David Robb and I are standing in the middle of Union Square, a shopping centre showing off Aberdeen’s confidence and chic, and I can’t quite believe what he’s just told me.
He’s sworn me to secrecy about this matter – “You’re the only person who knows,” he says – and seeing as he used to scare me watching him from behind the terrace wall I’m going to be a man of my word. It’s the cherry on a big, fat cake of amazing stories from a life in football and, as I say my goodbyes, it requires me to ask: “Davie Robb, because that is how most of us remember you – has anyone ever accused you of being a fantasist?” He laughs. “Not quite that. I don’t like to boast, which is just as well, because some of the things that have happened to me I’d have terrible trouble getting anyone to believe.”
We’ll come to these things later but let’s start with a few indisputable facts, burned in the memories of Dons fans of a certain age. As 40,000 prepare to descend on Glasgow for tomorrow’s League Cup final – another Aberdonian display of confidence if not quite chic-ness – they’ll remember how a triumph in the same competition 38 years ago ushered in the greatest era in the club’s history and will dare to dream about history repeating. And they’ll remember who scored the winning goal back in 1976.
“I didn’t expect to play in the final,” recalls Robb, now 66. “I’d had a bad injury – five operations on the same right knee – and the manager didn’t fancy me much.” This was Ally MacLeod who would soon hand over to Billy McNeill who would soon hand over to Alex You-know-who. “So I thought I’d certainly be able to enjoy a fag that day. I could smoke three during half-time. When we played Rangers Willie Johnston and I would be puffing away in the tunnel before the game. Then we’d put our stubbies on the shelf along with a couple of matches for later.”
In the ’76 final the opposition were Celtic, Aberdeen winning 2-1 in extra-time with a sclaff from their sub. Not Robb’s best goal of the 99 in red, then? “Well, it probably was because it won the cup but I remember a classic hat-trick – left foot, right, header – against Motherwell, all of them pretty good. Graeme Souness was judging Goal of the Season on TV and he voted me first and second. I wrote a letter thanking him but the b****r never replied!”
It says something about the man, I think, that he’s a letter-writer. But then I guessed he was a different kind of ex-footballer from earlier on the phone when he told me: “I live in Banchory which is 17.22 miles from Aberdeen – or thereabouts – but I’ll come into town to meet you.” He’s a bit of a comedian, with a droll Chic Murray-esque delivery. “You know that women – that’s the opposite sex from us – can pay 45 or 50 quid for a haircut?” he’ll say, discussing the over-preponderance of crimpers in Banchory.
Robb didn’t have much need for a haircut back in the day, being wild and flame-coloured of barnet and nicknamed “The Brush”, and I now feel bad about recently describing in these pages some 1970s moustaches, including those of Willie Pettigrew and Jimmy Bone, as iconic because truly Robb was the definitive desperado – Davie Van Cleef. He doesn’t have much need of a haircut now either and I almost don’t recognise the rounder fellow, now 66, with the disposition of a jovial farmer, who leads me to his favourite coffee shop.
Incredibly, Olivia Newton-John and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac both turn up in this story which features the unforgettable line “I’m Pele and this is David Robb” – but it begins near Dundee in Broughty Ferry. Robb was born there just after the war when his father returned home after flying Shackletons to resume in business as a builder/architect. The family moved to Newport-on-Tay which meant him having to travel to school by boat. Much younger than his three siblings, he says: “I lived in my mother’s pouch.” Spotted by Chelsea playing for Broughty Ferry YMCA, he went to London at 14 but got homesick and quickly returned where new Aberdeen manager Eddie Turnbull liked the look of the lad full of running who could take care of himself, and others, and the crucial relationship of his career was under way.
“Mr Turnbull – I never called him Eddie – reminded me a lot of my father: very hard but very fair. He was a great talker and, being a smoker like me, we had lots of chats. He instilled this great winning mentality: in all my time at Pittodrie I never went into a game thinking we were going to lose. He laid the groundwork for Fergie – the structure, the scouting, the training – and Fergie acknowledged that.
“As a kid I was a sorter-outer. If one of the opposition was kicking our guys I dealt with it. This continued at Aberdeen where Joseph Harper – I never called him Joe – would run to me with a message about the No 8 or whoever. I’d ask Mr Turnbull: ‘How come I get a game?’ He said: ‘Because you’re me.’ In the great Hibs team of the Famous Five he was the hard man. He told me he once smacked a spectator who was shouting at him. I did the same thing at Pittodrie!”
I’m surprised when Robb says he was only sent off once, a dismissal he blames on John Greig. “Greig was scared of me. Mr Turnbull had told me: ‘If those Rangers b*****ds ever thump you, get up and laugh in their face.’ The first time I did that to Greig he said: ‘Christ, what do they feed you on – raw meat?’” Now Robb is laughing some more because he’s remembered his strangest lecture from a ref. “JRP Gordon lived next to my folks in Newport-on-Tay. He had extremely long fingers and worked in marmalade. Can you believe he was a Celtic fan who actually travelled up to Pittodrie on supporters’ buses? One time we were playing Celtic, Billy McNeill couldn’t stop laughing when JRP called me over. He beckoned me with one of his testicles ... [Sorry?] … I mean tentacles. And in the heat of battle he said: ‘You’ve to phone your mother’!” Robb’s late brother Iain was a gifted artist who designed the medals for the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games and who, when told of this bizarre centre-circle encounter, dashed off a cartoon.
