Interview: Martin Buchan on Scotland and that day at Largs

Man United's Martin Buchan, left, and Frank Stapleton of Arsenal chase the ball during the 1979 FA Cup final. Picture: Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock
Man United's Martin Buchan, left, and Frank Stapleton of Arsenal chase the ball during the 1979 FA Cup final. Picture: Colorsport/REX/Shutterstock
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It is one of the great football quotes and generally these days attributed to Gordon Strachan. Pressbox seeker-of-truth: “Gordon, could I have a quick word?” Strach, a bit stressed and not in the mood: “Velocity.” But Martin Buchan was speedier with this quip; he used it first.

“It was the start of season 1976-77 and Manchester United had just played Coventry City at the old Highfield Road,” explains the Scotland great. “I was last out of the bath because I always liked a good soak and by the time I got to the players’ lounge – right at the top of the stadium – I was in need of a refreshment. This journalist who I didn’t know put his hand on my chest to stop me. A quick word, Martin? ‘Velocity,’ I said, and because he’d been so rude I added ‘f**k off’.”

Does Buchan mind that Strachan ripped him off? “Not at all. I’m always using old Chic Murray gags.” Then the left-half who brought a touch of class to defending when it was full of thuggery and wrestling nicknames like Bites Yer Legs and Pummel Yer Goolies adopts the patter of the lugubrious laughs legend: “I looked out the window and this fellow was stealing my garden gate. I didn’t say anything in case he took offence.”

Now, I was looking forward to meeting Buchan but didn’t expect him to be so funny. I still didn’t think this when he met me off the train in Manchester carrying a copy of 
Private Eye. The thing is, I was remembering something Davie
Robb said about him from their days at Aberdeen: “Annoyingly 
precise, like he’d just walked out of a tailor’s window.” Also something Arthur Graham told me: “He was the sensible one.”

But, thrilled as I am in the offices of England’s PFA where Buchan works to learn the origins of the velocity remark, this pales next to his version of events the night Jimmy Johnstone tried to emulate Thor Heyerdahl in a Largs rowing-boat. It’s sensational.

Honestly, there can never have been a man dubbed sensible and annoyingly precise who acts like this. Buchan leaps out of his chair and waves an invisible oar above his head, explaining that the other one had been dropped by Jinky into the drink. Never mind chartering World Cup submarines, if the 
wee winger was planning to row to Germany ’74 then his mission had just got off to a highly unpromising start.

“Donald Ford and I were playing a game of putting, as you do at 4am. It was already light, a fine morning. We heard a kerfuffle down by the jetty and there was Jinky being carried out by the tide. He was singing: ‘Oh no, not me/I’m the man who ruled the world.’ Davie Hay set off in an inflatable to try to rescue him but there was a big hole in the side. It was 
hilarious.

“Next morning – well, high noon actually – we were all summoned to a meeting in the team hotel by Willie Ormond. Jinky was still chittering, hypothermia on the way. Willie walked in, face like thunder, and the room went silent but Jinky couldn’t stand the tension. ‘You’re giein’ me some looks, sir!’ he said. Willie replied: ‘Nae bloody wonder!’”

So let’s recap: I’ve just witnessed 
Martin Buchan – in the Doric, and 
wiggling his legs to signify that the ship’s captain wasn’t in total control of his vessel – mimic Jimmy Johnstone mimicking Lulu mimicking David Bowie, writer of the song. It is of course The Man Who Sold the World, but Buchan can be excused remembering the lyrics wrongly because, football-wise, he’s the biggest music buff I’ve met. “I’ve got seven guitars. Just wish I could play one of them,” he laughs. Precisely, but not annoyingly, he pinpoints his favourite era: “1956-1963.” Currently mourning Chuck 
Berry he counts the Drifters’ Bobby Hendricks as a friend but Elvis Presley is his all-time No 1. A different kind of footballer, for sure.

I tell him I’m impressed that he came up with a word like velocity under pressure. “That’s thanks to my good education. I won a bursary to Robert Gordon’s in Aberdeen. And the headmaster made me stand up at assembly and said: ‘This is the boy who won’t play rugby for the school’.”

Football was Buchan’s game, as it had been for his father, also Martin, also a Don, and years later, he was leading Aberdeen to their 1970 Scottish Cup final triumph masterminded by Eddie Turnbull, pictured right. A photograph of boss and skipper with the trophy hangs on the wall of the office, and Turnbull has always been paternally looking down on his protege. “I wouldn’t be speaking to you if it wasn’t for his influence,” says Buchan.

