The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 24

June 6, 2010

Confessions Of A Mince Pie Eater

It sure is a funny old game Sainty. Let’s face it, if it wasn’t for the humorous antics of the motley cast of characters who act out the drama of our national game, the football itself wouldn’t be nearly so attractive. You’re never certain of seeing a wonderfully exciting game with thrills and spills galore, but you’re usually pretty sure of getting a good laugh when you’re watching football. The sources of the mirth-making entertainment are many and varied and you’re never quite sure where the laughs are going to come from. To that extent, Tommy Docherty was surely right when he said that you need crystal balls to predict what’s going to happen on Saturday (at some grounds you need cast-iron ones):- as perhaps the following random selection of incidents illustrates.

First of all let’s go back to the Doc. He himself has provided more entertainment in his off-the-field role as court jester than any of the preening million pound prima donnas who’ve fallen under his control from time to time (Dalglish and Best excepted, OK). Older readers may fondly recall an occasion about 15 years or so ago when Tommy found himself as a panel guest in the Scotsport studio while Celtic were engaged in the away leg of a European cup ­tie in Hungary. The match was allegedly to be broadcast live and the programme was presented by Alex ‘Candid’ Cameron. Shortly before kick-off an embarrassed and flustered Cameron had to admit to the viewing millions that “there are some problems with the Euro­link” (ie somebody at Cowcaddens had wired a plug up the wrong way).

Consequently the usual mindless chit-chat amongst the panel was extended beyond the statutory ten minutes, with Docherty becoming even more fidgety than usual. The final straw came after about half an hour with no sign of live foot­ball. ‘Candid’, clutching at straws, asked Docherty, “Tommy, you’ve got a vast wealth of experience in these situations; if you were Jock Stein, what would you be saying to the players in the dressing room just now?”

Summoning up all the experience and all the tact for which he was renowned the Doc replied “Well, Alex, I’d be telling them to get out on the park, the game’s been started for 20 minutes“. Time for a commercial break methinks.

Talking of Jock Stein, one anecdote concerning the big man has unaccount­ably been missed in the various biographies and tributes written since his death. This was an occasion featuring a pal of mine which illustrates the brilliant repartee and natural earthiness of the great man. Big Jock was a solitary spectator at the side of a pitch in a public park watching an otherwise nondescript amateur game in progress, when my pal spotted him and approached for a bit of a chat. “How’s it goin, Jock” says my pal. The big man retorted wittily “Fuck off, sonny“. Ah, the camaraderie of football.

In the early days of jovial Jim McLean’s reign as Dundee Utd supremo, United had even more difficulties in attracting Dundonians into Tannadice than they do now. The enterprising United board came up with a number of schemes to try to get the bums onto seats. This usually took the form of some novel pre-match entertainment, ranging from women’s football internationals, to sky-divers over Dundee attempting to hit the centre circle from 10,000 feet. This latter proved less successful than anticipated when one of the intrepid para­chutists came to earth on the centre spot of a deserted Dens Park, while another apparently became entangled with a television aerial somewhere east of Broughty Ferry.

The most hilarious entertainment I remember at Tannadice in these far off days was one occasion when a game against Hibs was hyped up in advance by the announcement that local amateur boxing hero, Dick McTaggart, would give an exhibition at half-time. Some of the more cynical amongst us wondered how this was going to be achieved with­out a boxing ring. But wait, as the players trooped off at the interval, on rushed a squad of workmen armed with planks and bits of rope. As the crowd whistled and jeered approvingly, they set to work with a will to construct a make-shift platform where the pugilists were to perform. It seems that some of the planks didn’t fit together as intended. A saw was called for. A few cuts here and there but still no joy. Some vigorous blows with hammers produced no progress. Eventually, by dint of brute force and bloody­mindedness some semblance of a boxing ring was proudly erected in the centre circle just as 22 fairly bemused players re-emerged for the second half of the main entertainment. The referee emerged to insist forcefully that the erection be dismantled forthwith.

