Interview: Arthur Graham on going from poverty to Dons glory

Former Aberdeen and Scotland star Arthur Graham pictured at the Red Lion Pub in Wetherby. Picture: Simon Hulme

Former Aberdeen and Scotland star Arthur Graham pictured at the Red Lion Pub in Wetherby. Picture: Simon Hulme

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How did Arthur 
Graham come by his nickname? I’m imagining he was king of the dodgems at some point in his youth, boss of the car the rest could never catch, far less ram – and that when he did the ramming it was with such conviction that electrical sparks flew. Henceforth the Aberdeen, Leeds United, Manchester United and Scotland winger was known as Bumper.

But I’m way off beam as he tells me when we meet in the Red Lion pub in Wetherby, Yorkshire. “I never had good football boots until I went up to Pittodrie and then I got given this pair of Adidas which were real beauts,” he explains. “As a laddie I played in black gym shoes with the elasticated uppers which were all ripped and so flapped about. Then for my junior team I got hand-me-downs and they were also falling apart and had to be taped together.

Aberdeen's Arthur Graham evades a challenge from Celtic's Kenny Dalglish in the 1976 League Cup final. Picture: SNS

Aberdeen's Arthur Graham evades a challenge from Celtic's Kenny Dalglish in the 1976 League Cup final. Picture: SNS

“So I really loved my new boots only they gave me terrible blisters. My feet were all puffed up like an elephant’s. The only way I could get about was in these canvas sneakers and even they hurt my heels until the club doctor cut holes in the back. So there was me in Union Street in my suit and tie and my… bumpers, everyone called them. When fans saw me they’d shout: ‘Haw, Bumper!’ The nickname lasted my whole career and I still get called it now.”

Forty years ago Graham was the left-winger completing a swashbuckling front five when Aberdeen beat Celtic to claim the League Cup. Dom Sullivan, Jocky Scott, Joe Harper and Drew Jarvie were the other members of one of the dandiest Dons forward lines, and when the final became tight they were able to summon Davie Robb from the bench to sclaff the winning goal.

Mention of 1976 will prompt dewy-eyed reminiscing among the red-clad fans as they descend on Hampden today, but if the 64-year-old Graham’s own story of triumph over hardship doesn’t inspire the current set of players then you don’t know what will.

Growing up in Castlemilk when it was rehousing families from the slums of the Glasgow’s Gorbals, he lived for kickabouts under street lights and shared a bed with two of his seven brothers. There were three sisters as well and he doesn’t know how his parents, Danny and Helen, coped.

“I live on my own now so know what it’s like to keep yourself going but 
goodness knows how Mum did it,” he says. “We were poor, I don’t think there were many families poorer than us. I’m sure that by Wednesday there would be nothing to eat and we’d be sent to our granny who’d make us soup. That’s why I like soup so much. I lived off it as a kid.

“Dad was a slater’s labourer but I think he decided he’d be better off not working. We didn’t have a TV for ages and when we got one you had to feed it shillings, just like the gas fire. Dad would get halfpennies and grind them against the outside wall to make them fit in the slots. Sometimes it was telly or heat, we couldn’t afford both. But when the man came to empty the meters he didn’t charge us for the amount we hadn’t paid. He knew it was hard for folk and gave us back the halfpennies.

“We never got much for Christmas, a tangerine at the bottom of a sock was all you could count on for sure. One year, though, me and my brother Tom got a mini table-tennis set to share, only we didn’t have a table in the house so we played lying on the floor, resting our heads on one hand. I maintain that’s how I became the table-
tennis champion at Aberdeen. And when I went to Leeds there was a big competition with a trophy for the 
winner and I beat Eddie Gray – another Castlemilk boy – in the final.”

In a career spanning 18 years Graham was immortalised on football cards by dint of his groovy flowing locks. A fair chunk of that hair has disappeared and he lives quietly in Wetherby, the place he’s called home since finishing up at Bradford City. But he laughs at the idea his barnet was in any way iconic.

“I remember getting ready to go on a date, maybe 14 or 15, and washing my hair only with there being no hot water I made a right bad job of it. I must have looked a sight. There was no second date with that lassie.”

