Interview: Kevin McAllister still grieving end of Brockville

Kevin McAllister, known as "Crunchie" throughout his playing days. Picture: Falkirk Herald
Kevin McAllister, known as "Crunchie" throughout his playing days. Picture: Falkirk Herald
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W hen Kevin McAllister played for Chelsea he never visited London’s great sights – “Buckingham Palace isn’t my kind of place,” confirms Crunchie. His kind of place is Brockville, or rather it was, with Falkirk’s former home being scudded by the wrecking ball back in 2003.

He talks about the rickety old stadium with such love – and bear in mind this is a modest, undemonstrative ex-Scottish footballer, a classic of the type – that I’m imagining he’s always finding excuses to pass the site, maybe when he’s in the car with the wife and kids – oh no, here we go again, Dad’s taking the long way round, guess where we’re headed?

No, I’ve never been back. It’s a Morrisons now but I’ll never go. To me it should still be Brockville, not a supermarket

Kevin McAllister on Brockville’s demise

“No, I’ve never been back,” he says firmly. “It’s a Morrisons now but I’ll never go. To me it should still be Brockville, not a supermarket. Apparently there’s an old turnstile outside the entrance and some photographs inside of what the ground looked like and one of me, too, so I’m told. But I don’t want to see that stuff because it’ll just depress me.” He stresses he’s got nothing against the store chain; indeed he likes their products and their prices. “You might think this is daft but we shop at the branch in Stirling instead.”

That’s only daft and a bit perverse if you don’t acknowledge McAllister’s deep affection for the club. He’s an incorrigible, ineluctable Bairn, having had four spells as their flying wingman and since hanging up his boots at the age of 40, he’s reverted back to being a fan, albeit this must happen down at Westfield in a quirk-free ground in the modern style. He’ll be in his plastic pop-up seat tomorrow for his boys against Hibernian for whom he somehow managed to squeeze in more than 100 games en route to becoming – and what a title this is – Falkirk’s Player of the Millennium.

We meet in Grangemouth where the 53-year-old lives and we’ll return to the weekend’s most intriguing fixture shortly, but first, this pressing inquiry: how did he come by that nickname? “You really want to know? I’m a Camelon boy originally and there was a lad in our kickabouts as kids who was called Crunch, although don’t ask me why. He was then made to share the nickname with me – he was Big Crunch and me being just a little guy was Wee Crunch. When I became a player I got Crunch to myself but then I think you boys in the press turned it into Crunchie and that stuck, although outwith football no one calls me it. What became of the original Crunch? I’ve often wondered that but I never knew his real name. Wherever you are, mate, thanks for that – I think!”

McAllister had a father and a big brother who weren’t football-daft but saw no reason why he shouldn’t be. “Uncle John took me to Brockville, first time when I was five, and it was magic. He sat me on one of the stanchions at the Hope Street End and I watched guys like Johnny Markie, George Miller and “Tiger” McLaughlin who went to Everton. This was the late 1960s/early 1970s, not a bad team, and then we got Alex Ferguson. I remember a great win over Hibs in the quarter-finals of the League Cup and another, same stage, against Hearts. I saw Danny McGrain fracture his skull at Brockville and Celtic win a league title there.

“At big games the atmosphere was brilliant. When Falkirk needed encouragement the old-timers in the stand would bang their feet on the wooden floor and the lads in the shed across the other side of the pitch would thump the corrugated iron. Right in the middle, next to the wee bridge, was the bit known as the Choir and – this was a great moment – when I was 13 I was allowed to go to games on my own and meet my pals there. We all loved the Choir and I always used to think: ‘Imagine being out there on that park, playing for the Bairns, with this backing – wouldn’t that be amazing?’ ”

McAllister got his chance in 1983 after a stint at Camelon Juniors, his Brockville debut coming in a pre-season friendly against Leeds United. “That was probably the most important game of my career. The night before I remember thinking: ‘This could make or break me’. Everyone was there to see me – family, friends and the boys still in the Choir, Jeff, Gavin and Roy. I reckoned that if I was to have an absolute shocker I’d be back in the juniors within three months. But it worked out okay.”

