Football has played a huge part in my life for as long as I can remember. I played endlessly as a boy and watched every match that any member of my family was willing to take me to see – until I was old enough to go on my own. Initially, it was walking or running to Douglas Park to support Hamilton Accies – behind the goal being attacked by the Accies in each half.
In those days, the 1950s, they spent most of the season in the top three in the old Second Division. Around March each year key players suddenly dropped out. The team would then read something like: “Newman, Junior and Trialist ………”. There was to be no danger of promotion because that couldn’t be afforded.
So the exhilarating forward line of McLean (the sadly now late Jim, of Dundee United fame), Currie, King, Divers and Hastings never graced the top division.
If Accies won the toss they always chose to kick off. If the opponents won, they usually chose an end to defend. So nine times out of ten Accies kicked off.
The ball would then be transferred quickly to left-back Joe “Bungy” Young, who would launch it over the main stand out of the ground.
Why? The home club was obliged to start each match with a brand new ball. Expensive! So when Bungydespatched the brand new ball out of the ground, a used ball (“a tottie”) would be thrown on from the dugout as a replacement.
The new ball would be retrieved by a ball boy waiting around the car park outside the stadium – and made ready for the start of the next home game. So one new ball could last a season!
True? Well, it has never been confirmed – but the circumstantial evidence was compelling. And I can’t imagine anyone still alive could confirm or deny it. But it would certainly have saved a few bob!
In addition to these delights I spent a season being lifted over the turnstiles at Hampden by my uncle to watch his beloved Queen’s Park win promotion in 1956.
Crampsey, Harnett and Hastie; Cromar, Valentine and Robb – the names trip off the tongue – Church, McCann, McEwan, Devine and Omand. I can see them all in my mind’s eye.
My first Scotland v England international was in 1958– we were thumped 4-0, with 19-year-old Bobby Charlton scoring his first England goal, a thundering volley into the roof of the net. My first Scottish Cup Final was the same year – Clyde 1 Hibernian 0, with the winner scored by Johnny Coyle after 29 minutes.
The following year St Mirren beat Aberdeen 3-1 to win the cup. Their marauding and extremely effective right winger was Jim Rodger, who taught maths at my school, Hamilton Academy, and took charge of the school under 15 team. Happily he is still to the foreafter retiring as headmaster of Portree High School. He was then, and is now, held in the highest regard by those of us who played under him.
One Saturday morning he took great exception to the conduct of our star, barnstorming centre forward, who became embroiled in an unseemly fracas near the end of the game. (The same centre forward in later life became a prison governor.)
Jim was rushing from our match to Tynecastle to play for St Mirren against Hearts (how times have changed!). So he hadn’t time to take disciplinary action after the game.
“Report to me first thing on Monday morning, boy. I won’t stand for that behaviour”.
With that he bolted off to Tynecastle – where he was sent off for fighting. Guess who enjoyed the Monday morning meeting more?
I also saw my first floodlit match in 1958 – the night English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers christened the new Celtic Park lights and won 2-0 with goals from Peter Broadbent.
The Wolves manager, Stan Cullis, a wartime friend and teammate of my father’s, had tea in our house in Orchard Street, Hamilton, on the afternoon of the match. He gave us two directors box tickets – and presented me with a Wolves strip which I wore proudly in every football trial I was involved in from then on.
I dogged school with some pals (including the aforesaid barnstorming centre forward) in September 1961 to get the train from Hamilton to Rutherglen, andthen ran all the way to Hampden for a 4 pm kick-off to see my first World Cup match, a qualifier against Czechoslovakia.
We arrived just in time to see the Czech number 10, Andrej Kvasnak, crash a 25-yarder into the top corner, before Denis Law ran riot, scored twice and Scotland ended up 3-2 winners against the team which lost in the final of the World Cup in Chile to the mighty Brazil in 1962.
Little did I know that a young player called Jozef Venglos sat on the Czech bench, unable at that time to dislodge any of the famous half-back line of Pluskal, Popluhar and Masopust, who all graced the Rest of the World team which played England at Wembley in 1963. Only two Scots made that team – Denis Law, who started the match, and Jim Baxter, who came on to replace Masopust in the second half.
