Telfer's detached view of football places him in exalted company

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AT THE age of 35 and after 19 years as a professional footballer, Paul Telfer's departure from Celtic can hardly be described as premature. To the majority of the Parkhead club's supporters, however, it is likely to pass unlamented.

The veteran full-back's earlier declaration of his intention to return to his family on the south coast of England at the end of his second season in Scotland certainly deprived his leaving of any element of surprise.

But even his initial intimation did not create anything like the stir that would normally be associated with such a newsworthy revelation from a regular first-team player at an Old Firm club. This indifference would derive largely from the widespread perception of the former Luton, Coventry and Southampton defender as a stop-gap during manager Gordon Strachan's re-building.

More than anything, though, Telfer would have left most supporters cold by his measured, at times even seemingly disinterested, approach to the game. To fans whose passion is often irrational enough to pass for neurosis, anything less from a player privileged to wear the jersey is unpardonable.

Telfer's image as a player who would rather be somewhere else would be made more vivid by the recent testimony of a friend who told of his tendency not to talk about football during their regular four-ball on the golf course. He ended his insight with the quite damning, "I sometimes get the impression he prefers playing golf to football." This revelation may have induced apoplexy the more hysterical paying customers, but it is a phenomenon that is neither unique to Telfer nor even a recent development among professional footballers.

Denis Law, pictured, probably the most celebrated Scottish striker in history, made no secret of his antipathy towards watching football. Denis, of course, was unique in that he possessed an instinctive understanding of penalty-box play and execution that made him deadly, prolific and authentically world-class. The myth persists to this day - nourished by Law himself, of course - that he spent the afternoon of 30 July, 1966, on the golf course because he couldn't bear to sit by a television and watch England win the World Cup at Wembley.

The story gives Denis the status of a kind of footballing Wallace, but the truth is a little less romantic.

It is that he would have been wielding a club in any case, as he didn't like watching football.

Manchester United teammates such as Paddy Crerand and Bobby Charlton have often confirmed that, despite his gifts as a predator, Denis had no appreciation of the tactical or coaching side of the game and had little interest in learning.

When the Scotland squad under Willie Ormond were at Largs preparing for the 1974 World Cup finals, I asked Denis - by then 34 and in the twilight of his distinguished career - if he had given any thought to the possibility of becoming a manager. "Oh, no, kid, I couldn't do that," he replied. "I'm just not interested."

Another exceptionally talented forward of the 1970s and early 80s, Ally MacLeod of Hibernian, was possibly the least emotive player in the history of the game. On scoring a goal, MacLeod gave the impression somebody had just stolen his sweeties.

Not so much as one arm would be raised as he turned and walked stoically away from his latest piece of magic, leaving his team-mates to the celebratory leaping and hollering.

In conversation at his home in East Kilbride one day, the question of his apparent dourness, even at the most intoxicating moment the game has to offer, elicited the response that he didn't see the reason for any fuss, as if scoring the most exhilarating of goals was as peremptory an exercise as a clerk entering an item in a ledger.

And who would have believed that, lurking among the Lisbon Lions, was a player who, in his time at Celtic Park, confessed to a preference for watching top-level athletics over football?

Jim Craig, the right-back in the European Cup-winning side, had been an outstanding track athlete as a schoolboy and as a university student, who took his degree - later becoming a dentist - before pledging himself to a full-time career in football.

"Cairney", as he is known to this day, took some stick for that revelation - not least from his manager, Jock Stein - but his interest in track and field did not dilute his commitment to football, or prevent him from acquiring a substantial hoard of medals.

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