by Harry Reid

SRB Diary: Fever Pittodrie

October 28, 2009 | by Harry Reid

I AM WRITING a book about Scottish football. This involves grappling with the present, the future – and of course the past. I have been applying what I now think of as the Charlie Cooke test. I ask whoever I am interviewing “Do you remember Charlie Cooke?” or “Have you heard of Charlie Cooke?”

Charlie was the first footballer who caught my imagination. Gallus, infuriating, impossibly talented, he played for Aberdeen in the early 1960s, moved on briefly to Dundee, was transferred to Chelsea (as the replacement for Terry Venables) where, in the late 1960s he teamed up with Peter Osgood and gained celebrity status.

He was capped only 16 times for Scotland, a reflection of the abundance of talent that was on tap in the 1960s, perhaps, in retrospect, Scottish football’s greatest era. Mind you, that did not appear to be the case as you stood on the dilapidated Pittodrie terraces in the east end of Aberdeen watching dismal fare in crowds of 4000 or less.

Pittodrie Park (as it was known then; it was renamed Pittodrie Stadium when it became Britain’s first all-seated ground in the late 1970s) is the home of Aberdeen FC, otherwise known as the Dons. It is situated close to the North Sea and it can be a bitterly cold place. Most football grounds were grim in the 1960s but Pittodrie, though I came to love it, was particularly bleak.

I remember once standing at the side of the Paddock, as it was fancifully named, at the King Street end of the ground. A rotten game had just enough life left in it to die. An old man had seen enough. He shuffled past, enunciated one rasping word: “Putrid” – and spat viciously. The gobbet was caught in the swirling wind. It described a crazy parabola and splattered spectacularly against the wall. There was more drama in that angry moment than there had been in an hour and a half on the park.

Before Charlie Cooke, there was Graham Leggat. As a schoolboy at the primary department of Aberdeen Grammar School I was no good at football and generally uninterested in sport. With a slightly swotty disdain I left that kind of thing to my more robust pals and my more athletic brother Hugh. I was therefore amazed at the excitement that my schoolmates evinced one morning sometime in the mid to late 1950s when we were unexpectedly taught PE by a quietly spoken young trainee who looked like a clean-cut rock’n’roll singer (in those days, clean-cut rock’n’roll singer was not contradiction in terms). He had appeared, without prior warning, in the huts at the back of the school that in these austere post-war years were used as make-do gyms.

His name was Graham Leggat. I’d never heard of him. To most of my mates, he was a celebrity, a superstar, even a god. That particular PE lesson was delayed for about twenty minutes as excited schoolboys scrabbled desperately for paper and pens to get his autograph. Youngsters are connoisseurs of sincerity and I noticed how he scribbled his name and good wishes on grubby scraps of paper with artless modesty and consummate patience.

A few years later, I learned all about Graham Leggat. He was an outstanding, genuinely world-class footballer. He would walk into the England, let alone the Scotland team of today, and could easily earn £50,000 a week or more. When he pitched up as a trainee PE teacher he was also plying his other trade as an inventive, versatile right winger with Aberdeen.

Leggat helped Aberdeen to their first league championship in 1955. He also helped the Dons hammer Rangers 6-0 before a six-figure crowd at Hampden in a league cup semi-final of 1954. Four years later, he played for Scotland in the World Cup Finals in Sweden. Then he was off to England, signing for Fulham (then a significant force.) He formed a devastating partnership with the inside forward Johnny Haynes, England’s first £100 a week footballer. He scored a hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford, he scored another hat-trick against Ipswich in the space of four minutes, and he was selected for a World Eleven.

Leggat was not however the most exciting footballer to emerge in Aberdeen in the postwar years. At the time as he was beginning to dazzle on the right wing at Pittodrie, a skinny, bespectacled kid from the Powis area somehow slipped though his home town team’s porous local scouting net, and started his professional career with Huddersfield Town. His name was Denis Law. In those days, Scottish world class footballers seemed to grow on trees.

It was a few years after my encounter with Graham Leggat, when I was in my early teens, in the early 1960s, that I was introduced to Pittodrie by my brother Hugh, who was already a committed Dons fan. Like so many other genuine football fans, I do not know why or how I was smitten, but smitten I was. (Aberdeen were then in serious decline after the glory years of the 1950s; it was not as if they were winning regularly or playing spectacular or even just entertaining football.) The unlikely talents of Charlie Cooke, rendered even more magical by their dismal and uninspiring context, must have had something to do with it.