Today there’s a sense of him really wanting to talk. Very soon he’ll be forced to give up his job at the PFA, for sad family reasons I cannot divulge. This brilliant ex-pro’s life will probably become quieter. So he wants to roar through his back pages, the two World Cups and the Scottish and FA Cups – he’s still the only man of Scotia to rub his muddy paws clean and be presented with both. Oh, and all those rows with his managers. “I got 34 caps,” he smiles. “It should have been more but me and my big mouth.”

Scotland play Slovenia in a World Cup qualifier tomorrow and Buchan has memories of two encounters with the old Yugoslavia. In 1972, in the Independence Cup in Brazil, there was a 2-2 draw for Tommy Docherty’s team. “I played with a sore back. On the Copacabana, a big wave flipped me up in the air. I didn’t tell the Doc because I didn’t want the lads banned from going to the beach.” Buchan considered the skilful Yugoslavs “the European Brazil”, an opinion reinforced two years later when another draw knocked us out of West Germany’s World Cup.

How different was Martin McLean Buchan? He was a Latin scholar who at Aberdeen continued learning Spanish at night school, achieving top marks.

He wouldn’t allow Man U to look after his passport on foreign trips, pointing to the bit which said that such an important document shouldn’t be given up lightly and telling club staff: “I’m a big boy.” Before the long journey to the 1978 World Cup – “From Hampden and that ridiculous bus parade we went Prestwick, Gatwick, Refice, Rio, Buenos Aires, Cordoba” – he stocked up on Alistair MacLean and other favourite authors, reasoning he would need to keep the mind stimulated. “When we arrived in Argentina a colleague who shall remain nameless announced: ‘I’m bored.’ I just thought: ‘Christ almighty what chance have 
we got?’”

He uses the phrase again to recall “the St Valentine’s Day massacre” – the SFA centenary international on 14 February, 1973 which finished Scotland 0, England 5. “I had a dodgy ankle but was desperate to play against the English, only the pitch was frozen. Peter Lorimer scored an incredible own goal and a colleague who shall remain nameless read the script and got himself off after two-nil. The next day the Daily Record dug out one of its war-sized headlines. Under the most horrible mugshots they could find of me, Bobby Clark, Eddie Colquhoun, George Graham and John O’Hare it read: ‘THESE MEN MUST GO!’ I was banished to the 
wilderness for a whole year.”

Not everyone understood Buchan. In the macho culture of the time some thought he wasn’t hard enough. “For instance, the Leeds United boys didn’t rate me,” he says. Buchan, though, didn’t need to garrotte a centre-forward to win the ball. He could do this – that word again – precisely. “Along with my books for Argentina I had the 
Daily Record. Terry Yorath, who’d moved to Coventry, was rating the Scottish squad. ‘Buchan is a good reader of the game,’ he said, ‘but I’d worry about him if the going gets tough’. When I got to our hotel I sent him a postcard and can still remember the Coventry address in King Richard
Street: ‘Dear Terry, greetings from my second World Cup. Hope the going doesn’t get too tough. Yours in sport, Martin’.”

Buchan is from a football dynasty. Along with his dad, his younger brother George wore Aberdeen’s red, as did son Jamie. Our man’s debut came in October 1966, aged 17. “In my first four games I had to mark the clever 5ft 6ins inside-forward that every Scottish club had at that time: Alex Edwards, Pat Quinn, Jim McLean (moanin’ bugger) and Davie Sneddon.”

These displays got him on the plane for a summer tour of America where the Dons were based in Washington. With that enquiring mind he wanted to see the White House and was accompanied by another youngster, Ian 
Taylor, for an excursion on foot. “We had a favourite cafe where the lovely waitress always served apple pie a la mode. She told us we’d been walking through the most violent neighbourhood and were lucky to be alive.”

Buchan thrilled to performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Dionne Warwick, the Platters and others and returned home with a suitcase bulging with 35 elpees.

He started out scared of Turnbull. “Eddie had served on the Atlantic Convoys; he was a hard, hard man and he’d come to sort out Aberdeen. The club was a holiday camp for older players from the Central Belt. Within two months he’d got rid of 17. One guy was sent from the training field because he couldn’t take a corner. When he came out of the shower Eddie was waiting for him. ‘The secretary’s got your wages,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to see you again.’

