Hamish McAlpine on Celtic, United, and that song

Former Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine at his home in Cupar Angus. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Former Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine at his home in Cupar Angus. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT IS Spring, so of course the mist is lying heavily across the Sidlaw hills and flakes of snow are beginning to fall again in the chill evening air. And there, smiling and beckoning you into the warmth of his home in Newtyle, is a familiar-looking figure.

Up at Tannadice

Framed in woodwork, cool as ice

And keeping out the wolves in his particular way

A smile and a wave

A miraculous save, they say

Out runs Hamish and the ball’s in Invergowrie Bay.

- Hamish (the Goalie), by Michael Marra

Hamish McAlpine is standing within the wooden frame of his front door, rather than a set of old goalposts, the way it once was. Behind him is the not inconsiderable obstacle of Kinpurnie hill, on which sits an unfinished observatory, overlooking Dundee, and beyond. Had this observatory, the building of which began back in the 18th century, ever been completed it might once have been ­possible to observe the trajectory of balls spinning out of Tannadice and arcing across the Dundee skyline towards ­Invergowrie Bay, as the song has it.

“Ach dinnae be stupid,” McAlpine ­gently admonishes his guest. “Invergowrie Bay is miles from Tannadice.”

Another of the great myths attached to McAlpine is that he once booted a ball out of ­Tannadice and into nearby Dens Park. “Never even tried it”, he says now.

I am preparing for the vague memory I have of McAlpine turning out for Celtic, who face his former club Dundee United tomorrow in a Scottish Cup semi-final, to be kicked, if not quite into Invergowrie Bay, then firmly into touch. But, no.

This one he is happy to confirm, even though Wikipedia, while carrying ­mention of his outings for the Rossie ­Priory cricket side, contains no trace of this Celtic connection. After Dundee United, he left for a ­near-two season spell at Raith Rovers, where he won ­promotion from the ­Second Division to the First Division in his first season.

“I stopped about a month before the end of the season,” he recalls. “I thought, right, I am just going to pack it in. I was doing nothing. Then I got a phone call. ‘Can you come to Switzerland, where Celtic are on tour?’”

Pat Bonner had hurt himself ­playing in the European Championships in Germany, and his understudy, Andy Murdoch, was also injured, while Allen McKnight had departed. “They did not have anyone,” continues McAlpine. “So I got a flight over and played four or five games. Billy McNeill was manager and Tommy Craig was assistant. I had not done anything for three months when I got the call. They said don’t worry about that. Tommy Craig asked me what would I think if I got the chance to sign, and I said, ‘what do you think?’”

McAlpine, who had turned 40 at the start of the year, told him he would jump at the chance. It would have been some swansong. “But big Billy went and got Roughie, who was playing in the States at the time – he was a bit younger than me,” he says. In actual fact Ian Andrews was signed before Alan Rough, but the Englishman endured an horrific afternoon in an Old Firm derby, conceding five goals. And so McNeill turned to Rough.

“I got a signed top at the end of the tour,” recalls McAlpine. “The boys signed an actual strip for me, an outfield jersey. It is in the attic with the rest of the crap.”

Would he have liked to have signed and be given the No 1 shirt at the start of the season, as Celtic sought to defend the title they won in 1988, in the club’s centenary season? “I have never thought about it,” he shrugs. “I suppose it would have been nice. I just went to play for Arbroath, then chucked it after a few months.”

He doesn’t recall exactly why he hung up the gloves, or indeed when. So after 20 years as a professional footballer, you can’t remember which team you played your last game against? “No,” McAlpine replies, and it’s possible to ­believe him. There is little in his house to suggest that a footballer lives in it. “There was a picture out there in the hall of me and Danny McGrain at the 100th Scottish Cup final. But I don’t think it’s there now,” he admits. That’s not to say he didn’t enjoy being a footballer. He loved it. And when he began to not love it quite so much, he promptly stopped, and ran a bar at the bottom of the Hilltown in Dundee, called, inevitably, The Goalie.

When he played, his enthusiasm was infectious, his eccentricities legend.

