Obituary: Alex Rennie, footballer, coach and manager

Alex Rennie in the 1978-79 season
Alex Rennie in the 1978-79 season
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Alexander Duncan Rennie, footballer, coach and manager. Born: Falkirk, 27 September, 1948. Died: Denny, 4 March, 2018, aged 69.

Alex Rennie, who has died after a long battle against cancer, was proof of the football adage that journeyman players often make the best managers and coaches.

He emerged from a very good Gairdoch United youth team, based at Carronshore on the banks of the Forth, in which his teammates included John Blackley, later to be one of the 1974 Scotland World Cup heroes while a Hibs player, and future Falkirk local hero Wilson Hoggan. Rennie’s performances with Gairdoch took him to Rangers, but, like so-many young Scots signed by the club before or since, he failed to break through into the first team.

Stirling Albion was his next port of call and his solid form for the side attracted the attention of former Famous Five member Willie Ormond – like Alex a Forth Valley boy, who was forging his managerial reputation at St Johnstone.

In well over 200 games for the Perth Saints, Alex became a fan favourite as a holding midfielder or defender. He would win the ball for perhaps more gifted teammates such as Alex MacDonald, Jim Pearson, John Connolly or Henry Hall to weave their magic.

These were good years for Saints and Rennie. A highest-ever third place finish in the old First Division, behind Jock Stein’s immortal Celtic team and Eddie Turnbull’s great Aberdeen side, brought European Football to Perth and sent Ormond off to manage Scotland. Rennie stayed on, before moving to Dundee United. However, his stay at Tannadice was curtailed by a serious eye injury, which forced him to hang up his boots and turn to coaching.

By now Ormond had had enough of the politics of the SFA and Scotland, and moved to Hearts as manager, taking over with the club relegated for the first time in its history. He offered Rennie his toehold in coaching as his assistant.

The Ormond reign was a topsy-turvy time at Tynecastle. Promotion in 1977-78 was followed by immediate relegation. Although nothing like what was to come some years later, the club was in crisis and, in January, 1980, even though they were top of the First Division and looking set for a return to the Premiership, Ormond quit, with Rennie installed as caretaker manager.

He was in charge at Tynecastle for just six weeks, but never lost a game, and took Hearts to top spot in the First Division, and through two rounds of the Scottish Cup, before handing over to Bobby Moncur. That short introduction to life at the sharp end of coaching was enough to persuade St Johnstone, struggling in the lower reaches of that division, to offer him the manager’s position.

In his first season, Rennie guided Saints up to third place in the division, as he rebuilt the side. One of his first moves was to convert a young midfielder from East Kilbride into a striker and that teenager, Alistair McCoist, went on to win Scotland youth honours by the end of that season, and, ultimately, to earn the club a record £400,000 transfer fee when he was sold to Sunderland – the rest is history.

There was a wee bit of second season syndrome, as Saints slumped to fifth in 1981-82, but, in 1982-83, Rennie and Saints got it right, holding off Hearts by one point to win the First Division title and return the club to the Premier Division from which they had been relegated at the end of the inaugural season in 1976.

The picture of the white-suited Rennie, clutching the championship trophy, surrounded by his players, is an iconic one for all Perth fans.

Sadly, the part-time Saints could not compete against nine full-time clubs and they were relegated at the end of their first season back. Worse was to follow as they slid to the foot of the First Division. No manager can survive back-to-back relegations and Rennie quit.

Apart from a short spell, helping out on the coaching staff at his local club, Stenhousemuir, that was Alex Rennie done with football. He and wife Carolyn took over the Blackmills Inn in Falkirk. However, Carolyn recalls, being behind the bar didn’t suit Alex, who handed over the running of the business to her, as he started a driving school, which he ran until his first cancer diagnosis. He bravely fought and beat throat cancer, but, when also assailed by cancer of the oesophagus, this was a fight Alex could not win.

He is survived by Carolyn, his wife of 48 years, son Mark, daughter Dawn and grandchildren Olivia, Georgia, Zac and Abi.

MATTHEW VALLANCE