ON THE hottest day of the month, the most famous octogenarian in Dunblane is telling me about what he calls his “winter pastime”.
Roy Erskine is an enthusiast of postal history which I have to say is a new one on me, so I ask him: “Is that a fancy name for stamp-collecting?” He looks disappointed. “Nothing like. I’m interested in letters and if they come without envelopes and therefore without stamps, so be it. And I’m only interested in correspondence to and from a firm called William Wilson of Bannockburn who were tartan-makers to the army as far back as the 1700s. The other day I picked up a nice letter from the Argyllshire Fencibles, a request for more kilts.”
Now I know what you’re thinking: the World Cup’s under way, Scotland – as usual – aren’t involved, and in our desperation to fill this slot we’re digging up the most niche hobbyists. Well, tennis is here as well and Erskine has a summer pastime with which we’re all familiar: watching Andy Murray. Indeed, watching Erskine watch Murray has become a pastime for us all. Every time the superstar grandson battles through to a final, and especially when he wins, the TV news crews invade the trim home of Erskine and his wife Shirley which is festooned with photos of Andy and older brother Jamie when they were scamps barely able to peer over the net.
On one occasion, a reporter more or less forced his way into the house. “He told us on the doorstep that his editor had given him strict orders to watch the game with us,” recalls Erskine. “I wasn’t for letting him in but my wife was more sympathetic. To be fair to the chap, he sat behind us with his laptop. But it was very strange having your reactions studied like that. I get very involved when Andy plays but I didn’t feel I could get all het up, which is what usually happens.”
Shirley is 80 and Roy is 82. On the day we’re due to meet Shirley is holding a coffee morning in their house near the second tee of the town’s golf course and Roy thinks this might scupper our chat, but then he says: “I wouldn’t mind escaping for a bit – meet me down the clubhouse.” I ask him if I need to wear a tie and he says: “Not at all, otherwise I wouldn’t be a member.”
When Murraymania was at his height, the Erskines had to become rather adept at escapology. “After that episode with the reporter we stopped watching Andy’s games there in the house and would hide up with friends.” Maybe Murraymania reached its peak with the defeat in the 2012 Wimbledon final, Britain being so familiar with losing at tennis, resigned to it, almost content in that state. But the man himself didn’t fancy the scenario one little bit. He went straight back to SW19 last year and triumphed.
“What an atmosphere there was in Dunblane that day – absolutely marvellous,” recalls Erskine as we sip our tea. He and Shirley dearly wished they could have joined the rest of the family for the historic victory over Novak Djokovic but she was recovering from breaking a leg for the second time. “We were just too frightened to travel,” he adds. Erskine has aches and pains of his own – “My replacement hips were fitted 24 years ago so they need replaced and both my knees are knackered” – but Murray’s oldest fans are determined to be at the Centre Court on the first day of this year’s tournament as the champion begins his title defence. “The Royal Box, no less.” He sounds underwhelmed, I say. “Well, my wife has just come back from the shops with a cream shirt she wants me to wear. And I have to put on a tie as well. I hate the things!”
Maybe, though, the etiquette of the Royal Box will be a good thing for Erskine because he really does get incredibly excited. “Really long, really thrilling matches – five-setters lasting three and a half hours or whatever – are just horrendous. Afterwards, I don’t know how I’m still living. I mean, that’s so stupid: it’s only a game. But, you see, tennis is a wonderful game.” Erskine had a short football career in the 1950s, playing with Hibernian, Stirling Albion and Cowdenbeath, but always preferred a racquet in his hands and was picked for Scotland.
Obviously he thinks his grandson is brilliant but he stresses: “I’m very critical when I’m watching him. I think I know better than him the shots he should be playing. I reckon his tennis is vaguely similar to what I used to play, or try to play. I’d attempt the things he’s able to pull off. He can play so many shots that no-one else can match, although his game has changed. Maybe this is [former coach] Ivan Lendl’s influence and obviously it’s worked: he’s won Wimbledon. But he’s more like the rest of them now. If you looked at the French Open, 29 of the top 30 played in pretty much the same way, all of them hitting hard. Andy’s got that wonderful ability to disturb a game and throw an opponent by changing the pace or spin. He does slightly less of that now.”
Maybe Erskine should be having a word with him. “Well, do you know that I’ve not seen him for 18 months? He was up for the Freedom of Stirling recently but I couldn’t get near enough for a chat – he was grabbed by everyone. He phones a lot – always on Christmas Day and on his gran’s birthday – but he lives inside this tennis bubble. He’s been away from home since he was 15. He knows nothing else.”
Erskine jokes that he taught Murray all he knows – “I invented topspin, you know!” – but is not for one minute suggesting he had his grandson’s talent and nor is he anything less than very proud of his grandson. Erskine says he preferred tennis to football because he couldn’t be bothered with the training the latter required. Pressed further on this, he concedes: “In team games you’re relying an awful lot on other people but I think if you can perform to a reasonable level in sport one-to-one is best.” So, could he have got further at tennis if the authorities hadn’t forbidden him from playing during his football years? “No, as with football, I just wasn’t good enough.”
Erskine spent the first 12 years of life in Fochabers, Moray, before the family moved to Bridge of Allan where his father resumed his career as a chemist after the Second World War. Stirling High School was a big disappointment to him. “I wasn’t interested in school, not in the slightest.” Partly this was because the place offered no football, just rugby. As for tennis, he had to find that himself. “Thankfully there was a good club 100 yards down the road, just as there was for Andy and Jamie when they got started, and a lively Central District League. The big employers like ICI at Grangemouth, the Smith & Wellstood ironworks at Bonnybridge and Alloa Glass all had teams.”
