Interview: Jackie MacNamara, former Hibs player

I’m on a No 44, destination Musselburgh, for an ice cream with a classy Hibernian footballer of yesteryear, and who should jump on my bus but Irvine Welsh, his head full of Ecstasy. Not in that way – you can’t bring drugs on to the bottom deck – but all the Hibby author wants to talk about is his book of that name, which has just been made into a movie, and despite having no real stars, was well-liked at the Cannes Film Festival. “Say hullo to Jackie Mac for me,” he says, getting off of at his stop. “Boy, could we do with him on Sunday.”

At Luca’s, where the sliders are justly famed, Jackie McNamara will insist that the Hibs team in which he played was similarly star-free, that it was “workmanlike, with the flair coming from a couple of the other guys but certainly not me”, but I’m having none of it and neither would Welshie if he was to join us. Eddie Turnbull’s rebuilt side got closer to winning the Scottish Cup than the first, more celebrated one, and they gave their all in the Edinburgh derby when it pulsated with some great characters.

“Hearts, when I played against them, had guys like Willie Gibson, a poacher, Malcolm Robertson, dead now, Bobby Prentice, another maverick winger, Roy Kay and of course Jim Jefferies,” recalls McNamara, now 58. “Then there was whatshisname who broke my leg – saw him on the golf course, recently, he’d just got a new knee himself – Derek O’Connor. It was completely accidental and Bertie Auld, who was manager by that point, told me to keep playing. ‘It’s all in your heid son – have a jag and a lump of sugar.’ That was the attitude back then. I actually played three more games before the hairline fracture was confirmed.”

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But now McNamara is telling me about his drugs derby, and a proper Welshian tale it is, too. “It was the New Year’s Day game and I remember smelling the whisky coming off our striker Bobby Thomson before kick-off. He said it was for toothache but I had my doubts. Anyway we lost and afterwards I was really down, all the more so because I’d made a mistake for one of their goals. At night I went to a party at my brother-in-law’s in Easterhouse, my old stamping ground. There was a punk band playing called Scheme – two of them are dead now – and I was drinking Newcastle Brown and getting more and more depressed. ‘Cheer up,’ the boys in the band said. ‘I can’t, we’ve just lost the derby.’ So they gave me a wee bit of hash. It completely floored me. I didn’t know where I was. When I woke up back in Edinburgh the next day I thought I’d been hit by a steamroller.”

McNamara laughs. “Do you know, I didn’t drink before I went to Hibs. Ally McLeod, Tony Higgins and my big centre-half, George Stewart – they were all such bad influences.” From his connections with Celtic – he played for them before the Hibees then son Jackie followed in his footsteps – he knows that Andreas Thom was teetotal until he arrived at Parkhead, Henrik Larsson too. “It’s good for team bonding,” he smiles. But Hibs: they’d drive you to drink right now, wouldn’t they?

Another smile, actually more of a grimace. McNamara won’t be at Tynecastle tomorrow, indeed this season he’s yet to see Hibs in stuttering action. He’s been watching his boyhood favourites Partick Thistle, now managed by his laddie, but his absence from Easter Road as one the most loyal of old boys has been noted. “I think the young kids at Hibs just now have got big futures. I just hope they don’t get their careers spoiled by bad results and what’s been happening in the background.” He means the uncertainty over Colin Calderwood, fuelled in no small way by the manager himself. “I don’t like this situation one little bit. You should declare yourself and he hasn’t done that, and now I think the uncertainty is transmitting to the players.” Even so, he thinks footballers should be immune to such distractions. “You go out on the park to play for your pride and for the punters who’ve paid good money to watch. Anything less and you’re cheating.”

McNamara’s fiercely-held beliefs, re football, spin off from his politics, about which he’s just as passionate. It’s rare to find a player with a political opinion, let alone a political conviction, so it was inevitable he would achieve notoriety as “Jackie the Red”. “My dad, Jimmy, was an engineer at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, one of the youngest shop stewards on the Clyde, big mates with Jimmy Reid and a card-carrying communist – and so was I. As a kid I delivered the Soviet Weekly and Morning Star round Easterhouse and I got chastised for it. That made me grow up pretty quick.

“At Celtic, Billy McNeill called me a “wee commie bastard” and to Kenny Dalglish I was ‘Trotsky’. While the rest of them were playing cards, I’d be reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.” He was only 22 when he tried, and failed, to turn Parkhead into a collective, maybe even an independent socialist state. “It was the old Dryrough Cup, we’d just beaten Rangers, and Jimmy Johnstone told me in the bath: ‘Grand a man, Jack.’ I thought: ‘Brilliant, I can pay off the house.’ But then it transpired I, as a young player, would only get 250 quid. Wages were wages but if you were out on the park I reckoned that bonuses should be the same for everyone. Unfortunately Billy and Jock [Stein] didn’t see it that way!”

McNamara is laughing again. He’s just remembered how he was “outed”. “The headline on the back page of the Scottish Daily Express was ‘Two sensations rock sporting world’. One story was about the ice skater John Curry being gay, the other was about me being a commie. Dad said: ‘Think yourself lucky the paper didn’t mix you and him up.’ Possibly the Scottish Daily News wouldn’t have made a fuss of McNamara’s political allegiances. That was the short-lived title run on co-operative lines, left-leaning, into which the old man ploughed his redundancy money from the yard. In 1975 he commandeered one of the paper’s delivery vans and drove Jackie and pals to Wembley to see Scotland get tanked 5-1.

