Interview: Steve Murray, the cultured midfielder

Murray's painting of Gordon Wallace's winning goal in Dundee's 1-0 victory over Celtic in the League Cup final of 1973
Murray's painting of Gordon Wallace's winning goal in Dundee's 1-0 victory over Celtic in the League Cup final of 1973
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As a player with Celtic and Aberdeen, Steve Murray had his own way of doing things. Today, he’s still the same

Believe me, it isn’t terribly often when trying to track down a footballer from the old days that I’m directed to the “artist’s website”. I always thought of Steve Murray as a cultured midfielder when he starred with Aberdeen and Celtic, a man for painterly passages of play and fine-brush finishes, but when the image of a woman, dress falling off and flashing her buttocks, pops up it is something of a surprise.

Steve Murray during the Drybrough Cup final against Rangers at Hampden in 1974. Picture: SNS

Steve Murray during the Drybrough Cup final against Rangers at Hampden in 1974. Picture: SNS

Am I in the right place? Oh yes, because here’s a triptych inspired by the 1973 League Cup final with our man bidding for glory with Celtic, although that day the prize went to Murray’s first club, Dundee. The website reveals that he lives on Tayside and this is where I expect we’ll meet, perhaps with Murray in a spattered smock, mixing greys and browns to recreate the classic playing surface of 40 years ago, and with a beret atop that fine head of hair, which was always undisturbed by his endeavours on those mudheaps.

Instead, he’s 5,000 miles away in San Clemente, California, so we must talk via Skype. Murray appears in a T-shirt, sweating from the 84 degree heat. He doesn’t look 70, an impression enhanced when he mops his fevered brow, revealing a wrist crammed with bracelets and bangles. Murray seems right at home in this surfer’s paradise, headquarters of both The Surfer’s Journal and Longboard Magazine, and you can imagine him roaming the beach, looking for the perfect wave, to paint if not to ride. But, as he reveals, a sad event has brought him here.

“My wife died in January,” he explains. “Forty-five years Kathleen and I were together and she was my rock. We met at a student dance in Dundee. Some of the younger players who shared my digs wanted to go and as club captain I thought I’d better chaperone them. Well, that’s my story, anyway.

“She had lymphoma for about 12 years which we were able to manage but then she started suffering from dementia and went downhill badly. I lost her, mentally, about two years ago so, in a sense, it was better that she went when she did. Our twins boys, Nicholas and Anthony, are schoolteachers who coach kids’ football in their spare time and recently I was helping Tony with Dundee’s under-14s. Our other son, Chris, runs an academy in San Clemente, so now I’ve come over here to see if he needs a hand. I don’t know what’ll happen next. I’m just living moment by moment.”

Murray's painting of Jock Stein and Celtic celebrating their nine titles in a row from 1965 to 1974

Murray's painting of Jock Stein and Celtic celebrating their nine titles in a row from 1965 to 1974

With Celtic and Aberdeen engaged in a table-topping clash today, I thought Murray would make for an interesting subject, but didn’t realise just how interesting. Here’s an example: “Once with the Dons I came on a tour of the States. In Boston, while the rest of the guys were whooping it up, I was in the library, studying science through the Open University, and desperately trying to finish an essay on DNA.”

A painter. A thinker. A man of deep religious conviction who went to church every day. A footballer with very much his own way of doing things, who worked with three of our game’s greatest managers, Jock Stein, Eddie Turnbull and Jim McLean, and has stories to tell about them, good and bad. His own story, though, begins in Dumbarton when he wasn’t even the most famous Steve Murray in the family home.

“That was my dad’s name, too, and he played for the Sons. One of my most vivid childhood memories was of him letting me put on his shirt after a game at Boghead and it swamping me. He was a midfielder, too, and brilliant in the air.” The young Murray played all time, hoping he might come to be as good: “In the street, against a wall, play-time, after school until tea and every Friday night on the local cricket pitch until we got chased.”

The house revolved around sport with Murray’s mother, Liz, a competitive swimmer and champion badminton player. “Mum taught me badminton which I’m sure helped my football – honestly.” When he wasn’t cheering on Mum with his sister, Betty, he’d watch Clyde. “Dad didn’t want me going to Celtic games because of the sectarianism. I remember him coming with me – possibly to make sure I wasn’t sneaking off to Parkhead – when Clyde were playing Third Lanark. Thirds were a superb side with all the players complementing one another. Celtic might have had better individuals but Thirds were a proper team and that stuck with me. Their manager was Bob Shankly who’d lodged with Dad when they were at Falkirk together, so I was introduced to him that day, a good few years before he’d sign me for Dundee.”

