Pre-War Scottish Legends
A selection of eight of the early stars of the game in Scotland
Andy Watson (Queen's Park and Scotland)
Arthur Wharton is often erroneously credited as being the first black footballer, signing for Preston North End in pre-league 1886, then later turning out for Sheffield United and Stockport County once the Football League was up and running. But Wharton can only lay claim to being the first black professional: the Queen's Park and Scotland left-back Andy Watson beat him to the punch by the best part of a decade.
Watson — usually referred to these days as Andrew, but in most contemporary sources known as Andy — was born in British Guyana, the son of a Scottish sugar planter and a local woman. He was sent to school in London at the age of 14, then enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1875. Education doesn't appear to have been Watson's main concern with his record in Natural Philosophy going some way to explaining his priorities: during his time on the course, he didn't borrow a single book from the library, and achieved an overall mark of 8. To put this in context, the highest in his class was a slightly more impressive 1,548.
It wasn't a big problem, though: in the meantime, he was making a name for himself at Maxwell, his local football club, moving in 1876 to Parkgrove FC, where he also became secretary, organising the club's fixtures. According to Scottish FA reports of the time, he was a "powerful" and "very fair back" who "tackled well". By April 1880, Watson had been chosen to represent Glasgow in a representative fixture, games which in those days held almost the same status as full internationals. His performance in that match — Glasgow beat Sheffield by a single goal — led to a transfer to Queens Park, the biggest club in the country, and he soon received notices as "one of the very best backs we have … he has great speed and tackles splendidly with a powerful and sure kick."
Full international honours were inevitable, and in 1881 he captained Scotland on his debut, a match which remains England's biggest home defeat, a 6-1 shellacking at the Kennington Oval. Watson won two more caps — a 5-1 win against Wales and a second victory over England, this time only 5-1 — before moving to London on business in 1882. His departure was much to Scotland's chagrin. While down south, Watson would turn out for the Corinthians, at one stage helping them to pelt the FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers 8-1. Watson had been so popular with the selectors that, when he was unfit for an international in early 1882, one SFA goon quipped that, should Watson somehow become available again, he would happily drug his successor to ensure he played. But Watson never would pull on a Scotland shirt again: despite constant pleading from the SFA, he chose instead to emigrate to Australia, a restless soul always on the move.
Jimmy Cowan (Aston Villa and Scotland)
Scotland have had some world-class players down the years, but never a Best Ever In Their Position. Outstanding as they were, your Denis Laws and Kenny Dalglishes, Jimmy Johnstones and Graeme Sounesses, never quite made it into the canon alongside the Pelés, Maradonas and Beckenbauers. But of all the Scots who nearly touched those heights, the one who got closest was perhaps the long-forgotten figure of Jimmy Cowan.
Cowan was probably the best centre-half of his era, the outstanding midfielder in the final decade of the 19th century. He joined Aston Villa from Vale of Levan via a short spell in Midlands county football in 1889, and quickly became the linchpin of the most successful team of the 1890s. During the decade, he helped Villa to five league titles and two FA Cups, the second of which secured English football's second Double. He was big and strong, a tough tackler and a progressive passer. And fast. So fast that in 1895, he missed five league games to prepare for, compete in, and win the prestigious Powderhall New Year Sprint, a major annual open athletics event back home in Scotland. He won £80 in prize money, more than enough to cover the fine Villa's directors imposed on him for going AWOL. Upon his return, Cowan knuckled down and helped Villa to the title
His excellence wasn't just measured in medals, but also by his performances on the international stage. Admittedly there weren't many of these, as the Scottish FA, self-defeating clowns then as now, didn't pick players representing clubs outside the country until the international against England in 1896, by which time Cowan was 26. Never mind: his impact would be almost instantaneous. Cowan's masterful display in defence at Celtic Park helped the Scots jigger England's record run of 20 matches without defeat, which had stood since April 1889. "A good referee would have penalised Brandon, Drummond and Cowan for their dirty tricks," reported the Pall Mall Gazette of Scotland's 2-1 win. "In the case of the last named, this style of play is even more inexcusable than with the others, for he was undoubtedly the best half-back on the field."
