The simmering, niggly rivalry between Hibernian and Falkirk is only set to intensify as the Championship enters its final week. But what if Raith Rovers were to emerge victorious from the play-offs that follow – could it happen? This sounds like a question for Gordon Wallace, who in Kirkcaldy once stunned far more fancied contenders.
In 1967-68 Wallace was voted Scotland’s Player of the Year by the football scribes despite the Fife team doing what dancing was considered decent from the berth of third-bottom in the top division. Their efforts in swerving relegation were largely down to the arrow-true marksmanship of the centre-forward they called Stubby. His goals enabled him to beat Bobby Lennox and the rest of Celtic’s Lisbon Lions to the silver trophy still proudly on display at Wallace’s home in Monifieth.
“My wife likes to remind me that the two best players in Britain that season were George Best, who won the equivalent award in Englad… and yours truly,” he says with a smile that’s still schoolboy-sheepish after all these years. “I’ve got a pal who forever asks: ‘Bobby scored 43 goals for the side who were champions. How come some wee numpty who got 30 with a bunch of diddies nicked the prize?’ Well, I had to live off scrag-ends. Bobby got served a banquet.”
He’s only joking about that. Lennox, he says, was a fantastic player while he wouldn’t have triumphed – becoming the first winner from outwith the Old Firm – without the help of his plucky team-mates. Mind you, some of their assistance was unintentional. “The guys were always telling Jim Gillespie in our midfield to shoot as soon as he got into the opposition penalty box. ‘But I never score’, he’d say. ‘Just hit it’, they’d say. ‘Virtually anything across the goal Stubby will try and bang in’.”
We meet for a coffee in Dundee, the epicentre of Scottish football angst right now with Wallace, born and bred in the city and a player and coach with both its teams, caught in the crossfire before a potentially deadly derby. We’ll return to that later, but first, Raith Rovers.
Wallace is part of the 1960s football iconography. The cover of the Raith match programme featured a drawing of a footballer in a typical action pose of the period – classic double blue stripes across the chest – and the thick, jet-black hair could only have belonged to our man. The mane is grey now but at 72 the memory is still lively regarding Fife-tinged facts.
“Of all my clubs, I’ve got the softest spot for Raith,” he says. “They gave me a chance. They gave me full-time football. When I stopped playing they made me coach and then I became their manager. All the things you’d want out of a career I got at Stark’s Park.”
His father had tried to inculcate him in a ’Dee way of life. “Dad was a Billy Steel fanatic. ‘Come on’, he’d say, ‘I’m going to take you see the best player in the world’.” Wallace made it onto Dundee’s books and the teenager scored three goals in his two outings for the reserves – an average he would pretty much maintain for almost two decades – but was then released. He went up to Montrose and combined being a Gable Endie with the job of electrical fitter. “Montrose gave me an education. I was fortunate because the manager, Norman Christie, was into coaching. He told me: ‘As a centre-forward don’t go into the penalty box before the ball’. That advice stayed with me all my days.”
In 1966 Wallace watched England win the World Cup in a Montrose hotel with team-mates including Derek Sim, now the Links Park chairman. How did he feel? “Gutted!” Later, teaming up with Geoff Hurst at Seattle Sounders, he had the chance to quiz the England hero about that goal. “ ‘The ball never crossed the line, you know’, I’d say. His answer was always: ‘Roger Hunt was in close proximity. He was a natural goalscorer. If my shot wasn’t in he’d have made sure. But he just turned away.’
“I really admired Geoff, though. He wasn’t the most gifted striker in the world but he cultivated himself into being a target man. And I loved my time in the North American Soccer League. The big thing for all of us who went out was to play with Pelé. I had the chance in 1976 but Dundee were battling relegation. Then when I moved to Dundee United Jim McLean wouldn’t let me go because, you maybe won’t be surprised to know, he didn’t believe in the Americans playing football.
