the fifth-round draw of the Rumbelows Cup.
You may well have seen the clip by now given it’s been doing the rounds for some time, spreading across social media and feeling like an almighty trick of the mind. But it’s real enough – Donald Trump, he of the scaremongering and frankly absurd bid for the White House, pulling the names of Norwich City, Nottingham Forest (or Southampton), Middlesbrough and Manchester United out of a small green bag.
St John was there with Jimmy Greaves, which for anyone of a certain age will immediately spark memories of Saint and Greavsie, the hugely popular Saturday afternoon show hosted by the two legendary former players. Running from 1985 to 1992, it consisted of interviews, previews, goals, gaffes and, at seemingly regular intervals, St John chuckling at his television partner’s attempts at what would now be referred to as “banter”.
It was a winning combination and in December 1991 led to the most unlikely of meetings.
“We were in New York to film the qualifying draw for the 1994 World Cup, which was to be held in America,” St John, now aged 78, remembers. “It was the idea of our producer, Bob Patience, who is sadly no longer with us, and I was really excited by going over. ‘That’ll do me!’ I said to Bob.
“There was a problem, though – Jimmy hated flying. As a player he used to get the train everywhere, even for games abroad with the likes of Tottenham and England. He’d only fly if he could have a drink first but Jimmy was teetotal at the time so that wasn’t an option.”
St John eventually persuaded Greaves to board the plane to New York – “I told Jimmy I’d hold his hand during the flight” – and the pair attended the draw, which, rather grandly, was staged at Madison Square Garden and hosted by I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden.
That done, St John and Greaves had another, less glamorous task to undertake while in New York – sorting out the fifth-round/quarter-final ties of that season’s League Cup, which at the time was sponsored by Rumbelows, an electronic retailers that back in the day rivalled Currys and Dixons.
David Dent, the secretary of the Football League, had by now also travelled to the US and the only thing left to organise was a venue for the Saint and Greavsie crew to film the event. “Bob thought it would be a good idea to do it from inside the Trump Tower as it was such an iconic building in New York,” recalls St John.
Step forward you-know-who.
Trump’s involvement in the draw came about through a freak coincidence. His secretary at the time was English and upon spotting St John and Greaves in the lobby of Trump Tower as Patience sought permission to film there, she wandered over for a chat. Rapport developed, she then asked the old pros if they’d like to meet the boss and see if he wanted to appear on their programme. They quickly said yes.
“The plan was to do an interview but then Bob had another great idea – let’s ask Donald if he wants to get involved with the draw,” says St John, who won 21 caps for Scotland and was a member of the Liverpool team that won two league titles and the FA Cup under Bill Shankly. “He agreed, even though he clearly knew nothing about football. I think the appeal for Donald was being on a TV show that had a large audience in Britain. He saw it as an opportunity to promote himself and his company.
“To be fair to Donald, he was really good with us. He respected the fact Jimmy and I were former pros and asked about that as the crew set up to film the draw. We also had a good chat about golf as he was really into that and we played a bit. But, as I say, he had no idea about football and certainly no idea what Rumbelows was. We didn’t bother explaining it to him.”
The draw took place in Trump’s boardroom, or perhaps one of his boardrooms given we’re talking about a 68-storey building here. It’s not made clear in the clip but, either way, Greaves was certainly impressed with his surroundings. “I haven’t seen a boardroom like this since I was in Doug Ellis’s at Aston Villa!” he’s seen saying in the now widely watched clip of the draw, which leads to collective laughter, with no one laughing harder than Trump despite the fact he clearly has no idea what the Englishman across the glistening oak table was talking about.
Trump is dressed in a light blue shirt and a dark blue tie and first grabs our attention with a smug look to camera. He looks really young, despite the fact he was 45 at the time. His skin is smooth, his eyes twinkly, his body relatively slim and the only thing truly linking him to the scorched-skinned potato monster of today is that trademark back-combed haircut. Ridiculous now, ridiculous then.
Dent doesn’t waste any time getting proceedings under way. After a quick introduction to camera he states Greaves, who is sitting to his left, will draw the home teams while Trump, who is to his right, will draw the away teams. St John, meanwhile, can be seen hovering in the background with microphone in hand, a position he maintains for the duration of the recording.
We’re all set:
First out of the green bag: No4 – Tottenham Hotspur. Greaves has got his old club a home tie. Nice one, Jimmy.
Trump makes his first move: No7 – Norwich City.
An all-Division One tie between two sides hovering in mid-table. A solid if unspectacular start.
