Interview: Alex MacDonald, Rangers and Hearts star
Now I like Frankie Boyle, he’s a funny guy, but I reckon the comedian got it wrong when he called Kirkintilloch the worst wee town in Scotland. Have I, in this corner of East Dunbartonshire, not just enjoyed a coffee in an Italian bistro advertising a “theatre menu”, which would seem to indicate the existence nearby of a troupe of amateur thesps if not an actual proscenium arch? And am I not now daundering along a pleasant waterway, all swollen and lush from the summer downpours?
Not just any old waterway either but the Forth-Clyde Canal and somewhere on its banks there occurred an event which grips me, giving the lie to the idea that nothing remarkable ever happens in Kirky. It was an encounter between two footballers from a more innocent age – before player downtime consisted only of computer games, shopping for designer gear in Harvey Nicks and, on blank weekends, wingdings to Dubai. And I can’t work out what’s more remarkable – that Willie Wallace of Celtic was on horseback or that Rangers’ Alex MacDonald was bird-watching.
Sadly, there is no plaque marking where Wispy met Doddie, so I’ll just have to pop in to the Kirkintilloch Rangers Supporters’ Club, where Doddie can often be found, and get him to tell the story. “Every Wednesday, my day off, me and this old neighbour went spotting,” he explains. “Actually, this boy used to do rather more than that. He was into breeding different birds so he’d lay traps for them. This was illegal, of course, and even though I was just watching the guy, I dare say I’d have been the one splashed across the front pages if we’d been found out. When the horseman happened by that day I did wonder if it was the mounted polis but it was just Willie. I didn’t know he was into horses and there’s no way he could have known I was into birds.”
Wallace is a Kirkintilloch native who’s long been exiled in Australia. “I’ve seen Willie when he’s been back – the last time he gave me a big hug.” But MacDonald had a most urban childhood in the heart of industrial Glasgow in Tradeston – why birds? “Dunno,” he smiles, “but I’ve always found them fascinating. We lived in Scotland Street where every Sunday night one of the local shops became this market where the enthusiasts would buy and swap birds. As a laddie I loved to listen to these guys’ patter and even though we were in the city you could still see birds in the closes, disappearing into tiny holes. Up the railway line there were a lot of doocots and I knew just about everyone who had an aviary.”
If you remember MacDonald as a player – perpetual motion, pugnacious, a pest – it’s funny to be sipping red wine with him in a quiet corner and chit-chatting about our feathered friends. Were STV to devolve its transmissions ever further and launch a strictly Kirkintilloch channel, he could be the nature correspondent. How about Summerwatch, not with Bill Oddie but Doddie? At other times, as the jokes fly, many involving Rangers, the afternoon is like an audience with the late bluenose gagman, Lex McLean.
“Birds make a rare hobby,” he continues. “I don’t do so much of it now because me and my wife Christine like to holiday in Spain so I can get some sun on my old, beat-up bones but the grandkids are showing an interest, so maybe I’ll have to get my books out. My neighbour in Kirky, he was pretty crafty. He used to lure the birds down by laying out food on this sticky solution which was really for catching rats. That sounds pretty cruel but he was ever so careful to clean the stuff off their feet using margarine. He was trying to breed the British birds – bullfinches, greenfinches and goldfinches, which are the most beautiful of all – with canaries in the hope of producing new and different colours and a good whistle. At one point I had 15 canaries of my own. I don’t know if my team-mates at Ibrox ever knew about my hobby. Certainly they were more interested in a different sort of bird.”
The walls of the supporters’ club are covered with murals and photographs of Rangers greats and as you search for MacDonald in the pre-season line-ups – flame of hair, sturdy of hurdy, ready for Barcelona immortality, as the club motto would have it, ready too for trebles – it’s striking how many from his story have passed away, some of them all too early.
There was Davie Cooper of course, his great friend, Sandy Jardine, and most recently Colin Jackson. I mention Brian Whittaker from his time as Hearts manager and also Steve Cooper, one of his “hardy boys” – a favourite phrase, Doddie’s ultimate compliment – at Airdrie. “Don’t forget Justin Fashanu,” he says, then: “Christ, are you trying to tell me somethin’?”