But tough as it was, Graham reckons Castlemilk was the making of him. “Although we never had much we were a good, tight family and the rest of them still live up there. You had to watch where you went – the wrong area for a Catholic or a Protestant and you might get a leathering. But all I lived for was football. In school, maths or geography, I’d be like I am now, staring out of the window. I couldn’t wait for a game of football. There was a park a couple of miles away and on nice days me and my pals would walk there and play all day, stopping only for our pieces. Actually sometimes I never had a piece to take with me. Mostly, though, we played in the street. No one had cars so the games could be big. That was the environment where I learned my skills and it was brilliant for me.”

Father-of-five Graham now relays those skills to kids, something he’s done for Leeds United for a few years now. The over-passing which some believe has infected and stymied youth football isn’t part of his ethos: he wants his charges to run and dribble like he did. My earlier reference to electrical sparks may not be wholly redundant; Graham seemed to create them when he sprinted up the left. He’s a reticent fellow who has to be prodded for a reminisce, but he made his mark on the game, all right. Initially not keen on having his photo taken, Bumper warms up when informed he was the Leeds-supporting lensman’s favourite player.

The story of how he was snapped up by Aberdeen, spurning today’s final opponents and the club his vast extended family all followed, is part of Dons lore. Playing for Cambuslang Rangers and due to meet Jock Stein in the morning, he was on his way back from a game at Irvine Meadow when a stranger in a “funny wee hat” got on the bus.

Pittodrie scout Bobby Calder was artful at pinching talent from under the noses of the Old Firm. “ ‘Hello son’, he said, ‘would you like to come up to Aberdeen?’ ‘Sorry’, I said, ‘but I’m going to be seeing Mr Stein’. ‘Would you like to come up and sign professional forms?’ Then it was: ‘Would you like a contract, £50 a week?’ I kept saying 
sorry but no. Then Bobby said: ‘Would you like to come up, £50 a week and a £500 signing-on fee?’ ‘Done!’ I said. Five hundred quid was a lot of money where I came from and it totally kept my family solvent, it was a big hit. Mind you, I didn’t tell my brothers and cousins and uncles I’d rejected Celtic. They’d have gone mad!”

Graham didn’t hang about. He’d only played a handful of games for Cambuslang before being spirited north and he was glad to get out of the local steel mill. “I was earning £4 a week. My job was to write on big plates where they were bound, Belfast and the like. You did it when they were still hot and had to wear special clogs. But the rest of the men all supported Cambuslang and were good guys: if I was on the night shift before a game they’d told me to go and sleep in the bothy while they covered for me.”

His Aberdeen adventure began on 4 January, 1970. “I’d heard that [manager] Eddie Turnbull was a grumpy so-and-so but he was brilliant with me. The first thing he said was: ‘That £500, half’s gone already – what have you done with it?’ ‘Sent it to my mum’, I said. ‘Well done, son’, he said.”

After recovering from his blisters Graham made his debut against Dunfermline Athletic as a second-half substitute for Derek “Cup-tie” McKay whose goals had shot Aberdeen to the Scottish Cup final. His first start four days later came against – who else? – Celtic and the Parkhead crowd saw the kid lay on a goal for George Murray and head what proved to be the winner. “I got my Uncle Joe a ticket and he was in the players’ lounge afterwards munching a plateful of sandwiches. He was a big Celtic fan like the rest of the family. He said to me: ‘What the f*** do you think you were doing, scoring that goal?’ ”

There was only one more league match before the final and Graham didn’t feature. Surely Turnbull wouldn’t play him in the showpiece against – who else? – Celtic on the strength of one and a half senior games? “I only found out on the day I was in. I was a hundred miles an hour, quick, fast, straight back up when I got tackled – you got tackled a lot back in those days – and I think Eddie liked that about me. And Cup-tie’s goals won us the cup.”

Graham continued to send his bonuses home – “Fivers stuffed in envelopes because Mum didn’t have a bank account” – and also unwanted football boots, knowing they’d be appreciated in hard-up corners of the estate. He considers how fate played a hand in helping him escape 
Castlemilk.

