Interview: Alfie Conn on crossing Old Firm divide

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Cavalier footballer took playing for both Rangers and Celtic in his stride

I know, I go on about hair a lot - the length of it, the unruliness of it, the fingers-in-an-electrical-socket freakery of it, but maybe this will be the last time because finally I’m to meet Scotland’s greatest. Think Louis XIV and the barnets which were kicking about in his day. Imagine Deep Purple as the houseband for the king’s court. And then visualise Alfie Conn striding in, casually flicking his gigantic tresses and scattering everyone like skittles.

Alfie Conn says he has little to do with football these days, but his career was a colourful one. Picture: John Devlin

Alfie Conn says he has little to do with football these days, but his career was a colourful one. Picture: John Devlin

He suggests the motorway services at Harthill for our morning rendezvous, on his way home to Coatbridge from the nightshift as a warehouseman in Livingston to babysit for two of his three grandchildren. At 62 Conn likes the quiet life now but back in the day it was thunderous.

For those thinking that Celtic and Rangers in the League Cup tomorrow might be a wee bit intense, here’s some perspective: in 1968 when Conn arrived at Ibrox, a 16-year-old without the required smart suit, 78,197 witnessed the first Old Firm game of the season, with 70,153 re-convening for the next one just a few days later. This was the League Cup when it was played in sections and the following season the grizzled foes were again paired together, total crowd for the two ties: 140,829. In the next campaign, same competition, there was an Old Firm final, with Conn helping Rangers to victory in front of 106,263.

And then when he’d had his fill of that – swanning off to Tottenham where he could really let his hair down, growing it a length that would have caused Ibrox overlord Willie Waddell to spontaneously combust – he came back to Glasgow and did it all over again, this time for Celtic. Some never forgave the defection.

“I don’t have much to do with football now,” he says, “because I got fed up being asked the same question: ‘Why did you sign for them?’ I even got it off fans who were too young to have ever seen me play. One time at Ibrox a few years ago I was having a smoke when this bloke approached me. I could usually spot them and the way this guy was walking I knew he had something he wanted to get off his chest. “What are you doin’ here?’ he said. ‘Sorry?’ I said. ‘I thought you’d be hiding in the same cave as Osama bin Laden.’ Fair play, though: that was quite funny.”

What hair Conn has left has turned grey. Cradling his coffee while the snow blows outside, he speaks softly, but not without humour of his own.

“I’ve got a great old photo from an Old Firm game,” he says. “The teams are running out of the tunnel and all the Celtic boys have nice short-back-and-sides. Then there us: Greigy [John Greig], Doddie [Alex MacDonald] and me, all with the massive sideboards. You grew your sideys big to make up for the Rangers rule of not being allowed to have your hair touching your shirt collar. Bloody hell, we look like Planet of the Apes.”

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If you’re too young to have ever seen him play or weren’t paying attention, Alfred James Conn was a cavalier footballer with the bangs to match, an inside-forward of considerable swagger and swerve and a hero of Rangers’ triumph in Barcelona who at Spurs got given a great honour: Alan Gilzean’s old song. But of course he wasn’t just the hair apparent but the heir apparent too.

Conn was six when his dad Alfie Sr stopped playing for Hearts and the Terrible Trio were no more. “I never saw him play, which I regret, but he did take me to Tynecastle as a wee boy and we had a kickabout. And wherever we went folk would say hello or shake his hand so I knew he was pretty famous. I was very proud of Dad and to this day will tell people how these three guys scored almost 1000 goals for their club.

“Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh were often round the house. The three of them were great friends and golfed together at Ratho Park. Then, after a spell with Raith Rovers, Dad got the chance to play in South Africa. We had a furniture clearance to sell up everything. We had a going-away party and I remember sitting on the stairs of the house when Dave Mackay gave me a ten-bob note and told me to spend it on sweeties. But the move fell through.”