“But I had two summers there and, as a not bad consolation prize, was once on the same pitch as Bobby Moore, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto – three World Cup-winning captains. Bobby was another team-mate at Seattle and a nicer guy you couldn’t hope to meet. I love to tell people he was my babysitter. Once he asked me: ‘What are you doing tonight, Stubby?’ I said I wanted to take my wife out but we couldn’t find anyone to look after the kids. ‘I’ll do it’, he said. ‘A World Cup skipper doesn’t babysit’, I said. ‘This one does. Stick a bottle of gin in the fridge and it’s a done deal’.” It’s not known if Beckenbauer ever asked Wallace: “I heard you once scored all four Gable Endies goals in a match against Hamilton Accies, including three penalties – is that true?”
We should explain the nickname. He was on a pre-season tour of Belgium, unable to pass the many cake shops without sampling their creamiest buns. Watch out, warned team-mates, you’ll end up with a figure like Stubby Kaye, the roly-poly American actor. Just like the cakes, it stuck.
Of greater significance to Wallace in 1966 was his switch to Raith and he instantly endeared himself to the Rovers faithful with another quartet of goals in an improbable Fife Cup comeback against Dunfermline Athletic for whom Roy Barry would stand as his most uncompromising opponent. “We bumped into each other recently at a function. ‘I’ve got your autograph’, I said. He looked a bit surprised. ‘Right down the backs of my calves, etched in blood!’ ”
Raith were in the old Second Division that season but Wallace – not usually reliant on spot-kicks to improve his stats, a clever frontman as evidenced by his choice of Hearts’ Alex Young as a role model and with Barry forced to admit he was “too sharp and too cool” and kicking him was always the only option – boosted the promotion challenge and they went up with the help of his final-day hat-trick against Queen of the South.
George Farm had been the manager who’d signed him – “A brazen fellow who’d tell you before a cup-tie at somewhere like Berwick: ‘We’re not down here just to please them. If they go past you give them a boot!’ ” But the ex-Scotland goalkeeper quit to guide Dunfermline towards the Scottish Cup and Tommy Walker, the Hearts legend, took over. Wallace liked Walker’s quiet style, and learned some more about the art of goalscoring from him, but Raith were soon in trouble down the bottom end and after a 10-2 thrashing at Ibrox just before Christmas – still Rangers’ biggest domestic win – they seemed doomed.
“After that Ian Porterfield left us for Sunderland but obviously not on the strength of that game – we were all murder.” The usual Rovers line-up after that was: Bobby Reid in goal, Tommy Hislop and Alec Gray at full-back, Willie Polland and Jake Bolton in the centre of defence, Paddy Wilson, then Davies, Millar and Sneddon and the aforementioned Gillespie, while Wallace was up front with George Falconer, another signing from Montrose who would follow him to Dens Park as well.
Despite their travails, the spirit in the dressing room remained jaunty. “Raith were a special club. They were run by the likes of John Urquhart, Bobby Reid and Andy Matthew who had football intelligence, as opposed to guys who get into a boardroom and suddenly think they’re the bee’s knees.” Wallace always kept scoring and a 2-0 win against Hearts at Tynecastle would prove pivotal to the salvage operation. He got both goals that day – “For the second I was turning Arthur Thomson this way and that. I can still hear the guys shouting: ‘Bloody shoot, will you?’ ” He netted a perfect hat-trick at Tannadice and in the last dozen games of the season his tally was a whopping 20. Raith had saved themselves.
In Kirkcaldy they surely should have rolled out the red lino for him but Wallace puts the modest Rovers’ perky team spirit above his goalscoring exploits. When he was informed he’d been nominated for Player of the Year he didn’t know the award existed, so rarely did the stardust sprinkle down onto Stark’s Park.
That was honour enough, along with the kangaroo-skin boots which were a gift from Puma. Of course he would have liked a Scotland cap from his time as a Rover, but the call-up never came, not even to the old Scottish League team. Besides Porterfield, Wallace saw other team-mates venture to England, among them at Dundee John Duncan. But he’s not complaining about his lot, with the personal loss he suffered later putting mere football quibbles into harsh perspective.