“But Eddie was a fantastic coach. He’d walk us through situations in games until everything became second nature. Average players won under-23 caps through what they learned from him. When I left Aberdeen I could have gone to any team in the world and played in any system, thanks to the master.”

Buchan enthuses about his dandy Dons. Yes, he was different – studious, short, back and sides, not a fan of all that way-out psychedelia – but Robb was a force of nature and Joe Harper the master marksman. And they won the cup.

“A couple of weeks before the final against Celtic we played them at Parkhead when they were going for the title. Eddie delivered his team talk only to charge back into the dressing-room and shut the door. He said: ‘I’ve just seen a f****n’ crate of champagne being delivered next door. Are Celtic going to celebrate at our expense? My f****n’ arse they are!’ We won that game and when it came to the final with Eddie wishing us good luck George Murray called him back: ‘Hey boss – give us your Parkhead speech again!’ Everyone laughed. We’d no 
reason to feel inferior but that sent us into the match nice and relaxed.”

Aberdeen might have won the league themselves the following season but a fire in Pittodrie’s main stand hampered their efforts. “Legend has it I was sold because the club weren’t insured.”

Alongside Celtic’s equally cultured George Connelly, he’d wowed watching English managers by taming Kevin Keegan and Malcolm McDonald in an under-23 international on the gluepot that was Derby County’s Baseball Ground. Leeds and Liverpool wanted him but in he chose Man U.

Buchan bought his parents a telephone so they could keep in touch and strode into Old Trafford, trademark unflappability to the fore. “I wasn’t daunted. Aye, Bobby [Charlton], Denis [Law] and George [Best] were still there. Bobby was still very fit but Denis’ knees had gone and George would often go missing. There was Miss England, Miss World Miss UK! When he turned up, though, he was the greatest player I ever saw. But alongside the three legends there were lads who seriously wouldn’t have got a game for Aberdeen reserves.” Another chuckle. “Maybe I was daunted by the haircuts. Quite a few at United had the Bestie style. I tried for an Elvis look and got myself some sideboards but maybe my hair ended up like a 
German helmet.”

Buchan was signed by Frank O’Farrell who’d impressed Buchan on TV with his “honesty”, a trait he admired. But O’Farrell, who’d had to follow the great Matt Busby, was soon gone and Buchan was then reunited with Docherty. United were high glamour, for sure, but this was still the 1970s. Instead of the megastores of today there was a modest souvenir shop housed in a room across the hall from the ticket office. And when Buchan told the Doc that Aberdeen had just released his brother, the boss said: “George is nippy, isn’t he? Get him down – I’ll give him a year.” Buchan had to ask: “Have you been drinking, 
gaffer?”

But United would be relegated, Law scoring against his old team for Manchester City with a fateful back-heel. “I’ll never forget the look on Denis’ face,” says Buchan. Then 
Stuart Pearson, Steve Coppell and Gordon Hill formed a new trident and United revived with exuberance and flair, though Buchan as captain was moved to clip Hill round the lug for neglecting defensive cover. Three times in a row United reached the 
FA Cup final, triumphing in 1977. “How appropriate,” remarked John Motson in commentary, “that a man called Buchan climbs the 39 steps to collect the trophy”.

“The literary reference would have gone over the heads of most of the audience,” says the skipper, although you just know it wasn’t lost on him.

Was Buchan, who’d contemplated a career in architecture, too bright for football dressing rooms? He says not, although there would be fallouts with Ormond and Ally MacLeod, both times when he accused the Scotland bosses of going back on their word. The damage would be repaired and Buchan was soon finessing the art of the interception again. “I was proud of never being sent off and only booked five times.”

For his mother Violet, however, that was five times too many and she’d use that telephone to reprimand her laddie. “She read about every booking in Aberdeen’s sports final. ‘Oh dear, what have you been up to, Martin?’ I was made to feel like I’d brought disgrace on the family!”

Time for one more yarn and maybe it’ll inspire Scotland tomorrow. “There’s an overlap!” exclaimed Archie Macpherson as Buchan sped down the wing at Anfield against Wales to float over that beautiful cross for Kenny Dalglish to send us to Argentina.

“Ally told me later he was screaming at me to take the ball into the 
corner to waste time but I couldn’t hear him.”

Instead he remembered 
Turnbull’s advice. “He told me if I ever saw that much green to get on my bike. And if you remember, I 
congratulated Kenny with a firm handshake before jogging back!”

Buchan at his most precise and sensible. Also his most brilliant and unforgettable.