The Rhino in Glasgow
The Rangers and Sunderland forward Don Kichenbrand on leaving South Africa
When Don Kichenbrand arrived in Glasgow in the autumn of 1955, he brought with him a pair of old-fashioned ankle boots. His teammates in the Glasgow Rangers reserves took one look at the six-studded boots and howled with laughter: here was a country cousin from Africa’s southern tip (his family came originally from the coal-mining country of Alsace-Lorraine) who clearly hadn’t transitioned to something more supple and streamlined. They winked at each other and stepped back to enjoy the spectacle, hoping that at least the youngster in the prehistoric footwear could play.
It so happened that the centre-forward, who was reputedly as good with his head as he was with both feet, also arrived with something infinitely more slippery than a six-studded ankle boot. Tucked away in the back of Kichenbrand’s mind was a guilty secret.
The Kichenbrands were Catholics, you see, and at Protestant Rangers he was forbidden by minders and go-betweens ever to discuss religion, particularly on derby days. If asked, he was to smile and not-too-obviously change the subject.
Kichenbrand’s first season at Rangers was his best. For no reason he can now remember he had always wanted to play for the Scottish giants rather than an English club, and after scoring all six goals for an Eastern Transvaal X1 versus an Overseas Professionals’ outfit at Benoni’s Willowmoore Park in a charity game, he was approached by the old Luton Town and Rangers stalwart, Charlie Watkins. “‘Look, Don, I believe you want to play for Glasgow Rangers,’ he says to me,” Kichenbrand recalled. “And of course I said, ‘Yes’.
“I’d been left out of the Springbok team who were due to tour Australia in ’55 and I was pretty disappointed about that, having played for the Springboks against Heart of Midlothian the previous year. It was an easy decision and I was on the plane by the Monday.
“I got a £500 signing-on fee. On our way to our new lodgings with a family called Kelly, a Catholic surname, the club officials could only call them ‘the other people’. Soon after that I realised that the bed I was sleeping in at my digs was too small, so Scot Symon [the Rangers gaffer] gave me money and told me to go out and buy a bigger one.”
Early friendlies for the Rangers reserves (the dressing room sniggers having died down) against Airdrie and Partick Thistle were followed by a run in the senior team. As luck would have it, it was a pre-season game in England, against Manchester City. “Bloody hell, the butterflies in my stomach could have flown away with me,” says Kichenbrand. “I remember Willy Waddle crossed the ball to me. I chested it down and walloped it onto the crossbar – Bert [Trautmann, who was in goal for City], who had lost his son in a car accident and was an awfully nice man, didn’t move. The ball bounced back clear over my head.”
The Scottish papers were sceptical and had certain preconceptions because he came from Africa, but Kichenbrand didn’t care and couldn’t stop banging them in. The Africa trope became a long-standing theme with the Scottish newspapers running stories about him eating cured meat, or biltong as it was called back home. He might even – they hinted mischievously – have been a “savage”.
This was music to Queen of the South supporters’ ears. Kichenbrand was a savage, he was from Africa after all, and he should pack up his bags and head back to the Dark Continent, where he belonged – they shouted as much as the teams ran on. It was just the motivation the young striker needed. He promptly banged in five goals in an 8-0 thrashing, leaving Queen of the South fans to wonder at their politics and their wisdom.
Then there was the game against Kilmarnock. “‘Hey black boy, where’s your spear,’ they shouted, which wasn’t the cleverest because it gave me extra motivation,” Kichenbrand said. “I remember Sammy Cox [the Rangers defender] took me aside and said: ‘Don’t let the spectators get to you – you’re playing and they’re paying to see you.’ Sammy was a bit older and became like a father to me. He and Willy Waddle were just grand.”
All in all, Kichenbrand scored 25 goals for Rangers in 30 first team appearances that magical first season, helping them to the 1955-56 league title with games to spare. He might have scored more except early in 1956, he felt excruciating pain on the right-hand side of his stomach. He was on the bowling green at the time (Rangers players were encouraged to appear at local Glasgow bowling clubs as part of their community outreach) and some wag suggested that a stiff double whisky would solve the bother. Kichenbrand glugged down his medicine but he could barely walk to the bus stop for the trip home.
Early the following morning he managed to convince Norman Arniston, his roommate, to call the doctor. An ambulance was called and within hours Kichenbrand had his appendix removed at the Drumoyne Hospital. The operation was successful but soon peritonitis set in. Bed-ridden and weak, the biltong-fed boy wasted away. “I was upset – I was desperate to play,” he said. “I remember eating egg flips with Worcester sauce to increase my protein. I even missed the last six games [at the end of his first season]. It seemed to go OK and then I went to play against Raith Rovers the following season for the reserves and I was very weak. My knees were like knobkierries [African fighting sticks with hard, bulb-like wooden heads] I’d lost so much weight. Davy Kinnear, the St Mirren trainer, helped me come back but I should have taken a while longer.”
By the time he finally recovered, Kichenbrand had lost ground to Max Murray who was increasingly preferred at centre-forward in the Rangers first XI. The Benoni boy soldiered on, nursing his secret, shying away from the Glasgow pubs and backstreets, haunted, as they were, by Glasgow’s ubiquitous ducktail thugs.
