As WE’VE sniffled and wheezed our way back to work after the holidays, he’s been watching over us. “Coughing for three weeks? Your GP wants to see you,” runs the slogan on the buses. But it’s difficult to square this image of Sir Alex Ferguson – kindly and almost cuddly in the soft-focus lighting of the NHS campaign – with the one just offered up by his big, long drink of water in the Aberdeen midfield.
It dates from the 1970s and St Mirren where Fergie and Billy Stark were before. “I remember it well,” says Stark, “a League Cup tie against Celtic at Love Street and I gave away a free kick. I turned round to jog back into position and the ball sailed over my head to Johnny Doyle, who squared it for the winning goal.
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“In the dressing room afterwards Fergie went crazy. David Beckham wasn’t the first guy to have a flying boot bounce off his head – that was me. It was a very accurate throw, to be fair.” So did Stark parade round town the next day, hair scraped back to show off the teensy wound? “No. I thought, even before they were fashionable, that would have been unwise, especially in Paisley. But I’ll tell you: never again did I turn my back on the ball.”
Stark would in any case have needed something stronger than an Alice band to tether that outrageous afro, and presumably there weren’t many of them in Paisley either. Dig out the old football cards, gawp in wonder and ask yourself: was he trying to look like the drummer in the Jimi Hendrix Experience or the equally big-barneted bassist? More recently, of course, as manager of Scotland Under 21s, the hair has been shorter and greyer, and with his long, gloomy face Stark has assumed the countenance of an overworked church beadle.
It’s something of a surprise when we meet in Glasgow that he tells so many funny stories, also that he’s so snappily dressed in tight-fitting cardy and breeks. I suppose, though, he’s a man of this trendy city and he used to be a footballer. A good one, too, who scored tons of goals by arriving late in the box, often rounding off with a steepling header. What was his secret? He’s not sure, other than he played centre-forward at school. Players in his position now, he feels, can hide behind match stats highlighting spadework. “Even strikers do this. They’ll say: ‘Oh, I’m really a provider’ to take pressure off themselves, which tells you something about the modern footballer’s mentality. I always went onto the park determined to score, and would think I’d failed if I didn’t.” Though he wouldn’t be so bold as to say it, assists are for jessies.
We talk first of St Mirren whom Aberdeen visit today. It was as a young Buddy, in a Glesca nightclub called Lucifer’s, that Stark met his wife, Nancy. He had eight happy years at Love Street, the post-Ferguson team pushing Aberdeen hard for the New Firm breakthrough title of 1979-80, and would love the chance to manage them. “I really enjoyed the under-21s but am ready to get back into the club scene, competing every week, and St Mirren have a special place in my affections.” But I’ve really offered to buy Stark a coffee on this grey, grotty day thinking he might have some insight into the big question. All of us – the 2014-15 thrill-seekers, those for whom vague intrigue will do and of course the dandy Dons fans always mowing the infernal meadow – want to know the answer. Is this Aberdeen title challenge for real? He says it is, although you’ll have to read on to find out whether he truly thinks Derek McInnes’s side can triumph, but let’s start at the beginning in the story of the Billy Stark Experience which means “Baldy” Lindsay.
“I owe it all to Baldy,” laughs Stark, 58, when I produce a yellowing cutting describing how Ferguson had signed him first time round on the insistence of a Paisley taxi driver. According to The Scotsman’s report, penned by the redoubtable Hugh Keevins, the signing happened despite a less than brilliant trial showing which prompted the Fergie summation: “Son, you only got one kick out there and that was a header.”
“I think that was journalistic licence but it’s a good line,” says Stark. “Baldy was a St Mirren scout at the weekends. Rangers were interested in me, but wanted to farm me out to junior football which I didn’t fancy, so Baldy grabbed his chance and knocked on my folks’ door offering to be my personal chauffeur if I joined Saints.” Stark didn’t avail himself of the free taxi rides, but what became of Baldy? “I can’t claim to have been as good as Fergie at keeping up with the old brigade and I know he passed away some years ago. I think he and Fergie had a fall-out, though. Baldy always reckoned he knew more about football!”
Born at Anniesland Cross, Stark also appreciated the mentoring of his plasterer father Bill, who played juniors. “Every summer we holidayed in Millport. If it rained the wee cinema got opened up for us. Otherwise dad organised a five-a-side tournament and that was how I first met [future St Mirren and Aberdeen team-mate] Peter Weir. Dad saw all my games and was terrible for shouting at referees. Because he always came straight from the golf, immaculate in shirt and tie, the refs thought he was a club official so they’d try and give him a proper reprimand. And Dad had an interesting thing to say about the way I played. Languid, he called it, and if I was having a good game I could be elegant but if I wasn’t I could look lazy.”
First impressions of Fergie? “Well, he was at the embryonic stage of management at St Mirren and honing – if that’s the word – his particular style. He was like a whirlwind, and that never changed down the years. In any walk of life I’ve never met anyone so driven. He relied on the element of surprise. You never had a handle on what he was thinking and that was just as true at Manchester United when he showed his brilliance in dealing with millionaire footballers without having all his old power. At St Mirren you lived in fear of a roasting. Not just in games but everyday training. You’d think you’d played okay and that’s when you’d get it and the teacups would go flying. Or you’d think you’d played badly and you’d escape. Actually, if you played badly you invariably got it. Fergie was testing you, to see if you could take the heat. If he shouted at you that meant he rated you, although I wasn’t clever enough to work that out until later.”
