Frank McGarvey on Celtic, St Mirren and Scotland

Frank McGarvey signing for Celtic football team in March 1980

Frank McGarvey signing for Celtic football team in March 1980

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FRANK McGarvey suggests we meet for a chat and a bite to eat in Coia’s Italian restaurant in Duke Street, and I say that’s fine, because I’m going to the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome first and it’s only five minutes away on London Road. And at that, although we’re only on the phone, his enthusiasm is so genuine that you can visualise his ears pricking up.

“The velodrome? The new one? I’d love to see that. Are you having a tour?”

Former Celtic and St Mirren man Frank McGarvery. Picture: Greg Macvean

Former Celtic and St Mirren man Frank McGarvery. Picture: Greg Macvean

Well, maybe a tour, but really a try-out of the track with a few other journalists.

“Can I come too? Seriously. I cycled everywhere when I was a boy, and I’m still a keen cyclist. And I’m from the East End of Glasgow myself, so I’m really interested in all the redevelopment that’s going on there. And anyway, I used to work just across the road.”

He did indeed – “just across the road” being Celtic Park, where the striker enjoyed the best years of his career. And so, after a quick phone call to the obliging people at British Cycling, it is agreed that Frank should come too, to try out the track and help publicise the message that it is for the whole community to use, not just for elite cyclists like the man after whom it is named.

The rest of us turn up in our civvies and are provided with the proper cycling gear by the organisers, but Frank, being, as he said, a keen cyclist, comes dressed for the part in his own kit. He’s a keen tennis player too, hence the plasters on both knees, the result of a nasty on-court fall the previous day.

Diego Maradona advances as Frank McGarvey looks on. Picture: SNS

Diego Maradona advances as Frank McGarvey looks on. Picture: SNS

He’s 56 now, and almost two full decades have elapsed since his last professional game, but he’s still pretty fit. In fact, although double the age of a couple of the others in our small group, he’s the most proficient cyclist of us all. The steep banks of a velodrome are a novelty, road cycling being his thing, but 20 minutes is all it takes for him to start flying round the 250-metre circuit.

Afterwards, though, once we’ve changed and gone down to Coia’s for lunch, he looks a wee bit disappointed. “I asked the coach to time me for a lap,” he explains, smiling. “He said I took 22 seconds, and I thought that was amazing. I thought the world record would be 21 seconds or something, so I asked him, and he said it was about 12 seconds.”

He’s only being half-serious when he says he thought he was close to the world record, but it’s a sign of his confidence nonetheless, and of his readiness to embrace new experiences. He’s working as a joiner again these days, having completed his apprenticeship back in the 1970s on the advice of Alex Ferguson, who was his manager at St Mirren, his first senior club, who host Celtic in Paisley today. But in his spare time he is very active, and interested not only in sport, but also in the state of the nation.

Brought up in Easterhouse, McGarvey went to school in Dennistoun, so has a personal stake in the transformation of the East End which is taking place in preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He knows that new jobs, new housing and new leisure facilities are much needed, but he doesn’t think that everything is an improvement on the old days. Far from it.

“When I was young there were two things you could do in the East End,” he says. “Play football and cycle. There wasn’t a lot to do in the house. There were no computers. You had TV, but black and white, and you only saw a game on it now and again. All the boys played football, and a lot of people had bikes, because they were affordable. There were no overweight children in my school. I don’t remember any.

“And when I see children now I get dismayed about it, because they’re sitting in playing computers, and they’re going to McDonald’s. And these computers can be very addictive, so you’ve got a culture now where children sit in the house and don’t exercise. So a place like the velodrome is amazing for me, and it’s going to be fantastic for Scotland. Not just for Glasgow, because it’s very accessible from a lot of other places. I think the next couple of years is going to be a very exciting time to be living in Scotland.”

By that he doesn’t just mean the Commonwealth Games either. He has never been a member of a political party, but takes a keen interest in politics, and sees the forthcoming referendum on independence as a chance for the people of Scotland to exercise greater control over our own lives.

“I will vote yes for a lot of reasons,” he says. “But one particular reason is so Scotland will not be governed by the Westminster government. I would say that’s 60 per cent why I would vote yes.