Murray today

Murray today

Murray very nearly didn’t get that far, with his secondary school, St Patrick’s High, stunting his interest in football and drawing – the latter also inherited from his father, a draughtsman by trade. “The PE teacher was, I think, jealous of Dad who was a pretty big name in Dumbarton and this guy used to kick me. Because of that I decided I wouldn’t play for the school team. And the art teacher didn’t like Dad either for some reason and marked me so low for a still life compared to a pal who couldn’t paint for toffee that I gave it up.”

Thankfully, Jack Gilroy was on the staff, too. “He was a science teacher, but I never saw him in a classroom. He’d played for Forfar and got so involved with the school team that I think they changed his job. He got me in this wee gym for three-a-side games shooting at upturned benches and I went there every day until I left school. He organised outings to Scotland games, which were fantastic. He was my mentor and he taught me how to pass.”

St Patrick’s had a fine football tradition. Sir Alex Ferguson, once of Govan High, admitted in his memoirs that they were the one team his otherwise successful side feared. School-mates John O’Hare and Nicky Sharkey were talent-spotted for Sunderland but Murray wasn’t really contemplating a career in football.

“I didn’t think scouts were interested in me and only found out later that they were, but Jack had put them off, possibly so he could retain me as his captain! I certainly wanted to stay on at school for as long as possible, then study pharmacy at university. But, although I passed Chemistry and Maths, I failed English because I hadn’t read any fiction.” The teenaged Murray’s bible –when it wasn’t the Bible – was Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, further evidence of his highly individual nature.

Gilroy played a part in getting him his chance at Dens Park. “Maybe that was Jack making it up to me.” So was he daunted, at just 17, about suddenly finding himself on the same park as the European Cup semi-finalists? “No, not really. I’m a very serious person which is often misinterpreted. People think I’m shy but I’m not and, back then, nothing ever threw me.”

The 17-year-old Murray had to impress at a public trial, Blues vs Whites, and managed to lay on a goal for Alan Gilzean. “The local papers wrote me up quite well. My boots had split beforehand and Jack could only find me some hockey shoes so I was head to toe in white. The headlines were all about the ‘mystery trialist’ and the ‘white ghost’. That made me sound like a character from a comic.” Well, he was in the right town for that kind of approbation.

Murray’s Dundee were a decent side who twice got to Hampden only to lose to the Old Firm. Jim McLean was a team-mate and friend, although they’d fall out dramatically later. From there in 1970 it was on to Pittodrie. “Dundee had to sell a player for £50,000 every two years to balance the books and I was the guy who could get that.”

He knew Turnbull from coaching courses which Murray, somewhat precociously, had attended as a young player. The Aberdeen boss offered his hand to shake on the deal but Murray wanted it in writing and was prepared to walk away if this didn’t come – proof he wasn’t the soft touch his quiet manner might have suggested, as Bob Shankly had discovered when Murray insisted he was entitled to £29 a week like the rest of the team. Bobby Brown, the Scotland manager, was another who misread the player. “He told me I was in contention for a cap but that I’d have to ‘come out of my shell’. I was annoyed about that. ‘Do you want me to clown around like the rest of them?’ I said. ‘I’m a serious fellow, that’s the way I am’. As far as I could see, Scotland had quite enough practical jokers.”

Brown’s successor, Tommy Docherty, reckoned he was “not flamboyant enough”, and after that, with his family expanding and his studies getting more demanding, he asked not to be chosen by his country again. A shame, he admits. “The night of my only cap I had tears in my eyes.”

Murray was hugely impressed by Turnbull’s methods and the psychology involved. Ineligible for the Scottish Cup Aberdeen would win in 1970, he wondered why the boss kept playing him in league games leading up to Hampden, especially one at Parkhead against fellow finalists Celtic. “He said: ‘Because with you in the team we’ll win and that’ll give us a huge boost.’ And we did. Another example was how he handled Joe Harper and Jim Forrest when they both wanted to play centre-forward and refused to pass to each other. Eddie managed to move Jim out to the wing because he was fast, although he gave him the No 9 shirt. ‘See,’ he said, ‘Forrest thinks he’s centre-forward.’” You can’t imagine Turnbull being able to pull the wool over Murray’s eyes like that.