Our man would become a cult hero later but wasn’t the fans’ favourite when Joseph Harper was banging in the goals in front of the Beach End. “I used to get boo-ed. Why? Because I had no ball skill, was useless at heading and just ran about making a nuisance of myself.” Nevertheless he was capped five times. “ I was never a great player but I always went out and did my best. Joseph, on the other hand, was a lazy little b****r! He knows what I thought of him; I tell him to this day. Often it seemed like we were playing with ten men. Me and Stevie Murray would knock our pans in and at the end Joseph would hardly need a shower. And the Beach End would still be chanting: ‘Joey! Joey!’ I sometimes got annoyed and Mr Turnbull was aware of that. So he’d say, in front of the whole team, that I was always the first man he picked. That was great and it made me play even harder.”
He recalls his various Aberdeen teams. Bobby Clark was his big buddy. Jimmy Smith was “the nutmeg king who told us he learned all his skills playing in a close”. Arthur Graham was “Bumper”. Martin Buchan was “annoyingly precise, always looking like he’d just stepped out of a tailor’s window”. Willie Young “got too big for his boots, we had a disagreement but he was sorted out”. Zoltan Varga was “a genius, maybe the greatest-ever Don, but who really knows the story of the Zoltan?”.
Derek “Cup-tie” McKay – “He came from nowhere and pretty much went back there afterwards” – was the hero of the 1970 Scottish Cup triumph. Robb remembers the celebrations in the Gleneagles Hotel: “There was a half pint of beer waiting for each of us, courtesy of the grateful directors.” Aberdeen under Turnbull then twice threatened to win the old First Division, the first time falling apart after Bobby Clark’s shut-out record was smashed and the second when a fire at Pittodrie seemed to throw them out of kilter. Then Turnbull went to Hibs and later Robb would almost join him there, but a proposed swap deal with Joe Harper fell through over Robb’s desire to continue his training in insurance. “I speak openly,” Robb had said at the start of our conversation, and you imagine that, allied to his obvious intelligence, must have landed him in the odd spot of bother. “I didn’t like Ally MacLeod. I thought he was using Aberdeen to better himself. And whereas Mr Turnbull would boost you up, Ally would criticise. I knew I was useless; I didn’t need to be told.” At the dinner following the ’76 success, Robb was nominated to speak for the players. “Someone nudged me and said ‘Remember Eddie’, meaning Eddie Thomson who’d got injured and missed the final, but I took this as my cue to wax lyrical about Mr Turnbull. I got called into Ally’s office the next day. He was very angry. I didn’t last long at Aberdeen after that.”
And so we come to the fantastical chapters of this yarn and those nights round the piano at Sammy Davis Jr’s penthouse suite in New York. “I had supper with Frank Sinatra once,” says Robb. “Sinatra and me frae the Ferry, can you believe that? Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd became a good friend. I went on stage with the band Yes. I got introduced to the crowd at a Harlem Globetrotters game. I was at a dinner where it was all guns on the table – everyone else was Mafia.” Robb was required to do all of this and more in America where he played for four clubs. “We had to go to parties and sell the game to the rich and famous.”
“We”? Oh, Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and George Best and Johan Cruyff – those kind of guys.
And a sweet democracy existed among them because with “soccer” in the States being new, no one was that much more famous than anyone else. “We’d be in a nightclub and there would be introductions going on. ‘This is Pele and do you know David Robb?’ ‘Howzit gaun?’ Then it would be time for drinks and Pele would go: ‘No, I’ll get them – David got the last round.’ Amazing. I used to deliberately cut myself shaving to check I was still alive!”
“Howzit gaun?” was some introduction during his stint with Tampa Bay Rowdies. “At Sammy Davis’s place there was this stunning girl. Our eyes met across a crowded room, as they say, and one thing led to another … ” This was Olivia Newton-John. “I didn’t know who she was. It was pre-Grease so she was new in America. She came to our next game in Buffalo and afterwards invited me back to her apartment. I thought this was going to be another party but there was no one else there.” Years later when Robb worked in oil they ran into each other in Los Angeles. “Bizarrely, she was living next door to our company’s lawyer. At first I don’t think she recognised me. I told her I had happy memories of the first time we’d met.”
Then there was Stevie Nicks. “I knew who she was. Fleetwood Mac were performing in Philadelphia and we met them afterwards for drink and drugs. That’s a joke – at least the team didn’t touch the drugs. ‘Where are you from?’ she asked. ‘Scotland,’ I said. ‘A little village outside London.’ Neither of us wanted to to be at this party so we did a runner. We went to a nightclub and I remember she had no money with her. Then it was back to the hotel. Ach, everything was so free and easy … ”
For his best pal in America, Rodney Marsh, even the booze was free. “For mentioning his favourite vodka in public so many times he got sent 144 crates. He didn’t know what to do with it so he filled his pool, his jacuzzi. I sat in the vodka jacuzzi.” Robb, it should be emphasised, is still not boasting. I have to prise these details out of him. In the US that long hair earned him modelling gigs. Now he gets OAP discount on No 6 razorcuts – “You can hear the blade going right down to the wood!”
Life is much quieter in Banchory where he lives with the youngest of his three sons following a messy end to his second marriage. But as an ex-footballer you’d continue to file him under “different” because of his work as a volunteer counsellor for people with addictions. “I started doing this after the death of my brother who drank heavily. And I stopped drinking myself when my wee laddie told me he didn’t like the smell when he kissed me goodnight.”
Robb quit smoking for the same reason but the memory of his cup-winning goal still flickers. “It came off my shin! I felt a bit guilty because I got so much praise. But Bobby Clark told me I deserved it for playing for so long for Aberdeen and never getting any.”
And with that an old hero rejoins the city bustle for the 17.22 miles home, his big secret safely tucked away.