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Scottish Cup: The Super Saintee Stuart Cosgrove

Lifelong St Johnstone supporter Stuart Cosgrove prepares for todays Scottish Cup final. Picture: JP

Lifelong St Johnstone supporter Stuart Cosgrove prepares for todays Scottish Cup final. Picture: JP

  • by AIDAN SMITH
 

IN THE east end of Glasgow there’s just Stuart Cosgrove and me and, for a split second, it seems difficult to imagine what this house will be like by the time you’re reading these words.

But as soon as the Off the Ball presenter starts filling the place with his noise and laughter and passion for his football team, I get a pretty good idea. In the corner of the front room there’s a brightly coloured teepee normally occupied by his 16-month-old son Jack, currently at nursery. The kid’s away, though really the kid’s right here, counting the lucky bags of St Johnstone-themed confectionery.

A kid not because of his dress – trendy jeans with, in OtB vernacular, his erse hanging out – but because of St Johnstone and their first-ever Scottish Cup final. “It’s like a return to your infancy – everything is wondrous,” he says. “We’re having a wee party before the game and my wife Shirani doesn’t think the house isn’t clean enough. You know what guys are like. The major concerns are: ‘Have we got the match tickets and is there bevvy?’ Anyway, everyone will be getting Saints tablet and I’ve got to make sure we have enough hats and bunting and stuff. What do you think…?” He tips a load on to the floor from one of three deeply significant boxes which will figure in our story.

Depends how many are coming, I say. “Well, there’s David Cumming, one of my best friends – we ran a supporters’ bus from Perth Academy in the Henry Hall-John Connolly era. He’s flying in from Sonoma Valley, California where he works in the wine industry. Another great pal is Michael Mason – I grew up with him on the Letham estate and we were at primary school together. I know guys who’re coming from Australia, from the Arctic. I’ve got a mate who’s a diehard Hibby and he’s turning into a glory-hunter for the day.”

Some of the guests will be retired football casuals (just like Cosgrove). Others will be ex-soul boys no longer in possession of dance-all-night physiques (that’s him too). “The Edinburgh branch of our supporters’ club are having their pre-match swally at the snooker hall nearby and, because they know where I live, some waifs and strays are bound to turn up here. And because we’re not far from Celtic Park, the house will store the cards our fans will use in the display just before kick-off.” So what image will they create – can he give me an exclusive? “Oh, just a blue and white one. We’re St Johnstone, dinnae forget. There won’t be any Green Brigade-style attempts to rewrite the story of the Spanish Civil War!”

What about the missus and the wean, are they up for cup, too? “Of course. Shirani is going for hair extensions in the team colours. She’s a Sri Lankan Tamil, from a village in the north which was bombed during the civil war. She gets St Johnstone, the underdog aspect. And Jack will be there, although I’m not sure about his first-ever game being the cup final. I don’t want him getting blasé, wondering when the party’s going to start, because next year we’ll probably be out second round, pumped by Morton!” Maybe your team have got ever so slightly bored winning the cup. Maybe they haven’t won it for – oh, I dunno – 112 years. Either way, two-and-a-half hours in the company of Scotland’s Emeritus Professor of Diddy-Team Striving and Pluck is good for the soul. And if you like talking about football, fathers, Scottish highways and byways, nonsense and pop music as much as I do, then all the better.

As I say there are three boxes in the room. The second – metal, conceivably bullet-proof – contains only the merest sample of Cosgrove’s collection of rare Northern Soul 45s. Which platter, then, is the equivalent of the cup for teams which haven’t won for 112 years – the collector’s holy grail? “Well, for some it would be the first record played at the first all-nighter at Wigan Casino – The Sherrys’ Put Your Arms Around Me – which would set you back £1,000. But if you wanted Frank Wilson’s Do I Love You on the Soul label, a Motown subsidiary, you’d be talking £30,000 as only three copies are known to exist.” For our man, though, it’s not about the discs’ monetary worth.

“I’m much more interested in records for their stories – look at this,” he says, handing me an LP featuring jazz tenor sax-man Ben Branch which has just winged its way to Dennistoun from the States. “Martin Luther King spoke his final words to Ben just before the bullet ripped through his body. He said: ‘Play Take My Hand, Precious Lord at the meeting tonight, Ben, and play it real pretty’.”