For relaxation he played golf and wrote regular weekly letters home. “I remember one game at Celtic Park on New Year’s Day – we called it the pigsty,” says Kichenbrand. “We’d lost to them at Parkhead 5-3 on Boxing Day in the first game and New Year’s Day was the return fixture. The game was played in terrible wind and I remember Jock Stein [a Protestant at Catholic Celtic] calling to his keeper, Dick Beattie, to come out for it and I just managed to head the ball over his head. The day became rough after that. Stein was playing at centre-half for Celtic, so I had my work cut out for me. We lost on aggregate but we won that game one-nothing. The fans were so happy that they almost turned the bus over as we were heading to the St Enoch Hotel for the do afterwards. The wives and girlfriends followed in a second bus.”
Kichenbrand was the youngest boy in a large family of five brothers and six sisters. He learned his football from Ivan, his older brother by four years, who was a useful player until both of his arches dropped and he gave up the game to concentrate on his apprenticeship as a carpenter. “Ivan was an inspiration with his kindness,” said Kichenbrand. “He bought me my first football and used to bring his girlfriend to my matches. He would offer five shillings for a goal. He taught me a lot of what I knew.”
The Kichenbrand children grew up on ‘the plots’, smallholdings on the outskirts of the mining towns east of Johannesburg. Life was good – and domestically busy. Don’s father Joe (full name Joseph Johannes Kichenbrand) was a shaft sinker on the mines and used to leave at 5am for work. It was young Don’s job to clean his father’s pigeon lofts and milk the cow. He also fed the two racehorses, Hurry and Silver Load, and picked fruit from the 180 fruit trees.
There were nectarines, figs and plums, yellow and white peaches, vegetables, too, carrots and potatoes. “We lived lovely, that I can tell you,” he said. “And I loved my parents, I wanted to be good to them. I would do my duties. I remember a kingfisher eating fish out of the pond, so I covered that over with netting. I remember I painted the roof of the house without a harness. I lost my footing and fell into the gutter.
“Dad died of silicosis. He was in bed for weeks – he just faded away. Because he went early to work he went early to bed, I would sit up at the kitchen table with Veronica, my sister. She was the youngest, with cerebral palsy and hearing difficulties. We used to pass the notepad back and forth and ‘speak’ to each other that way. Once I was in Scotland she was sent all my articles. She was first to read them and then she passed them on to the others.
“The family lived on a five-acre plot and I went to Martin’s School in Ravenswood. We had a teacher there called Botha who used to strip a young plum tree branch and turn it into a whip. If you missed hitting the blue gum tree when you were shooting with both feet he used to hit you across the backside. That taught you to hit the target!
“Once I had a bad cold and my mother told me I couldn’t play at Boksburg Football Club. I went to my room and sneaked out through a bedroom window. Next thing I knew there was a familiar voice shouting at me from the touchlines – my mom. She never held it against me.”
Kichenbrand’s appendicitis and subsequent peritonitis set him back, and although he struggled valiantly, he was unable to recover lost ground. Murray was the coming player and the innocence and ease of that first season never returned. He was an amiable man, well-liked, but his last three seasons at Rangers were shadowed by his illness and his increasingly futile attempts to recover his first-team place.
In early 1958, Kichenbrand played in an exhibition game in Belfast with Billy Bingham and Danny Blanchflower, and a door opened. Sunderland were battling against relegation and their coach, George Curtis, an assistant to Alan Brown, offered him a contract on Bingham’s suggestion. “I scored seven goals in 10 games for them,” he said, “but it wasn’t quite good enough. Leicester City beat Birmingham in the last game of the season and we went down with Sheffield Wednesday.”
The Sunderland years were happy ones, but a lifetime of niggles and back injuries were taking their toll. Kichenbrand had by then met his lifetime partner, Jo, a Dublin hotelier’s daughter, and he was beginning to make friends outside of the game, such as the South African golfer, Bobby Locke. “Bobby was playing at Prestwick, I think it was, in the British Open, and I noticed that he was lifting his head a little too soon while putting. ‘Keep it down for a little longer,’ was my suggestion. He went on to win the 1957 Open on the Old Course at St Andrews. I always like to remind myself that I played a small part in that one. Bobby and I became fabulous friends.”
Other than playing with Bingham at Sunderland (who moved to Luton Town in 1958), Kichenbrand also played alongside Don Revie. “He told me that if he was moving to the right I should do the opposite and move to the left, so I just said, ‘OK, Don,’” he said. “He was such a good passer of the ball that he would always find you, it would always be there, on your foot. He was a good footballer and a good manager – it was Revie that invented 4-4-2 as far as I was concerned – we used to head across to Leeds for professional footballers’ golf days.”
And what, then, of Kichenbrand’s nickname, ‘the Rhino’? Back at Rangers Waddle’s nickname was ‘Deedle-doddle’; George Young was known as ‘Corky’. Kichenbrand’s came about after Rangers’ South American tour when the boys had seen the Reno Dancing Girls on stage. Don was quick on his feet, so became ‘Reno’, which in turn was changed by the Glasgow press into ‘Rhino’, which stuck.
Secretly Kichenbrand rather liked being a Rhino. It was better than being laughed at for wearing old-fashioned boots, or being called a spear-wielding savage.
And it was way better than being mocked for eating biltong.
Not that he told anyone the nickname was right by him. He had a capacity for keeping things to himself, after all.