He didn’t need to be asked twice to leave his goal-line, rushing to the edge of his box to close down angles, to clear balls from the toes of opposition strikers and, on ­occasion, scampering all the way up to the other box to take penalties, and, sometimes, scampering all the way back again after having missed.

“Oh God aye, I missed a few – probably as many as I scored,” he says. “I missed one against Celtic, one against Rangers, I missed two against Ayr United in the same game, scored off the rebound with one of them, mind.”

He used to send Jim McLean into a frenzy, not that this was difficult. In his autobiography, Jousting with Giants, McLean writes that McAlpine was the one player who forced him to re-think his entire philosophy on the game. The manager once sent him back from the other side of the world to Dundee ­because he disobeyed orders during a game against a Japanese Select XI.

McAlpine felt that his natural ability would be hindered from trying to iron out mistakes by going over them again and again, the way the manager wanted him to do.

“Wee Jim probably thought I did not care enough, because I did not like doing the goalkeeping stuff so much in training, and preferred to play out-field,” he says. “He always thought I had to practice. I had to do this, I had to do that. I ruined his thoughts on it. It was the way I was.

“He learned to accept it. Eventually, he did not have me doing goalkeeping stuff all the time, he let me get on with what I wanted to do.

“He saw that what I was saying was right. I kept saying: ‘if you highlight your mistakes, you start to think about them too much’. Your mistakes cannot be hammered into you all the time.

“I did kind of ruin his footballing ­philosophy,” he smiles. “I am kind of glad he came round to my way of thinking.”

I remember the time it was an evening game

A European tie in the howling rain

Gus Foy pointed to the side of the goal

And said there’s Grace Kelly by Taylor Brothers Coal

At Tannadice

These days McAlpine sells kitchens, which seems a far cry from the romance conjured up by the memory of Grace Kelly sitting in the stand at Tannadice, when AS Monaco, along with Prince Rainier and his glamorous actress wife, travelled to Dundee for a Uefa Cup tie in 1981.

Although McAlpine is a ­determinedly unsentimental soul – “you get on with life, eh”, he says on more than one ­occasion – you sense there is a part of him that secretly craves to be back there, in the midst of those European clashes against the best the continent had to offer, with Hollywood aristocracy ­looking on. Who wouldn’t?

When he drives between the factories of the firm he works for now, from one side of Dundee to the other, McAlpine takes the route past the city’s two senior football grounds, even though it makes the journey a little longer. “I always go down that way, I never go down the Cleppy Road. Instead, I drive down by the stadiums. It is just habit. It was the way I always go and always come back that way.

“There are still some memory flashes, especially when the derby games come around, so this year has been good.

“You still see the reporters you know going in and out the grounds. You always get a wave.”

Recent weeks have seen the memories flood back more readily than ever. It’s 30 years next month since United claimed their one and so far only Scottish league championship. It’s 30 years next weekend since a 3-2 victory against Celtic at Parkhead counted as a serious statement of intent – they went top three days later for the first time in the season, after beating Kilmarnock 4-0. They then won each of their final three games, ­including the deciding one at Dens Park, against local rivals Dundee.

“I couldn’t tell you the run in, though I could of course tell you we had Dundee in the last one,” says McAlpine. “It was funny the way it happened, we seemed to win all our stuff at Dens. We had a good record there – most of the time, at least. There was one horrible one when we got beat 6-4 and I had a stinker.”

The title win was achieved with a core of 12 players, the majority of whom came from Dundee and its environs.

McAlpine himself is from near Inchture. Ian, his father, played for Dundee but then had his career disrupted by the Second World War. McAlpine grew up watching the clubs on both sides of the city’s great football divide, though back then it was not such a great divide.

After all, 21 years before he collected his own championship medal, he was in the crowd at Muirton Park when Dundee won their only Scottish championship title. “It was not just myself,” he says. “There were a lot of people from the Carse of Gowrie who would go and watch both teams.

“I played football for the school in the morning and then would go to either ground in the afternoon, whoever were playing at home,” he says.

Surprisingly, given that his father was a centre-forward and considering his own penchant for straying up-field, McAlpine was always a goalkeeper, although there was an element of fate involved. “We played against Invergowrie school, when I was in primary,” he recalls. “Everyone had a turn in goal. Everytime someone let in three goals, they would change the goalie. It just so happened that it was my turn and they took quite a while to score three goals against me.”