It’s a pretty safe bet that Derek McInnes doesn’t behave like this. Nevertheless, Stark has been impressed by a manager he calls “shrewd” in amassing a squad capable of challenging for what would be the Dons’ first title since 1984-85 when our man netted a whomping 20 goals. Back to Fergie and his sacking from St Mirren which has gone down in history. At the industrial tribunal, the chairman stated he had “no managerial ability”. Says Stark, who still remembers the shock of his exit: “That must have related to his dealings with the board. Someone of his character, in that much of a hurry, was bound to clash with old-fashioned directors.” In his memory, Fergie tried to sign him for the Dons halfway up the road. The deal would be done two weeks after Gothenburg glory. “Yes, any earlier and I could have scuppered all of that,” he quips.
Always refining, Fergie wanted more goals from midfield, but was Stark nervous about joining the club who, with Dundee United, had rattled the tectonic plates of Scottish football? “That’s a good question. I wasn’t one for being brash. But I believed in Alex Ferguson who believed in me. I wouldn’t have achieved what I did in the game without him.”
In Stark’s first season – 1983-84 – Aberdeen won back the title having smashed the Old Firm duopoly four years previously. In truth it was only a half-season, injury knocking him off his considerable stride, although he still managed 11 goals. The 20 strikes the following campaign were followed by 15 the next. Show me the midfielders banging them in like that now.
I was going to suggest to the modern version who rarely shoots that he YouTubes the Billy Stark Experience to see how he might improve the stat that really matters, but when I did this in advance of the interview all that came up was a clip of Stark speaking at his great friend Tommy Burns’ funeral and the promise of footage, not actually viewable, of Graeme Souness’s tackle on him when he’d moved to Celtic which brought a red card for the Rangers player-manager.
“The funeral was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I couldn’t speak at either my mum or dad’s funerals; my brother-in-law did a superb job both times. I did it for Tommy because Rosemary asked me and the esteem in which he was held. I can’t remember what I said but didn’t feel confident enough to start with a joke, although there was plenty of material, such as when Rosemary went on holiday and Tommy had to phone her to find out how to turn on the heating. Regarding Graeme, I think I’m a quiz question: who were the players involved in his three sendings off in Scottish club football? Brian Irvine of Aberdeen in a title decider Rangers won, my good pal George McCluskey when he was at Hibs and me. It was a bad tackle – my left boot had just come off and I had it in my hand – but it did me some good in my Celtic career, endearing me to the fans.”
Back to Aberdeen. Did Stark spot any changes in the way Fergie managed when he rejoined his old boss at Pittodrie? “Well, at St Mirren he didn’t have experienced pros who might stand up to him until he signed Jackie Copland, Iain Munro and Jimmy Bone, but even they were impressed by his autonomy. At Aberdeen, pre-season, which was full-on of course, Willie Miller seemed to be doing what he liked, which continued. I was flabbergasted.
“I kept waiting for Fergie to give him a blast but it never happened. For come Saturday Willie was always the best player on the park. The trio of Miller, [Alex] McLeish and [Jim] Leighton were Aberdeen’s bedrock although there was one time they did get a bollocking. We were in the middle of a crisis – we’d lost two games in a row. Fergie laid into the three of them and the rest of us sat there open-mouthed. But Jim revealed later it had all be rehearsed, to demonstrate that nothing or no one was sacred, so we’d give more.”
Fergie’s rigour never dropped a notch. Any post-title coasting would be greeted with an “explosion”. He continued to hammer into the team the importance of beating the Old Firm in their own backyard. I’ve brought along an excellent Dons history, Clive Leatherdale’s The Aberdeen Football Companion, and Stark picks out a game at Ibrox rated an “appalling violent spectacle”. “At half-time we were two goals up and two men up – Hugh Burns and Craig Paterson had been sent off – and there had already been one pitch invasion by Rangers fans. Fergie warned us to make sure we came away with the three points: ‘Don’t try and score six or seven otherwise that lot will stop the match’.” Stark remembers Stewart McKimmie being lifted up and pinned to the dressing-room wall after incurring the manager’s displeasure. He remembers missing a penalty at Parkhead and the boss sidling up to him the next day: “Hope that disnae cost us the league.” Typical Fergie psychology. “He knew he could say that to me and I wouldn’t crumble. There was a slackness about my game sometimes.” But the boss was moved to defend his player when he was targeted by Beach End boo-boys, this after Stark had scored a hat-trick against Alloa. Incredible, I say. “Well, the fans had gotten used to a lot of success and they’d loved Gordon Strachan, who I’d kind of replaced.” They obviously didn’t appreciate good languidity. “Maybe but the first time I saw myself on TV I was disappointed. I thought I was rather more dynamic!” Fergie’s reprimand, which embarrassed Stark, silenced the critics. “The next match down at Dumbarton they were singing my name.” Needless to say he scored again.
Mention of Dumbarton, and from a Granite City perspective far-off places like it, leads us back to the current team. “When we were winning things – and Fergie always wanted two trophies per season – we’d only have a few hundred making such a journey. Now it’s at least 3000 every away game. That’s great backing and will help Derek’s team.
“I like him and I like them. Derek’s got a real confidence about himself which doesn’t grate. When you listen to him you think: ‘Aye, he knows what he’s doing.’ The team have got real attacking potency. Dundee United can possibly match them in that department but their defence isn’t as strong. Finally winning a trophy last season [the League Cup] was important to Aberdeen; you can see the benefits in their play.
“To win the league they’re going to need good mentality – that St Mirren team which got close bottled it in the end – and they’re going to need some luck. A lot will depend on Celtic and how they respond to this challenge. Will Aberdeen do it? My gut feeling says no. But that doesn’t mean they won’t. It would be a fantastic achievement for sure.”
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