He reflects on his rumbustious career: “I must have been a good kisser because I was 12 years at Rangers, ten at Hearts and eight at Airdrie. Only St Johnstone got rid of me.” Now 67, he soldiers on with the recent insertion of a stent to go with his replacement hips. The Birdman of Kirky hasn’t flown the coop yet. “Losing so many of my contemporaries, though, it’s quite chilling. I’m just off the phone to Kenny Black who, we found out this week, has a heart problem. He was one of the fittest guys I managed – ‘Son of Doddie’, they called him. I’m sad about all the friends who’ve gone but me and Sandy had something special. We hit it off right away, firing one-liners at each other, me winding him up about coming from Edinburgh, him coming right back, and that never stopped. I’m afraid I couldn’t go and see him at the end. I told him that on the phone, that I wouldn’t have been able to cope, and then I had big greet. He understood, I think.”
For a long time, in the wake of their financial meltdowns, the prognoses for the two clubs with which MacDonald is most associated were dire. But this weekend as Rangers compete in the League Cup, a trophy Doddie won four times, and Hearts return to the top flight, he’s feeling a whole lot more optimistic about their prospects.
He’ll be trying to keep a keen eye on TV coverage of the Jambos v St Johnstone while carrying out his usual meet-and-greet duties at Ibrox before the tie with Peterhead. “It’s great to have Hearts back in the big league,” he says. “That wee lady [Ann Budge] coming in and putting her money where her heart is has been fantastic. Craig’s there [Levein] and he’s a clever big cookie. They’ve lost a couple of boys to Rangers but haven’t they got some new ones? Hopefully no biters.”
This is the 30th anniversary of Hearts’ tragedy season when MacDonald’s side, co-managed by Jardine, were seven minutes from being crowned champions. The next week they would lose the Scottish Cup final as well – how often does he think about those near misses? “Only when buggers like you mention them! You know, I sometimes wonder if they weren’t the better story. Had we won the double maybe by now it would have been forgotten about.” I tell him I doubt that, hoping he might reflect some more on 1985-86, although in the past he’s halted the filming of a TV programme about it because the memories were too painful.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over what happened,” he says. “Not for myself or Sandy, but all the people we let down. I’d never seen so many grown men cry as were in the stands at Dens Park when the league was lost. The players were greetin’, too, and trying to get them up for the cup final I kept having to nip into the loos because I was at it as well. But these guys had nothing to ashamed of. They were a smashing team: talented kids, some good old boys and a few who came out of the Kays catalogue. As everyone knows, we were hit by a flu bug. If I’d still been 39 I would have played. Would that have made a difference? I dunno. Anyway, I’d just turned 40 and that seemed like a bad number.”
Hearts are big in his affections, Rangers are bigger, both with great potential for humour. Arriving at Tynecastle first as a player, collar and tie in adherence of Ibrox rules, he was stunned by the laissez-faire atmosphere: “There were boys in bleached denims and string vests, with juice and crisps and radios blaring, boasting about being out until half-six in the morning. I phoned Sandy and said: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ ” MacDonald is laughing some more because granddaughter Jodie recently announced at school and announced that his job was “selling pies and programmes”. “I thought she’d understand that better than ‘hospitality’. Now I tell her I stand at the door and if any punter’s not wearing a red, white and blue scarf I rush them down to the club shop to buy one.”
How many times have Rangers fans like Doddie been told the club have “turned a corner” only for for it to quickly become apparent they were still stuck in the maddening vortex? These are early days in Mark Warburton’s tenure but our man is impressed. “I missed the [Petrofac Cup] game against Hibs because I was with my good lady but in the friendly against Burnley I saw some fast-flowing football. The ante seems to have been upped as regards player fitness and that had to happen. As a veteran of the sand dunes under Jock Wallace I couldn’t believe how it was sometimes hard to tell the difference between the team in Rangers colours and boys from the lower divisions. Not meaning to be critical of the SFA, but we’re coming away from Walter [Smith], Alex [McLeish] and Ally [McCoist]. We’re getting someone different now, someone from England with his own ideas, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the guy can do.”
