After swapping studs for spikes, Scot became sprint legend
DOWN Portobello way, the joggers are pounding the Promenade. Fun-runners, the 10k brigade and marathon men, and most of them are being quite demonstrative about it. Their go-faster gear is primary-coloured and the expressions of grim determination seem to say: “Look at us, not waiting until 1 January for the resolutions to kick in. We’ve been at it for years, of course.” But little do they know that the man weaving against the flow, just at walking pace now, could at his speediest have left them all standing, blurring past with tremendous mystery in a balaclava and a fake name.
Once upon a New Year, Edinburgh was shut. The idea of a coffee-house being full of Australians and Latvians rousing themselves after the world’s biggest street-party with chestnut-whipped macchiatos was plain laughable when you couldn’t even source a pint of milk. And only two forms of entertainment were available back then: the football derby between Hearts and Hibernian and the Powderhall Sprint.
George McNeill desperately wanted to star in the former and but had to be content with making his name in the latter and going on to be hailed as the world’s fastest man. Your correspondent witnessed the former on plenty of occasions but was always intrigued by the latter. A foot-race for money sounded shady, furtive, even seedy – part of the underground sporting calendar alongside dog-fighting and bouts involving cockerels, watched by desperate men with collars turned up and brims turned down. Athletics was amateur and noble so who were these characters who called themselves “professional”?
“I know what you mean,” says McNeill. “The fact we wore balaclavas to train must have made us look pretty sinister but they were to stop the cold ripping the skin off our faces. The big race of our year was in the dead of winter and sometimes it would be below freezing, absolutely perishing, and we’d need two tracksuits as well.” And the aliases? “New runners on the scene, if they were promising, would have their identities kept secret from the gamblers who followed the sport. You were trying to stay one step ahead of them, the Powderhall handicapper and of course other runners. So for a while I answered to the name of ‘Bob Gray’.”
We meet at a prom cafe just along the Forth from McNeill’s home in Musselburgh. He’s 67 and doesn’t run any more, the old knees no longer being up to it. The sprint still takes place, having bumped around different venues in recent years. The current setting is the racecourse in Musselburgh and it seems apt that the most notable winner of modern times can watch the action from his window, even though the chances of the event ever again producing a sprinter who could challenge an Olympian to a winner-takes-all showdown - this on a rugby league pitch - must be pretty slim.
Later today McNeill is playing golf with three former team-mates at Hibs, the Johns Blackley, Brownlie and Murphy. Two in this fourball went on to win cups and caps but he wasn’t among them. “Sloop [Blackley] and Onion [Brownlie], being younger than me, were boot boys. They might well have cleaned my boots, I suppose, which is a bit ridiculous because I was a fraud who was eventually found out.”
It’s often been said that the worst thing Jock Stein ever did for Scottish athletics was sign McNeill for Hibs. He only played one game for the first team, which was enough to ban him from competing in the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games. He laughs about this now - and works it into the one-man stage show about his life - but at the time it wasn’t funny at all.
“I was a left winger, quick, with a not-bad shot but my touch let me down,” he admits. “My only game was against St Johnstone in 1965, a 3-0 win. I didn’t score but hit the bar twice from corners. I was on the bench for the great victory over Napoli [5-0 in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup]. Eric Stevenson got injured and could do no more than hobble about. Even then I couldn’t get on. Napoli had had a man sent off so I think both clubs must have agreed to make it ten vs ten, rather than have me play!
“Jock was a visionary. He tried me at left back in the reserves, using my pace to come forward on the overlap, and I like to think I was a prototype for Tommy Gemmell. But when Bill Shankly let me go I was devastated. Getting a free transfer these days is a licence to make money but back then it shattered my dreams. I was a Hibs fanatic and as a laddie must have collected Joe Baker’s autograph 50 times. I felt like such a failure.”
He left Easter Road with a nickname, Billy Whizz, and not much else, returning to his native Tranent where he’d been combining part-time football with service in his dad’s roughcasting business. Then, for a laugh, but also because he thought McNeill would be quite good at it, an old school friend put him forward for the 1969 sprint, George only finding out when he spotted his name among the entries in the Edinburgh Evening News.
McNeill was playing, but only occasionally, with Morton. Their charismatic manager, Hal Stewart, saw the potential for some spin-off publicity and gave him leave of absence to train for the race. In borrowed spikes and under distant street lights, he practised starts in a park with a toy gun which fired caps, nicked from a junior cowboy outfit. He didn’t win that sprint but resolved to try again the next year.
Only fools like me thought the sprint obscure. The next year, 1970, would be the 100th, which is proper heritage. A century before, athletics and boxing were the top sports, with the sprint predating Hearts by four years and Hibs by five. A crowd of 8,000 mustered at Powderhall - named after the gunpowder factory whose product had helped win the Empire - for the inaugural meeting.
Professional running certainly had its own culture. Apart from the balaclavas and the pseudonyms, there was the official name: pedestrianism. While the revolutionary synthetic “tartan track” was being developed for the ’70 Commonwealth Games, races were on grass, sometimes on cowfields, occasionally with clothes ropes as finishing-lines, and counted over yards. And our man, having successfully persuaded ’69’s winning coach, Jim Bradley, to take him on, then entered a strange world indeed. “The year I had under Jim was just an unremitting physical slog. Next to it, football training had been gentle exercise for old ladies. He was a visionary in his sport and his big thing was the speedball. I was at his hut next to Saughton Enclosure five nights a week, hammering away at it, sick of the bloody sight of it.