Up to that point not a glove had been thrown in anger, though for a few moments it looked like a few unofficial non-Queensberry blows might be landed, as there was earnest discussion about whether the ring was to come down. Most of the crowd would have been content for both events to continue simultaneously. The prospect of seeing Tommy Traynor dribble round, or even better, through, the boxing ring was one to savour. Unfortu­nately the referee got his way, and those few extra fans who’d turned up primarily to watch the boxing went home for an early bath.

Of course, you don’t have to go anywhere near a football ground to get your amusement from the game. One source of fun for West of Scotland residents was/is the Radio Clyde phone-in. For those of us who like a laugh after the game the untimely passing of the late James Sanderson was a much-lamented event. One of wee Jimmy’s tech­niques was to skim through the dictionary each week to find a word with which to bamboozle the listeners on a Saturday. He’d then use the word at every possible opportunity, whether appropriately or not, confident in the knowledge that no-one would dare challenge him. Thus we’d be treated to “Celtic have scored at a very piquant moment” and “Rangers victory has added a hint of piquancy to the title race“. My own personal favourite was when Jimmy confronted a caller who had some complaint to make about Graeme Souness. The conversation went something like this :­

Caller : See, eh, ma point is that, eh, Souness was never in the game against St Mirren.
Wee Jimmy: Well you can’t expect the Rangers player manager to be refulgent all the time, can you ?
Caller : Naw, I suppose no’

Subtlety wasn’t Jimmy’s strong suit. When he got hold of an idea he just wouldn’t let it go. On one memorable programme, reference was made to Lawrence Marlborough, then the owner of Rangers. Wee Jimmy graphically referred to Marlborough as “Mr Lawrence Marlborough, currently sunning him­self in Reno, Nevada“. So pleased was he with this off-the-cuff characterisation that from that moment on he was incapable of mentioning anything to do with Rangers without referring to the sun in Reno, Nevada. Thus we’d get a caller phoning in asking whether Rangers would be signing Maradona/ Platini/Pele/John Paul II, being met with “well why don’t you ask Mr Lawrence Malborough, currently sunning himself etc.”

Another illustration of wee Jimmy’s obsessional hammering of a single theme was when the vexed question of players agents arose following one of Maurice Johnston’s transfers. Jimmy was particularly condemnatory of agents. Well­ known agent about town, Bill McMurdo, phoned in to cross swords with the wee man. Having verbally gutted McMurdo, Jimmy then took every opportunity during the rest of the programme to regale us with, “I remember the great days of Billy Steel, there’s a man who didn’t need an agent…” and “Dennis Law was the prince of goal-scorers,all achieved without an agent” etc.

By comparison, the current crop of radio men are a pretty dull lot, though John Greig and Derek John­stone still continue to make appearances in “Colemanballs”, mixed metaphors being Greig’s speciality (eg “fresh pair of legs up his sleeve”) while big Derek begins every answer “well that’s right…“, whatever the question. Johnstone has now, of course, been the subject of a million penny transfer from radio to TV so that we can now watch as well as hear his strangulation of the English language.

One of the media-men who occasionally talks some sense is Bob Crampsie. Crampsie has a seemingly inexhaust­ible knowledge of the minutiae and trivia of the game, and he used to (for all I know, still does) provide the answers to the question posed in the Saturday Evening Times by such as “Bluenose, Coatbridge” and “Happy Hibee, Muirhouse”. Some of the queries from readers were so arcane that the suspicion was that Crampsie made them up himself to fill the page. A standard type of question would be “Please settle pub argument – who played left half for Bonnyrigg Rose when they beat Arthurlie in the 1929 Miners Fellowship Trophy quarter final replay.” The answer would be “It was David Forbes, and not as many people think, his brother Peter. Hope that settles the argument.” The mind boggles as to how many people have been going around for the last 60 years under the mistaken apprehension that it was Peter Forbes who wore the number 6 jersey on that famous day, only to have their illusions cruelly shattered by some smart-arse writing to Bob Crampsie after a particularly fierce set-to in the bar on a Saturday night.