The SFA selectors didn't bother picking Cowan for the games against Ireland and Wales, considered pushovers at the time. But he would be a shoo-in for selection against England in 1897, Scotland winning 2-1 again, this time at Crystal Palace. "Of the half-back division," ran a contemporary report, "Cowan was undoubtedly the best on the field." England captain Gilbert Smith found that Cowan was "a bit too much for him", while their star man Steve Bloomer, a genuine great of the game, scored but was quieter than usual, Cowan negating his threat.
Cowan would win only one more cap, again in the big match against England, the following year. He was honoured with the captaincy, but had a nightmare, his team losing 3-1 at Celtic Park. "Cowan was a failure," reported the Times, "and damaged his reputation as a half-back." There were extenuating circumstances, though: it was rumoured that Cowan was completely paggered on booze. Spectators were heard repeatedly shouting, "What on earth are you playing at, Jamie, man?" while the Glasgow Herald reported that "near the end, Cowan sent the ball into touch after dithering with it, a most extraordinary bit of play for such a player." Cowan never played for Scotland again, but he did secure one last title for Villa a year later.
Robert Smyth McColl (Queen's Park, Newcastle United, Rangers and Scotland)
No player has scored a hat-trick for Scotland since Colin Stein managed to hit the net four times against Cyprus in 1969. A pathetic record, and no mistake.
What the team would give for a player like Robert Smyth McColl, a super-sharp shooter from the amateur side Queen's Park. He scored hat-tricks in consecutive matches for Scotland in March 1899 — in a 6-0 win in Wales, then another at Celtic Park against Ireland a week later. A remarkable achievement, but McColl's masterpiece came the following year: a third hat-trick for his country, this time in the first Scotland-England game of the 20th century.
For only the third time in their history, the Scots played the match in primrose and rose hoops, the racing colours of honorary SFA president Lord Rosebery, who was watching the team in Scotland for the first time. McColl scored the opener within 40 seconds of kick-off, a low snapshot which flew past the flummoxed England keeper Jack Robinson. After hitting the post, and assisting in the move which saw Scotland go two up, McColl thundered in the Scots' third and his second on the half hour, before scoring his hat-trick goal on the stroke of half-time. Scotland were 4-1 up at the turn, a score that would remain the same during the second half, despite the fact that that McColl had spent the period "bombarding custodian Robinson in the England goal", as the Manchester Guardian described it.
All in all, McColl played 13 games for Scotland, and scored 13 goals. Only eight players — Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Hughie Gallacher, Lawrie Reilly, Ally McCoist, Robert Hamilton, James McFadden and Mo Johnston — have scored more times for their country, and only Gallacher and Hamilton have a better goals-per-game ratio. McColl's fame took him into the world of professionalism, and to Newcastle United in 1901, where he would score 20 goals in three seasons, before returning north to Rangers, and eventually back to Queen's Park as an amateur. But by now he had other concerns: a sweetie shop, co-owned with his brother Tom and bearing his name: RS McColl. It would grow into one of the biggest chains of newsagents in Scotland, the shop's confectionary roots earning him the nickname Toffee Bob.
Toffee Bob was still supporting Scottish football years later, always taking out advertisements in match programmes. "Always use your sweets coupons at RS McColl," pleaded an advert in the match programme of the 1946 Victory Shield between Scotland and England.
WH Smith never had as much success in England. William Henry Smith (known as Billy, and admittedly nothing to do with the south-of-the-border newsagent's chain) was a winger in Huddersfield Town's three-in-a-row league winning team of the 1920s, and scored the only goal of the 1922 FA Cup final, putting the ball past Preston's James Mitchell, the only player to ever play in an FA Cup final wearing spectacles. He played three times for England between 1922 and 1928, and was by all accounts, unlike his Scottish counterpart, useless in them all.
