Interview: I was never dirty says hardman Tom Forsyth

Tom Forsyth, now 68 and living in South Lanarkshire, made 22 appearances for Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
Tom Forsyth, now 68 and living in South Lanarkshire, made 22 appearances for Scotland. Picture: John Devlin
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It’s funny,” says Tom Forsyth, looking back over his career as a thou-shalt-not-pass Scotland defender, “but I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Clydesdale carthorses.

“My mother and father both had strong links to the land. Dad worked at Paisley Market, a right bustling place with its livestock sales, and my maternal grandfather farmed over in South Lanarkshire. A fine Clydesdale had been picked out for breeding and dad was taking it to the farm. That was how he met mum, although I don’t suppose Tommy Docherty knew that when he said what he did!”

Tom Forsyth is delighted at full time as Rangers beat Celtic in the 1973 Scottish Cup final 1973. Picture: SNS

Tom Forsyth is delighted at full time as Rangers beat Celtic in the 1973 Scottish Cup final 1973. Picture: SNS

What Docherty said was that next to Martin Buchan, Forsyth didn’t rate at all. The rugged Rangers stopper was not fit to lace the silk slippers which the graceful Buchan seemed to be wearing when he made his precise interceptions. Then manager of Buchan’s club, Manchester United, the Doc’s actual words were: “It’s like comparing a Clydesdale with a thoroughbred.”

The year was 1976 and England were coming to Hampden. Formidable opposition as usual but what a time that was in Scotland’s football heritage when we could sit around over pints of Double Diamond debating the fine margins between an array of top-class Dark Blue backliners. In ’73 when Forsyth was on the bench against England, Jim Holton played. The following year John Blackley had an outstanding game vs the Auld Enemy. In ’77, Forsyth was paired with Gordon McQueen who found a spare moment to saunter to the other end of the Wembley cabbage-patch and score with a steepling header. The year after that, Forsyth and Kenny Burns were the no-nonsense gatekeepers. But in ’76 manager Willie Ormond had to choose between Buchan and our man as a partner for Colin Jackson.

The rivals were not friends. “One time at a Scotland training camp, Martin said: ‘I’m a better player than you.’ He might well have thought that and I have no problems admitting he was a right classy defender, but to say it I reckoned was pure arrogance.” Forsyth, though, won Ormond’s vote and Scotland won the game, with it the British Championship. That completed a momentous season for Forsyth, who’d just achieved the first of his two trebles with Rangers. And while many remember the last act of the defeat of England being Kenny Dalglish’s winner squeezed through the buckling legs of Ray Clemence, Forsyth was perhaps the real hero with a stunning intervention near the end to make good the victory, more of which later.

I’ve come to South Lanarkshire to meet the 68-year-old Forsyth, passing Stonehouse where he grew up and Cot Castle where that prize horse sparked romance, to reach Strathaven where his wife Linda has lit a roaring fire. “I was all set for a nice wee lie doon with a book as Tommy was supposed to be bowling but the rain’s put paid to that,” she laughs. If we’ve spoiled her day by stopping in to blether about football you wouldn’t know it. Shandy, home-made soup (actually created by Forsyth) and muffins arrive in quick succession. The Saturday Interview’s caterer-of-the-year trophy is in the bag.

Linda also serves up the odd anecdote, her favourite coming from the celebrations after Rangers had won the 1973 Scottish Cup. The centenary final in what was also Rangers’ 100th birthday year demanded a memorable winner and got one: a thunderbolt from all of seven inches courtesy of her husband, who’d only arrived at Ibrox a few months before.

“Tommy was a natty dresser as a player and this night he had on a lovely blazer from Harrison’s of Hamilton in a bright burgundy check,” she explains. “Jock [Wallace, manager] spotted him and marched straight over. Obviously
Tommy thought he was going to be congratulated on his goal. Jock said: ‘You’re playing with the Rangers now, son. I don’t ever want to see you in 
anything other than a suit.’”