And the local club was where he met Shirley, who had come to Bridge of Allan from Berwick-upon-Tweed, although their love match didn’t begin until a few years later after a chance meeting on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. “I’d just had my appendix removed and looked like death warmed up!”
Football for Erskine, a centre-half or left-back, began with the Juniors and another works team, this one attached to the Valleyfield colliery. “They sent a motorbike for me. I travelled pillion and never got to know the driver. The journey could be terrifying in the rain but I loved those games in Comrie, Lochore, Blairhall. Then one day this fellow Archie Gourlay who we used to see on the touchline – an ex-Partick Thistle goalie, I think – said to me: “Is there any team you’d like to play for?’ Hibs were the best in the land at that point.”
A part-timer, Erskine started out in the third XI at Easter Road, graduating to the reserves. Ahead of him were the Famous Five and the other six were pretty useful as well. He reels off some of the other lesser lights: “Jim McCracken, Jim Souness, a winger called Crawford.” He didn’t get a first-team game, didn’t even have the chance to train with Gordon Smith & Co. “They were 9-11 guys and then off to the billiard halls. I was Tuesday and Thursday nights, trying to be an optician the rest of the time.”
He wasn’t disappointed to leave Easter Road – “Hibs were a great, great team” – but saw more first-team action at Stirling and Cowdenbeath. With the latter he remembers a battle for promotion from the old Second Division with Third Lanark, lost on the last day. What about a relegation with Stirling, which must have been confirmed a long way back with the team conceding 105 goals and only collecting six points? He laughs and says he has little memory of this 1954-55 debacle. A picture of the Annfield manager, though, remains vivid: “Tam Fergusson, a coal merchant, only one leg – notorious.”
The best he played against were Celtic’s Bobby Collins and Aberdeen’s Graham Leggat – “a real gentleman”. Any non-gentlemen? “Willie Woodburn was the hardest.” Did he score the odd goal? “Yes, against Hearts at Tynecastle in the Scottish Cup. A truly beautiful o.g. I wasn’t a great player, although I have to say that coaching back then was almost non-existent. As a professional footballer you were supposed to know exactly what you were doing. My weakness was heading which for a centre-half was pretty dismal. So I never got any better.”
Murray enjoyed football as a youngster, badgered Erskine for stories about his playing days, supported Hibs along with his brother and was ferried by the grandparents to his juvenile games – but, like Erskine, always preferred tennis. “Andy and Jamie would often knock on our door and say: ‘Come and give us a hit, Gran and Grandpa’.” The Erskines moved to Dunblane in 1963, a few years after the birth of the boys’ mother, Judy. “We’d go into the back garden and I’d play some fancy, twiddley shots. Andy would always give me a row: ‘Play properly, Grandpa’!”
The Wimbledon champ’s competitiveness was evident in those early days: the snakes & ladders board would go up in the air if he wasn’t winning. “Both boys were naturals, but Jamie was taken on by the LTA and that was a disaster. He was told to play by the book but came home after a year in Cambridge because he wasn’t enjoying it. He didn’t pick up a racquet again for two years, played golf instead and very quickly got down to three handicap. But there was a time when he was a far more promising tennis player than Andy – Judy’s always said that. Who knows where his career could have gone if he hadn’t made that wrong turning. Judy got it right for Andy. She trawled the world and found him Barcelona.”
Are their personalities different? “Oh yes. Jamie’s very much a people person, Andy less so. He likes being with people but first he’s got to get there.” Maybe the tennis bubble is a barrier, I say. “I’m sure it is. The outlook he has now has been forced on him. He’s got people who tell him what to do, where to be, every day. It’s such a regimented life and I don’t know how he does it.”
Erskine never liked training when he played football and always preferred tennis shots to be completely natural. It’s obvious he couldn’t exist inside that bubble. But with his disinclination towards school and the wearing of ties maybe there’s an outsider-rebel connection to our champion, especially when you think back to Murray’s long wait on the doorstep of middle England before gaining the acceptance of those good manners-loving folks. Certainly, when grandson and grandfather are able to get together they have a ball.
“I remember a great night in London before the World Tour Finals. Judy had got her mum tickets for Strictly Come Dancing, which left me in the hotel with all the top players. Andy wouldn’t have come down to the dining room – he’d have got mobbed – so Judy suggested I have a meal with him in his suite. That’s what we did and it was lovely. He asked about Dunblane all night: ‘Did I know what so-and-so was doing and what about such-and-such?’ Maybe he’d like to come back home one day.”
Not right now, though – there’s still a lot of tennis Murray wants to play. “He’s a legend, he’s won two Grand Slam titles – but he’s not finished yet. After his back surgery I don’t think we were expecting so much from him this year – but he went further in the French Open than he’d ever been before, albeit that he was well beaten by Rafa [Nadal]. I remember my wife saying at the start of the year, ‘Maybe this one will be quieter’, but here we are heading down to Wimbledon again.”
Might Erskine interrupt the sessions with new coach Amelie Mauresmo to suggest Murray re-introduce the surprise shots, maybe one of Grandpa’s twiddley ones from the back-garden? He laughs. “We still can’t quite believe what he’s done: this little lad from a tiny dot of place in a country not renowned for its tennis. Our view has always been: ‘As long as he plays well we’re quite happy’.”