Dan Doyle (Grimsby Town, Everton, Celtic and Scotland)
Dan Doyle played bowls. A genteel pastime beloved by pensioners worldwide, he played it well enough once to represent Scotland in a match against England. A quiet and refined sporting star of the Victorian age, you might conclude. Alas, not quite. For Dan also played football, well enough to win league titles in England and Scotland, and to captain his country. A rampaging womaniser and gambler, the sort who grabbed life with both hands and wrung every last drop out of it, he earned his place in history by becoming the first man to kill another on the football field.
The fateful incident occurred when he was playing for Grimsby Town against Staveley in 1889. William Cropper — who was a professional cricketer for Derbyshire as well as an attacker for Staveley — was pelting towards the goal when Doyle, a notorious hardman, attempted to rob him of the ball. The ball broke loose and flew into the air "at a good height". Both men attempted to trap it with their chests, but Doyle's knee crumped into Cropper's body as he leapt up. Cropper fell to the floor immediately, thinking he was winded, but was helped up and led back to the dressing room. "They have killed me," he said as he gingerly walked off the pitch.
In the dressing room, Cropper lay down, never to get up again. Doctors decided he was in no fit state to be moved, and attended to him with "hot water applications made to his body". He remained in the dressing room until 11.30am the morning after, when death ensued. The cause was a rupture of the bowels, which had led to acute peritoneal inflammation. An inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure: "Cropper had given Doyle no provocation, and that was the first time Doyle had ever played with him, so far as he could say. It was a pure accident. It was legitimate play to breast the ball when in the air."
It is, of course, not the most infamous tragedy to befall a player in the history of Scottish football. The Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson was killed in 1931 in an accidental collision with Rangers striker Sam English, who found himself subsequently hounded out of football by fans who jeered his every touch. But no such fate befell Doyle. In fact his great successes lay ahead of him. He moved to Everton, and was captain of their first-ever championship side in 1891. (The goalkeeper in that team, Jack Angus, fell ill and died midway through the season, becoming as yet the only player to receive a posthumous league winner's medal. Truly these were tougher times.) Doyle then moved back north, and established himself as the centrepiece of the first great Celtic side, winning their first league titles and Scottish Cup, Scotland's team of the 1890s. What the old folks back at the bowling green thought of all this was never recorded.
Patsy Gallacher (Celtic, Airdrieonians and Ireland)
No film footage exists of Patsy Gallacher's most famous act as a footballer, his goal in the 1925 Scottish Cup final for Celtic against Dundee. We must instead make do with a famous cartoon. "To Patsy," it begins, "just outside Dundee's 18-yard line. He beats one man… and another… and another!" The captions accompany grim-faced blue-shirted gentlemen lunging at a scrawny wee naïf in hoops. "The fourth man… five men he's beaten!" There's Keystone Kops carnage in the penalty area. "He's inside the six-yard line. The keeper is coming out. Patsy has stumbled. No, it's incredible, he's somersaulted into the goal with the ball between his feet! It's the equaliser — what a goal! Celtic 1 Dundee 1. Patsy has turned the game around for Celtic!" Jimmy McGrory would score a late winner for the Bhoys, but few remember that bit.
Whether Gallacher's goal was quite as spectacular as that, we shall never know. Some contemporary reports talk only of a melee in the box from which Gallacher leaps out with the ball wedged between his boots. Others speak of a scramble, the ball being merely "scraped over the line". The Manchester Guardian, in a match report of a length that makes a Sun Spot look like a special report in the Economist, does at least mention Gallacher's "brilliant football". The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but as Jimmy Stewart was once told, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
In any case, it still doesn't stand as the cheekiest moment in an amazing career. Two other incidents stand out. Chosen to represent Ireland against England at Windsor Park, Gallacher refused to get changed until he negotiated a sizeable appearance fee with the Irish FA's treasurer. Gallacher, known as The Mighty Atom, may have been small in stature — he was only five foot three inches tall and seven stone in weight when he debuted for Celtic in 1911, eventually hitting the five-foot-five mark — but he knew his standing in the game, and his worth. (Alan Morton, the famous Rangers winger of the time, considered him the greatest player to ever have pulled on boots: "There never was a player like him, and I often wonder if we shall see his like again.") The treasurer knew all too well how the crowd would react had Gallacher not turned out, and so his request was granted. The highest-ever fee for an international was stuffed into the wee man's wallet.