That’s a powerful story, for sure, but Cosgrove, 61, can match it for poignancy and a shattering ending. He has never told the one linking Robert Burns, Yuri Gagarin and his late father before but it comes out today because of the high emotion of the cup final and him dearly wishing the old man was still around to experience the great day.

Jack Cosgrove – Stuart’s boy is named after him – worked as a mechanic and lorry driver with the Co-op. He became shop steward of the Scottish Horse and Motormen’s Association and a rising star of the trade union movement when it was making regular trips behind the Iron Curtain. “One of his visits to Moscow coincided with the shooting-down of the Gary Powers spy-plane [the U-2 incident as it was known, concerning a 1960 CIA espionage mission]. America denied the plane existed but Dad told me he’d seen it, touched the wreckage.”

Another trip, to the former Czechoslovakia, brought the union men into the orbit of the great cosmonaut Gagarin. “He surprised Dad when they shook hands by reciting Burns: ‘Wee sleekit cowrin tim’rous beastie’. He’d learned about the ‘great Scottish poet’ in school. Dad sent me a postcard with Gagarin’s face on the front, addressed to ‘Master Stuart Cosgrove’ and signed ‘Love, Dad’.” By the time it wound its way from Prague to Perth, his father was dead.

A union dispute in Forfar required Jack Sr’s immediate attention on his return. “But his car wouldn’t start so he flagged down one of the Co-op’s lorries, which blew a tyre and hit a tree. I was eight years old and something that has never left me was standing on the other side of a door while the driver begged forgiveness. No blame could be attached to this man but he was howling like a dog. You can sentimentalise almost everything else but not that raw grief.

“My father was my hero,” continues Cosgrove, who has fetched the third box, the flimsiest but the most precious. It contains photos of father and son, arms round each other at Christmas time and the lad squinting at the sun with mum Alice and sisters Alison and Marilyn, looking forward to their estate being finished.

“He died before he could do anything wrong so I was completely utterly obsessed by him. The headline in the Perthshire Advertiser after the encounter with Gagarin was ‘Perth man meets spaceman’. He was perfect, he was God, and he was my dad.” At this, Cosgrove removes his specs to dab his eyes. “I’m sorry but I miss him so much even now – especially now. I used to think – hope – that he’d come back to me. One day there would be a knock at the door, he’d be standing there and he’d say: ‘I just had to disappear, son, but here I am’. I thought that all through my teenage years, all my life, in fact.”

Then Cosgrove starts to laugh. “Do you know there was once a story in the Daily Mail that he was being groomed as a Soviet spy? [Motormen’s general secretary] Alex Kitson was supposed to be this spymaster recruiting young working-class Scots lefties to the cause. It was bollocks, I think, but it amused me and my sisters. I mean, the Co-op in Perth: you couldn’t find more bathos anywhere. Marilyn would say: ‘What do you think the Russkies were after – the recipe for Sookie Suncap orange juice?’ ”

Things come in threes in this chat. Three boxes, three games. The three that Cosgrove has in his head as his earliest experiences of watching St Johnstone. “Some of the detail I may have mixed up but an away game at Queen of the South is pretty vivid. It was the League Cup and Dad got hold of a Co-op lorry. Mum thought Dumfries was too far for me and told Dad: ‘Twenty more minutes and he could be visiting his granny in England’. Well, halfway down the road I peed myself. The radiator was the kind that trapped wasps. I had to dry my trousers on it and I can still feel the shame. There was a load of guys on the back – they all guffawed.”

Cosgrove was at the game at Saints’ old Muirton Park where Dundee, in winning the 1961-62 First Division title, relegated his favourites. “It was part of Tayside football mythology that the directors of both clubs met beforehand at a pub in Inchture or Errol and agreed to a mutually acceptable 1-1 draw – only for the Dundee players to get upset when Hugh Robertson was hacked down and the arrangement was dumped.” The third game, again at Muirton, was against Partick Thistle in the company of Cosgrove’s Uncle Billy. “Dan McLindon, ex-St Johnstone, was playing for Thistle. I remember Billy saying: ‘Oh no, has big Dan come back to haunt us?’ I’d never heard the phrase before and that was when I realised football had a language all of its own.”