More than okay: Scotland left-back Frankie Gray was subjected to such a roasting by the new boy that legend has it that in the tunnel at the end big brother Eddie, the Leeds manager, remarked: “Why didn’t you just boot him up the arse?” Falkirk boss Alex Totten is supposed to have retorted: “He’d have to have caught him first, Eddie.” McAllister laughs. “I think Alex embroidered that a wee bit.” Certainly the player arrived that day, as team-mates such as centre-forward Peter Houston would surely testify. “Actually, Peter would tell you that as well as scoring himself he made my goal – and yet I grabbed all the headlines. He’s a good friend of mine is the Ginger God.”

So what does he think of the current Falkirk, managed by Houston, and their chances of promotion to the Premiership? “All the attention has been on Rangers and Hibs and I don’t think anyone outside of Falkirk thinks the club will be in contention come the end of the season. They reached the Scottish Cup final last year and yet I think they’ve improved. John Baird has scored a good number of goals. Lee Miller is still very useful in that department – he and Mark Kerr were kids when I was at the club. And Will Vaulks has been great in midfield, not least in that win over Rangers.

“It’s true that apart from Hibs’ defeat at Dumbarton, the top three have only lost to each other. A draw between Falkirk and Hibs on Sunday might be a bit of a disaster for both as it would probably leave them five points behind Rangers. But Rangers haven’t won the league yet. Falkirk play them again soon and they’ve got to go to Easter Road. I think if Peter can keep his best team fit and available and they’re still up there with nine games left then there will be only one team feeling the pressure and it won’t be Falkirk.”

Back to McAllister’s tale: he reckoned his first couple of seasons at Brockville went “alright”, which might be a gross under-estimation as he was then on his way to the old English First Division. “Billy Lamont, who was manager by then, phoned me: ‘How would you like to play for a London club?’ ‘Aye’, I said, ‘that would be fine’. The next day I was flying down to Chelsea.” John Neal, boss at Stamford Bridge, took him for a slap-up lunch. McAllister was “a bag o’ nerves”. A couple of pals from home, Ally and Jimmy, plasterers-in-exile in the Big Smoke, read about the signing in the Evening Standard: “Blues buy Falkirk star”. He couldn’t quite believe it. “Two years before I’d been playing junior football. There I was at a swanky English club.”

Not so swanky that Chelsea couldn’t find room for lots of Scots. McAllister reels them off: “Pat Nevin, David Speedie, Doug Rougvie, John McNaught, John Millar who went to Hearts… Les Fridge was the reserve goalie, Craig Burley and Doddsy [Billy Dodds] were apprentices and then Gordon Durie and Stevie Clarke came. We nearly put out an all-Scottish team once: against Watford, Darren Wood was the only ‘foreigner’. The manager liked Scottish boys for their aggression.”

This was quite a change for the boy with the Falkirk homing device, even with another Chelsea Scot, Duncan Shearer, for a flatmate. “Stamford Bridge was huge and open, nothing like Brockville. I’d never been full-time before. What were you supposed to do in the afternoons? There’s only so many games of snooker a guy can play. Even with a couple of mates down there I think I was in awe of London and that probably held me back.”

He still managed a decent number of appearances in his debut season, 1985-86, when Chelsea were title contenders, only for Kenny Dalglish to score the championship-clinching goal for Liverpool at the Bridge. A skittery, schizophrenic club in those days, Chelsea suffered relegation as well as some strange highs. When English teams became pariahs of European football after Heysel, the FA organised a tournament for the excluded, the Full Members Cup. Chelsea won it twice, the second time when it went under the impossibly glamorous name of the Zenith Data Systems Cup.

Don’t knock the competition, says McAllister. “It got me to Wembley twice. Eighty-thousand folk turned up for both finals. We celebrated those victories, although not with open-top bus rides.” He compares Chelsea then and now: “It’s all foreigners again, isn’t it?” Regrets? None at all. He had six years there and if he hadn’t gone to London he wouldn’t have met his wife, Michelle. “As a footballer, unless you’re one of the superstars, your destiny is not your own. But how could I complain? I got to live the dream four times.”