Anyway, I learned rapidly about the cruelty of football. I learned about the passionate impotence of the fan on the terraces. Time and again, Charlie would mesmerise the opposition single-handedly, and Aberdeen would still lose. But my loyalty to Aberdeen FC was born. It has been one of the constants in my life for over forty years, and it will be till I die. It is at once pathetic and glorious, this utterly irrational loyalty. My moods on Saturday evenings are to this day dictated by the performance of the Dons. A good result means good spirits for the rest of the weekend.

Charlie Cooke, however, was about more than mere results – that was part of the problem. He made his debut in 1960 and for the next four years he was by far Aberdeen’s best player. He had a special penchant for what the football writers used to call “mazy dribbles.” He was exquisitely balanced and could beat three or four opponents with gracious, beguiling ease. Football is a team game and the Scots are supposed to have invented the passing game, which is all about teamwork, but archetypal Scottish players like Charlie were at their best as individuals.

The trouble was that there was frequently no end product to Charlie’s pyrotechnics; the tantalising pass at the end of the extravagant dribble petered into no man’s land, certainly to where none of his colleagues had anticipated. Too often Charlie’s cheeky play ended up a blin end, as we Scots like to call a cul-de-sac. It was a broad, sunny, expansive blin end, but a blin end nonetheless.

Charlie could, if he wanted, pass the ball beautifully, but more times than not he didn’t make allowances for his more limited team-mates. The thought did occur to me, and some other supporters, that perhaps he mischievously liked to show his colleagues up. But his effervescent skill and his endless impish improvisation lit up many a dreich afternoon or evening at Pittodrie. And he kept some of his best displays for away games; for some reason, his play was less selfish away from home. I saw him master mind a wonderful 4-1 victory over a Dundee team that had eight months previously marched to the semi-final of the European Cup (Alan Gilzean et al) at Dens Park on New Year’s Day, 1964. Later that year, I saw him show unlikely grit in a totally lost cause against Hearts, inspired by Willie Wallace, the future Lisbon Lion, at Tynecastle. Aberdeen were 5-1 down at halftime but Charlie inspired a second half fightback, scoring a rare goal himself. The final score was 6-3 but the Dons had rattled Hearts and made a game of it.

A couple of days later Charlie was sold to Dundee for a ludicrously low fee. It seemed the bitterest of betrayals. I was to learn that such betrayals are part and parcel of the life of most Scottish football fans. The next Saturday, a Cooke-less Aberdeen team entertained (ironic word) Clyde at Pittodrie. It was a filthy day and perishing Pittodrie was shrouded in a raw haar. There was a pitiful crowd of less than 3000 – the meagre ranks of the loyal, or to look at it another way, the daft residue of the betrayed. The score was Aberdeen 0, Clyde 3. It was the most acrid day of my football-watching career, an early lesson in rancid disenchantment.

I don’t know what the management and board of Aberdeen FC were thinking of when they sold Cooke to our nearest rivals for just £40,000. Suffice to note that Dundee sold Charlie on to Chelsea less than eighteen months later for £72,500. That was the day after he had been voted Player of the Year by Dundee’s fans. Aberdeen supporters were not the only ones who were betrayed. In these years there was an abundance of playing talent on the pitch and a total lack of everything that mattered off it: vision, investment, competence – you name it.

We have here three of the themes that will recur in my book: the chronic inability to retain our best players in Scotland; the besetting sin of financial and business incompetence; and the constant betrayal of the fans.

I don’t for one moment blame Charlie personally for going off on his travels, but the other, compensating, thing I remember about these early days of my fanhood was the sheer cussed commitment of so many of the more ordinary players. Few fly-by-night mercenaries infested our game in that era.

A shining exemplar of the wholehearted Scottish journeyman was Ally Shewan, Aberdeen’s no-nonsense left back who had little – well, none – of Charlie Cooke’s ball-playing skill, but he made up for that with ample physical presence and obvious dedication to the cause. Ally made his debut in 1962 and went on to play more than 350 times for the club, including an utterly amazing run of 313 consecutive appearances. They don’t seem to make them like Ally any more. He was a decent, dogged and utterly honest professional of the old school, and the phrase “club servant” was made for him.