Billy was the younger brother of Jack Sr and became Cosgrove’s surrogate father. “He and Dad grew up next to Muirton, played wallie as boys at the ice-rink end of the ground, and he ended up taking me to the games. He decided he should help us out after Dad died. There was always a bag of sweets to take home. Redecorating our front room he got me to chalk the ‘Taylor, McFadyen, Lachlan … ’ team on the plaster before the wallpaper went up. ‘The people who come here after should know this was a Saints house,’ he said. Billy was a tremendous influence on my life.”

With the aid of memorabilia, Cosgrove conducts an interactive tour of his Saints fandom, and he seems to namecheck every supporter in his ken, which seems like every inhabitant of Perth.

He feels “blessed” that his house, 71 Strathtay Road, was one of only a handful to afford views of both Muirton and McDiarmid Park. Then we move to Scott Street, scene of the most terrifying mass pagger he ever witnessed, between Saints and Dundee fans after a Christmas Day derby. The key word here, he says, is “witnessed”.

He loved the hooligan gear but, when it came to fighting, he was a “shiter”. To escape the polis that Christmas Day, he and his mates nipped up a close. “We ran through this house where the family were sat down with their turkey and their paper hats. ‘Hey missus, can we jump over your back wall?’ ”

We study the St Johnstone match programme of the 1960s with its never-changing advertisement for a local restaurant. A good place for high tea, I say. “Well,” he laughs, “you’ve just stumbled into a phenomenally interesting sociological corner of Perth. This was known as a place where black guys hung out: the children, some illegitimate, of Ghanaian and Ugandan fighter pilots who’d trained at the local aerodrome. It may very well have done a fine high tea but in the mythology there was supposed to be a brothel on the top floor!”

More names, a blue-and-white blizzard of them: The Perth City Soul Club Cosgrove started aged 15 included among its members Stan Harris, now a Saints director. Jim Donaldson, the goalie in Willie Ormond’s Euro questors, was in the same tattie-picking squad as Cosgrove’s mother. The father of Michael Mason, mentioned earlier, was a Saints turnstile operator. David Cumming, mentioned earlier, would go on to have a brief pop career with the band Taxxi but accepts his greatest lyric features in the terrace song which begins “Bless them all, Kenny Aird, Ian McPhee, Henry Hall … ” and which Cosgrove, seemingly about to burst with excitement now, recites in full.

These two lads shared something else besides football and music, both having absent fathers. How did Cosgrove cope? “If I have a regret it’s that I didn’t understand what widowhood meant. Mum didn’t need the shit of me getting into trouble at school, or moaning about my two quid pocket money when that was probably all she could afford.” But later, as he blazed a career in media, he tried to draw strength from his tragedy. “The worst thing that could have happened to me had already taken place. That drove me on.”

In any piece written about Stuart Cosgrove you never normally wait this long for mention of his achievements at Channel 4 where he’s still an executive – or his radio mucker Tam Cowan. But on this day of days it has to be that way. There were times, he says, while watching other clubs reel from financial mismanagement, when he wondered if the one from the Fair City who played fair would ever get their cup final. “Now it’s here and I’m so proud of Saints.”

Three boxes, three games, three fans who must watch from the clouds. Uncle Billy died two years ago with Cosgrove scattering his ashes at McDiarmid. His mother passed away last year, as big a fan as the rest. “She loved Henry Hall the most because he didn’t look like a footballer – his demeanour was always gracious.” Suddenly her laddie looks alarmed. “F****n’ hell, all these good folk looking down. We’re going to need a result!”

He jumps up because we’ve made quite a mess and the records especially must be tidied away because Jack Jr, who’ll be home soon, likes to sit on them. “I tell him that his dadda had a dadda and he was called Jack and isn’t that a funny thing. But I can’t wait until he properly understands: I’ve got so many stories to tell him.”

One such tale, sprinkled with sugar from St Johnstone tablet, may yet have a brilliant ending.

 

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