Murray has always liked how good teams are blended because stars who’re thrown together don’t always fit. The Third Lanark he saw as a boy were such a side, and he was part of careful assembly at both Dundee and Aberdeen. Even though he was the Dons’ record signing at £50,000, the headlines beyond the north-east were of the nature of “Steve who?” Quizzed on why he’d bought Murray, Turnbull tapped the side of his head and said: ‘Because he knows it.’

“I probably shouldn’t say this,” Murray continues, “but that Aberdeen team were more of an intelligent bunch. Bobby Clark was a qualified teacher and Martin Buchan was interested in languages.” Murray had his painting and the Open University; he always knew there was more to life, that he could do something else. But his Dons weren’t quite the perfect blend, being pipped at the post for the ’70-’71 championship. Maybe, jokes Murray, they were too cerebral with not enough rascals in the side.

Then Turnbull left for Hibernian; Murray was crestfallen. When the Pittodrie board were reluctant to agree to his novel idea that they pay him a bonus anytime crowds rose above the average gate of 7,500 he seriously considered what “something else” might be. “A Dons fan who worked in the science department at Dundee University said they would be keen to offer me a full-time post.” While pondering this he called a press conference – a fairly radical thing for a player to do – to explain why he’d be leaving Aberdeen come what may. “Then I got a phonecall from Jim Rodger, the journalist, who was a confidant of Jock Stein. At first I couldn’t understand him; he was speaking in code about the ‘Duke’ and the ‘Bishop’. “That was a great press conference,’ he said, ‘and don’t worry, the Duke is very interested.’ Then the penny dropped.”

Murray was thrilled to be joining Celtic and working with another terrific manager. “Jock told me I’d been signed on the strength of my performance for Scotland against Belgium [1971 Euros qualifier, 1-0 to us]. He said that game was the best Jimmy Johnstone had played for two years and that I could help him give Celtic two more. That was a compliment, I suppose.”

The Stein-Turnbull rivalry still fascinates, how did they compare to one who played for them both? “I thought Eddie was perfect and couldn’t be bettered but Jock was brilliant in his own way and he had an aura that Eddie didn’t have.” Murray got off to the best possible start in Hoops, netting the late clincher in an Old Firm game. “A friend who was a hairdresser back in Dumbarton told me: ‘I was listening on the radio and when you scored I snipped this boy’s head’.”

With Kenny Dalglish he developed an appreciation of each other’s movement that was almost telepathic. “We were able to find each other anywhere on the park.” Murray won a clean sweep of domestic honours with Celtic, producing cool left-foot finishes for both the Scottish and League Cups.

A toe injury ended his career two years later; he was devastated. “I couldn’t watch a game or read a match report for the year after that. There’s a big white wall round my house and painting it on Saturdays I always knew when it was three o’clock and would say to myself: ‘I should still be playing.’ But I got over it. Right from the start at Dundee I said a little prayer every night, hoping to get to the top in Scottish football. I did all right, I think.”

Murray, who’d demonstrated a sharp eye for numbers during wage negotiations, went into banking and did all right at that too before Jim McLean asked him to become his assistant at Dundee United. It was a mistake. “Jim could be difficult to get along with. I didn’t get bullied as a player but loads do and he was bad for it. I think we thought I had man-management skills which would counteract him not really having any but I was always having to put out his fires.” Then the pair had a big bust-up which resulted in Murray’s sacking, a court case and the ex-No 2 winning a £55,000 action.

“I was banned from Tannadice and probably still am. When I went there to watch Chris play in a schools’ cup final I got asked to leave. I don’t think Jim would want to make up. That’s sad because he was a friend of mine and he’s not keeping too well right now.”

Murray must be going. He’s sheltered from the heat long enough and now he must get on with some coaching. One-touch stuff, learned from a visionary teacher, with which he built his fine career, which he’s only too happy to pass on as a visiting emeritus professor of artful passing. “It wouldn’t be a career at all without Kathleen, who came to all my games and was always a marvellous support. When she was dying she said to me: ‘Go and coach the wee boys, it’s what you want to do.’ Near the end she thought she was holding me back. So right now I’m doing what she wanted me to do, and I’m doing it for her.”