“I almost became a ship’s carpenter. I’d enjoyed woodwork at school – that and metalwork were what you got to keep out of the way of the brainy kids – but the job would have meant me working Saturdays and missing the football so even though I was desperate for work I turned it down. If I’d taken it I probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you now. And what if Bobby Calder hadn’t got on the bus? I tried to give him my winner’s medal, you know, but he wouldn’t take it.”

It wasn’t just luck, though; the boy could play. “I was 17, rough, raw and daft and Eddie let me away with quite a bit – he just used to laugh,” Graham continues. “It was silly stuff, going out at weekends, having a few pints which you could do back then, and maybe getting involved in scuffles. I shared digs with two Glasgow boys, Joe Smith, brother of Jimmy, and John Craig, brother of Tommy. We got chucked out by the landlady trying to sneak some birds over the garden wall at midnight. Eddie didn’t like that and gave us a
bollocking.

“Bobby [Clark] – we called him Trampus after the TV cowboy – Martin [Buchan] and Steve [Murray] were the sensible ones at the club. Me, Joe [Harper] and Derek somewhat less so! After the cup Derek kind of blew a fuse. He was a smart-looking single guy and he was out most nights, but a smashing bloke. And Joe used to struggle with his weight and seemed lazy – we called him Humpty – but you couldn’t argue with his goals.”

In the summer of 1974 under Jimmy Bonthrone there was a “world tour”, eccentrically plotted to take in Iran and the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia as well as the Antipodes. With Doug Rougvie packing Corn Flakes and bacon into a large suitcase, it produced some eccentric outcomes to match, including Clark’s nightly skinnydipping, fellow goalie Andy Geoghegan being bitten by a conger eel and Willie Young being detained by customs officials on suspicion of smuggling luxury watches (they were fakes).

If that sounds like a misadventure it was nothing compared with Graham’s travels the following year when, representing Scotland Under-23s, he became one of the “Copenhagen Five”, banned for life from playing for his country after a night on the town went seriously awry.

Young was again involved, along with Harper, big-team captain Billy Bremner and Celtic’s Pat McCluskey. The Dons centre-half told me last year that the trouble began in the bar of the team hotel when he saw Graham being hauled over the DJ’s console. Young speculated that the winger may have irritated the discman by requesting a naff song. Graham, reluctant to go back there, says he can’t remember much about the rammy that ensued.

“Something like that was bound to happen because every time a Scotland party went abroad they had a bevvy. I think the SFA were looking to make an example of the players and it was our bad luck it was us. Honestly, the memories of Copenhagen are hazy, although I remember the police piling into the place. There was a curfew for the Under-23s of being back by midnight which I broke, but only by five minutes. I think it’s fair to say that wee Billy led the charge that night although what a player he 
was.”

The following year with Aberdeen brought more cup success against Celtic – a hat-trick of trophies for Graham if you count the inaugural Drybrough Cup in 1971. By ’76 Ally MacLeod was in charge of the Dons, irrepressible and inspirational. “Ally was something else. I’m sure his missus must have wound him up every morning. His enthusiasm was unbelievable.”

To win that League Cup, Aberdeen had to play 11 games, including three against Stirling Albion and a thumping 5-1 semi-final victory over Rangers, Graham featuring in all of them. In the final he crossed for Harper to set up Jarvie for the equaliser after Kenny Dalglish had put Celtic ahead, then dragged Danny McGrain diagonally across the pitch on the way to the extra-time winner.

After seven years he fancied a change of scene and loved Leeds for the fervour of the fans, scoring three hat-tricks but failing to stop relegation. A bigger sin in the supporters’ eyes was moving to Manchester United. “I still get pelters for it now.” By then, his international ban had been rescinded and he won 11 caps including the British debut of 18-year-old Diego Maradona in a friendly against Argentina. “I was chuffed to finally get the chance to play for Scotland – but not as much as my mum was.” The boy with the wild hair, no boots or food in his belly had really made it.

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