Back to Greaves: No3 – Swindon Town or Crystal Palace.
Back to Trump: No8 – Nottingham Forest or Southampton.
A horribly indecisive tie and no doubt very confusing for Trump given the involvement of four teams, one of which sounds like a glass castle.
Tie three and finally some excitement as Greaves pulls out No2 – Peterborough United. “Well done Jim, that’s a good one for them,” says St John out of shot.
Peterborough were in the Third Division at the time and had reached the quarter-finals courtesy of a shock 1-0 victory over Liverpool in the previous round. That had taken place at London Road and now they had another home tie – the Wembley dream was well and truly on.
Who would they get next? Over to you Trump: No1 – Middlesbrough.
“Interesting,” says Greaves and interesting it indeed was given Boro were then just one division above Peterborough. This was a winnable tie for Posh.
Pulses finally racing, we come to what proved to be the main event: No5 – Leeds United.
Trump digs his hand into the little green bag … No6 – Manchester United.
“Ooh, Donald!” exclaims St John, again out of shot. As the camera then pans out, Greaves leans forward, looks directly at Trump and says: “You don’t realise what you’ve done there!”
And here, for perhaps the only time in history, it feels appropriate to use the phrase “in fairness to Donald Trump” given a) he didn’t set out to pair United with Leeds, who that season battled it out for the Division One title, with Howard Wilkinson’s side coming out on top, and b) there was only one little red cube left in the bag, so he had no other choice.
“That’s a biggy, that sounds like the type of game I want to go to,” Trump says in a nod to the reaction around him but again with the look of someone who has no idea what the hell is going on.
Greaves doesn’t help the situation with his next intervention: “I tell you what Donald, are you thinking of opening a store in England? Take my advice, you can open one in Leeds but don’t go to Manchester!”
By now Greaves is on a roll and takes it upon himself to ask Trump if he’s ever played football before. “I used to play,” the tycoon replies. “It’s a great game, I love soccer, I played actually in high school.” He sounds convincing but given the things we’ve heard from the 70-year-old’s mouth during the presidential campaign it’s probably best to take the idea of a teenage Trump shouting: “Get it in the mixer, lads!” with a pinch of salt.
There’s also some talk about the upcoming World Cup – “It’ll be interesting to see how it catches on in the United States,” Trump muses – before Greaves draws proceedings to an end by presenting the host with a Saints and Greavsie mug. “This is the most prestigious award in footballing history,” the former goal-scorer says before informing Trump that if he pours hot coffee into the vessel, “Funny Old Game” will appear on one side.
“President Bush or Frank Sinatra haven’t got one of those,” Greaves adds as Trumps accepts his new gift and, remembering the moment, St John lets out one of his trademark chuckles. “Jimmy’s the biggest piss taker I’ve ever met and Donald wouldn’t know a piss taker if he tripped over one!”
“But he took it all in good spirits and afterwards shook our hands and thanked us for coming. We appreciated him giving over his time so willingly, even if it was all about getting on television and promoting himself.”
And now Trump is promoting himself all over again, with the stakes far greater than a place in the semi-finals of the 1992 Rumbelows Cup, which incidentally was won by Manchester United after they beat Forest 1-0 in the final thanks to a 14th-minute goal from Brian McClair.
“If someone told me then that all these years later Donald would be running for president I wouldn’t have believed them,” says St John, who remains involved in the media in his role as a well-established, highly respected voice on the Liverpool–based Radio City Talk. “I certainly wouldn’t have thought he would say the type of daft things he has during his campaign. When Jimmy and I met him he came across as very polite, so much so that Jimmy called him ‘my mate Donald afterwards’, even though he was probably taking the piss again.”
St John lets out another of his infectious chuckles, but his mood becomes instantly sombre when he speaks about how Greaves remains “very ill” following the severe stroke the 76-year-old suffered in May and how the pair, once so close, on and off screen, have not been in each other’s company for longer than he’d care to remember. “I’ve offered to go down and see him but been told it’s not worth it as he wouldn’t know I’m there, or if he did, he wouldn’t be able to say much to me,” St John adds with an unmistakable sadness in his voice. “I think about Jimmy all the time and just pray he gets better.”
And what does St John think Greaves, the winner of 57 England caps and regarded as one of the finest finishers of his generation, would make of Trump’s presidential campaign? “Well, if we were still doing the show he’d probably try and get him on!” the Scot replies with another of those chuckles. “And if that wasn’t possible we could have a special section called: ‘What daft thing has Jimmy’s old mate Donald said now!’”