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The Game of My Life
By Craig Brown
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2001 Craig Brown
All rights reserved.
ONE HOT NIGHT in Rome I faced the crushing responsibility of life as manager of Scotland and I began to wonder, Why me? What on earth was I doing there at all? I was not the only one asking that question. The regulars in the press box had already posed the same query.
Nevertheless, there I was, head in hands as Italy threatened to take apart the Scotland team that I was leading – a Scotland team that was playing for pride. Much has happened since that warm night in Rome in October 1993 but much had happened before it too.
I was born just as the Second World War was getting into its stride. At the time, my father was in the RAF and I saw very little of him. My earliest recollection of the place I called home was of a house in Corkerhill, Glasgow – a railway village where nearly all the men, my mother's father included, worked in the manufacture and maintenance of railway locomotives and rolling stock. My grandfather was an engine-driver, a job which, to me, was something very special indeed. He was one of my very first heroes, and I could think of nothing finer than becoming an engine-driver myself. Yes, I was one of those typical wee boys whose dreams never went far beyond becoming a train-driver – or perhaps a footballer!
My grandfather's home was supplied by the railway and it was small, but cosy. A staircase ran up the outside of the building and provided us children with a play area – which frequently caused my mother's heart to leap into her mouth. Corkerhill, in those days, was a happy village full of hard-working men. Full employment, of course, meant that nobody starved but while there were no paupers, there were no stray princes either. There was an air of equality and a common cause.
As I said, my father, Hugh, was in the RAF, having volunteered to engage the Luftwaffe in battle. However, just before the war, he had bought a house in Larbert, where Stenhousemuir play. My parents had lived there for a time before he went off to war. My formative years, however, were spent in Corkerhill, and I have vivid memories of the air-raids. As a railway repair area, we were among the Luftwaffe's prime targets. Hitler thought that it would be a good idea to paralyse the transport system of Great Britain, and his idea caused me to have many a sleepless night. I remember well the wailing siren which demanded an instant response to its warning of an impending raid. Nobody ever hesitated for a moment – adults running everywhere, it seemed, and children being hoisted up with their legs dangling and hurriedly carried to a safer place.
I, of course, was one of those children usually carried along by my mother, Margaret. My grandmother had died before the war and I had an Aunt Jess – my mother's elder sister – who seemed to fulfil the role of the family's female guide. My mother was one of eight children and, with my father away, my grandfather had been left with quite a large brood to care for. My Aunt Jess became his chief assistant.
As the raids got under way, we would be transported to the air-raid shelter – a damp, dingy place, brightened only by the flickering candles we took along and a singsong. I'm told that, as a two-year-old, I could sing 'Onward Christian Soldiers' perfectly because I had heard the adults singing it so often in the air-raid shelter. Our faith in God was naturally encouraged, and I believe that it has stayed with me to this day. I'm not, perhaps, as devout as I should be, but I was certainly brought up with a strong Christian belief, and it should come as no surprise to know that I have a brother in the ministry.
On some occasions there just wasn't enough time to get to the shelter and, when that happened, my mother used to push me under the living-room table and then lie on top of me until the sound of the bombers had gone away and the 'all-clear' sounded. We would listen to the thuds and explosions as the German bombs rained down. When I think about it, my mother must have been very frightened, and yet she always seemed to remain so calm and therefore always gave me a great feeling of confidence.
Another feature of life in Corkerhill was the baths. No, I'm not talking about swimming baths, but a series of large individual baths. I was often taken across to the baths by my mother – to where the hot water gushed and bubbled from a pipe and all the people had the chance to clean off the grime from much of their bodies with the strong smelling carbolic soap. The private bits were taken care of at home in a tin bath on the living-room floor! Going to the baths in Corkerhill became quite an outing for me.
You can imagine from what I've said that life in Corkerhill was not exactly living in the lap of luxury – and yet this is not any sort of hard-luck story. There were many in those days who were a lot worse off than we were. We had a roof over our heads and shoes on our feet – there were many, many more people in Britain who were not so well taken care of. I must say that I do like to remember how things were then, because it means that I never lose my appreciation for what has been achieved over the last fifty years and, more to the point, how things are for me today.