Ally may have been a limited player, but he always gave everything, and he often excelled against the Old Firm. In those days Rangers and Celtic only visited Aberdeen once a season, unless of course there was a cup-tie. Although a huge teeming influx of Glaswegian visitors was welcomed every July, at the time of the Fair Fortnight – apart from anything else they did bring a lot of money into Aberdeen, which was in these days still a holiday resort of some repute – that welcome did not apply to the fans of the Old Firm.

The summer holidaymakers visited the infectious character of their great city on the cold, buttoned-up northern city by the sea and each year for a glorious two weeks Aberdeen became a much more chancy, colourful and cheeky place. Whereas the Celtic and Rangers supporters descended on the city with an arrogance and implicit menace that was heartily resented. There was always enormous pleasure in Aberdeen, even among people without the slightest interest in football, when the Dons beat the Old Firm, and I’m happy to record that they did so surpassingly often. But it wasn’t until the greatest manager of them all, Alex Ferguson, a one-time Rangers supporter and a former Rangers player, took over at Pittodrie in 1978 that beating the Old Firm became expected and routine.

In the 1960s, when the Dons were beaten by the Old Firm, they often suffered from dodgy refereeing decisions (yes, I really believe that) or rank bad luck. But occasionally the sheer superiority of the opposition meant that they were fairly and well beaten. One such game that I remember was a league cup tie when the Dons, playing above themselves as they usually did against Rangers, stormed into a 2-0 lead. Then the magnificent, peerless Jim Baxter took over, utterly eclipsing Charlie Cooke.

Slim Jim strolled around the park, spraying raking, inch-perfect passes out to Willie Henderson on the right and Davy Wilson on the left. These two superb wingers sent in such delicious crosses that Jim Forrest (later to play with distinction for the Dons) and Ralph Brand could hardly fail to score. And they duly got four goals between them. My two abiding recollections of that particular game are of Baxter’s imperious, sublime skill and Shewan’s stubborn resilience. I said that Ally often raised his game against the Old Firm. Not in this game. Willie Henderson would beat him, and beat him again, and beat him again for fun. Yet Ally never gave up. You remember the greats, of course you do; you should also remember the triers and the journeymen.

Six or seven years later I was back in Scotland, after interludes in Oxford and Newcastle. I was starting my journalistic career with the Scotsman. I’d only been back north of the border for a month or so when, for the first time, I saw Aberdeen beat Celtic to win a trophy: the Scottish Cup, in April 1970. My brother and I stood on the great Hampden terrace under the ancient North Stand in a crowd of 108,000. (Thirty-three years earlier another Aberdeen-Celtic final at Hampden had been watched by 147,365 spectators, still a European record attendance for a club game).

Most of the crowd were Celtic supporters though there were about 25,000 Dons fans present. The supporters mingled amiably; there was no segregation then. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, Aberdeen fans have always had slightly better relations with the Celtic half of the Old Firm.

The game was refereed by Bobby Davidson, an exceedingly distinguished but persistently controversial official, and I have to admit that the Dons got the breaks (which made a pleasant change). They led at halftime with a penalty scored by Joey Harper. Then with about five minutes to go, the Celtic goalie Evan Williams spilled Jim Forrest’s well-struck low shot and Derek McKay, who had arrived in the Dons team apparently from nowhere and was to disappear just as suddenly, quickly pounced to make it 2-0 for Aberdeen.

Glory be! My brother and I embraced in an impulsive act of relief and joy. It was unbelievable: We surely couldn’t lose now – we were watching Aberdeen win a major trophy! All these hours of disappointment and frustration on the Pittodrie terraces had been expiated with one swing of an obscure Highlander’s boot. There were twists in the final minutes; Bobby Lennox pulled one back for Celtic and then, deep in added time, McKay scored Aberdeen’s third, but it was that second Dons goal that was crucial. Instinctively, Hugh and I both knew the moment it went in that we were no longer losers; we supported a successful team, a team that could actually win a major trophy.

As the Dons fans left the magnificent bowl of the old Hampden we were sportingly congratulated by the Celtic supporters. We replied by wishing them well against Leeds United, whom Celtic were about to play in a European Cup semi-final. (Celtic duly beat Leeds but lost in the final to Feyenoord, a game they should have won easily. Jock Stein’s tactical nous deserted him, not for the last time.) My brother returned to Aberdeen on a supporters’ train. I stayed in Glasgow. My base that night was just up the hill north of Hampden, in Advie Terrace, the home (ironically a former Church of Scotland manse) of Colm Brogan, a precociously talented young colleague on the Scotsman, who was to die tragically early in 1986.