The old man taught him the finer arts with a tennis ball. “That was how he practised his cannonball shot, scudding it off a wall. Hitting a small ball gave him control and timing. My shot was never as strong as his – I didn’t have his muckle thighs – but he got me to trap and dribble with the tennis ball. ‘After this,’ he said, ‘the big one’s easy’.”

Interestingly, young Conn liked rugby, too. “I loved the physical contact,” he says, and maybe this stood him in good stead for the Old Firm stramash. He was stand-off for his Prestonpans school on Saturday mornings, playing juvenile football in the afternoons. On public parks he’d battle for midfield supremacy with Alex Cropley, although the best of his generation never made it: “Jackie Murphy, every club in Britain wanted him, but he was knocked down and killed by a police car.” Conn trained with Hearts alongside Willie Bauld Jr and Hibs and actually signed an S-form with Leeds United after Don Revie was persuaded by his scout to visit these muddy parks and see the lad play. But only one club interested him.

“Dad was friendly with [Rangers’] Jimmy Millar who’d arranged for me to see round Ibrox. I’d been inside Tynecastle of course but Ibrox blew me away. Even though I’d signed with Leeds, when I came home and [Gers manager] Scot Symon was parked outside I was thrilled. Dad phoned Don and persuaded him to tear up the contract so I won’t hear a bad word said against the man. My father had wanted me to get an education but I’m afraid Rangers put an end to that.”

The debut came at 16, a substitute for Alex Ferguson. Afterwards it was upstairs to the offices to be properly welcomed, Sandy Jardine emphasising that Symon should be addressed as “Sir” before pointing Conn in the direction of a good tailor. When Alfie Sr moved the family to Kinghorn, the young buck joined the Fife contingent of Andy Penman and the Willies, Johnston and Mathieson, for the train journeys west.

“Sir” or not, it didn’t take our man long to stand up to authority. Symon had given way to Waddell and right after that 1970 League Cup triumph, Conn knocked on the boss’s door to suggest that having been a regular all year he maybe merited more than £15 a week. After a long pause, “The Deedle” peered over his specs and said: “You’re right. I’ll put you up to 17.” “I actually walked out. This was a man who’d have sent me all the way back to Fife if I’d turned up for training without a tie and there was me, aged 18, telling him: ‘Phone me when you come up with a better offer’.” So the pattern was set: Conn would forever fall out with his managers. “I couldn’t keep my mouth shut,” he smiles. Nearly all of his sendings off, nine in total he thinks, were for “lip”.

Conn loved the Old Firm tumult. “Just a wall of noise. You couldn’t hear your team-mates.” You couldn’t hear Bertie Auld’s wisecracks, but wasn’t he daunted coming up against Lisbon Lions? “No. They were great players but at that age I was pretty fearless. I just wanted a game of football.”

The Celtic matches were tough, of course, and Conn has little time for the play-acting and powder-puffery of football now. The modern player wouldn’t have lasted long in his games or even his training sessions: “You got kit on a Monday which was never washed all week, even if you’d trained in four mudbaths in succession. By the Friday the socks could be so caked they’d clunk when you hit them off the benches.” But the rivals in green and blue were great friends, sometimes faking the aggro for the theatre of it all. “Two guys jabbing fingers at each other could have been discussing where to go for a drink afterwards, for all the crowd knew.” Conn’s boozing buddies included Jimmy Johnstone and Dixie Deans. “The banter was terrific. Any player back then who claimed they didn’t enjoy Old Firm games must have been lying.”

Conn won only four against Celtic as a Ranger but two brought trophies. The win bonus for the League Cup was £500 and three years later the team got £750 each for the Scottish Cup triumph courtesy of Tom Forsyth’s piledriver from three and a half inches. “Has there ever been a better Old Firm match than that?” wonders Conn, who also scored. So what was the bonus for Cup Winners’ Cup immortality? “I’m not saying, but it got me a brand-new Cortina GT.” Conn didn’t expect to make the team for Dynamo Moscow. “I’d phoned home the night before and Dad told me he’d heard on the news that Andy Penman was in. When The Deedle read out my name at the pre-match meal I had to run off to be sick.”

