Formartine manager Steve Paterson talks to Aidan Smith about his emergence from gambling and alcohol problems
It’s hard to find a taxi in Aberdeen when the city is bustling with hundreds of oil industry delegates who’ve just completed the official business of the day and are keen to hit the bars and restaurants for some vital downtime. And it’s no easier, once a cab has been hailed and my driver has found out who I’m meeting, to locate much in the way of sympathy for Steve Paterson – “The ex-drunk, you mean?”
Football fans – and this is a Dons man who has lurid stories of more than one former Pittodrie boss – can be an unforgiving bunch. Maybe the rammed cafeteria of mostly kids in the Sports Village will be kinder, if they know Paterson at all, but I’m not taking any chances and when he finally shows after a snarled-up journey from his home in Buckie – “Tractors blinkin’ a’where” - I suggest we talk in his car.
So it’s the two of his in his Volkswagen. Well, us and this seagull who pads up and down the bonnet, occasionally stopping to try and outstare the car’s inhabitants. Paterson raps on the windscreen. “Get tae f**k,” he growls. But then: “Ach, he’s just a bairn.” Even so, it’s disconcerting, what with the gull’s squawking and the honking of horns as a free-admission friendly down at Pittodrie puts even more pressure on our car park. I tell you, that urbane Chilean Manuel Pellegrini wouldn’t put up with this.
Why the comparison with the Manchester City manager? Well, Formartine United, Paterson’s team, are dubbed the “Man City of the Highlands” on account of their generous chairman and the Abu Dhabi oil sponsorship fixed up by Atholl Cadger, a colourful nuts-and-bolts tycoon. The club have shot from amateur status to junior to Highland and are currently joint top of the league. On their website, a red-and-white striped David is readying for a pagger with Goliath in the yellow and black of Annan Athletic, today’s quarter-final opponents in the Ramsdens Cup - and Cadger is dressed up as an Arab sheikh. Two senior teams, East Stirling and Elgin City, have already been vanquished by “Scotland’s biggest little club”, as the online puffery puts it. Yes, Formartine’s story is a remarkable one but no more so than Paterson’s own.
He’s the legend of far-north football who chose the nickname “Pele” for himself as a boy and there were times when he wore it pretty well. In 2000 as manager of Inverness Caley Thistle he masterminded the Scottish Cup win behind the headline: “Super Caley go ballistic- Celtic are atrocious.” I bring it up early today to get him talking, not being sure how much he’ll want to rake over the past, and he says: “Wisna that a steal?” Indeed it was. The original, “Super Cally goes ballistic, QPR atrocious”, celebrated Liverpool’s Ian Callaghan back in the 1970s. And Paterson tries to play down Inversnecky’s 3-1 triumph, insisting it won’t be in his thoughts against Annan.
“A lot of factors went into that win,” he says. “Folk tend to forget that Caley, although it was romantic they’d come from the Highland, were by then a First Division team – and also that that Celtic side was one of the poorest in history, maybe the poorest. That game won’t be mentioned by me on Saturday; I won’t be boring my players with history. This is about them; Steve Paterson is quiet and in the background now. But one thing will be the same. I’ve never gotten nervous before big matches and maybe that’s rubbed off on players I’ve had and will do so again. At Annan there’ll be no visible nerves from me. Plus, there’ll be no hangover either because I won’t have got pissed the night before.”
Formartine train at the Sports Village, a spanking indoor complex with a full-size pitch, and Paterson is greeted with a wave or sometimes the odd rude hand-gesture by his players as they park up; otherwise he’s taking calls from those fankled up by tractors and tankers. He talks frankly and I listen, both of us facing the front, which must look odd, and the gull’s still on the bonnet. “Part-time fitba – glamorous, eh?” he laughs.
Just semi-skulking in a car with the man is full of sad resonance. When Paterson was sacked by Aberdeen in 2004, a chronic gambler and a heavy drinker, he chose to exit in the boot of a Mercedes rather than face the flashbulbs and have his daughters see him at such a desperately low ebb. He was Scotland’s dashing young managerial hotshot when he took charge of the Dons after Caley, and no one knows better than him that he blew it.
He’s 55 now and the dark-eyed good looks remain, although the suntan and the gold chain make a funny juxtaposition with the club badge of nuts-and-bolts Formartine. In the car there’s a change of clothes for his other job – after training he’s on the nightshift as a residential social worker, looking after damaged and disadvantaged kids.
Social work has been part of his life for 25 years, same as football dugouts. A downgrading of his senior manager’s job a few years ago should have prompted him to look for another post. “But, ach, I’m a bit of a lazy bastard,” he says. Now the nightwork can sometimes conflict with Formartine’s ambition. “Next Wednesday we play Cove Rangers in the Aberdeenshire Cup. I’m on that night, we’re short-staffed, so I’m probably going to have to leave the tie at half-time.”
More resonances. Paterson once missed an Aberdeen game after painting the town red the night before and being too hungover to take the team. This prompted the most public of confessions about his problems at a dramatic news conference. Along with that prestigious job, he lost his marriage to wife Mandy and maybe as much as £1.3 million in pursuit of top tips and treble chances. Eventually he accepted he needed help, and got it through Tony Adams’ clinic Sporting Chance.
