To sit down with Chic Charnley is to experience how Michelangelo must have felt when contemplating the Sistine chapel ceiling. Where to begin?
The bold Chico had cheerily peeped from the taxi he drives while waiting at traffic lights. The allotted meeting place is an Italian restaurant in Bishopbriggs, one of a few places in Glasgow emitting a town-within-a-city feel. Like one of John Lambie’s homing pigeons, Charnley, 54, was always programmed to come back. In fact he has barely left the area, with the streets of his youth in Possil just a distance of three or four miles from where me meet – or “a seven quid taxi journey,” he estimates.
His mother Isa, whom he has always referred to as “Ma”, is still going strong at the age of 74, and is off to Benidorm this weekend for a hen party. The Charnley joie de vivre is clearly an inherited quality.
He might have played for umpteen clubs but the only time he actually had to leave the area was when he signed for Djurgaardens, a team in Sweden. But he quickly left what sounded like an idyll – “sauna, Jacuzzi, open-plan house” – to come back to, surprise, surprise, Partick Thistle. He played for Thistle in four separate spells, three times under Lambie, the cigar-smoking, bouffant-haired, sheepskin coat-wearing legend, now becalmed, and single, in Whitburn. But Chic has his back. “I still speak to him twice a week,” he says. “I have got a case of whisky for him I’ve ordered through a pal who works at a distillery, and who’s going to drop it off this week. He [Lambie] has not been keeping too good.”
The Jags travel this afternoon to Easter Road, a stadium that holds almost as much significance to Charnley as these streets, where every passing person, every restaurant diner, seems to know him.
“Haw, it’s you Chic, how ya doin’?”
As nearly everyone, including the waiter afterwards, comments, he is looking well. Popularly thought to have torpedoed his career because of his helter-skelter lifestyle, he does remind you he played his last game of senior football aged 39. He still looks as though he could do a turn.
Charnley made his final appearance at Easter Road just as he made his first senior appearance, for St Mirren, there. It’s a pleasing symmetry that flies in the face of a chaotic, sometimes brilliant, perhaps more often errant, career.
Even his first ever game for St Mirren, a reserve match, took place v Hibs at Easter Road. Of his debut, in 1982, he recalls: “It was new year. I was full of confidence. I never had nerves. With my first touch after the centre I put the ball through Mike Conroy’s legs. He came after me and clattered me. But we did all right. Drew 1-1.”
The “where do you begin?” conundrum I’d tried to solve by printing off his Wikipedia page listing the clubs he’d played for (17 – count ’em, the same number of red cards Charnley purportedly earned). The idea was to go through each club one by one – or one by four in the case of Thistle – and see what memory first springs to mind.
As ever with Wikipedia, it’s not completely reliable. Cork City was easy enough. Although it says he made three appearances, Charnley claims not to have played for them at all.
Mike Conroy, the same Mike Conroy whom he’d nutmegged moments into his first top-team appearance, initiated the move. “I went over and could not agree terms so I came back,” is Charnley’s succinct summary of that chapter.
He was a late starter, having chosen to watch his beloved Celtic rather than play regularly for a boys’ club when a teenager. Ironically, they are one of the only teams not mentioned on his Wikipedia CV. He is tickled then by a press release that has dropped on the very morning we meet alerting sports desks to the availability of a “Celtic legend” at a press conference for Alzheimer’s Scotland yesterday. It’s Charnley they mean. Celtic are one of the few clubs he didn’t play for – not officially at least.
“A couple of times it nearly happened,” he says. “Billy McNeill tried to sign me a couple of times. He became a pal. He told me: ‘My right hand was saying sign you, the left hand was saying no – I couldn’t cope with you and McAvennie in the same team!’ ”
Of course there’s the oft-related tale of the one time he did pull on the famous hooped shirt – and No 6 shorts. Naturally, there was drama involved. At the end of the 1993-94 season Lou Macari invited him to make a guest appearance for Celtic at Mark Hughes’ testimonial v Manchester United at Old Trafford. This invite was only relayed to him the day before the game, by which point Charnley was already well into a day/night out.
“The team coach was leaving from Celtic Park. I decided I would go down myself,” he says. “I didn’t want to get on the bus hungover. I went down with my friends – I’d been going to the game anyway to watch. We stopped at Southwaite services and had something to eat. I had taken my suit and changed into it in the car then went to the hotel to meet the players and played the game.”
He won man of the match, setting up two goals in a 3-1 victory. Macari mentioned something about a potential contract. Celtic were heading off on tour to Canada. Charnley, meanwhile, was due to head to the Algarve for an end-of-season break with his Thistle team-mates. It’s now remembered for being Charnley’s sliding doors moment. He went to Portugal, with Macari later putting it out that if he’d really wanted to play for Celtic, he’d have ditched the jolly and joined them in North America.
Charnley protests. “Not once did he say: ‘Come with us’. If he had said that I would have been there like a shot.”
The missed opportunity – if that is what it was – messed with Charnley’s head. He went on to have a poor season with Thistle, one not even Lambie was prepared to countenance. He released him.
But we’re edging too far forward again.
At St Mirren, his first club, “I never applied myself properly”. He quickly moved on to Ayr United. “Again I did not apply myself. I got sent off in a reserve game at Ibrox. It was John McDonald, I kicked him somewhere up here [he points to his neck]. And then I chucked it.”
Pollok juniors were next, a favour for an old friend. Then Clydebank. “How it ended there, we were playing Morton and one of the Morton players punched one of our players, Brian Wright. In the dressing room at half-time (assistant manager) Tony Gervaise was saying that’s the attitude we needed to adopt.
“I was like: ‘you can’t go about punching people’. It all kicked off.”