Jimmy McNamara died four years ago and it’s obvious that Jackie felt his passing as deeply he did that of wife Linda, struck down by cancer in 2003 when she was just 49. “He was my best friend, I went all over the world with him. He wanted four sons and he got them. He wanted one of them to play for Celtic and he got that, too.” But in 1976 Jackie became a Hibby and this bond will never be broken. “Hibs, and Eddie Turnbull, saved my career. As far as Celtic were concerned, because of the injuries I’d had, I was on the scrapheap.” Stein had once enthused about McNamara having the talent to ultimately out-perform Dalglish. Then, as Jackie left Parkhead for the final time, he met Pat Stanton coming in. “I didn’t know until I’d signed that it was a swap deal. If I had, I’d have asked for more money!”

McNamara actually failed his Hibs medical. “George Stewart was in the treatment room at the same time. He said: ‘What’s this – a cripple for a legend?’ But Eddie, who told me later that he’d followed my career since he’d been at Aberdeen, took the chance. And the fans boo-ed me! They were outraged that Pat had been allowed to go. I understood, even though I was the innocent in the saga. And then I did my cruciate which was maybe a blessing because I could disappear while the heat died down.”

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Cast off by his former club, condemned by fans of his new team before even kicking a ball, it might seem remarkable that McNamara went on to become one of the fledgling Premier Division’s most outstanding performers of the second half of the 1970s, but then ex-Soviet Weekly delivery boys are no jessies. His return to action co-incided with a Guinness Book of Records-busting sequence of draws for which he was deemed the jinx by team-mates who, because of the manner of his arrival, nicknamed him “Swapshop”.

As a midfielder converted to sweeper, he continues to play down his contribution. “Really, it was easy playing behind George Stewart – he just attacked everything.” Not that easy. An accidental clash of heads with Erich Schaedler against Morton left him with a broken cheekbone and needing 20 stitches, with four of eight dislodged teeth embedded in his team-mate’s skull. “I was back the next week. The doctor’s advice was to avoid heading the ball. But, to be honest, we all played on in those days because bonuses made up our wages.” And woe betide managers who quibbled about them with Jackie the Red.

From his new position, though, he could admire the languid skills of Ally McLeod and Ralph Callachan up ahead. “I’ll never forget Ally’s twice-taken free kick against Dundee. He popped the ball in one corner but the referee ordered a re-take after Cammy Fraser and Chic McLelland encroached. This time he put it in the other corner, turned and smiled and said: ‘That’s what I get paid for.’ A fantastic player and a great friend, although we didn’t hit it off right away. Against Strasbourg in the Uefa Cup he’d given me pelters all night for not passing to him. He was still at it in the dressing-room so I booted a ball which smacked him in the face. ‘That’s the first time you’ve found me all night,’ he said, and we started scrapping. Differences were settled over a couple of pints on Leith Walk.”

McNamara rates Turnbull as “a genius” and a superior football intellect to Stein. “Jim McLean at Dundee United used to phone up George Stewart after training: ‘What did Eddie have you doing today?’” Even now, he still can’t believe how Hibs lost the 1979 Scottish Cup final epic against Rangers, having been denied a sure-thing penalty in the first game, dominating the second and leading in the third before an Arthur Duncan own-goal did for them. His trickiest opponent was Motherwell’s Willie Pettigrew. His least favourite manager was Bertie Auld, McNamara effectively going on strike after being called a “prima donna” on the training-ground – possibly the worst thing you could say to a man schooled in co-operatives. And when it came to time for Easter Road to thank him and wave him off, even George Best was there.

“We were on a Highland tour before my testimonial and Alan Rough wound me up good and proper in our hotel. It said in the ‘Stop Press’ column of the Press & Journal: ‘Best checks in to drying-out clinic.’ I was trying my hardest to be sympathetic and not think about how this would decimate the attendance. Then I found out the receptionist with her typewriter had been in on the joke.”

McNamara witnessed another example of rogue journalism while in Best’s company. The wayward Irishman was about to do an interview for World Soccer magazine but a row ensued, which meant a freelance photographer wouldn’t be paid. While the snapper’s back was turned, Bobby Hutchison picked up his camera and captured Best disappearing under a tide of empty glasses in Edinburgh Jinglin’ Geordie’s pub – earning the photographer far more than he could have anticipated.

McNamara himself battled the booze after Linda’s death. “She wanted to die knowing I’d sold the pub in Musselburgh I ran with Ralph Callachan because she was worried I’d be on the single malts, knowing I no longer had anyone to go home to. I’m afraid I did a bit of that, anyway, and for a while I was on the slippy slope. But I’m all right now. I have a new partner, Lynne, who’s been great for me. Well, how could she not be when she calls her wee dog Stanton?”

Mention of Hutchison – Hibs’ finest non-scoring striker, reckon some – and Best and bevvy are sufficient clues that this wasn’t the most golden period in the club’s history. But it wasn’t for Hearts either and during the McNamara years the clubs would pass each other on the way to or from the First Division with Hearts relegated three times and Hibs going down the season after that 1979 cup final. He regretted the interruption of the derby blood and thunder, even though stats appear to show Hearts recording slightly more wins. “Are you sure? What about the East of Scotland Shield? The Tom Hart Memorial Trophy? Those derbies were important to us.”

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McNamara had experience of that other city clash as well, but didn’t ever love it as much. Indeed, while his son turned out in 40 Old Firm games, he thinks he was only present at four. “Too much hatred,” he says. “Mind you, I remember once at Easter Road coming face to face with an extremely angry Hearts fan who’d ran onto the pitch. I’d just slide-tackled Jimmy Bone, continued into another one on George Cowie, and set up Paul Kane for a goal all in the same movement. That must have provoked him!”