Football from the Inside

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NAILS

I liked a tackle. No, let me rephrase that, I absolutely LOVED a tackle. Those of you who saw me play will already know that, but as everyone knows, even the hardest meet their match.

I would use anything I could to get an edge on my opponent, but I loved the feeling of crunching bone against bone, boot against shin pad and, that masochistic, overwhelming pain when you both went toe-to-toe for a ball and the crowd squirmed and half turned away, squinting back just in time to see if there were any casualties. I often ended in a crumpled heap, only to jump up pretending I wasn’t hurt, ready to go again. I’m not sure I would have been able to play these days, when a lot of my challenges would be deemed reckless and careless. Believe me, they were NOT reckless OR careless, they were well thought out in order to play the ball and at the same time let my opponent know I was there, AND, the next time they flashed their fancy coloured boots in my direction, I’d be there again. I’d need a knuckle duster in one hand and a feather duster in the other in order to keep the referee happy in this day and age.

To some of you it may seem an alien concept, particularly those of you who have only been born into the Sky TV age, where we barely see a physical challenge never mind a proper, honest 50/50, but in my day, very often it was Mortal Kombat. For me, it had to be, because a lot of the time my opponents were better than me and not just the top players like Gascoigne and McStay. I knew what I was good at, so I HAD to be physical, I had to draw them ALL into a battle, and then I could play a bit. I knew I was good at that raw, physical intimidation, but I knew I wasn’t that bad either. I milked the ugly side and that allowed me to build a persona of being the tough guy.

One man who would never buckle to that persona and was more than happy to engage in my form of gladiatorial football, was Stuart McCall.

Duracell

Easter Road was a difficult, intimidating place to come to back then (except for Hearts for some reason, but I’ll deal with that another time) and when Rangers came calling, they knew what to expect. Walter Smith’s team were blessed with a transfer policy the envy of Europe and whilst being extremely talented, they were no shrinking violets. We knew Huistra wouldn’t play; he was too ‘flighty’ for Easter Road, and neither, unfortunately, would Van Vossen. No, the big guns would be rolled out for us. There was no resting your big players 20 years ago. Fergie, Bomber, Gough and Hateley were all as physically adept as they were talented, but no one typified that team more for me than Stuart McCall.

He was the epitome of the Duracell battery with his copper top and relentless, never ending running. He was also a very, very good footballer and from memory, never once shirked any physical challenge I presented to him. He was as hard as nails.
I remember a game at Easter Road, which finished 0-0, a very good result for us, and Stuart and I were in direct opposition. He knew what I was all about and from the first minute to the last, set about dismantling me in whatever way he could. If I took more than one touch he was there, swarming and clattering into me. The game almost became secondary as we continued our personal battle for 90 minutes and, with each crunching impact, only a whistle would occasionally bring a brief respite. But, make no mistake, I gave as good as I got and by the final, relieving whistle, I was so physically exhausted, the trudge off the pitch seemed more effort than I could muster.

The players gathered round to shake hands and I spotted Stuart on the half way line about 20-yards away, which was probably the furthest we had been apart the whole game. I caught his eye and waited for his reaction. I was wary as there was no question there had been various times during the game when our conflict had become heated. He marched purposely towards me and I stiffened my arms and body anticipating what would come next. At least I would be ready for it. I should have known better as he thrust his hand toward me and my flinch relaxed and I reciprocated a warm handshake. “Well played, I enjoyed that” were his words and with that we both made that agonising walk off, just about having the energy to smile.

Later that season I was asked in an article who my toughest opponent had been in my career and without hesitation I replied “Stuart McCall.” Our paths crossed again at the annual PFA Player of the Year dinner that year where he sought me out to thank me for saying that. This time HE should have known better. It was an honour to be on the same pitch as a man like that.

Fash

The old Broomfield was a horrible ground to play at. A ramshackle wooden stand filled with the most critical of supporters. No away team was spared the abuse as they walked the gauntlet from the old dressing room block on the corner of the ground past the dug outs and on to the pitch. Many players were already broken before the game had started, and that was just the home team.

I had only just made my way into the first team as a raw, skinny 22-year-old when I ‘bumped’ into Justin Fashanu, who was ultimately to become a tragic figure. But when I did, I was never more glad that I was playing midfield and would be able, for the most part, to avoid direct contact with such a man mountain.

However, my hopes were dashed in the dressing room when I was given the job of blocking the run of Big Fash and just being a general nuisance to him at corners and set pieces. So there I am, at the first corner and he plants himself in front of the goalie. I jostle and try to nudge him but he doesn’t even flinch. So I move round him and carefully, tread on his toes to see if I can provoke a reaction. “Sorry big man” I say, but he doesn’t move, he literally doesn’t move, but looks down at me and says “that’s ok, just wait ‘til the next cross comes over.” It was quiet, calm, polite and almost apologetic in anticipation of what was to come. Only it wasn’t me who was to be on the receiving end.

Graham Mitchell, our regular left back and on this occasion playing centre back, was to be the recipient as the next cross was stood up diagonally from the half way line to the ‘D.’ He jumped, not realising Fash had started to run the minute the ball left the midfielder’s foot and, just as he was about to head it away, the big man already in mid-air smashed into him, heading the ball in any direction but the goal. He didn’t care where it went, but he had made his undoubted mark. Graham briefly lay motionless, before recovering enough to be helped off. When the physio asked him where it hurt, the reply of “everywhere” had never been more apt. It had been like watching him being hit by a wardrobe swinging from a crane. Airdrie went on to win 2-0 and in truth, Fashanu terrorised us that day. I had never seen and never did see anyone hit harder than that. I’m only glad that after stepping on his toes and stirring up the hornet’s nest, it was Mitch who ended up being stung and not me.

All material in this feature is the Intellectual Property of the author and as such may not be reproduced in print or for commercial gain without the prior permission of David Farrell

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