Sandy Jardine backs David Weir to follow in his remarkable footsteps

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ONE of his many current tasks at Rangers is to co-ordinate the scouting of eager, talented youngsters, but his own remarkable story perhaps peaks in terms of achievement with a footballer of the year award at the age of 37, 11 years after he was first recognised as the finest player in the land.

Age had not withered Sandy Jardine, and neither was he concerned about making yet another positional change to accommodate Hearts' need for a sweeper at a stage of his career when most would have been demanding a deckchair in the sun somewhere, not learning new tricks. But Jardine was an extraordinary player who performed in what were often extraordinary times for Scottish football. A Rangers and Hearts man like David Weir, Jardine is in the perfect position to offer an assessment of the current Ibrox skipper's nomination for the SPFA Player of the Year award – at the age of 39 years and 11 months. Weir is also a favourite to win the Scottish Football Writers' Association award on the eve of his 40th birthday.

Jardine remains the oldest player to be recognised by the football writers, though when he lifted the award, in 1986, it seemed to be the preserve of the more mature candidate. Hamish McAlpine was only a month younger when he was voted footballer of the year the previous season, although goalkeepers who distinguish themselves in their mid-to-late thirties are ten-a-penny compared to outfield players. Ronnie Simpson, the Celtic goalkeeper, was the third recipient of the award, aged 36. But then there are those who, like Jardine and Weir, manage to excel in their late thirties while operating in positions which require a greater degree of mobility. Notably, Jardine was also recognised by the football writers in 1975, making him the only player to be given the award with two different clubs.

"I'd like to think I was a very good professional at Rangers, and after 18 years at the club I left and joined the Hearts," Jardine, who was born on the last day of 1948, says now. "I watched what I did at Rangers and trained very hard. But when I went to Hearts I became a better professional believe it or not. To play at that age you have to make a lot of sacrifices. I have no doubt that David Weir is making the same sacrifices that I did."

Among them is winding down properly after games, which, according to Jardine, meant sitting down on nights out with family and friends as opposed to standing by a bar. A more serious sufferance was the routine he followed in his thirties during close-seasons. "I gave myself ten days off just to let my body recover and then while most of the younger players were on their holidays – and rightly so, they were entitled to them – I would train every day," he says.

Not many players who leave Rangers at the age of 33 can look forward to being named footballer of the year but Jardine joined forces with former Ibrox team-mate Alex MacDonald at Hearts, and their professionalism helped the Tynecastle club out of the doldrums. They opened the club's training facilities for two days a week during the close season and watched with satisfaction as even younger members of the squad began to drift in. This new mindset, combined with a fine crop of up-coming talent, saw Hearts re-emerge as a formidable force in the mid-Eighties, though when their finest season collapsed at the death not even as experienced a campaigner as Jardine could take it all in. "There was an emptiness inside us all as big as a black hole," he wrote in his autobiography Score and More, published in 1987.

The day after Hearts lost the league title at Dens Park in May 1986 Jardine was being presented with the Scottish Football Writers' Association Player of the Year award in Glasgow. It seems inconceivable that Weir might have to force a smile the way Jardine did should he be the one required to make a speech at this same occasion next month.

Rangers could even wrap up the championship as early as tomorrow afternoon against Hearts, should Celtic drop points today against Hibernian. He thinks Weir assuming his mantle of oldest recipient of the award would be the perfect end to a season that he has hailed as manager Walter Smith's "finest ever achievement".

Asked in his capacity of club scout, who he rates as the most valuable player to have been brought into the club in recent times, Jardine's response leaves no-one in any doubt about who he feels should be crowned footballer of the year. Weir is the answer to both of these questions.

"He came to the club as what would be termed a stop-gap," he recalls. "Walter had to make a quick turn-around of players after Paul Le Guen and David came and, like everyone else, I thought: 'If we can get a year out of him...'

"There are, for me, two outstanding candidates (for player of the year] – David Weir and Steven Davis. But because of the circumstances with David – he's also the captain of the club for one thing – for me he's head and shoulders above everyone else.

"(But] he's not been nominated because everyone is being sympathetic. David Weir is being recognised because of his performances on the park. I can still see him being here next year. He is still doing that good a job.

"I was 38 and ten months when I finished playing," Jardine continues. "I retired because Craig Levein was coming back and it was the right time. He (Levein] had had terrible injuries and we also had Dave McPherson. If I had not been co-manager I could have played elsewhere. Hearts at that time were probably the second-top team in Scotland. I was still playing at the highest level in the Scottish Premier League and in Europe. If I had been just an ordinary player and didn't have the additional commitment to Hearts on the management side I could have carried on still and played in the Premier League. But because I was a manager I thought: 'that's me'. And I never kicked a ball again. I never even played fives."

Jardine will be at Ibrox tomorrow and will applaud as heartily as anyone should Rangers clinch the title against the team he not only supported as a boy, but also played for and co-managed. He still lives in the west of Edinburgh, as he has done all his life.

"People ask, 'Who are you supporting on Sunday?'" he says, although it should really be a redundant question as he sits inside Murray Park, sporting regulation Rangers attire. "There is no doubt I am supporting Rangers. I want them to win. I have been at the club for over 30 years – coming up for 35 years now. I had seven years at (Scottish] Brewers, and looked after the sponsorship here. In total I have been connected with Rangers for over 40 years. So no, I want Rangers to win – and I hope they win well and comfortably. But if Rangers are not playing then I still have a soft spot for Hearts. I always want to see them do well. They were good to me at the end of my career and I'd like to think I was good for them."

Jardine went from literally watching Hearts one week to playing for Rangers the next. In normal circumstances, this would have been memorable enough. But that his chance was helped along by what happened on one of Scottish football's most seismic weekends meant it felt more momentous.

Although a Rangers player at the time, he was at Tynecastle watching Hearts play host to Dundee United in a Scottish Cup tie when Rangers met with ignominy against Berwick Rangers.

"I had the flu," recalls Jardine. "I had been off training all week and on the Saturday was the first day I had got up and been out and about for a walk. My dad, who was a Hearts supporter, said, 'Come to the match'." Hearts lost 3-0 to United, and although a surprise, this wasn't the result which raised most eyebrows that afternoon. "I was coming out of the ground and people were saying Rangers had got beat," remembers Jardine. "I could not believe it."

"I went in on the Monday morning at Ibrox and the reserves changed in the away dressing room. When I got there I was told to take my clothes and my strip into the first team dressing room. I became a first-team player from that day."

His first game was a 5-1 win over Hearts, just as his 1,000th game was a fixture against his boyhood heroes. It seems relevant to recall the Berwick Rangers defeat with Jardine, following one of Celtic's worst-ever results last weekend in the same competition. He was crossing the 15th fairway at Augusta when he heard the news of Ross County's win, having made a first-ever trip to the Masters. His informant was Alex McLeish's son, John, as opposed to Dermot Desmond, the Celtic major shareholder, who was also at the event. "After we shook each other's hands he said, 'See the Celtic game? It finished 2-0'. And I was like, 'They won 2-0?'. He said, 'No, they got beat 2-0'.

"It knocked me out. For the rest of the afternoon, I kept saying: '2-0, I can't believe it ...'

"One of the things you quickly learn at Rangers, and I imagine it is the same at Celtic, is how quickly you respond to a defeat. You are always going to get defeats but you can't have too many of them. To be honest, we managed to do OK. We got back on the rails (after Berwick]."

By the end of that season, Jardine – still only 18 – was swapping shirts with Bayern Munich's Franz Beckenbauer after the European Cup Winners' Cup final. Twenty years later he was still making headlines.

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