Obituary: Alex Govan

Alex Govan, footballer. Born: 16 June 1929, in Glasgow. Died 10 June, 2016 in Plymouth

Pacy winger starred for Plymouth and Birmingham, but never his native Scotland. Picture: contributed
Pacy winger starred for Plymouth and Birmingham, but never his native Scotland. Picture: contributed

Alex Govan who has died just before his 87th birthday, was one of many Scottish footballers of the 1950s to have enjoyed a successful career in England without becoming a household name in their own country.

A Scottish youth international, he played 350 games, mostly for Plymouth Argyle and Birmingham City, winning three championship medals as well as playing in the 1956 FA Cup final for City, a game that probably cost him a Scottish cap. He helped them to their highest ever league placing, sixth in the old First Division and played in Europe in the old Fairs Cup, memorably scoring the two goals in Birmingham that knocked out Inter Milan before losing to Barcelona in the semi-final.

Credited with introducing the Harry Lauder song ‘Keep Right on to the End of the Road’ as the club ‘anthem’, he remained a particular favourite with City fans, being elected into the club’s Hall of Fame in 2012 and a highly popular guest at matches and functions.

Govan was an industrious, pacy left winger noted for pinpoint crosses and goalscoring, notching over 100, an outstanding return for a winger.

Brought up at 615 London Road, Bridgeton, he attended John Street school and played for Bridgeton Boys’ Club, including against Tommy Docherty’s Shettleston Violet. He was picked to play for Scotland in a Youth International against Wales in Swansea in 1945. That same day Plymouth Argyle were playing Swansea in a league match and Argyle’s manager Jack Tresarden watched the international first. Impressed by Govan, he gave him a trial and then arranged for him to play with Kilsyth Rangers for a spell. The club invited the youngster and his father down for talks, accommodating them in the Grand Hotel and treating them royally before clinching his signature with the offer of £6 a week.

He made his first team debut in October 1946, aged 17, in a game against Coventry City. Thereafter top team games were sporadic for a while, partly due to being called up for National Service with the RAF much of which he spent playing football. He found it amusing that during two years there he never saw a plane. His time was spent in Gloucester, the base of their football team which he represented in many games including against the Army and an England Select XI.

His service over, by 1950 he became a first team regular and was in the team that won the old Third Division South title in 1952, playing to average home crowds of 20,000. The next season he helped them to their highest ever finish of fourth in the old Second Division before Birmingham City signed him in June 1953. Reluctant to leave Plymouth as he had married a local girl, Sylvia Jolly, the year before, ‘Blues’ manager Ted Brocklebank persuaded him to join with the offer of a house. Later he remarked: “It was the best move I ever made.” He and his wife went on to enjoy 60 years of happy and fulfilling marriage, raising three children.

In his second season,City won the old Second Division title and finished sixth in the old First Division in 1956. The same year they reached the FA Cup Final only to lose 3-1 to Manchester City in what became remembered as ‘Trautmann’s match’, Manchester’s German ‘keeper playing on despite a broken neck. The Cup Final run gave birth to City fans adopting the Harry Lauder song. On the coach en route to play Arsenal in the quarter final, Govan gave it a hearty rendition which soon spread among the rest of the team and to the fans. Scotland selected him in the squad to play Austria but as the game was three days before Wembley he was withdrawn and the opportunity never arose again.

In 1957 they reached the semi-final where the ‘Busby Babes’ of Manchester United beat them, the year before the Munich tragedy.That year he was City’s top scorer with 30 goals, including five hat tricks, three coming within ten days.He recalled: “In those days you weren’t given the match ball, it was ‘dubbined’ up and ready for the next game.” But years later Argyle fans in his local Plymouth pub bought him a Birmingham City ball, had his hat trick feats printed on it and gave him it on his birthday.

After five seasons at City he moved on to Portsmouth but only spent half a season there before returning to Plymouth with whom he won the old Third Division title, playing his last game against Stoke in February 1960. He then coached for a while,with Truro City and Plymouth Juniors, winning them the Devon Youth Cup, proudly keeping their team photo above his fireplace. He worked in the licensed trade, ran a grocery store and was a toolmaker till retirement when he enjoyed playing golf regularly. A useful player, in 1955 he won the Professional Footballers’ Association golf cup at Moor Park, Leeds.

Although he lived in England many more years than in Scotland, his attachment and his accent remained strong, with he and sons enjoying biennial trips to Wembley for the Scotland game.

He is survived by son Tom, daughter Angela and six grandchildren, his wife and son Ian having predeceased him.