Belfast Telegraph

'It helps me to this day': Tommy Wright reflects on Distillery's Great Escape ten years on

Tommy Wright during his spell in charge of Lisburn Distillery.
Tommy Wright during his spell in charge of Lisburn Distillery.

At the end of the decade, it's time to reflect.

For St Johnstone manager Tommy Wright, that means a chance to look back on the launching of a managerial career, on a journey from the Irish League to Scottish Cup success.

It may also, handily, provide some much-needed context to the struggles of the Saints' current campaign.

Only a run of five Premiership matches unbeaten across December has hauled the club off the bottom of the table, into the relative comfort of ninth place and two points clear of the relegation play-off place.

It's been an arduous campaign that is revealed to be a comparative walk in the park, when assessed alongside Wright's predicament of New Year 2010.

He had been appointed as manager of Lisburn Distillery in the previous September with the historic club sitting rock bottom of the Premiership table.

Worse was to follow when the club's financial woes threatened its future, with the gap to the rest of the league also bottoming out at a huge 13 points.

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"I got the job when they were bottom the table and had lost ten out of 11 games," Wright recalled, speaking to The Scottish Sun.

"On Christmas Eve our wages hadn't been paid and I got a phone call to say that the chairman had resigned and the club was going into a CVA (company voluntary arrangement).

"The whole of that Christmas and the start of the new year was trying to save the club and keep hold of players.

"I convinced them that they were better off staying and they all agreed new contracts."

What followed will always be remembered in Distillery's history. The club went on a barn-storming unbeaten run of 11 games to end the season, with eight victories and 27 points leaving Wright's side eight points off the bottom.

They were pardoned from a play-off because Donegal Celtic were the only Championship side to be granted the required license to gain promotion, last-placed Institute instead shunted into the play-off, which they would lose.

"It's still referred to as the Great Escape," says Wright. "The next year we won the League Cup and finished in the top six while we were still in the CVA.

"It wasn't until 2013 when I was here that got squared off — I got 70p in the pound, which was much better than at other clubs.

"So I've certainly had more challenging times than this season at St Johnstone. I loved my time there and I look back on it fondly. There were experiences that still help me to this day."

While the former Northern Ireland and Newcastle United goalkeeper admits he had 'no plans' to return to the full-time game during his early days at New Grosvenor, that would soon change when St Johnstone boss Steve Lomas came calling.

Wright went on to take the top job in summer 2013 after Lomas left for Millwall, going on to secure four top six finishes in his first four seasons, as well as the club's only senior trophy, the Scottish Cup in 2014.

"I have to look back on the decade as the most satisfying of my football career," he said.

"To have done what I did with Distillery, to basically help save a club and help them win their first senior trophy in goodness knows how many years.

"And then come here as assistant, get sixth and third, then get the manager's job, you couldn't argue with the fact the majority of my highlights were in the last decade.

"It's not just winning the Scottish Cup and getting into Europe all those times. It's the fact I'm still in a job after nearly 300 games at a club where you are constantly swimming against the current. I take a lot of satisfaction from that.

"I've had a lot of support from my staff, players and my wife Ann to help me."

It's been a dramatic decade for the 56-year-old boss and now his side are hitting 2020 with some much-needed momentum.

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