His most audacious stunt, however, came when the Celtic manager Willie Maley took his side to a luxury hotel in Dunbar for a thoroughly modern spa-style period of training, rest and relaxation. The team were, for health purposes, put under curfew. Gallacher, however, decided he would quite fancy a nippy sweetie or two, and so persuaded a hotel chambermaid to lend him her uniform. Small and svelte enough to exude femininity, a glammed-up Gallacher sashayed past Maley, on sentry duty in the hotel foyer, bade his boss a very good night in a comedic high-pitched squeal, and disappeared through the door Maley was holding open for "her". Prepared to go out on the town in drag, in Presbyterian Scotland, in the 1920s, he must have really wanted that dram.
Hughie Gallacher (Newcastle United and Scotland)
In 1929, Scotland visited Belfast to take on Northern Ireland in the British Championship. Within 14 minutes of kick-off, they were 3-0 up, all three goals being scored by the diminutive Newcastle United forward Hugh Kilpatrick Gallacher. At half-time, with the Scots leading 4-2, a message was relayed to the Scottish dressing room: if Gallacher didn't play like a numpty in the second half, he would be shot. Gallacher scored his fourth on 51 minutes, as Scotland ran out 7-3 winners. Walking through the city the day after on his way to meet friends, Gallacher was forced to take cover under a bridge as a bullet wheeched past his ears.
Trouble seemed to follow the impetuous Gallacher around. The referee for that match in Belfast was a man called Albert Edward Fogg. He had previous with the Scottish striker. During a match between Newcastle and Huddersfield Town on New Year's Eve 1927, Fogg awarded Town a penalty, a decision met with garrulous Gallacher opprobrium. The referee went to book Gallacher, asking the player his name. "If you don't know who I am," replied Wee Hughie, "you've no business being on the pitch. What's your name?" The reply came: Mr Fogg. To which Gallacher responded, "Aye, and you've been in one all afternoon." He spent the best part of what remained of the match berating the referee at every occasion. After the game, he went to Fogg's dressing room to apologise for his actions, only to see the referee leaning over the bath. Unable to look a slapstick gift horse in the mouth, he hoofed the referee into the water. The FA suspended him without pay for eight weeks.
There were other incidents. Part of the first Scotland team to play overseas, against France in 1930, he led most of the squad through a hotel window to break curfew and sample the delights of Paris. He was arrested for scrapping with his brother-in-law in Newcastle city centre. Having moved to Chelsea, he was arrested for brawling with a group of Fulham fans in a west London café. He was frequently found unconscious outside jazz clubs, gaddered on booze. One time he was peeled off the pavement the night before a game with Derby County — by a player from Derby County.
And yet he always performed on the pitch. His first club, Queen of the South, were rewarded with 19 goals — in 9 games. He scored nearly a goal a game for Airdrie in 100 appearances, then helped Newcastle to what remains their last league title in 1927. He continued to rattle them in for Chelsea, Derby, Notts County, Grimsby and Gateshead, before retiring in 1939 having scored just over 400 goals in just over 550 matches. He scored 23 times for Scotland in 20 games, also going down in history as one of the 1928 Wembley Wizards who skelped England 5-1 in 1928.
But the booze would catch up with him. In 1957, he had a drunken argument with his son Matty, and threw an ashtray at his head. The incident — which appears to have been a one-off — was treated with arguably undue severity by the authorities. Matty was taken into care, while Hughie was summoned to the magistrates court on charges of child abuse. The day before his case was heard, Wee Hughie laid his head on the main London-Edinburgh railway line at 12.08, sure that the northbound train about to come round the corner would have no time to stop. His body was found 100 yards along the line at a place known as Dead Man's Crossing.
Bill Struth (Rangers)
The only manager in our selection. And what a nutter.
