THE death of Eric Caldow, whose final years were blighted by Alzheimer’s, sees the passing of one of Scotland’s greatest full-backs and captains.
When a broken leg ended his Scotland career in 1963, after 40 internationals since his debut in 1957, he was unchallenged as the country’s first-choice full-back and seemingly on his way to breaking George Young’s – the man he had succeeded as Rangers’ right back – record number of Scotland caps. He was also, in spite of losing the Rangers’ captaincy to Bobby Shearer – a move for which he never forgave manager Scot Symon – unchallenged as Scotland captain, having led the side on 15 occasions.
How good was Caldow – rated the best left-back in the world at the time of his injury? Well, when the Daily Record’s readers were asked to pick a Scotland team for the Millennium, in 2000, they picked Caldow at left-back, with Danny McGrain at right back. He was that good.
Francisco Gento, rated the fastest winger in the world, after facing Caldow in only the Rangers player’s second international, said he was a very difficult player and the first full-back who could match him for pace. Sweden’s Kurt Hamrin, an opponent for Fiorentina in the 1961 Cup-Winners Cup final, also spoke highly of how difficult a man Caldow was to get past.
Jimmy Johnstone used to say: “The only time I ever got past Caldow, he was walking down the street and I drove past in my Jaguar.”
Some said he was the first overlapping full-back, but not Caldow. He said: “Listen, when you have Jim Baxter, Ralph Brand and Davie Wilson playing in front of you, you don’t need to overlap. I would just have got in the way. I would win the ball and give it to Baxter to play with.”
Baxter thought the world of him, saying: “One of the reasons why I was considered the best left-half in the world was I had Eric, the best left-back in the world, playing behind me.”
Yet, at Cumnock Academy in his home town, he was considered “a bit slow”, a failing he overcame by buying athletics spikes and doing sprint training.
He left school to become an apprentice painter with Cumnock Burgh Council, playing football with Glenpark Amateurs, then Muirkirk Juniors. Rangers first spotted him as a 14-year-old, but did not sign him until 1952. He played the first of an eventual 463 first-team games against Ayr United in September 1953, but, not until George Young moved to centre-half, did Caldow become a first-team regular.
Once in the team his versatility – he was equally at home on either flank – soon earned him higher recognition. He was a member of the first Scotland Under-23 team, in 1955, then, after earning Scottish League XI honours, he made his debut, at right back, against England in 1957 at Wembley.
He was not totally overwhelmed at this. He had actually hoped to be picked at left-back, so he could pit his wits against Stanley Matthews. But, as legend has it, he faced Matthews once in the game – and won the ball.
His uneasy relationship with Symon saw him occasionally left out of the team. During one absence, Matt Busby, then rebuilding Manchester United following the Munich air disaster, offered £75,000, a massive sum for a full-back then.
Caldow would have been United captain, in succession to Roger Byrne who had been killed at Munich, but when it came to signing he could not leave Rangers. He stayed and returned as captain.
He was an ever-present throughout the 1958 and 1962 Scotland World Cup qualifying campaigns and one of just five players to play in every one of the three games in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden. It seemed Young’s record of 54 Scotland caps was his for the taking, then came his 40th cap, at Wembley in 1963.
The previous year at Hampden he had led Scotland to their first home win over England since 1937, clinching the win with an 88th minute penalty. One year on, his international career was over, following a fifth minute tackle by Bobby Smith, which left Caldow with a compound leg break. Ten-man Scotland, with Davie Wilson having the game of his life as Caldow’s replacement at left-back, and Baxter scoring twice, won 2-1.
By the time Caldow was fit again, long-time reserve David Provan had not only stepped into the Rangers team, but won Scotland honours. Caldow became the elder statesman in the reserves but, in 1965, when Provan in turn suffered a broken leg, he returned to the side and gave a masterclass in full-back play, totally subduing Johnstone in the League Cup final at Hampden. This game was his last hurrah, as he was freed at the end of the following season.
He had a record he was extremely proud of – he won five League Championship medals, three Scottish Cup winner’s ones and also three League Cup winner’s medals.
He also made 24 appearances for the Scottish League XI and captained the Rangers side which reached the inaugural European Cup-Winners Cup final in 1961, losing out to Fiorentina. There was a season as a part-timer with Stirling Albion – at that time he also owned a pub in Hamilton. He then wound down his playing career as player-manager with Corby Town.
Returning to Scotland, he worked for a building supplies company, had brief spells in management with Stranraer and Hurlford United and Cumnock in the Juniors. He did not completely sever his ties with football, being one of the founders of the Ayrshire Ex-Professionals XI, who raised a lot of money for charity in his home county. He also returned to Rangers as a very popular match day host, so popular that fans arranged that he be given the testimonial match he had been denied as a player.
Needless to say, he is in both the Rangers and Scottish Football Halls of Fame.
He played golf and snooker, after retiring from football – even, on one memorable occasion, travelling with Cumnock Rugby Club on a weekend tour to Oban, playing in one game and converting a penalty. He also, along with Billy McNeill, stood unsuccessfully for Holyrood for the Pensioner’s Party.
Caldow and his ‘Geordie’ wife Laura enjoyed a long and happy marriage, being a popular couple around their home in Mauchline. The tragedy of his son Eric junior being killed in a car crash blighted Caldow’s life, as did Laura’s untimely death.
His later years were affected by Alzheimer’s but, supported by daughter Jacqueline, he was a keen member of the Football Memories Scotland network. This was a great comfort to him, although Willie Knox, the legendary Auchinleck Talbot manager, recalls one Football Memories meeting when the usually unflappable Caldow threatened to punch him, when they fell out over the result of a particular Rangers v Raith Rovers game. Caldow – who had actually played in the match – refused to believe Raith had ever scored five goals against Rangers.
Caldow will be remembered as one of the best in the long line of Rangers and Scotland full-backs; as a great captain, and for one remarkable statistic – in more than 500 games at senior level in a 14-year career, he was never booked. His play was as immaculate as his appearance.