A shadow fell upon the 65-year-old’s seemingly blessed existence at the end of August, just a week after he returned to the public’s consciousness when working as a television analyst at the first Dundee league derby of the season.

Many had remarked how well he looked on that occasion, but then, seven days later, and while cutting the seemingly never-ending hedge that marks the perimeter of his large back garden, he felt a pain in his throat, one that eventually spread elsewhere. “The pain came into my chest,” McAlpine, whose father died of a heart attack, recalls. “Oh-oh, I have a problem here, I thought.”

He was driven to hospital by his wife, Alison. After the insertion of a stent, the pain was gone again in half an hour. Happily, the quick response means McAlpine can join his former team-mates next month, as they mark the 30th anniversary of United’s title win at a dinner. Just six weeks after McAlpine’s own heart attack episode, Michael Marra, the composer of Hamish (the Goalie), died at the age of just 60, following illness.

For many Dundonians, the sense of loss felt as though they had woken to find one of the Tay bridges had ­disappeared in the dead of night. The singer-songwriter was a local landmark, although not so well known is that Marra and McAlpine, the author and subject of the greatest football song ever written, ended up living within a few hundred yards of each other, in Newtyle of all places. McAlpine moved deeper into the Angus countryside nearly 20 years ago, to be nearer Alyth golf club.

McAlpine is a former captain there but his son, Kevin, is a yet more accomplished player and is in North America, trying to qualify for the Canadian tour.

Before they reunited in Newtyle, Marra was asked to write a song about McAlpine for the goalkeeper’s testimonial year. Forget World in Motion, Hamish (the Goalie) reaches parts other songs purporting to be about football just cannot reach. You can smell the Woodbine cigarette smoke in the air, feel the surge of the crowd, and imagine the ­players’ too-short shorts. “Those were the days when shorts were short and hair was long – now shorts are long and hair is short, I hate these long shorts,” says McAlpine.

He recently found a pair of Scotland shorts in his attic – McAlpine earned five caps as an overage player for the Under- 21 side. “I was knocking about in them, doing the gardening. They were a bit too short right enough. A bit obscene.”

McAlpine couldn’t attend Marra’s ­funeral, but has several copies of the Hamish single in that attic upstairs. “When I had the pub, we had a jukebox,” he recalls. “And the girls in the pub used to put it on. They used to annoy the ­backside off me, they used to play it all the time. ‘Get that bloody thing off!’

“I loved it really and it’ll never go away. In fact, it might get played at my funeral.”

Hopefully that is a long way off yet. A Champions League clash is on the ­television in the corner but McAlpine isn’t too concerned about watching. “I’ve been there, done it,” he smiles. There are not too many Scottish footballers sitting in their front rooms who can afford to be so dismissive, even in jest.

It is, after all, only the quarter-finals. McAlpine played when United had a foot in the European Cup final after a 2-0 win in the first leg of their semi-final first-leg tie against AS Roma.

This lead was ­overhauled in the return leg, on a wild afternoon in Rome, thus robbing the competition of the delicious spectacle of some magnificent moustache-on-moustache action in the final – McAlpine versus Bruce Grobbelaar, Hamish the Goalie versus the Clown Prince of ‘keepers. It is even possible that McAlpine could have been playing for Liverpool on that night in Rome, when the Anfield club won the European Cup for a fourth time. He had been given the chance to sign for Bill Shankly in the mid-Sixties. “I was 17 at the time, and Tommy Lawrence was on goal for them,” he recalls. “I asked my father what did he think. He said I was big enough and old enough to make my own mind up. He told me I had to stand and fall by my own decisions. I will ­always remember that.

“I had told United I’d sign before the Liverpool thing came up. So I said, I will sign for United – I had given my word already.”

So began an incredible, much-celebrated career. McAlpine shrugs, again: “It’s only a game”. You can almost hear the familiar, ­lyrical rasp of Marra floating in from across the way to complete the couplet from their song: “win, lose or draw, you get home to your bed just the same”.