BY THE time you read this I’ll hopefully have taken ownership of a football programme from a fascinating match.
Well, St Mirren v Hibs at Love Street in November 1958 has always fascinated me, being the first time Joe Baker lined up against his brother Gerry. On Friday, though, I was concerned about a last-minute flurry of interest pushing up the eBay price, sparked by the debate about player nationality. Half a century ago, these two guys would have had plenty to say on that subject.
The debate raged all week. It began with a jittery England in the countdown to World Cup destiny being rather too keen to embrace the possibility that Manchester United’s new 18-year-old scoring sensation, Adnan Januzaj, could one day don a white shirt. It ended, hilariously, with the tabloid headline “Oh, spot the Rooney”, evoking a famous old chant and a less than notable old Scotland manager. Berti Vogts thought Wayne Rooney was eligible to play for us, and tried to persuade him this would have been in his best interests.
We never got Wazza, and we didn’t get Joe and Gerry either. Sadly, neither is around any more, Gerry passing away in August following Joe’s death in 2003. But their goalscoring exploits are captured in a new book, The Fabulous Baker Boys (Birlinn), by Tom Maxwell, and the sub-heading would make you greet: “The greatest strikers Scotland never had.” The brothers loved Scotland and considered themselves Scots. Both their parents were Scottish and they grew up here, but because of accidents of birth – the old man was a sailor – Joe played for England and Gerry had to represent the USA.
What can we say about Januzaj’s eligility for England? That it isn’t quite as definite as the first of his strikes against Sunderland, as clear-cut as the second? “He’s a tremendous talent but is he from Belgium or Croatia or something?” commented Rooney, when asked whether the lad should become his international team-mate. In fact, Januzaj qualifies for Belgium, Albania, Turkey, Serbia and the land of his mother’s birth, Kosovo, although they’re not FIFA-recognised.
Somewhat surprisingly, because we’ve been led to believe Belgium were the future of football, he doesn’t want to play for the team of his birthplace. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he opted for Kosovo or even Albania? The latter are a joke football nation on account of the anecdotal evidence of visiting Scottish teams during the Commie era when the food was possibly still alive, horse-drawn carts clogged the streets and, during games, the Albanian national anthem boomed out and possibly old Norman Wisdom comedies were screened as well. These tiny lands deserve the boost that such flashing talent would bring them.
Januzaj’s links to England are the flimsiest of all. Only two years resident there. English football is the last bastion of the bulldog spirit. Witness the English rugby and cricket teams laying claim to foreign talent. Witness, too, Ukrainian wrestlers and Cuban triple-jumpers being signed up for the London Olympics. But English football was different, it was said. English football had to stay – dangerous word – pure. Especially after the failures with the national team of successive foreign coaches. Only now, unsure about Roy Hodgson, some who decreed English-only coaches for evermore are having second thoughts. And the FA, previously unwilling to follow the example of rugby and cricket, are seriously interested in Januzaj.
Hasn’t this story got seriously silly already? The kid is young, not yet the finished article, and he hasn’t declared whose shirt he wants to wear. The dissenters include Jack Wilshere. “Keep England English,” says Wilshere, which makes him sound quite old-fashioned, a view enhanced by the fact he looks older than he is. Rooney’s the same, though I love the image of Wazza beating his chest at Vogts, who’d dashed down to Merseyside to smile coquettishly at the player, then just 16. “I am English!” Rooney supposedly grunted. “I am English!”
Joe Baker was 17, a year younger than Januzaj, when he scored four goals in a Scottish Cup tie against Hearts and all that promise was fulfilled. Gerry wasn’t bad either, banging in ten in a tie against Glasgow University a year later. The season after that, Joe tried to match his tally but only managed nine against Peebles Rovers. As far as Scotland went, this was denied us, but when will we see their like again?