Charnley came to blows with Gervaise. “They let me go.”
His next move was significant since it was the first time he teamed up with Lambie, who signed him for Hamilton Accies. He made his debut against Celtic as a substitute. Lambie’s subsequent departure for Thistle paved the way for the start of a love affair between Charnley and the Firhill club.
“I knew he’d take me. I went to Thistle for the first time – 70-odd games.” It was also the first time he really settled anywhere. But of course it couldn’t last.
St Mirren were next up, perhaps the most talented collection of players he played with. “Paul Lambert, Guni Torfason and [Thomas] Stickroth, Kenny McDowall – a right good side. Roy Aitken came up from Newcastle too – what a team we had. But we had a bad start and got relegated.”
After being named skipper that summer, Charnley sustained a hairline fracture in the opening game of the following league season – an infamous 7-0 drubbing at Raith. “So I left there…where did I go after that?”
It says Bolton Wanderers.
“I signed on loan. That was Phil Neal. I played the first game and played really well v Preston. I got a cracked rib. My luck was poison. I think it was Graeme Souness who recommended me. I was staying in a hotel.”
And you didn’t apply yourself properly? “No.”
Then it was back to St Mirren and off to Sweden, which we’ve covered – Jacuzzi, sauna, open plan house et al. “I applied myself there,” he says, slicing into a well done Filleto Rossini steak. “There were no distractions. My then wife, son and daughter were over too.”
But the lure of Thistle interrupted this seemingly ideal scenario, then Cork City (kind of), then Dumbarton. “I played a trial match for St Johnstone, Paul Sturrock wanted to sign me. I was really flattered. But they offered me less money than Dumbarton, who’d just been promoted to the First Division!”
With Dumbarton destined to return from whence they came, someone he rates as a mentor to rank alongside Lambie stepped in – Jim Duffy. Dundee had sold Morten Wieghorst to Celtic. They needed someone to gee up downhearted fans. The Chic signal went up.
“Duff played with me at Thistle, he knew all about me.” A voice pipes up.
“Did Jim Duffy play football, dad?” Raphael, Charnley’s nine year-old son, is with us. He has been happily playing with his father’s phone until piqued by this piece of information.
Charnley informs his son that yes, Duffy did play football and once won the football writers’ player of the year award. He also quickly adds who the angelically behaved Raphael is named after, in case anyone was wondering about former Celtic players with the first name Raphael. His grandfather.
But back to Dundee. Sent off in a New Year’s day thrashing by St Johnstone for tangling with team-mate Robbie Raeside, Charnley kept on walking. John McCormack, who’d taken over from Duffy, released him.
Duffy, then at Hibs, was quick to pounce. Which brings us to the relevance of meeting Charnley on this date – 3 August – and at this very hour. It’s 20 years to the minute since he fired in a winner for Hibs in a lunchtime game v Celtic, a clash made more memorable because it marked Henrik Larsson’s debut for the Parkhead club. As now implanted in Scottish football folklore, it was Larsson’s misplaced pass that presented Charnley with the chance.
He still had to nudge the ball in front of him before sending a 20-yard left-foot shot into the corner of Gordon Marshall’s net, at the end where the Celtic fans – including Charnley’s eldest son, Gary, now 34 – were gathered. It was always set to be Charnley’s day. His daughter, Danielle, was mascot.
“Willie Young was ref that day,” he recalls. “He had sent me off four times before. He did not know Danielle was my daughter. He now tells the story on the after-dinner circuit. He felt this tug on his sleeve: ‘Mr Referee, you won’t send off my dad today, will you?’ Willie said: ‘Who is your dad?’
“She pointed at me. He was like: ‘I’m sorry hen, I can’t promise that.’ ”
Nothing says Chic Charnley like the manner of his leaving Hibs after Alex McLeish replaced Duffy, the team in dire straits. “I knew I wouldn’t play. He [McLeish] knew what I was like. I was not his kind of player. When he arrived I didn’t go in for two days. Then at my first training session, I said to him: ‘Should I just go and see Rod Petrie?’
‘Aye that’s what to do’.
“So I negotiated my release. There was £500 we were haggling over.
“Billy McNeill’s office was just across the way – he could see us. I was like: ‘No I am not going’. It was only £500. I said: ‘Look why don’t we toss a coin? He [Petrie] was like: ‘What?’
“‘Let’s toss a coin. There’s Big Billy over there.’ So he tossed the coin. I called heads and won. Years later Billy signed his book for me: ‘To Chic, you still won the toss’.”
Clydebank (trialist), Thistle (Episode III), Portadown (Northern Irish Cup winners), Tarff Rovers (!!), local club Kirkintilloch Rob Roy and then finally, poignantly, it was back to Thistle one final time, with Easter Road the scene for a final act in a career that is the definition of the word “peripatetic”.
Charnley still retains a boyish enthusiasm, his love of football nurtured following Celtic – something he still does to this day. “I watched Celtic from four or five years old,” he says. “See at Celtic Park, the ambulance service was away at the Rangers end. If you were a kid and said you had a sore head they’d take you by the dugout down to the other end. I did it about ten times so I could walk by the dugout and stare at Jock Stein.
“I want to do that!” pipes up Raphael again.
“You’ve met Brendan Rodgers,” says his da.
“But I want to see Jock Stein!
“You can’t see Jock Stein!
“I never met him either,” continues Charnley, now the subject of Stein has come up. “But we were down watching Celtic at Ayr United. I was at the Celtic end, aged only eight or something. There was some pushing and a wall collapsed and we all spilled on to the park. We were jumping around the park. I felt this hand grab me on my back.
“Jock Stein threw me off the park!”
It probably wasn’t Chic’s first brush with authority. Neither was it his last.