We were a very close family in those days, as I believe most families were at that time. All the privations brought on by the war drew people so much closer together. Family life in Scotland has always been an important thing – it is still important today, but in those turbulent years of the war it seemed to be even more so.
Whenever my father came home on leave during the 1940s, I was always overjoyed to see him – even though there were always those awkward moments when he had to take in how much I was growing and I had to learn just a little more about him. Prior to going into the RAF, he had played football professionally for King's Park – now known as Stirling Albion. He was a hard, tough-tackling midfielder or full-back who never shirked it when the going got rough and would fight to get a result for the full ninety minutes. He also played for Hamilton Academicals and even guested for Wolves when he was stationed nearby during the war. He became very friendly with a famous Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, Ted Vizard, and I well remember him visiting our home in later years when he came to Scotland in search of players. He stayed at our home and it was a great honour for us to have the manager of the great Wolves team under our roof.
Needless to say, my first encounter with the game of football was through my father. He always spared a few treasured minutes of his precious time during his visits home to introduce me to this wonderful game that was to play such a major role in my life. Almost as soon as I could stand, my father had introduced a ball to my feet.
Another aspect of the railway village life of the 1940s was getting dressed up every Sunday to go to church. The service was always held in the local village hall. I used to stand on a chair and could just about see what was going on over the heads and between the shoulders of the rest of the congregation. I can remember just how hot it used to get with my woolly hat and gloves on. There was no air-conditioning in our village hall in those days – unless someone broke a window, that is!
So, my abiding memories of Corkerhill are of cleanliness, togetherness, family, and air-raids – plus, of course, those very special times when my father came home on leave and we were all united for a short while.
My father did well in the RAF. Having started as a PE teacher, he eventually reached the status of squadron leader and was in charge of the RAF School of Physical Education at Cosford near Wolverhampton, where he specialised in parachuting skills. I think his wartime job certainly helped his postwar career, as his CV from the RAF was very impressive.
Meanwhile, my mother had four brothers taking part in the war. The eldest Robert was in the Education Corps in the army, John was an RAF mechanic, and Willie volunteered for the RAF whilst still at school and trained as a pilot. During his war years he was awarded the DFM, AM and DSO. The youngest, Jimmy, who after the war took me to watch Queen's Park, trained as an air gunner and was kitted out for Japan when the war finally finished. So there was much anxiety in my family during those turbulent war years.
When the war ended my father became head of physical education at Marr College in Troon. There was a tied house that went with the job, and so we all moved there and lived on that beautiful part of the Ayrshire coast. The house in Larbert was sold, meaning that we were not too badly off. Before my father taught at Marr College it was a rugby-playing school – but it wasn't too long before the goalposts came out and the school found itself specialising in football and golf.
After moving to Troon, I started at the local primary school. I had two brothers by this time – Bob, who was born in Glasgow when I was about two, and then Jock, who arrived in Kilmarnock about three years after Bob. When I started going to school I was the big lad of the family and began to feel quite grown up – not that I was in any hurry to do that. Going out early every day and leaving my little brothers to enjoy their time with my mother was not my idea of a good deal, but I got used to it in time.
My father's big interests outside his PE teaching were football and golf. My brothers and I were encouraged to take part in both sports as early as possible. The back gate of our house opened on to the school playing field, a vast area which was just like an enormous back garden to us.
I liked Troon and I still do, but we were not there for very long because my father was offered an even better job as Physical Education Adviser for the whole of Lanarkshire. It was quite a job because the county was the biggest in Scotland and therefore had a large number of schools and colleges.
For his new appointment, my father had to be based in Glasgow, and so we were soon all on the move to take up residence in Rutherglen. I moved to another primary school and began to play competitive football in Stonelaw Park. I had got used to kicking a ball about on the lush grass of the college playing field, so it came as quite a culture shock when I discovered that my new 'home ground' was an ash pitch!
I had been accustomed to playing with the older boys at school, who didn't seem to mind me taking part in their games, so it was natural that I should join them in their games in the park. The only problem was that to get to the park you had to cross a very busy cobbled road which had trams running back and forth every few minutes. You had to take your life in your hands every time you crossed the road, and I knew that there was a danger that I would be banned from going altogether unless my mother was able to see me safely across.