Now, a Highland football manager is going to be different from a Hollywood film star on the subject of addiction and a wild lifestyle, since curtailed. Paterson doesn’t embellish or over-dramatise, although possibly because there’s enough drama in the original tale. He gambled first aged 12 at the annual farm show in Keith, Moray, losing his week’s berry-picking earnings on one-armed bandits, regaining his bus fare home through commission on icecream sales, only to lose again and have to walk back to his home village of Mosstodloch. Aged 16, he gambled the £1000 signing fee given his parents by Manchester United and stored in a Bisto tin. He gambled his £40,000 injury pay-off from Japanese side Yomiuri, blowing the lot inside 48 hours.
No embroidery today, then and the closest he comes to therapyspeak is: “Everyone chooses their own path.” But there’s guilt, bags of it. “Folk in my situation sometimes say they have no regrets, even that they’d do it all again. Well, I have massive regrets and wish to God I’d never been a compulsive gambler. I was from a culture where footballers aye bevvied and they aye gambled. I was old-school so when I was betting it would be at a racecourse. Now of course players are getting into trouble for doing it on their phones.
“But I thought I was happy, living the life I did. I had access to money, lots of friends, loads of social life. I didn’t set out to be a daft gambler who’d lose all his money but that’s what happened. And I was completely selfish. When my daughters were growing up I was more interested in being with mates on Sundays than with them – golfing, bevvying and the gambling which went with it. I regret that, I genuinely do, and wish I’d been a responsible dad. Thankfully the girls didn’t desert me and we get on great now. My youngest, Emily, lives next door to me and twice a week I look after Jessica’s daughter. I’m involved heavily in their lives now and part of why is my big guilt complex. It runs all the way to Mosstodloch and back and I feel I owe them big-style.”
In his other job Paterson has witnessed tragedy hit others: prison terms and even death. It has always given him perspective on real problems, as opposed to the often frivolous and self-indulgent anxieties of footballers. He can trace an upswing in his gambling back to his move into full-time management after early success in the Highland with Elgin City and Huntly. Suddenly he had lots of free time and he soon got himself into trouble. Though he doesn’t overegg this, the stories of the unfortunates flitted through his mind as he decided it was time to pull back from the brink. “I knew kids who, from the start, had no opportunities or very little chance. And there I was, a guy who’d been given a lot, hitting rock bottom and coming bloody close to ruining his life.”
He couldn’t have turned things around without the help of family and friends and also football folk. “Forbes Shand, who’d been my chairman at Huntly, stayed a pal all through the hard times. He never abandoned me and got me back to the club when I was keen to return to management. He must have wondered about the risk, me with all my baggage, as must Atholl have done when I went over to Formartine. But they could see, I think, that I wisna a bullshitter and had cleaned up my act.”
He’s not perfect, he says. He still has the odd tipple, the occasional flutter, but nothing like before. “It annoys me when I gamble because I wish I could cut it out completely. I’ll maybe have a wee bet on the horses or the greyhounds but my football coupon doesn’t really bother me anymore. It used to obsess me. As soon as my game was finished, I’d be rushing about trying to find out how my ticket had gone. Now if I feel I’m gambling more than I should I’ll screw the nut.
“Gambling was the root of my troubles. I drank to celebrate a win or, more likely, soothe a loss. I stopped drinking completely for two years and I can still go for weeks, months, without bothering. But I’ll drink on social occasions and I’m sort of seeing a lassie now and we’ll have a glass of wine at home, just like anyone else.”
In striving for normality, Paterson is doing his best to blend in with the Highland scenery. I mention my taxi driver’s quip and he laughs. “The league up here is right friendly and I’ve never had any abuse from fans. But even though I got some in the Scottish Premier straight after coming out and admitting I had problems, the Aberdeen lot were fantastic with me. Rather than want to crucify me, they viewed my story more from the human side and I got great messages of support.”
Just then, our gull flies off. Maybe it’s bound for Pittodrie for the ritualistic swooping that begins as soon as a game ends. We get out of the car and I walk with Paterson to training. Does he ever think about what might have been at Aberdeen, or of even greater flourishes subsequently? No, he says, that would be a waste of time. So what are his ambitions and those of Formartine with him in charge – are they ultimately aiming for the seniors step-up?
“I don’t know. Atholl and I haven’t really discussed it. The two big loves of his life are Formartine United and Manchester United. He’s at Old Trafford Sundays and midweeks and here with us on Saturdays. He’s a generous man and an ambitious man but long before we go anywhere we’d have to win the league. Me, I’m on a three-year contract. During my first season when things weren’t going well I asked to be relieved of my duties. Atholl’s response was: ‘You’ve got me into this f****n’ mess – get me out.’ Last season we were pipped for the flag right at the death. I wasn’t upset for myself, but everyone connected with Formartine because this is a tremendous wee club and I’m chuffed they’re getting a cup adventure and a shot at some of the teams above us.
“I want everything for them but nothing for myself beyond just being able to survive. Once upon a time I was the youngest manager in the Highland; now I’m the oldest. I like the league, the geography of it and all the travelling; it suits me. I’d like to stay here and I need to keep working. I blew all my money so I’m never going to be able to retire. But, really, life is less about the football for me now. It’s about trying to find peace of mind, just a wee bitty contentment.”