In 1985 when he was coaching at Dundee United he had to phone Jim McLean to tell him he wouldn’t be able to spy on Euro opponents Neuchatel Xamax as his wife, Linda, had been rushed into hospital. Two days later she was dead. “We knew she had breast cancer, just not how severe. It was probably a blessing she went so quickly, but she was only 42, which left me on my own with our children Gaynor and Gordon. It’s hard having to tell kids of 11 and eight that their mum isn’t coming back. Fortunately I met Marilyn who was a big help bringing them up and then she looked kindly on me and we got married.”
Wallace’s association with McLean began at Dens Park when the latter became No 2 to manager John Prentice. The player went there in 1970 having tired of the hoodie-craw threat of relegation at Raith. He joined a progressive team featuring John Duncan, Jocky Scott and Iain Phillip. Interestingly, Prentice was the strategist. “Jim was the trainer and a right disciplinarian who got us really fit, then the manager would come along with his tactics. You know how clubs on the continent these days play 4-2-3-1? Dundee were doing that in 1970.
“Against AC Milan in the Uefa Cup , three-nil down from the away leg, the boss decided we’d stick to one up front at Dens. I thought he was mad but he diddled the team around and told Bobby Wilson and Duncan Lambie to run at them non-stop. I don’t think their man-markers liked that. And Gianni Rivera liked it even less – he was used to standing there looking cool, just pointing. I scored and then John got a second and it was a rare night but we couldn’t quite square the tie.”
McLean’s genius would come to the fore later and especially across the road at Tannadice. “An absolutely magnificent coach – just don’t ask me about his personality!” says Wallace wistfully. “Jim was a perfectionist, he wanted every single member of his teams to play well all the time. Now that’s an impossibility, but if you don’t set your standards right up there,” he adds, stretching a hand as far as it will go, “then you won’t achieve them.”
Wallace, who scored the only goal in Dundee’s League Cup triumph in the power-strike gloom of 1973, left Dens under a cloud. Tousy Tayside legend has it this was because he was one of the “Broughty Ferry Five” who broke off from the official celebrations to thank McLean, then with the city rivals, for his part in their success. “I don’t know if it was that; I hope it wasn’t,” says the striker, who was soon at United himself. “We weren’t whooping it up at Jim’s house because he doesn’t drink. George Stewart, the big clown, led the charge.”
Wallace teamed up with Paul Sturrock as the New Firm challenge was being plotted then returned to Raith under McLean’s brother Willie to score the last of his 264 league goals which stood as a record until beaten by Ally McCoist. He stepped up as Rovers manager, returned to Tannadice to assist McLean in their stirring Euro adventures, crossed back to Dens to become their boss – a bad move. “I got them to the final of the Stupid Cup [actually the Scottish Challenge]. The Dundee fans held up a banner saying ‘Wallace must go’ and I thought: ‘Good chance I’ve got here, eh?’ Angus Cook was the chairman and full of his own importance. Then Jocky took over at Dunfermline so I went to help him. Another disaster – I didn’t realise how bad they were. David Moyes played. I never thought he’d become a manager.”
Who’d be a football manager? He remembers the sagely advice of Andy Dickson, his old physiotherapist at United: “The only thing you’re guaranteed in football, Stubby, is disappointment.” And who’d be a guy who crossed the great divide? Wallace, who scored against United on his Dundee debut but is glad he never had to play in a Tayside derby while wearing tangerine, says he cannot win right now as United stare at the relegation trapdoor and their rivals wonder if they’ll be the team to yank on the lever.
“The other night at a function I had to collect an award on behalf of ‘Sailor’ Hunter who scored the winner when Dundee last won the Scottish Cup in 1910. The guy who handed it over said: ‘I loved you at Dens. Why did you have to sign for United?’ I said: ‘You shouldn’t have kicked me out’.
“When I went to see a game at Dens I was getting called an Arab and at Tannadice they were shouting ‘Bluenose’ so I don’t go to either place anymore.” He doesn’t understand Dundee fans, their top-six boast failing to materialise, who are desperate to wave United goodbye, removing their biggest fixture from the calendar. “Life’s too short for all of that,” he sighs.
Little wonder, then, that his thoughts are turning to Raith and their audacious bid for top-flight football. Well, when it comes to Rovers as the silver ball on his mantelpiece testifies, stranger things have happened.