With all due respect, and with all the love in the world for my mother, no lad wants to be seen turning up for a game of football with the bigger lads having been escorted by the hand across the road by his mother. It can make your aggressive tackles seem just a little less formidable. I hate to admit it, but I resorted to sneaking off and, if I was asked where I was going, I would say that I was going to play football with the other lads but didn't know exactly where. Luckily, it seemed to work.
A neighbour of ours in Rutherglen was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – referees in Scottish football, Jack Mowat. He used to stop at the gate, or sometimes come in for a coffee, and he and my father would talk about football for hours. He was another man of powerful character, whose love of the game served to fuel further my burgeoning enthusiasm for all things to do with football.
My father always wanted the best for his three sons and he decided that we would get a better education if we lived in Hamilton, where he thought the standard might be higher. He was opposed to private education and, despite him having such a good job, I doubt if he could have afforded the fees for all of us – anyway, he decided that Hamilton schooling would be better for all three of us. Coincidentally, the Lanarkshire office in which he was based also decided to move to Hamilton, so it all worked out rather well in the end.
I was still at primary stage when we moved, being aged about ten, and so I went to St John's Primary School. Fortunately, the people of Hamilton were very keen on football and so there was no shortage of the game that I had come to love. My father bought a house that was only three minutes' walk away from the famous Hamilton Academy. Right next to our house was an area of waste ground, covered in a base of red ash, which proved to be such a good training ground that I often wondered whether my father had bought the house because he liked it – or because he could see the potential of that area of waste ground at the side.
That ground was in the shape of a triangle – which meant that you could only put a goal at one end. However, you could get crosses in and there was the added advantage of the wall of our house which ran alongside our improvised pitch, providing a great place for target practice, wall passes and various other soccer-skill games. I played for countless hours on that ground. As long as we had a ball, my pals and I never once complained about being bored, and we would play football on that red-ash pitch as often as we could. The good thing about our love of the game was that our parents always knew exactly what we were doing and where we could be found. My father made us a wooden set of goalposts and even put a net on it.
If there was any drawback at all to our 'ground', it was the fact that the mainline railway ran alongside it. The Hamilton–Glasgow train regularly thundered past, separated from us by a tall metal fence. The trouble was that, although we were kept out by the metal fence, the ball wasn't. If we became a little careless it could become quite a costly business in stray footballs. But as it happened, we discovered a saviour.
There was a professional footballer with Hamilton who was also a train-driver – he used to take small cargo trains up and down the line on a fairly regular basis. His name was Stan Anderson, and he became quite famous with Hamilton, and later with Clyde and Rangers. Later in his career he became manager of Clyde. Every time Stan saw one of our footballs on the line he would stop his train, climb down and then kick the ball back over to us. In fact there were even times when he would abandon his train altogether, climb over the fence and give us a few tips. I often saw Stan in later life and have always remained grateful to him for the kindness and patience he showed to us as teenagers in those days. Sadly, in November 1997, after bravely enduring a long illness, Stan passed away, aged 58.
Sometimes, of course, a ball would be irretrievably lost or else become worn out. When that happened, my father, or one of the other boys' parents, would invariably come up with a replacement. Remember, these were the heavy leather footballs of yesteryear and the very fact that we were able to wear them out gives you some idea of how much work we gave them. The red ash, the rough-cast house wall and the incessant booting by us boys meant that the lifespan of our footballs was well below the average.
My father was eventually promoted again, this time to become the director of the Scottish School of Physical Education establishment at Jordanhill, which trained all the male PE teachers in Scotland. Naturally, he was an extremely busy man and became quite preoccupied by his work. I did occasionally go with him to see Hamilton play, but these were invariably mid-week matches because on Saturdays he was fully occupied by the Jordanhill football set-up. They ran five teams at the time and all the organisation was down to him and his superb colleague, Roy Small.
Excerpted from The Game of My Life by Craig Brown. Copyright © 2001 Craig Brown. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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