The Brogans, originally from Donegal, were a high-profile family of academics, teachers and journalists. Colm himself had little interest in football; that night he took me to pubs where he knew there would be few football fans. But later on his home was jam-packed with Celtic supporters, and some benign, teasing truculence was directed towards me, although the general mood was one of bonhomie and fellowship. Eventually there was loud, defiant, drunken singing of Irish rebel songs intermingled with remarkably passionate and articulate analysis of how Celtic had been “robbed” by Bobby Davidson. The fact that he came from Airdrie, which I was now being persuaded was a hotbed of militant Protestantism, was regarded as particularly sinister and damning.

I was pretty drunk by then, but I was beginning to understand, for the first time, the sheer, relentless, over-ridding potency of the Old Firm. Many football fans drift innocently, as I had, into a lifetime of supporting their team. But the fan base of the Old Firm sustains, and is sustained by, an immense burden of social history. I deliberately don’t write religious history; for it really has far more to do with race than religion. That night I received generous hospitality and I was treated with the kindness and warmth that are unique to Glasgow. But I also witnessed passions that spoke of a tribal intensity hitherto unknown to me. Amid all the inebriated and fervid singing, banter and discussion, it was a seriously educative occasion.

Today, the Old Firm dominate Scottish football more than ever. But would Scottish football be better off without them? There are many, many salient arguments for and against, and this is one of the crucial issues I am grappling with as I research my book. Anyway, I woke at lunchtime after the Brogans’ wake/party with one of the worst hangovers I’ve ever had. I needed to catch a train back to Edinburgh, for that night I was to work a back-shift on the Scotsman, but before I left Glasgow Colm suggested that I take a short walk with him to look at nearby Cathkin Park, the most forlorn football site in Glasgow.

Cathkin was the home of Third Lanark which had been the Glasgow team for those who wanted to make a point of not supporting the Old Firm. That role was also provided by Clyde and Partick Thistle, and to a lesser extent, Queen’s Park, the amateur team that played at Hampden, but it was “Thirds” who were the preferred favourites of the dogged, decent eccentrics who chose to eschew the atavistic certainties of Parkhead or Ibrox.

Always a team with a fine playing pedigree, Third Lanark had finished as high as third in the league in 1961. Although they regularly attracted five-figure crowds, in the mid-sixties things were clearly going terribly wrong. The club was bedevilled by something even worse that the customary mismanagement and incompetence. There was serious corruption in the boardroom. “Thirds” went out of business in 1967, the year that Celtic won the European Cup in unforgettable style. Thus, in the same year, we witnessed the apogee and nadir of modern Scottish football.

As Colm and I wandered round the bereft, derelict amphitheatre that spring Sunday afternoon thirty-five years ago, he had me laughing with stories of players being paid in coins from slot machines in the club bar, and other such tales. But there was melancholy in the air, as the wind got up and scattered detritus around the weed-ridden terraces.

I was happy because the day before I’d seen my team win a trophy, in a gloriously exciting game watched by more that 100,000 (very well behaved) fans in the national stadium. But here, less than a mile away, were the physical intimations of rottenness and decay, grim harbingers of the failings that were to drive Scottish football ever downwards. Of course there would be rallies, flurries of improvement (not least involving Aberdeen in the early 1980s) and fleeting passages of glory. But the trend was downwards, to the point where any prospect of meaningful revival seems just a mirage. And yet: need that gloomy prognosis really apply? There are, at last, two generations on, genuine signs of hope.

On the train back to Edinburgh later that afternoon, my most pressing concern was whether I’d manage to get through my shift on the Scotsman. I’d never before nursed such a persistent hangover. But my brain was also feverishly turning over the events of the last twenty-four hours, and the insidiously complex, sentimental, infuriating, messy mix that comprises Scottish football, this game that all of us know and so many of us love.

I’ve been thinking and writing about these matters, on and off, for several decades, and it is a privilege to distil them into book form. It is also a challenge, and to use the oldest football cliché of them all, it’s a game of two halves: the past, that can be analysed and pondered interminably, but contains lesson after lesson; and our altogether more chancy football future, which might just be brighter than we have any right to assume.

Harry Reid’s book on Scottish football will be published by Birlinn in November.

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