Four times he opened the gate at the mouth of the Brockville tunnel. He ran onto the pitch, slightly but endearingly bandy-legged, and declared himself to be home. McAllister smiles: he’s the oddity. Just like his father and brother, both now dead, his own sons, Aaron and Craig, don’t have this obsession. “At least my daughter Stacey has shown a wee bitty interest in her old dad’s career,” he jokes. Now the gate stands incongruously at the new ground, shorn of purpose. “The players can run round it without opening it.” Ah well, that’s progress for you. The Bairns, though, are in the midst of one of their better spells. McAllister’s second stint, on loan, wasn’t one of those and ended in relegation. He went back to Chelsea just in time for their demotion. The third came courtesy of Jim Jefferies but featured another relegation. “That was the team of Simon Stainrod, Yogi [John Hughes], Ian McCall, Crawford Baptie and Davie Weir. Probably we were too attack-minded.” Then came Hibs.

He helped Alex Miller’s side to a League Cup final only to lose it to an Ally McCoist-inspired Rangers. “Ally was writing his own scripts at that point. We kind of knew what would happen. He came off the bench and scored the winner with an overhead kick.” Some among the demanding Hibees support rate the Miller era as defence-minded and dour; McAllister doesn’t understand this. “Never mind me, there was Keith Wright, Darren Jackson and Michael O’Neill. Michael was a terrific player who didn’t achieve all he should have. I’m chuffed to see him doing so well as a coach with Northern Ireland.”

McAllister enjoyed his time at Hibs and liked Miller – “though you couldn’t talk to him about anything other than football”. A large part of the manager’s contemplations would have been given over to the Edinburgh derby because of Hearts’ supremacy in the fixture. Mindful that the capital teams will shortly meet in the Scottish Cup, McAllister says: “I think Hibs had a mental block about playing Hearts back then. A win in a derby can denude 100 sins. We did beat them a couple of times – two days after losing 7-0 at Ibrox, for instance, when I set up Michael for a terrific volley. But Hearts would win other matches that should have been ours, like the Scottish Cup tie when Wayne Foster got the winner in the last minute.

“Those kind of results drove the Hibbies in the team like Ted [Wright], wee Mickey [Weir] and Geebsie [Gordon Hunter] demented and Alex, too.”

Then Miller was replaced by Jim Duffy and McAllister, one of the older guys, was let go. Totten, back at Falkirk, offered him a chance to burst through the Brockville gate again. This was going to be his last hurrah and he thought that at 34 it might just be a couple of seasons. But his fourth spell turned into his longest and was the one which cemented his legend.

He credits Miller with helping prolong his career. “Alex was years ahead of his time. At Hibs he had us on pasta straight after games, there were energy bars in the dressing room and we did aerobics in the swimming pool. We had our fitness levels checked at the end of each season and you had to come back the same or better so, summer holidays in Majorca, you’d always be out running or else you were fined.” But McAllister’s desire to achieve something with his beloved Bairns drove him on, too.

He almost did this in the Scottish Cup. The semi-final replay victory over Celtic in 1997 has entered local mythology and the celebrations were pretty special, too. They lasted all night and most of the next day, McAllister not getting home until half past eight the following evening. What did Michelle say? “Oh she knew where I was – the Roman Bar. She’d been there for a bit but had to take the weans home – they had school! Then it was just me and my pals, some of them from the old days in the Choir, not really drinking, just talking 
the most enormous amount of rubbish.”

In the final, the Bairns lost to Kilmarnock. The occasion seemed to get to Falkirk. The following season, in the semi against Hearts, McAllister capped a thrilling display with a stupendous chipped equaliser. Jim Jefferies, then manager of the Jambos, had pinned his young full-back, Gary Naysmith, to the dressing-room wall at half-time over his failure to shackle the imp imperial on the right wing. But, just when it seemed the Bairns would go on and win the tie, Hearts stole it. And there would be further cup agony in a quarter-final against Rangers at Ibrox, where the previous bids had foundered. “Again, we were looking like we might win. Then big [Lorenzo] Amoruso, whose previous 12 attempts had all bounced down the Copland Road, hit a daisy-cutter which bobbled a hundred times before sneaking into the corner of the net.”

So near to glory, but McAllister, who now works for a pipe-fitting firm at Grangemouth Docks, does not curse his bad luck. It was his tremendous good fortune to play for his boyhood heroes and the feeling has been mutual. When he was installed as Player of the Millennium he was stunned. “I was in a hall full of my idols and there was this wee boy from Camelon getting an award like that.”

His protests that his greatest-ever goal – after a typically delirious dribble against Huntly in the cup – had been massively aided by Highlanders bumping into each other fell on deaf ears.

“I got a nice wee trophy.” Well, a year’s free shopping at Morrisons might have been problematic.