Now, the soup-brewing, begonia-
cultivating, devoted grandfather who’s always loved the gentle sport of bowls doesn’t square with the image of Forsyth the footballer who went by the nickname of “Jaws”. But maybe the image was somewhat unfair. Yes, his uncompromising style suited Rangers better than his plum jacket suited an Ibrox function. Sure, his take-no-prisoners philosophy had critics beyond Messrs Docherty and Buchan. But dirty? He’s not having that. “Yes, I was aggressive,” he says. “I always wanted to win and to help make that happen I had to take care of my man but I’d like to think I was honest.

“I never deliberately went out to hurt anyone. I don’t think I was dirty; wholehearted I’d call it. I was only ever sent off once in my career and that was unmerited. Do you know how many times Bud [Willie] Johnston was sent off? Twenty-two and he was a wee winger!”

If Forsyth was playing now we would say he “likes a tackle”. Back in the 1970s, though, almost everyone did. “Norman Hunter got called ‘Bites Yer Legs’ and it was Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris. The Scottish press-boys wanted us to have our own bogeyman and someone christened me Jaws. There were a few jokes, such as the one about Linda getting a phone call to say I was returning from a European game with a broken leg and her asking: ‘Whose leg is it?’”

The gags keep on coming. “I turned up at a golf day not long ago and Jocky Scott was there. ‘Here’s the big dirty bastard now,’ he said. Then I was out for dinner with Linda when I met Tony Higgins and was telling him about 
having my knee replaced. He said: ‘You must have done the old one some damage giving me all those dunts.’ I don’t mind the banter now and it’s nice to bump into guys from the past but, at the time, I had a helluva reputation.” To unwind from the pressures of the game, football’s so-called hardest man would often retreat to the garden and sniff the flowers. As well as begonias he’s always liked geraniums and his dad’s favourite, chrysanthemums but strangely not forsythias.

It’s a measure of football’s fierce grip on the nation in the early 1960s that young Forsyth, despite his rural upbringing, was in thrall to it, too. “Dad would be with the stallions, trotting or at the stud farms, that was his life. And my twin brother Robert went the country way with shooting and fishing. But for me it was always football, football, football.

“Dad died when I was 17 so he only knew that I made it to Motherwell. I was sorry he never saw me play for Scotland 22 times, once as captain, because I think he would have been very proud of that. I know I was.”

Games against England, or English teams, have been key chapters in this Forsyth saga. Aged 18 in April 1967 he played his part in a thrilling victory in London – not England 2, Scotland 3, though he was in the crowd for that, but a friendly the day before when his Glenavon Amateurs whipped Crystal
Palace Colts 5-1 at Selhurst Park, 
Forsyth netting the first goal.

“Boy, what a trip that was. My first-ever Chinese meal, though I blew the roof of my mouth off. A tour of the Houses of Parliament, but I’m afraid I was bored out of my heid. Me and a few of the lads hung back, hoping we could slip away to the pub.

“On the day of the big match we set off from Clapham Common in our tartan tammies at 8am, walking single file all the way to Wembley, chanting the Scotland players’ names and singing ‘We’ve got the best team in the land’. We were in the ground at ten to one, hardly anyone else there, with our big carry-out. It was the cold steps in those days and I sat on my programme. Our left-back, a real character from up the road in Lesmahagow, got a bit carried away with the bevvy and we had to stop him running on to the pitch. But we were all over the moon with the result. The world champions beaten!”

In the claret and amber of Motherwell alongside the likes of Bobby Watson, Dixie Deans and Joe Wark, Forsyth jousted with some of the heroes of 1966 in the Texaco Cup. Stoke City had Gordon Banks but the Steelmen’s goalie Keith MacRae was brilliant in the tie. Then it was Tottenham Hotspur boasting the Martins, Peters and Chivers, and Alan Mullery. “I wasn’t nervous about these star names or going to White Hart Lane. The bigger the opposition the better I always seemed to play. We lost 3-2 down there but at Fir Park Tom Donnelly scored a screamer and then Bobby hit another cracker for the winner. That was a magic night. The crowd was given as 22,000 but it seemed like much more. There was a crush at the end and the fans had to run over the players’ cars to escape. I’d just bought a new one but the club paid for all the dents to be repaired.”

Motherwell lost the Texaco semi-final to Hearts and Forsyth is still grumpy about the corner-kick which enabled the Jambos to equalise. He was still challenging the referee over the decision 15 years after the event and at another golf outing recently he reminded Donald Ford that the latter’s winning goal had deprived Linda of a new fridge-freezer. “But Donald was a very fine player, as was Alan Gordon at Hibs, and I had great tussles with both of them.”

