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Genius, bile and bravery – a tale of three halves – Scottish Review of Books
by Hugh MacDonald

Genius, bile and bravery – a tale of three halves

October 28, 2009 | by Hugh MacDonald

THE WRITING OF THE FOOTBALL memoir is a game of three halves. Each reminiscence falls into one of the triple-play categories: former player’s memoir, the outsider/fan’s take or the personal memory/state of the nation address by media commentator. In Scotland, however, they tend to share a distinguishing feature. They are all marked by some reference to the stations of the cross that signpost the nation’s game on its road to salvation. These are sorrowful, painful staging posts. They include much hand-wringing over opportunities missed by player and nation. There is anguish, too, over the future of the sport as it seems merely to be a march to perdition rather than to redemption. But Scottish football fans and players also share the national inclination towards dramatic mood swings. They are bipolar bears. So the memoir is balanced by a mandatory recital of at least one of the five joyful mysteries: Celtic’s European Cup victory of 1967, Rangers’ European Cup-Winners’ Cup triumph of 1972, Aberdeen’s lifting of the same trophy in Gothenburg in 1983, the victory by Scotland over World Cup holders Eng-land in 1967, and Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland in the World Cup of 1978.

The former player’s memoir is as traditional as terracings flowing with fetid liquid, though much more pleasant to wade about in. Old hands at the game know that the balance of disclosure is held in check by just what the author has to lose. John Greig’s memoirs, therefore, are hardly likely to aim a two-footed, studs-showing tackle at anything or anyone. First, the Greatest Ever Ranger is a decent, loyal character. Second, he has spent most of his life at Ibrox and is not about to infuse his story with resentment at the institution that both provided his past and now pays for his present in his role as resident legend.

This may be bad news for thrill seekers.

But, then again, football often is. Greig’s tale, however, reveals much of substance on closer scrutiny. This is a man who has taken Rangers to their greatest triumphs and witnessed their greatest sorrow. Greig was the captain of the European Cup-Winners team and also by awful quirk of fate a player who saw at first hand the aftermath of the carnage of the Ibrox disaster in 1971 when he left the treatment table to be met in the dressing-room with the first of the corpses from the terracing crush. Grateful at what life has afforded him, he is careful in word and gentle in tone. But My Story reveals much of the tension between Greig and two of his managers, Willie Waddell and Jock Wallace. It also carries the unimpeachable imprimatur of a man who has been intimately involved at Ibrox since the late 1950s. Therefore, amid the bluster of games there are matters of significance, particularly his observations on the Graeme Souness revolution and the character of Dick Advocaat.

If Greig’s plays a satisfying, deep-lying role in midfield, Archie Gemmill’s tale is more superficially spectacular, marked as it is with verbal pops at anyone or anything and crowned by That Goal. Gemmill is the author with little to lose. He is no longer a major player in the game. Both Sides of the Border is therefore a book of revelation. The press seized on Gem-mill’s disclosure that Willie Johnston, sent home from the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 after failing a drugs test, was not the only player taking a banned substance.

There has been much froth, too, over Gem-mill’s facility at putting the boot in. He is a wonderfully crabbit raconteur and liberally spreads bile on his piece to provide a tasty wee snack for those of us intrigued to the point of obsession about the drama of professional football. Greig the faithful, one-club man plays one half of the Scottish workingman psyche. Gemmill plays the other. He is the character who gets sick of the parochialism in Scotland, is driven to leave and is programmed by fault and by talent to succeed.

Gemmill had a spectacular playing career, winning championships and European Cup medals. His criticisms of those such as Ally MacLeod or Tommy Docherty give the book some spice but the substance comes in his relationship with Brian Clough, alcoholic and managerial genius.

Clough was man who dropped Gemmill for a European Cup final with little reason and no proffered excuse. He was a manager, too, who deliberately humiliated Gemmill in front of his peers. Yet to his dying day, Clough was visited by Gemmill who talks of the bluff, arrogant manager in terms normally reserved for deity.

This stance would seem almost inexplicable. Yet it is but another manifestation of the phenomena recorded down through the ages of those who, in the words of Lou Reed, “want to play football for the coach.” The burning after-effect of Gemmill’s incendiary musings is not the inescapable result of a pondering of the betrayals of chairmen or so-called friends. It is, rather, caused by the reflection of what the player demands, expects and indeed is prepared to suffer at the hands of those who give him the golden opportunity to win silverware.

If Clough beguiled Gemmill, he failed to enamour Stewart Imlach, the central character in My Father and Other Working-Class Football Heroes, written by his son, Gary. After a roving career as a first-class left-winger of the late fifties and early sixties, Imlach was approached by Ole Big ’Ead to become a coach. The manner of Clough did not impress the Scotsman, however, and a terse phone call abruptly terminated any chance of the relationship progressing. Imlach Junior, though, is concerned with more weighty matters than Clough and foot balling fall-outs, though this memoir does not stint on personality or controversy. It falls neatly into the second category of footballing memoir: the outsider/fan’s view. This genre was discovered, much in the way a miner digs into a seam of gold, by Nick Hornby, whose Fever Pitch showed that the half-back line of football, whimsy and lip-biting, manly emotion could triumph in the book-selling league tables. If Hornby was the Liam Brady of footballing reminiscence, all educated left foot and disguised passes, Gary Imlach is more of a Graeme Souness, all brooding purpose and undisguised personal commitment.