That team was quickly broken up as Jock Wallace took charge. “Jock and I clashed. He said I wasn’t a midfield player and put me up front. Then he replaced me with Ally Scott.” Conn knew his number was up and Rangers cashed in. “Susan and I had just got married six weeks before. The Rangers team were at the wedding along with Kenny Dalglish and Marina. We’d bought a house in Kirkcaldy and gutted it. Then suddenly we were off to London.”

Waddell refused to do business with Tommy Docherty at Manchester United and so it was Spurs, only for Bill Nicholson to quit. Terry Neill was another who liked to see as much perspiration as inspiration from his midfield, maybe more, and Conn languished in the reserves until Pat Jennings and Cyril Knowles pleaded his case for a start. It came against Newcastle United, he scored a hat-trick and the fans right away hailed King Conn. “Born is the king of White Hart Lane,” they sang, following the abdication of Gilzean.

The hair got longer, the dribbles got longer and Spurs’ stay in the old First Division got longer, Conn becoming a trump card in the club’s relegation fight and even having the nerve to sit on the ball in the crucial game against Leeds. “We were three-nil up. Billy Bremner said: ‘You’ve just antagonised us.’ They scored two, but we hung on. Afterwards I went into their dressing-room to apologise.”

Free from the scrutiny of the Ibrox style police, the shirt billowed free and the socks dropped to the ankles. But he laughs at the idea his hairstyle was somehow iconic. “Well, I do remember a letter from a woman in the London Evening Standard: ‘He’s a nice footballer but the hair is quite the scruffiest I’ve seen.’” The Conns loved London and fell in with a psychedelic jazz-rock combo. “The Tony Evans Association. A cousin of mine was married to the main man. We’d go and see them play the Talk of the Town. Once on Susan’s birthday Tony took us to a swanky place called the 21 Club and he paid, thankfully. It was four weeks’ wages just for the prawns.” His flair-packed form brought him a couple of Scotland caps, unfortunately including the 5-1 thrashing by England at Wembley in 1975, but injury disrupted his Tottenham pomp. “For my medical the club doctor was on holiday and I was seen by his brother. The doc told me later I never should have passed.”

His career would wind down in Pittsburgh, his father’s beloved Hearts and Motherwell, but before then: sen-sation! “It kept the world talking, didn’t it?” he says of signing for Celtic that would bring him a couple of championship medals and another Scottish Cup, beating – who else? – Rangers in the final. Maybe he was naive, but he couldn’t believe all the fuss and bother.

“Religion-wise, I’m neither one thing or the other. I made a pure football decision to go to Celtic. I didn’t want to leave Rangers, don’t forget. Jock Wallace didn’t want me and I was playing for Spurs reserves when Jock Stein came to watch me. It was a no-brainer. He was the best, bar none. Who wouldn’t have wanted to play for Big Jock? He asked the players if they thought he should sign me and apparently they told him to go for it.”

Conn slurps the last of his coffee. The snow is heavier now and he must get back for the grandkids. “I don’t like talking about that time because there was a lot of hassle for my family and me.” More in hope, so that we might remember that tomorrow is only another game of football, I ask him if his bestriding of the great divide produced any funny moments.

“Oh aye, there were a few of them. Before leaving London I did an interview with a paper. I remember the last line: ‘And even his dog is called blue.’ That didn’t do me any favours but the name came from The High Chaparral. My old English sheepdog was a dead-ringer for the cowboy known as Blue. Nothing to do with Rangers.

“And then there was my first Old Firm game playing for Celtic. There was a mini-riot, a pitch invasion. The Rangers fans sang ‘Alfie’s a barrel, Alfie’s a barrel of you-know-what.’ The match finished 2-2, honours even, although I hit a post and the Celtic fans accused me of doing it deliberately. Sometimes you cannae please anyone.”