The best f**** team in the world
It was the worst snowfall in living memory. That was what the newscasters always said, every time we had a flurry of snow and traffic was reduced to more of a crawl than usual. But it was kinda beautiful each snowflake drifting down like a denuded angel bringing silence. The newscasters would probably find some old buddy to interview. They’d ask them really daft questions like, ‘how cold are you?’ And the old biddy would say something like, ‘aye, I’m fair cold, I’ve no had the heating on since January and this is December, because I’m too scared…’. And you’d sigh and turn the telly over, because that’s what remotes are for, getting rid of old folk.
The newscasters wouldn’t have interviewed Granda. The heating was on that high in his house that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a herd of African wildebeests running through the living room and smashing through the veranda door to escape outside to get a bit of air. Granda had his chair facing the telly, but he was really looking outside the sheltered housing complex, onto Singer’s Football Park, as if he had already escaped and was hugging the touchline, ready to put a cross into the box, the way he used to when he played for Celtic.
Granda had all the memorabilia. He had the signed photos with him and Jock Stein. Photos of him and Bobby Lennon tearing down the line, with Granda edging ahead with the ball. Pictures of him and wee Jinky raising a glass. I didn’t know wee Jimmy Johnstone, but I knew Granda wouldn’t have just raised the one. On these occasions he seemed to suffer from some kind of repetitive vocal disorder so that all he ever growled was ‘a half and a half’, a half pint of beer and a glass of whisky, but he might throw you a bit and say ‘a big yin and wee yin’. Inevitably he’d leave the big yin behind on the table like a dud defender. This memorabilia wasn’t just strips and photos. It was Granda’s life. And he’d sometimes get one of those calls, that wee Jinky, or one of the other Lisbon Lions had died. He’d ask me later if he should go to the funeral. And I’d always say the same thing:
‘Just because you didnae get on that plane to Lisbon, you were still part of the team, the first British team to win the European Cup, so of course you should go. You’ve never let anybody down before and you’re no goin to start now.’
Granda usually already had his jacket on by that point, his chest puffed out a little extra, like a pigeon, and he’d be half way down the hall before I could catch him, to tell him the funeral wasnae right now, that day. But Granda liked to be punctual and the only show boating he could do now was show everybody that at least he was still alive.
‘You know, of course The Lisbon Lions, was a great team…’ said Granda. I knew what was coming next. I could almost repeat what Granda would say, word for word, as his voice seemed to echo down the years.’
‘Aye, a great team. A team taken from 12 square miles of Glasgow. But you know the team that won the European Cup, weren’t as good as the team from the View, two square miles of Glasgow.
Ronnie Simpson was a good keeper. Because he was that old we used to call him Granddad. He didnae really mind. We had a lot of respect for Ronnie, but, of course, he had none for us. We were all young boys having a laugh. But Ronnie wasnae the best keeper I played with.
The best keeper I played with was Gibby from the View. Now Gibby was completely daft. I think he originally came from one of those Special Schools. And in those days you had to be very, very special to go to a Special School. But it might just have been his arms. That was enough to swing it, so that he got into a special school. Squnts were ten a penny. Bow legs were good for you. You could have more scales than a fish, but if you arms were a bit long, then it was Special School, because you never knew, it might be infectious. They must have let him out to go to normal school because his arms shrunk, not by much, just enough. Somebody with squinty eyes and a ruler probably measured them.
We called him Gibby, because of that Jungle Book character. I can’t mind his name. Anyway, there is lot of shite talked about nick names. As if all the kids were reading poetry books, or The Famous Five and finding it a jolly good ruse to call some other kid Percevial, ha, ha. It was quite simple. If you were fat, you were fat, and if you’re name was Bob, you were called Fat Bob. And if you were smelly you were called something like Pongo and you’d maybe hold you’re nose and say something like “oh, oh, Pongo.” When you got a bit older you just called them shitey arse, and fling in the second name, shitey arse McAulay, with no holding of noses and no holding back.