Imlach Junior’s initial premise is to draw a sketch of his father. In personal terms, this provides as the most poignant of memoirs. Imlach, the father, is the boy from Lossiemouth who became man of the match for Nottingham Forest in the 1959 FA Cup final and also played for Scotland in the 1958 World Cup. He was a left-winger of prodigious pace and purposeful precision.

The book also serves, though, as an example of how players were shamefully treated by working conditions that tied them to a club for a pitiful maximum wage for as long their employers wanted them. The retain and transfer clause, the tied houses and the imposition of a maximum wage all conspired to keep football power in the hands of the chairman rather than the player. The whip is now firmly in the hands of the player, or at least his agent. There are those who view this development with horror but surely if we are all players in the game of capitalism it would be invidious to deny this dubious privilege to the professional sportsman or woman.

The angry atmosphere of Imlach’s retelling of the feudal working conditions is splendidly invigorating but it is the personal core of the book that is ultimately the most warming. This is a story of a time and its conditions.

It is also a brief history of a sport. But, most wonderfully, it is a convincing, heart-felt examination of the flawed but unbreakable bond that stretches from father to son.

There are two fine examples of the last-gasp section of the footballing memoir: the state of the nation address. The first is by Archie Macpherson, the commentator who turns a fine ankle now on Scotsport. His Flower of Scotland is subtitled a ‘Scottish Football Odyssey’ and Macpherson’s journey takes us routinely through the stations of the cross with obligatory reflections on the joyful mysteries. It is written in a style that is ultimately engaging. Macpherson is as florid as the Botanical Gardens with the heating on full bung. But whenever the ballast of gravitas threatens to sink the ship with all footballing hands aboard, Macpherson is dramatically rescued by his propensity for delicious gossip. he may have been condemned to the sidelines in his job as a commentator but that post ironically gave him a central role in the Scottish game in that it demanded his presence at the big occasions and gave him access to the major names. Thus Macpherson can tell us of Willie Waddell’s prodigious drinking at lbrox and the vocal fall-outs with Jock Wallace. He can reveal Jock Stein’s dismissive opinion of Ally MacLeod. He can also bear personal testimony to the volatility of Alex Ferguson.

This all combines to infuse the book with a winning mischief that outweighs any perceived pretension, the constant companion of the football writer.

Macpherson’s invocation of Thomas Pynchon, though, is gently trumped by Harry Reid’s use of pendragons in The Final Whistle. (Pendragons? A junior side, surely, as in OVD Cup, first-round draw: Linlithgow Rose v Prestonpans Pendragons). I digress. But I blame Reid. His tome is beautifully diverting both in effect and in the route it takes. For Reid, all journeys must start from Pittodrie and his examination of Scottish football has the mazy dribble of his hero Charlie Cooke and the unwavering purpose of Alex Ferguson.

Reid, a beautifully understated writer, has an enviable ability not only to ask pertinent questions but to listen to the answers. His quest to discover a brave, new world has an unlikely start in that he lingers in the environs of Pittodrie and press box. But this opening serves two purposes. It shows that Scottish football success can be achieved, and by a provincial club. It also unmasks Reid as a football obsessive. He writes, almost guiltily, of slipping away from a business meeting to take in a Hibs v Dundee match. This personal reminiscence forms the first part of the book.

The second is taken up by personal viewpoints of Scottish football from perceptive youth coach, to striving club executive to interested politicians. The third part concerns the way forward and how to walk it. It seems Reid has set himself an almost impossible task: how to save Scottish football in under 300 pages. But this is but an interesting challenge for a writer who scaled a mountain in sannies by writing an interesting book about the Kirk.

Briefly, Reid has divined a solution for Scottish football that demands an examination not only of our sporting culture but of our social habits. He addresses the minor matters of league set-ups, division of revenue and the future of the Old Firm. But he has grasped that there is a bigger issue at stake. Football professionals, politicians and health professionals speak chillingly of the flood of alcohol that is sweeping away the hopes, the promises and indeed the lives of many of our young people.

The progress of Scottish football has been stymied by a dearth of young talent taking up the game and then developing to a professional level. But sport has a purpose that breaks out from the professional stadium. There is a compelling case for using sport, particularly football, as part of the solution to the health and social problem. Could the Scottish Executive invest heavily in indoor arenas, increase the provision of playing fields and provide coaching that seeks simply to maximise the individual without thought for whether he or she will play the game professionally? Could sport and education improve both life and game?

It may be time, to paraphrase John Kennedy, former US president and now Celtic centre half, by asking not what we can do for football but what football can do for us.

John Greig
Headline, £18.99
pp 320, ISBN: 0755313542

Archie Gemmill
Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99
ISBN: 0340895713

Gary Imlach
Yellow Jersey, £15.99
pp 240, ISBN: 0224072676

Archie Macpherson
Highdown, £18.99
pp 272, ISBN: 1905156111

Harry Reid
Birlinn, £9.99
pp 256, ISBN:1841583626

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