Back to Tannadice, though. This one’s for those who are sufficiently malevolent to be amused by the suffering of others. When Andy Gray was a mere teenager (God, I’m getting old) United evolved the interesting, but unsophisticated tactic of punting high balls into the penalty area for young Andy to perform his kamikaze trick of leaping like a salmon right onto the end of the opposing goal­keeper’s fist. This tactic reached a spectacular high-point one Satur­day against Hearts. United kicked off. As soon as he’d touched the ball to the inside forward, Gray took off as hard as he could for the opposition penalty area. In the meantime his colleague lofted what rugby folk would describe as a “Gary Owen” in the same direction. The ball and Andy arrived inside the 18 yard line simultaneously, where an obliging Hearts defender tripped the onrushing Gray. Only 5 seconds on the clock and the ref is pointing inexorably to the spot. Excitement indeed, but one young ruffian in front of me was reduced to a state of near apoplexy, as he was the holder of the ticket entitling him to a prize of £100 if a goal was scored in the first 30 seconds. He and his mates performed an impromptu watutsi at the thought of the beer flowing like water later that night.

As Doug Smith’s penalty attempt des­cribed an arc which would have done credit to a frisbee, eventually coming to rest quite close to the corner-flag, the disappointment of the crowd at the missed penalty was mitigated sub­stantially by watching the extravagant gnashing of teeth and tearing-up of the erstwhile drink-voucher.

Traditionally Firhill’s a place where the entertainment has very little to do with the football on display. In the 87/88 season the Jags pulled their biggest crowd of the year for the cup-tie with Celtic. One aging Thistle fan had obviously not been keeping in touch with the comings and goings at Parkhead over the previous few years. Each time Frank McAvennie approached within spitting distance of the ball this old boy would let loose with a volley of abuse, the main import of which was “McGarvey you’re a bastard“. Eventually, 2 uniformed officers of the law pushed their way into the crowd and had a word with him. We presumed that this was a warning to watch his language, but as Strathclyde’ s finest looked on smiling benignly the old boy shouted “McAvennie you’re a bastard, an’ McGarvey wiz wan tae“. Satisfied that things were now in order, the polis moved off to another part of the ground.

A couple of years ago I was in a pub enjoying a post-match refreshment. The walls of the bar were liberally sprinkled with signs saying “NO FOOTBALL COLOURS”. A large youth colourfully bedecked in Rangers scarf, Red Hand of Ulster badges etc approached the bar where a steely-eyed mine host greeted him with “are you dyslexic?” Large youth replied “naw, I’ve no’ had a drink a’ day, honest”.

I started with Docherty, so I’ll finish with him. While he was still the supremo at Old Trafford, there was much talk in the media of proposals to subject football hooligans to corporal punishment. When the Doc was asked for his views, he succeeded at one fell swoop in inappropriately mixing up his military ranks and performing an arithmetical improbability by pronouncing “I’m in favour of capital punishment for football hooligans. This would half the problem by more than 50 per cent.”

Now there’s an idea. To hell with women’s internationals or massed pipe bands, let’s have a few public executions. Make it a family game again. Why has baby-faced Moynihan not thought of this already ?

You’ve got to laugh, Greavsie.

First published in TAG 14 – August 1989


One Response to “The Absolute Game Revisited – Part 24”

  1. […], this edition is packed with terrific material on Aberdeen (the Decline and Fall aka the Big Sheep), Kilmarnock (“Picture the scene. A gathering of people 366 in number, to vote on a matter of paramount importance. A show of hands is called for. The result 344 for, 22 against. The result is the 22 against win. China? No. Poland? No. Russia? No. Kilmarnock Football Club EGM? Yes“), Ayr United (Manager A. McLeod, ’nuff said)  Acrrington Stanley (in 1956/57 they fielded a team consisting entirely of Scots…), Austrian Football (From Sturm Graz to Memphis) and Albion Rovers again (“One law Fagan (former Chairman now deceased) somehow managed to avoid was the criminal law – which, incidentally states that a dead person cannot be libelled, so I have no hesitation in pronouncing him a general all-round bastard of the first order.“) […]

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