Ibrox must have been some place to work at during the 1920s. The decade had begun with a mixture of triumph and tragedy, the club winning the 1919-20 league title only for their manager, Willie Wilton, to drown in a boating accident the day after it was sealed. He was replaced by his assistant and former trainer Bill Struth — who had been with Wilton on that fateful sailing trip — and the new man would quickly establish himself as one of the most idiosyncratic managers to ever work in football.
Struth was a former professional athlete who had struggled to make ends meet. His only major cash success was at a handicap race in Porthcawl where, having been given a starting position from which he considered it nigh on impossible to win the race, he instead hung around up the course near a more advantageous mark as though a spectator, before jumping into action at the gun and eventually winning the race. He got his money and fled the town before anybody could find out about his shenanigans at the starting gun.
Struth was primarily obsessed with three things: fitness, discipline, and clothes. His first edict on taking control was to insist his players wore a suit, topped with a bowler hat, at all times on their way to and from work. Struth lived near Ibrox, and most mornings would spy on the players from his window as they perambulated to the ground. Should he spot one not sporting their hat, or wearing it at a resolutely non-Protestant jaunty angle, Struth would phone the club and order the player back down the street, making them take their route again, only this time dressed just so. One morning, having made it to his office, Struth spotted a senior player chatting to a friend outside the main entrance at Ibrox, with his hands in his pockets. Struth went outside and, with the silent grace of a ballet dancer, glided stealthily down the steps before punching the player in the ribs. (Struth pre-empting Brian Clough here by some 50 years; the Nottingham Forest manager once bollocked Trevor Francis for putting his hands in his pockets when collecting a West Midlands Young Player of the Year Award, and famously clattered both Nigel Jemson and Roy Keane with haymakers.)
When at work, the players had to wait before changing into their immaculately pressed kit. First, they were required to go for a walk in the park — in their suits, of course — to allow Struth to study their gait, with a view to spotting injuries. Once the squad returned to Ibrox in order to train, Struth would disappear into his office for the rest of the day, emerging only occasionally to wander down to the directors' lounge and play the piano in the manner of Chic Murray's headmaster in Gregory's Girl. Sometimes he would pour himself a small whisky. He would change his suit three times per day, selecting his threads from a large wardrobe in his office.
Struth had little interest in football, and freely admitted as much to his players, charging the senior members of the squad with working out how the team would play. He simply handed the captain's armband and his trust to the legendary defender Davie Meiklejohn, and told him to get on with it.
Alan Morton (Rangers and Scotland)
Struth could spot a player, though. His first signing for Rangers was his most important. Alan Morton was a no-nonsense left-winger turned down by Airdrie in 1913. He joined the amateurs of Queens Park and took up a career as a mining engineer instead, but the cream always rises, and he was already in the Scotland team before Struth came calling in 1920. He would immediately become the star man in the most successful Scottish side of the decade.
According to his teammates, he was a better player than Stanley Matthews. "In the other arts, accuracy of the pass and the cross, dribbling and team sense, he was Matthews's equal," said Tommy Cairns. "But in directness and goalscoring, Morton was better." Bob McPhail agreed with this very Presbyterian no-messing analysis: "He was always going in a straight line for the goal. He could take the ball into the opponents' penalty area quicker than anybody I ever saw. He never pulled his tricks until a game was won, and then he gave the crowd the entertainment they wanted."
Morton helped his team to seven league titles in the twenties, though perhaps his most important club medal was that of the 1928 Scottish Cup, ending Rangers' quarter-of-a-century jinx in the competition. But his most famous performances came in the darker blue shirts of Scotland. He played against England every year between 1920 and 1932, a period of Scottish dominance, with the exception of 1926, a match which became known for years in both countries as "the year Morton did not play". His pinnacle came in the 1928 Wembley Wizards game, when he set up all three of the hat-trick hero Alex Jackson's goals with pinpoint crosses. A genius, not least because he was the only star savvy enough ever to receive invitations to fancy SFA dinners during an era where those in charge thought the players were nothing but working-class scum.
All of this leaves no room for Celtic's Jimmy McGrory, who scored 395 times in 378 games, yet could barely get a kick for the Scottish national side, despite scoring six times in seven internationals. But what can you do?