Obituary: Bert McCann, Scottish international footballer who played in disastrous 9-3 defeat by England at Wembley
BERT McCann, who has died suddenly in his 85th year, will forever be remembered as one of the 11 Scots, who participated in the worst defeat in the long history of Scottish international football. Indeed, he and goalkeeper Frank Haffey carried the can for the terrible 9-3 beating Scotland sustained at the hands of England on 15 April, 1961.
Five players: Haffey, McCann, Dave Mackay, Ian St John and Denis Law were dropped, all bar Haffey and McCann were subsequently recalled. Bert McCann, at least, had a valid excuse for not being at his best that day – he spent the night before the game in hospital in London, being treated for a persistent nose-bleed. This meant, because of possible cross-contamination, he had to wear gloves to shake hands with HM the Queen at the game, but manager Ian McColl never thought of dropping him; he believed: “A 70 per cent fit Bert McCann was a better bet than the alternative”. In any case, there was no shame in losing his place to Jim Baxter; after five caps, McCann was a former internationalist, with Bobby Robson’s England shirt as a permanent reminder of the day. But, between winning his first cap, in a 3-2 Hampden win over West Germany, until that final disastrous 90 minutes at Wembley, McCann was never in a losing Scotland side. He had the same good record in his five games for the Scottish League XI, his five games for them included scoring the opener in 3-2 win over the English League in March, 1961. His excellent man-marking of Jimmy Greaves in that game, as much as his goal, got him into that Wembley team.
A former pupil of rugby-playing Harris Academy in his native Dundee, McCann played junior for Dundee North End, before signing as an amateur with Dundee United, then a lowly Second Division club, for whom he played 27 games. He was with United when he won his first Scotland Amateur cap, while studying Geography and Spanish at Edinburgh University.
After teacher training, he joined the staff at George Heriot’s School in the capital, where another staff member, Jack Crichton, on the verge of hanging up his boots as a Queen’s Park player, persuaded his young colleague to throw in his lot with the Spiders, for whom Bert, initially an inside-right, played 61 games, while adding to his tally of Amateur caps.
Bobby Ancell, who had coached the young McCann back in Dundee, was building what would be known as “the Ancell Babes”, in his capacity as Motherwell manager and he saw Bert as the ideal man for the middle of the park. Thus began a Motherwell career which would see him play over 300 games, and become club captain, during one of the most exciting times in the history of the club.
As the team developed, McCann, centre-half John Martis, forwards Willie Hunter, Pat Quinn, Ian St John and Andy Weir would all be capped by Scotland, while others such as Charlie Aitken and Bobby Roberts were certainly good enough to have been capped, but were unlucky. McCann, St John and Weir were all first capped together in that West Germany game at the end of a season which had seen Motherwell finish third, behind Rangers and Hearts, the club’s highest finish for 25-years.
But the end of the maximum wage in England saw predatory English clubs better able to entice away the likes of Quinn, St John and Bobby Roberts and while Motherwell were still competitive, they never again challenged for the major honours. There was a Scottish Cup semi-final in 1962, the year after one of the great Motherwell results, when, under skipper McCann, they went to Ibrox for a Scottish Cup replay and thrashed Rangers 5-2.
“At our best, as we were that night, we could beat anyone – we were playing tiki-taki half a century before Barcelona,” McCann would claim. He and Aitken were the stars of that night, in spite of St John getting a couple of goals.
He ran down his playing career at Hamilton Academical, where he reverted to inside-right and finished the season as the club’s top scorer.
McCann might well, had he wished, been a great manager. He was ahead of his time in believing Scottish football was “amateurish” in the way it was run. He felt the clubs did not do enough to help players make the transition from playing to the rest of their lives, and was an advocate of proper nutrition, a gym culture and better preparation long before such things became popular.
But this teacher was meant for other fields. William “The Dome” Dewar, his legendary head teacher at Heriot’s, persuaded Bert to apply for a staff post at Moray House, training the next generations of teachers and there, he was one of the pioneers of the use of television in distance learning. He was a participant in the first televised conference call, between Edinburgh, London and New York in 1966 – when such use of technology was ground-breaking.
He never forgot his old Motherwell team mates, and was one of an entire team of former players to join the Well Society when it was formed, with the intention of funding a fans’ buy-out of the club. He always enjoyed reminiscing with former team mates, indeed, when asked to speak at a former players function, and feeling nervous about the prospect, he famously tore up his prepared speech and off-the-cuff delivered memories of incidents involving former team mates in the room. He went down a storm.
In retirement from football he golfed, skied, played a mean game of snooker and occasionally picked up a cricket bat, he had been a promising wicket-keeper in his youth. He also, memorably, in 1971, pulled on a Scotland strip for one final time, when he played in a Veterans Five-a-side competition at Meadowbank, alongside his idol, the great Gordon Smith, against, among others, England’s footballing knights, Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, Billy Wright and some of the legendary Hungarians such as Gyula Groscics, Nandor Hidegkuti and Ferenc Puskas himself, playing for a Europe Select.
He suffered from failing health in his final years, heart trouble was followed by a kidney transplant, but he was managing his declining health well until his final, short illness.
Bert McCann is survived by his wife Viv, son Simon, daughter Juliet and five grand- children.