The one exception to that was Bat Man. Bat Man was called Bat Man because he was blind as a bat. There was no great mystery there. His specs were that thick that he had to have two boulder strapped to his ear to support the lens. So he was deaf as well as blind. You could take his specs off him and batter him on the back of the head. You could haul him by the hair along the playground and he wouldnae be able to tell who it was. But when he put on that Celtic strip to play for the school team he seemed to always know where the ball was. Or the ball knew where he was. I don’t think he ever lost a header. And he would slide tackle through broken bottles, which was handy, as the gravel park was the broken bottle equivalent of grass. I don’t think the scabs on his knees ever healed. He was tattooed like a miner with coal dust. And like miners, when the two school teams came off from the gravel park there was only one cold water tap in the basement, were they kept the sawdust, for lining the park. We ended up in awe of Bat Man. He was the best centre half I ever played with.
In some ways Bat Man was lucky. He couldnae see the other team. There was a lot of skulduggery going on between the Catholic schools. We all wanted to wear the green and white hoops and we couldn’t really afford a second string of strips. Sometimes we had to wear the worn out remnants of altar boy’s cassocks, those that weren’t even good enough for the poor orphans in Africa, when we were playing other Catholic schools, so that we looked like confectionary: Big Purple Jessies.
The Protestant schools never had that problem. They always had nice new clean strips with the insignia of Partick Thistle or Clydebank, but they never got the strip they really wanted, which was that of the Glasgow Rangers. We’d have liked them to wear that strip too. Teams like Dalmuir would come up to our patch. They’d look at the gravel with the rain water running off like tributaries to the marshland behind the goals. Then they’d look at us, with our bits of football jerseys and bits of shorts and street shoes and sandshoes and football boots without studs and we could see them giggling and laughing. They had everything: nice new black football boots, no studs missing, no laces threaded and tied together that many times that to even look in their direction made them disintegrate; so that tying them was out of the question. But all of that was a bit too much, like them thinking they were real football players, in the same way that you’d think you were a robot, by putting a bucket on your head. If we didn’t win by at least ten goals we would hang our heads in shame.
They’d be waiting before the game, ready to go over the top, in and up and out the basement-dressing room stairs. They’d be nervously laughing and looking like Americans with smashing NHS teeth and with that Brylcreem in their hair so that you didn’t need to wash it and the Germolene, coating their legs like diesel, that stuff that made your legs longer and those boys would look at somebody like Benny Ba Heid Hagen and they’d see a skinny wee runt of a boy. Well Benny couldnae count very well and his spelling was even worse than his counting, but he had a ba heid because his heid was a ba. Off the football park he was nothing, but on the football park, his feet would show you his vision of the world. To see him passing a ball wasn’t about playing football, it was about opening up a space in your heart. Football defined him and made him who he was. He wasn’t just the best central midfielder I’d ever seen, he was the best player. Even at an early age everyone could see he was a prodigy, a genius. There were only two things that could have stopped him being the next white Pele. One of them was Mr Jordan and the other was the alky rule.
Mr Jordan was a new teacher out to make a name for himself. He wanted big silver trophies in the cabinet outside the headmaster Mr O’Donnell’s office nearly as much as us. It was just as if he piled up enough silverware outside the office, naturally the weight of the next step would be taken off him and he would be inside the office, as headmaster. Mr O’Donnell was due to retire. He’d always been due to retire, ever since my mum had gone to the same school. Rumour had it that he’d started off as a janitor and got promoted during the war and the only way we’d get rid of him was to bring a German sniper in to shoot him. But Mr Jordan was waiting in the background, behind the sniper, ready for his big chance.
The thing that Mr Jordan had really going for him was his hair. Mr O’Donnell was a bald, hat wearing, kind of person. Mr Jordan was a non hat wearing, curly haired, kind of guy. I mean he had a short back and sides the same as everybody else. Nothing else was acceptable. But Mr Jordan’s hair was just that little bit longer, that little bit fluffed out, as if his hair hadn’t yet made the decision to be trendy. You’d notice even before you noticed the Cromby coat. His hair was the working class equivalent of an afro.
Only Mr Jordan wasn’t working class, he was middle class and he came from a different country, he came from Bearsden. And he talked with that ever so polite la, da, di, da, cut glass accent that only foreigners used. The clincher for us that he was going to be the next headmaster was that he had a car. Even the headmaster never had a car. The only people we knew with a car was the police and the queen. And the queen sometimes got pulled in a carriage by a couple of horses or donkeys.
