Providing the home support

IN THE back bedroom of the footballer’s wife’s plush apartment in Glasgow’s West End, I encounter a white plastic clothes horse on which hangs what I think is the secret of her husband’s success.

"Is this the lucky blue shirt?" I ask, reaching out to touch a cuff in the hope that a 250,000 salary will soon befall me.

"No," explains Gay McCall, the attractive blonde wife of Dundee United’s new manager, Ian McCall. "He’s got the lucky one with him."

"What about the underpants?" I say, enquiring after but not touching the boxer shorts drip-drying by the radiator.

"Nope. He’s wearing them, too."

In the footballing world, success can be a fickle mistress who prizes consistency over any other attribute and while ITV may insist the glamorous world of a footballer’s wife is all Champagne, cocaine and being snookered on the pool table, Gay McCall can attest that the mundane reality is keeping a close eye on her husband’s crucial lucky smalls.

Like the majority of footballers, McCall is notoriously superstitious. Whatever he wears on a victorious Saturday when the balls are thudded into the net and the cheers of the crowd echo in his ears is re-worn the following week. Luck being a lady understands personal hygiene, so permits the laundering of all items, except for some curious reason, socks. Wash the socks and you’ll pay the price in points. Whenever the luck fades, when the ball are thudded into his own net and the cheers turn to jeers, the items are no longer sacred and the lucky charm is transferred onto the next item of clothing worn when victory re-appears.

"At Falkirk, Ian had such a run of good luck that his trousers were literally falling to pieces and I needed to buy him a new pair. When I told him he was a bit worried and told me to rub the old pair and the new pair together, but I said that a better idea would be to cut a piece off the old pair, so he could keep it in his pocket," explains Gay in a bemused manner. "He was really pleased I’d thought of that idea."

Today footballers’ wives have replaced the Essex girl as the focus of public derision. Portrayed on television and in the press as vacuous, loaded and as likely to stray off the field as their millionaire husbands, their lot is not an easy one especially when their ambassadors are the fictive characters in Footballers’ Wives, the hit ITV show. However, the truth claims to be revealed in Real Footballers’ Wives, on ITV tonight, but as the programme features Page three girl Leilani Dowding, the truth may be as outlandish as the fiction

The plain reality, as Gay will attest, is comparable with the lot of any executive’s wife, long hours on your own, broken weekends and few holidays. The financial remuneration may be sweet - her husband recently signed a contract for 250,000 a year - but contracts are easily broken and an air of uncertainty forever hangs over a footballer or a football manager’s future. In the four years since the 28-year-old married her husband, she has seen the public’s awareness of footballers’ wives grow, unfortunately not their understanding.

"In the past, the girls I went to school with would have looked down their nose at the thought of me marrying a footballer, today they probably think it’s a lot of fun, but the reality is that it’s hard work. I’m happy with it, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to kill the myth that is out there."

A case in point was a recent visit she made with the wife and partner of her husband’s coach and assistant manager to inspect new houses in Broughty Ferry, where they will soon be moving to be closer to Tannadice.

"My friend phoned me on the mobile and I told her what we were doing and she said: ‘It’s just like Footballer’s Wives.’ I said, no its not." In her few years as a footballer’s wife she’s enjoyed both success and heartache, great winning streaks and nine months when her husband was unemployed and between clubs, but she’s never doubted her choice, even if she’s not yet learned to truly love the game.

"Obviously I follow Ian’s team, look at the table and the points and I look to see how well teams that have friends playing for them are doing. I expect if Ian was a racing horse owner, I would pay attention to the racing but I just wish I had more knowledge about football because I love to get my tuppence worth in. I’ll say to Ian, he’s a great player and he’ll look at me and say: ‘No, he’s not’."

While her close friend could not sleep without kissing her Ally McCoist poster a fond goodnight, Gay could never be described as ardent football fan. Educated in the rarefied atmosphere of Fettes College in Edinburgh, where football was too proletarian a pursuit, she understood the basic mechanics of the game, however, the intricate details such as teams or goals scorers remained a foreign tongue.

Leaving Fettes at the first opportunity, she later quit a media course to travel around America. "Nashville, New Orleans, Philadelphia. I had a great time." America was followed by London and a series of bar jobs while living above a Barber’s shop in Brixton. "The place was like Desmond’s - if they didn’t see you pass by for a day or two they would knock on the door to make sure you were all right."

The winding road led her back to Glasgow in 1995 and work in McFabbs, a popular bar. The pub was owned by a friend of Ian McCall’s and it was here she first met her hubsand-to-be. "I was seeing someone at the time and so we were just friends for the first couple of years." After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gay was watching Sportscene with a girlfriend when McCall appeared. "My friend said: ‘Phone him, you’ve fancied him for ages’. So I did."

Their first date illustrated Gay’s ignorance of films as much as football. McCall was the manager of Clydebank and had been advising Robert Duvall on the preparation for his Scottish football film, The Cup, so he invited her to dinner with the actor and another advisor.

"I remember phoning a male friend of mine and saying: ‘Duvall, I know the name, but what’s he been in?’ and he said: ‘God, Gay: Apocalypse Now, The Godfather movies’. He was so jealous and then I told him the other guy I was having dinner with was Jim Baxter. At that point he told me to ‘F*** off’ and hung up. The fact that I didn’t really know these people meant I could act pretty cool and that impressed Ian."

The attraction was mutual and from first date to their wedding was a little under three months. There was no thrones or white doves or lavish banquets for 500 family and friends, instead Gay was so concerned at people’s opinion about their swift courtship that the couple booked the Park Circus registry office, wrote letters inviting her family and closest friends and then headed off on her honeymoon. They then got married upon their return and had a reception at Glasgow’s Art House hotel.

"I just wanted to get away, I didn’t want to listen to people saying: ‘Do you think you’re doing the right thing?’ I know at the time people must have been thinking: ‘I’ll give it six days’."

To Gay the attraction of McCall was not the glamour of football. The Champagne days when he played for Rangers were long behind him and instead he was building a new career as the youngest football manager in Scottish football. "I loved his personality and I knew he was going to be successful."

The reality of the fickleness of football and its fans was struck home when McCall took over as manager of Airdrie after the much loved Steve Archibald. "I went to the first match with my nephew and we all had to have a police escort to get to the car. The fans were screaming abuse at him. They wanted to lynch us because he wasn’t Steve Archibald. That type of thing is the hardest: reading and hearing horrible things about the man you love. It doesn’t bother Ian but it bothers me. It’s just something you have to live with."

The pressure, as Gay admits, is set only to increase in his new role as manager of Dundee United but while McCall may have a temper for his players, he does not bring it home. "He handles pressure really well. He’s the optimistic one. I’m the worrier, but you do notice him winding up, getting ready for the weekend. Sunday is the one day we can really relax and even then he’s often on a sports programme."

For the past few years Gay has worked as a nanny and is now expecting the couple’s first child. She has no intention of taking an outside job for as she explains: "It will be my job to be both parents, Ian will be away a lot. I’ve made that decision to be a full-time mum. I think its important that you give your kids a lot of love and time and I want to be involved all the time."

As she goes to show me to the door, she remembers a key footballer’s wife story. "This will sound ridiculous but I was devastated when I heard that Posh had named her second child Romeo. I must have had a dozen calls from friends commiserating when they heard the news. I wanted that name for myself. I’ve always loved Romeo and Juliet and that’s my nickname for Ian, but he never liked it. He was delighted when they got there first."

Romeo McCall. The kid would have a tough time in the playground, but whatever his name I bet he will be the first one picked at football.

Real Footballers’ Wives, ITV, tonight at 9:50pm.