He explains the Forsyth philosophy some more: “On the pitch the opposition strikers were my enemies. That was even more the case at Rangers where you were expected to win every game. I might have said to wee [Paul] Sturrock at Dundee United: ‘Just you hud the ball because I’m going to break both your legs.’ But that would just have been me winding him up. I’d never have actually done it. I respected my fellow pros and played against a lot of helluva nice guys.”

One of the curios of Fir Park life was “Jimmy the Mini”: a football-loving minister who played in a local churches league and got to train with Forsyth and his team-mates. “He was a bit of a pest, to be honest. We had to mind our language in the dressing-room and even then he brought in a swear-box. He roped us into a sportsmans’ service, which was okay for Bobby Watson, who was a committed Christian, but I was nervous about my Bible reading. I told Bobby: ‘The sweat’s running down the shooch on my arse.’ My good team-mate broadcasted this to the entire congregation.”

Forsyth joined Rangers in October 1972 and he laughs when recalling his final game at Ibrox in a Motherwell shirt just a few weeks previously, which perhaps offers further evidence that he wasn’t always the bad guy, or at least the only bad guy. “I slid in on Bud [Willie Johnston] and he stamped on my thigh. I went loopy but the referee, who must have seen this, did nothing. I was still raging when Rangers got a corner so I hooked Steiny [Colin Stein] who went mad himself but because he’d been sent off at Shawfield the week before Jock [Wallace] took him off. I just sneaked away!

“Anyway, who should I meet in the Ibrox corridors having just signed but Steiny and Bud. They snarled at me. Now I see the pair all the time when we do match-day hospitality. They’re inseparable so I call them Knife and Fork. Or Jack and Victor.”

Unusually, Forsyth didn’t have to wait until he’d joined the Old Firm before being capped, and his first full honour completed a hat-trick of appearances for his country at different levels in the same season, having already played for the Under-23s and the Scottish League, both times against the English.

He would go on to play in the 1978 World Cup but rather wished he hadn’t. “I still don’t like talking about Argentina,” he says. “We had it won before we got there. Then when we arrived, realised we still had games to play. I blame Ally [MacLeod, manager] to some extent because the preparation was bad, but the poor man aged 20 years from the stick he received as 
everything fell apart. In the Holland game I had a chance to make it 4-1, which would have qualified us, but headed straight at their keeper. What a diddy.”

But back to England. Forsyth appreciated the importance of the fixture, and the biannual pilgrimage to London, when he worked as an apprentice joiner. “The girls in the depot office took money off the men each week and put it the Wembley Fund. They’d have drunk it otherwise.” In ’67 he saw the Twin Towers as a fan; ten years later he helped Scotland win under them. “My abiding memory from the game is of Bud checking his run to fool Phil Neal and set up our winner. It should be shown to all aspiring wingers, if there are any left.” then after Johnston singed the turf, the Tartan Army ripped it up.

Two victories over England, two British Championships, and maybe for Forsyth two pieces of criticism were crucial. In ’76 he played in the win over Northern Ireland three days previously but not to the satisfaction of his Ibrox general manager Willie Waddell. “He cornered me coming out of Hampden and said: ‘It is unacceptable for a Rangers player to perform so badly when representing Scotland.’” There could be no repeat against Kevin Keegan & Co, should he be selected.

“I met Kevin years later at Loch Lomond when I had a wee job as a starter at the golf course and we had a laugh about him turning to the crowd at Wembley to celebrate a goal against us and seeing nothing but seething Scotsmen, all flicking the Vs at him. Well, he didn’t score in ’76. Mick Channon did and had the chance to make it 2-2 in the last few minutes, but luckily I stopped him.”

Luck didn’t come into it. Fierce pride propelled Forsyth across the box to achieve the crucial block, that and burning hurt. “Footballers are so one-footed these days. I couldn’t have reached Mick in time with my right so trusted my left. But I’m convinced that the Doc saying what he did drove me to make that tackle.

“Clydesdale carthorses,” he smiles. “Magnificent animals!”