By that time I was able to combine watching Hamilton Accies one week, then getting the special bus from Campbell Street, Hamilton, to Fir Park (2.15 pm departure) on alternate Saturdays to watch the AncellBabes. They were a brilliant Motherwell team with a half-back line of Aitken, Martis and McCann (same McCann as Queen’s Park 1955-56). The forward lineread Young, Quinn, St John, Hunter and Weir.
All bar Aitken and Young were capped by Scotland – Aitken kept out by the likes of Dave Mackay and Pat Crerand; and Young by Johnny McLeod and Alex Scott. Aitken represented the Scottish League.
That was after playing for my school team on the Saturday morning. So Saturday has always been my favourite day of the week. My late father always said the saddest two words in the English (or should it be Scottish?) language were “Gemme’s aff!” He was right. He usually added “the day’s wasted”.
My ambition always was to be a footballer, like my father, who played for Queen’s Park, Hamilton Accies, Partick Thistle, Wolves during the Second World War, and finally King’s Park, who became Stirling Albion.
I also wanted to emulate my older brother Craig, who was one of the finest boy players of his generation, captaining Scotland Schoolboys and Scotland Youth(his teammates included Billy McNeill and Alex Ferguson), before signing for Rangers and suffering a knee injury which prematurely ended his playing career.
That didn’t stop him winning a League Championship medal in 1962 during five years with Dundee, followed by two seasons at Falkirk, effectively on one good leg.
And I might have made it but for one small issue – I was hopeless – entirely down to a lack of ability!
Not so hopeless, though, that I couldn’t play in the Hamilton Academy team which won the Scottish Schools Shield at Fir Park before a crowd of 8000 in 1963; captain Lanarkshire Schoolboys; play for the Scottish Amateur FA; and win blues at Cambridge University playing three times against Oxford at Wembley.
But hopeless enough not to make it as a professional. Make no mistake, to be a professional player you need to be really good. When I was General Manager at Celtic in 1997/98 we calculated that the chances of a boy in the under 14 squad becoming a top professional were no more than about one in two hundred. And they had to be special to make that squad.
Among the boys I played with and against in my teens – I played for the school on a Saturday morning from the age of 9 and Hamilton Amateurs in the afternoon from the age of 15 – I can recall only five of the multitude of excellent players making it to the very top and becoming internationals – Archie Gemmill (Derby County and Nottingham Forest, among others – 43 caps), Tommy McLean (Kilmarnock and Rangers – 6 caps) Billy Dickson (Kilmarnock – 5 caps), Bobby Watson (Rangers and Motherwell – 1 cap), and Steve Murray (Dundee, Aberdeen and Celtic – 1 cap). They were all terrific when I played against them.
There’s another aspect to making it – good fortune. At Cambridge I remember playing against West Ham reserves. Frank Lampard, senior, and Trevor Brooking were in the side. At centre forward, directly against me, was a blond, will-o’-the-wisp, little guy I aimed to bully out of the game. Apart from a few headers I never got a touch – of the ball – or him. He was mesmerising. And he looked about 12!
Ron Greenwood, the West Ham and later England manager, was at the game. I asked him who the boy was, and told him he was the best player I had ever played against.
“Ah, don’t worry, son,” he said. “he’s destroyed a lot better centre-halves than you. I’m struggling to keep him out of the first team (whose centre forward at the time was England’s Johnny Byrne.)”
Within months that very boy, Trevor Hartley, was indeed in the first team. But he played only a handful of games in the next two years, blighted by a knee injury which forced him out of the game after a short spell at Bournemouth. No luck.
So why all this background? It’s simply to demonstrate the length of time I have been involved in and cared about the game, even before spending some 40 years commentating, initially on radio, then primarily on television, interrupted by my “sabbatical” at Celtic.
It is, in my opinion, the finest game of all. Happily it is now open to everyone, boys and girls, men and women alike, regardless of size, race or religion. It has the capacity to contribute hugely to society and enhance community spirit across the world. Two hundred and thirteen countries are members of FIFA. It has a universal language and appeal.
But I despair.
I’ll tell you why in Part 2.