You’d have thought with all that Mr Jordan would have been soft. But he was very far from it. In those days a janitor or sometimes a teacher would referee a match between schools. Mr Jordan always made sure he refereed our games. Anyone looking on at him would always think he was scrupulously fair in blowing the whistle and giving decisions and he more or less was. But we had a wee sweeper called Kevie Whorisky. He was known as the silent assassin. He wasn’t the best player and it would be fair to say that he was the worst, but nobody would have ever told him that, not even Mr Jordan. Kevie Whorisky would happily play at marbles with your eyeballs and steal Holy Communion from his dying granny for a snack. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do, on or off a football park. There was only one way that he was going to end up and that was as a successful business man. Mr Jordan, with his kind of background, spotted that potential early. He would drift back to the defence whilst refereeing a match and quietly say in his ever so polite way,
“Mr Whorisky I want the opposition number 9, John Mc Master, out of the game. You understand me, out of the game. NOW”.
And that would be it. In those days you were allowed to tackle from behind. Sometimes the ball had to be in that general area. And in those days boys were tough, they never cried, never, not unless they’d been tackled by Kevie Whorisky. It was often a foul, often not. There were no substitutes allowed to come on, because there was no such thing. It was eleven against eleven. If you went down to ten, then that was tough, or not tough enough.
John Mc Master, Master, was a great player. He played with St Pat’s. He might even have been good enough to play for us. He was their equivalent of Benny Hagen. But John Mc Master was like Benny destined never to make it into senior football because of the alky rule.
It didn’t matter what level it was every team had to have an alky in it. And, like Einstein’s theory of relativity, it was really quite a simple rule. Watch any game of football, pick out the best player in Catholic football and he had the ba heid and the alky brain. Always never failed. The authorities used to pay lip service to shutting pubs on a Sunday and at lunchtime and at ten o’clock. But I’m pretty sure the police raided a few tenement blocks in The View and flung families out that were eating their Sunday Roast so that they could open a pub on the Monday. There had to be a pub every three closes and the police counted.
The other thing that might have stopped Benny Hagen from playing football was Mr Jordan. Mr Jordan didn’t just demand that we played good football and won, he demanded that we look good as well. I’m not talking about wearing Old Spice and club shirts and ties. It was worse than that. He wanted us to have wee bitty stretchy tie ups to hold up our football socks, with numbers on them, and little pennants on our arms so that we looked like a girl guide team. And Mr Jordan wanted clean new football boots, highly polished like a director’s shoes. What he really wanted was a Protestant team and what he had was us.
Everybody scrambled to get football boots so that they could play for the school team. We would have done anything to play. It was a massive and overwhelming love affair. Not to play was not to live and Mr Jordan knew that. But Benny came from a family poorer than the Henry’s and they had a family of twenty two. Benny’s da had been in the alky team, so Benny had more hope of becoming a parish priest than he had of getting football boots. We’d have helped him, but we had to help ourselves first. So Benny missed four games for the school team. Of course we’d won them all, but we missed Benny. Any team would have missed Benny.
Benny’s replacement during those games had been Alfie Murray. He usually played at right back, but he was known as the ghost. One minute he’d be right back, the next minute he’d be right wing, the following minute he’d be back at right back. And he never wasted a pass or shirked a tackle. But it didn’t seem to matter what he did, he didn’t seem to get dirty. Everybody else from both teams would come off the gravel park like Pitdown Man ready to be hosed down to make sure that they were human, everyone but the ghost. Maybe it was because we were all so dirty, but he would somehow look even cleaner than when we started. I’m sure that the school team strip, in the glass case of the foyer, of the old school, is the same one that Alfie Murray wore for over a year and it hadn’t been washed once in that time.
The other full back was Caveman Collins. There was a 50-50 ball and there was a Caveman Collin’s ball. I don’t know what were deeper, the ruts in the gravel park, after the game, which looked as if they had been made by a tractor and not by Caveman’s slide tackling, or the gashes in his legs. It didn’t seem to bother him. In fact it made him tackle even harder if he was bleeding. He was a good player, but he knew if he wasn’t bleeding he wasn’t playing.
Sammy Doak heid played in front of him. He was called Doak heid because his name was Doak and he had a heid like an egg yolk, but with yellow straw hair. He could strike the ball like a mule, with either foot. But he was more of a simple passer, never allowing the ball to leave the deck, so that it went in straight lines from A to B. He was the mathematical equivalent of a football player.