Whether Warburton will have Hibernian’s Scott Allan at No 10 is still a matter for over-heated debate but this much is certain: the Ibrox target may have been a Rangers supporter since boyhood but he’d be hard-pushed to match the fan credentials of our man. This No 10 – they called them inside-lefts back then – skived school so he could watch Willie Henderson play “heidie-tennis” at training. He led the charge to scale a wall and sneak onto the pitch for kickabouts. When he strode into the middle of the Govan arena for the first time as a bona-fide Bear, he scanned the giant wall of humanity and, not in a big-headed way, pondered: “I think I know you lot.”
He was pleased to spot a pal in the crowd before his Old Firm debut, although the greeting severely compromised the friend who was in the wrong end. And in Barcelona, when the Cup-Winners’ Cup celebrations turned into mayhem and he had to be plucked to safety by a fan, Doddie knew this fellow, too.
The son of a labourer and a machinist, MacDonald was a tearaway as a kid who liked fighting, got intrigued by the Mods-Rockers culture, rode pillion on an appropriated moped and might easily have travelled down the wrong road entirely. “I could have ended up in more trouble than I did and do think: ‘There but for the grace of God’.” Partick Thistle were first to show interest but Willie Thornton, the ex-Ranger whose return to Ibrox later would coincide with Doddie’s arrival, declared him a “hooligan”.
He was two years in Perth where he continued to dream of Ibrox but didn’t agitate for a move like players nowadays. “I was just thrilled to be playing football and St Johnstone, a great wee club, really looked after me.” He formed a mischievous double-act with Kenny Aird, similarly diminutive and carrot-topped. Working scissors movements they played on their similarities to outfox opponents. Once against Celtic, MacDonald gave Jimmy Johnstone a “wee smack”. After the Saints pair swapped wings Jinky thumped the innocent Aird, knocking out one of his teeth and getting sent off.
It was Davie White who granted him his light-blue wish but Doddie – a nickname given him by Erik Sorensen, derived from Ken Dodd’s Diddymen, for being too wee to hang his shirt on the Ibrox pegs – struggled in his surroundings. “Suddenly playing in front of 50,000 was hard. I was born three miles along the road and what killed me was I thought everyone knew me. Up at Muirton I ran all over that big park but as soon as I stepped onto the pitch at Ibrox my energy was gone – burned away by nerves. That couldn’t last. I had a word with myself.”
The urgings of Willie Waddell and then Jock Wallace helped him become a key member of the side which eventually got the better of Jock Stein’s Celtic. He was obviously valued because when he stormed out of Ibrox at half-time in a game with Clydebank, presumably after asking a taller team-mate to fetch down his clothes, because he was unhappy at what he felt was unjustified criticism, the anticipated bollocking the next day never came.
The tale of the 1972 triumph over Dynamo Moscow is often told but I didn’t know, until reading MacDonald’s recent memoirs, that in the team’s hotel just outside Barcelona a few weeks before the final the actor George Sanders had committed suicide in one of the rooms. Famous for playing upper-class villains, Sanders’ note read: “Dear world, I am leaving you because I am bored.” Says Doddie: “We were too busy worrying about Russian footballers to be bothered about ghosts, but I don’t think any of us were brave enough to take his room.”
MacDonald wore his winner’s medal with pride – indeed it was always round his neck until two years ago when he was mugged in Benidorm. He was remarkably philosophical about the robbery, saying at the time: “I’m embarrassed more than anything. I was just a fat, old guy in Spain who got mugged. But I’ve always been of the opinion that if you get something stolen then maybe the thief needed it more than you did.”
Now, as with most things, Doddie has turned the incident into yet another gag: “I tried to chase the boy, and if he’d run onto the beach I’d have definitely caught him, thanks to Jock Wallace’s training on the dunes at Gullane. The supporters’ club here, and some of my team-mates, organised a replacement medal and I’m grateful to them. Christine wants me to hurry up and start wearing it because fans love to see it, but maybe I should loop some fishing gut through the chain. That way if I get mugged again my heid will come off, only it will be returned with a note: ‘This one eats and drinks too much’!”