Obituary: Gordon Matthew Strachan, Scots rugby international

Scotland rugby player and coach who later battled a serious heart condition. Picture: Ian Brand
Scotland rugby player and coach who later battled a serious heart condition. Picture: Ian Brand
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Born: Littlemill, Ayrshire, 16 November, 1947. Died: 3 May, 2016, in Ayr aged 68.

Gordon Strachan, who has died after a long and courageous battle against the rare and incurable heart condition cardiac amyloidosis, never received the recognition his talents as a back row forward deserved.

Certainly he won five Scotland caps between 1971 and 1973, but he played for the “unfashionable” Jordanhill Colleges club, indeed, he was only the second Jordanhill College player, after his legendary fellow Ayr Academical and club-mate Ian “Mighty Mouse” McLauchlan, to be capped while with that club. Many contemporaries will tell you, Scotland discarded him prematurely and the thought of what might have been, Strachan and David Leslie operating in tandem as wing forwards, could be said to show how the SRU selectors of the time, so often got it wrong.

He was born in the mining community of Littlemill, but the Strachan family soon moved to Coylton, where Gordon and elder sister Annette were educated at Coylton Primary School. From there he went on to Ayr Academy, where he shone academically and in sport. He won representative honours in badminton, and captained the Academy XV in his sixth year.

Gordon also played football, for Ayr Boswell, then, in the Ayrshire juniors with Glen-afton Athletic, with whom he won an Ayrshire League Cup-Winners medal in 1968. The Afton wanted to keep him, but rugby was his first love and he spent a season playing with Ayr before, as a student at the Scottish School of Physical Education, at Jordanhill College, he switched to playing for the college.

His promise was evident but Bill Dickinson the Jordanhill coach, and “Adviser to the Captain” as de facto coach of Scotland wanted to toughen him up. “Bill told me he would first make me a butcher, then a player, by playing me at second row”, Gordon used to explain.

The plan worked. GM Strachan played for the victorious Whites in the Scotland trial in December, 1970, but, his international debut had to wait until the final game of the 1971 international season – the additional “Centenary Match” at Murrayfield, which marked the first international rugby match, between Scotland and England, at Raeburn Place.

This came one week after Gordon had been an unused replacement in the Calcutta Cup match, which Scotland won, their first Twickenham triumph since 1938. Gordon went on in the second half, to replace Gordon Brown, who had injured himself denying David Duckham a seemingly certain try.

“I don’t remember too much about my debut, the game flew past quickly and I think I only touched the ball once”, he would later recall. Injury, however, meant he missed the entire 1972 Five Nations and his second cap did not come until the Welsh visited Murrayfield in February, 1973.

This was a significant game for Gordon. He had kept his Scotland cap in its box, in his bottom drawer – vowing he would not bring it out and put it on display until he had earned it, by being selected to start. The Welsh game sorted that out and, during the game, he distinguished himself by nullifying the threat of Mervyn Davies at the tail of the line-out. Gordon’s display was warmly praised by The Scotsman’s Norman Mair as “Pircay in the extreme”.

He held his place for the win over Ireland, and the loss of a Triple Crown match, against England at Twickenham, then into another additional game, the SRU Centenary Game, between Scotland and an SRU President’s XV, composed of French stars Rene Benesis and Benoit Dauga and 13 southern hemisphere players. Scotland also won this one.

Gordon’s final Scotland appearance came in November, 1973, in a non-cap international against Argentina, which was notable for a couple of full-scale brawls.

Jordanhill, although they had won the Unofficial Club Championship in 1971, were still an unfashionable club and this told against Gordon, who was unceremoniously dumped by the selectors, not even selected for the Scotland trial that season.

He continued to play for Jordanhill for a time, before marriage to childhood sweetheart Anne, and new responsibilities as head of PE at the newly opened Kyle Academy in Ayr forced him to rejoin Ayr. He became captain, playing out his career with his first club.

Gordon had never entirely divorced himself from Ayr RFC. Even when playing for Jordanhill and Scotland, he played each close season for Ayr in the Rug-Soc League, a football tournament for the Ayrshire rugby clubs, designed to keep their fitness levels up over the close season.

When he hung up his boots, Ayr wanted him to switch to coaching, but, he opted for a break from rugby, during which he reduced his golf handicap and enjoyed life. He was, however, enticed back to Millbrae in 1981, after Ayr were relegated to Division Three. His coaching skill saw the club go straight back up to the First Division, whereupon he again stepped down, to spend time with his young family.

When he began coaching, Gordon had vowed to be an analytic coach, watching from the stands rather than roaring from the touchlines – this lasted a mere 15 minutes of his opening game.

Once he stopped coaching, he continued to be a keen supporter of Ayr, while the work of he and former footballer Gerry Phillips, who worked alongside Gordon, before succeeding him when Gordon retired, soon saw Kyle Academy forge a good sporting reputation.

His retirement plans were curtailed when Gordon was diagnosed with his heart problem. He had frequently to travel to London for treatment, then, when he was told his complaint was terminal, he accepted his fate with the courage and dignity that had marked his life.

Gordon had hoped to live long enough – he had already greatly exceeded the time he was given to live when his disease was diagnosed – to escort youngest daughter Shonagh up the aisle next month, but, fate denied him.

He was one of very few international players of his era not to be invited to play for the Barbarians, which was their loss. He was a hard but fair player, and criminally under-capped.

Gordon is survived by sister Annette, wife Anne, daughters Fiona, Lorna and Shonagh and grandsons Liam, Joseph and Scott.