“They make decisions that I don’t want. They went to war – I didn’t want to go to war. It dismays me every day when I hear of Scottish people coming back fromAfghanistan in a coffin.

“I like the people in England – Liverpool, Devon, Newcastle, wherever. I like all these people and I’ll always be friendly with them. It’s not an anti-English thing at all.

“I feel that Scotland is a compassionate country that cares for the sick and the old, and I want to be a part of that. I think the SNP have done a fantastic job. I don’t mind paying tax so old people can get free prescriptions.

“But I feel the lack of confidence over a future Scotland, especially in Glasgow, is amazing. Glasgow people are confident people, and yet when we want our own country we’re not confident about it.”

I ask if that is because independence represents a leap in the dark, but he thinks not. “I don’t think it would be a leap in the dark at all. I think it would be a leap into the light.”

His autobiography, published in 2008, was called Totally Frank, and you can tell why. What you see is what you get: he is open and honest and energetic, and willing to exchange opinions with anyone.

Needless to say, as well as having his views on the state of the Scottish body politic, he has also thought a lot about the parlous state of our national game. It would be a mistake, he thinks, to scapegoat the manager. Instead, we have to look at why we are not producing players of the quality we once did.

“Everybody played football when I was growing up, and that’s why we had great players,” says McGarvey, who won seven caps between 1979 and ’84. “We’re always going to have children who could become great players, but are they going to play football or play with their computers?

“We’ve got to get a foundation back into Scottish football. There were good foundations in the past, and one of the main ones was schools football. If your school got to a final all the pupils would turn out to support their team.

“And amateur football – there used to be thousands of teams, and amateur finals would be played at Hampden. Now they’d rather have a pop concert at Hampden.

“We need championships of Scotland for the different schools age groups, and play the finals at Hampden. And I wouldn’t let any professional team come near a player until he was 16. And you don’t tell any player he’s not good enough before he’s 16.

“If you don’t get a good foundation, the building will fall down. That’s exactly what’s happening just now.

“Craig Levein might be sacked in the next few days, but I think he should be kept on for another four years. We need continuity. You can only be a great manager if you’ve got great players. I think the players are giving 100 per cent for him, but we had much better players in the 1970s and ’80s, so we had much better teams.

“We’ve got to look at the bigger picture, and the Scotland fans have got to get a bit of realism. We’re not producing the same quality of players just now.

“Some people want change, but by changing the manager you don’t get to the heart of the problem. Bring Gordon Strachan in? If Strachan could improve that team he’d be a genius.”

McGarvey was fortunate enough in his playing career to be managed by two or three men who might merit that term. There was Jock Stein, who gave him his Scotland caps. Liverpool boss Bob Paisley, even if he didn’t give the Scot one game for his first team. And of course Ferguson, who transformed Paisley through sheer force of personality when he was St Mirren manager.

“I didn’t realise it at the time, but Alex Ferguson was probably the best manager in the world. Maybe some of the players hated him, but all of us respected him.

“And I didn’t even mind when we were in the dressing-room and he used to throw cups or glasses just above our heads. You knew he wasn’t trying to hit you, but hit the wall just behind you, and his aim was so good that you didn’t have to worry – I don’t know what happened that time with David Beckham.

“The only thing was that it would smash behind you and you’d get these little bits of glass in your hair. Then I’d go back out and head a ball, and the glass would get embedded in my scalp and make me bleed. So once that had happened a couple of times I used to go through my hair with a pair of tweezers trying to find all these wee bits of glass.”

If Fergie’s flying glassware was a periodic hazard to McGarvey’s health back in the Seventies, these days the threat comes from those same creature comforts that have caused our child obesity epidemic. “I enjoy my football and I’ve got all my Sky channels. I’ve got enough sport to watch right through the winter, and I’ve got a nice warm room to watch it in.”

If he stayed in there until spring, he would lose his svelte figure, but there’s little or no chance of someone so active slumping into such a state of semi-hibernation.

Not when he’s got tennis partners to play with and a bike to get out on. And a one-lap personal best of 22 seconds to beat at the velodrome.

• For more information about how to book sessions at the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome, go to

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