By one of life’s great coincidences we were to play St Pat’s again when we got Benny Ba Heid Hagen back into our team. We were getting stripped in the boiler room as usual. It was a hard game and we weren’t guaranteed to win it. Mr Jordan came in first. Benny came in behind him. Nobody said anything, but we were delighted that he was playing. We ran out to the pitch as usual. Benny was last out, well behind everyone else and walking slowly beside Mr Jordan. Even from that distance we could see that he had on a brand spanking new pair of football boots. They were even blacker than Mr Jordan’s hair. I was thinking, probably what everyone else was thinking, that Mr Jordan had bought them for Benny, because he was rich. As Benny got nearer you just couldnae look away. He had on two football boots, both different, but both for the left foot and one was about three sizes to big and the other four sizes, so that Benny looked as if he was wearing a pair of clown boots. Benny went to his usual position, centre mid. The thing was when the game started Benny played the way he always did. The only clowns were in the St Pat’s team. We won 5-0.
Alan Russell played up front for us and he scored four. He was one of those players that although he was smaller than everyone else seemed to hang in the air like a humming bird until the ball reached his head. He was good with his left foot. He was good with his right foot. He scored 102 goals before Christmas, but he wasn’t happy. He was never happy. Jesus flayed and dying on the cross never suffered as much as Alan Russell when he missed a chance. He’d slap himself in the face and shout and swear at a time when such things were frowned upon, especially in a Catholic boys team were it was a venal sin, but he’d rack up more sins than goals:
“ya fucking didy, ya fuckin’ complete dick, how the fuck did you fucking fucker miss that fucking easy fucken fucker of a fucking chance?”
Nowadays he would have been sent off, or sent for treatment, probably both. But in them days there was only one way to control that kind of behaviour. Mr Jordan just used to jog up behind him and smack on the back of the head, as hard as he could and say:
“Shut up Russell.”
It never worked, of course. Alan would miss another chance and it would be a repeat performance so that by the end of the game Mr Jordan would have a sore hand from hitting him.
The other midfielder, can’t mind his name, was all right, went on to play for Liverpool F.C under Shankly. And there was wee Jinky Johnstone on the one wing and me on the other. Not only did we never lose a game all season, we never looked like losing a game. We’d the league, the league cup, the Anderson trophy, all the cups in the bag. There were a couple I can’t even remember. We only had one to pick up and that was the Russell Cup. The Russell Cup was the equivalent of the European Cup. All the schools in Glasgow played for it. The final was to be played at Yoker’s football stadium, on the grass, so it was like a home tie for us. It was the last game of the season and there were rumours that there would be a lot of football scouts there. There were even rumours that my da would leave the pub to watch that game. We were playing St Roch’s.
I turned up early at Yoker Park. The gates weren’t even open, but I walked around the back and made my way in through a hole in the fence. I’d a secret weapon with me, a ball. I kicked it up and down the wing to get a feel for the surface. I was a bit tired, but didn’t say anything when everybody turned up. They looked at me and never said anything either. We had a whole changing room to ourselves which was just magic. St Roch’s even had one as well. I’ll admit it I was nervous. I think we all were. But I was made more nervous because Mr Jordan kept looking at me. I couldn’t speak, or spit, or nothing. I just sat there shaking. Mr Jordan put all the strips up on the hangers, as if we were a professional team. We couldn’t wait to get into the strips and get out there and get at St Roch’s. I was sitting beside wee Jimmy. Wee Jimmy never got nervous. He was bouncing up and down, the way he usually did. He could never sit on his arse.
“What did you do with your hair?” wee Jimmy said to me.
I laughed nervously. It was as if I never said anything nobody would have noticed, but my hair had went funny.
“Och, it’s nothing,” I said to wee Jimmy, trying to put him off.
But Mr Jordan was watching us. He walked over and took me by the arm and took me outside the dressing room.
“What’s the matter with your hair?” he said, in his cut glass accent.
“Nothing,” I said.
“I’m not sure if your head or your hair is green, but it is not a natural colour.”
I didn’t want him to get the wrong impression so I had to tell him.
“Och, it’s ok,” I said, “it’s only nit cream, it will wash off.”
But it wasn’t ok and even worse I started bubbling like a big baby when he told me I couldn’t possibly play in that condition and disgrace the school.’