“Jim was ahead of his time; he did tons of little things which made a big difference. One day he got me to place my bare feet on sheets of paper and sent them off to a wee shoemaker in Melbourne called Hope Sweeney - later bought out by Adidas - and my own made-to-measure running shoes came back. They were kangaroo skin with proper big spikes for long grass and they were called ‘Aussies’.” The Bradley “school” were the elite of the pro-running scene. “We all wore red silk vests because, with no electronic timing in those days, you needed to stand out in photo-finishes.”
Six weeks before the ’70 sprint, McNeill was spirited off to Bradley’s home in the capital’s Silverknowes to live what he says was the life of a monk. “This was your ‘prep’. I was still training at night but during the day I wasn’t supposed to do anything but rest which was pretty boring. So I cleaned my Aussies. Every day with a toothbrush then I’d Dubbin them, to wheech away the mud.”
To many down at Saughton he was still Bob Gray. He was allowed out as George McNeill to attend the wedding of a football friend, Motherwell’s Bert Logan, but only the service part. “My wife had to tell them at the reception I’d been called away suddenly. Jim didn’t want me out of my routine for too long. At the same time he couldn’t risk being seen with me outwith training, in case anyone worked out I was being prepped for the sprint, so he waited round the back of the church in his car to whisk me off.” And then whisk up an egg with milk and honey, his nightly cocktail with ten days to go.
It all paid off. Under his balaclava all you saw of McNeill were his eyes, and such was his ambition that maybe, as David Coleman once memorably said of Steve Ovett, they resembled “chips of ice”. His mask off, Bob turned into George, Powderhall’s centenary victor for the last race staged there before the switch to Meadowbank, and a failed footballer was transformed into a winning sprinter. “And in the afternoon I got taken down to Easter Road for the derby. I felt, not quite ashamed, but definitely bad that I hadn’t made it as a player. I couldn’t have just walked back into the club. I had to have achieved something. Suddenly I had.”
McNeill would love to have ran for a medal rather than a purse and competed at the Olympics but under the rules of amateur athletics he’d committed the cardinal sin of earning money from football, even though he only ever struck the crossbar. “I wrote to the Scottish three As [Amateur Athletics Association] asking to be allowed to run and they sent me back a rulebook with the relevant sentence underlined. I ever offered to hand over my prize money, which was £1000, but they weren’t interested.
“I was very disappointed, more so because there were double standards around back then, a lot of hypocrisy. Guys who were supposedly amateur were getting brown envelopes - shamateurism. Some years later Gus McCuaig won the sprint, gave up his money and got to run for Scotland. But in my time there was a lot of snobbery. The athletics establishment looked down on the pro scene and treated us like outcasts. They didn’t like guys running for money and abhorred betting and they wouldn’t recognise our feats.”
Knowing a bit about its history, McNeill was aware that his division of sprinting had at different times been corrupted by gambling, but while he’d heard the old stories of runners hiding weights in their shoes he’s sure such sharp practices weren’t around when he was on the scene. He doesn’t count the balaclavas, a straightforwardly literal instance of pulling the wool over a rival’s eyes.
McNeill’s feats deserved recognition. In ’70 when Jamaica’s Don Quarrie won Commonwealth 100m gold at Meadowbank, the Tranent flyer was beating his times. He was matching anything Valeriy Borzov could do, the Soviet sprinter triumphing at the Munich Olympics at both 100m and 200m. The fastest McNeill ever ran was on 1 January 1971, the equivalent of 10.00 dead for 100m, which would have been sufficient to win him more than a few Olympic titles. That was a heat, but when ITN anticipating a big sporting story despatched cameras up to Edinburgh, the following day’s final disappeared from the news schedules in the wake of the Ibrox disaster.
McNeill’s world record for 120 yards stands to this day. In ’72 he beat America’s Tommie Smith for what was billed as the world pro sprint title. Smith, of course, had marked victory at the Mexico Olympics with the Black Power salute, but in unlikely Wakefield had to admit defeat to the black balaclava. “We shared a hotel and he was a good guy,” says McNeill. “He told me the salute had ruined him commercially. Bizarrely, he’d come to Wakefield to try out for rugby league. Even more bizarrely, I ended up playing a game for Barrow. I quite enjoyed it and the chairman wanted to sign me, but the town was grim so I didn’t bother.”
In the 1980s, after winning the 100th staging of Australia’s most famous pro sprint, the Stawell Gift, to complete a unique centenary double, he became a football coach. It wasn’t his beloved Hibs who offered him the gig but rivals Hearts and he introduced the speedball to Tynecastle. Initially there were grumbles from the players but the management team of Alex MacDonald and Sandy Jardine, both products of those sadistic-sounding sand-dune sessions at Rangers, wanted a super-fit team. The Jambos ran over Hibs and just about everyone else, almost winning the Premier League. “I was just a cog in the whole effort,” says McNeill, “but guys from other teams used to tell me that playing Hearts was like going into a fight.”
A spell with the Livingston backroom team brought CIS Cup success and 2003 also saw him being inducted into the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame. “That was nice, and I viewed it as recognition for all professional sprinters. Tranent and Stawell are mining towns, one coal the other gold. These places seemed to produced a lot of pro-runners because miners loved a wee punt, particularly when times were hard. These are the traditions of my sport and they’re perfectly sound ones.
“It’s a daft pub debate whether myself or Allan Wells is Scotland’s greatest-ever sprinter. He was a just a boy when I was at my peak so we never raced although what he achieved was fantastic. Me, I was never ‘McNeill of Scotland’ or ‘McNeill of Great Britain’ but when I ran ten dead a proclamation went round where I’m from and local businesses raised money for a lovely watch which I still have. So I’m ‘McNeill of Tranent’ which is grand.”
George’s one-man show, McNeill of Tranent, returns to the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh on 18 February 2015.