Jim Baxter documentary pays tribute to a legend

In this week of all weeks, when Scottish football mourned another left-footed flawed hero in Ralph Milne, it felt particularly instructive to watch a superbly researched documentary on the life of Jim Baxter.

Baxter with Billy Bremner after the 3-2 win over England in 1967. Picture: EMPICS/ALPHA
Baxter with Billy Bremner after the 3-2 win over England in 1967. Picture: EMPICS/ALPHA

Of course, Milne would have been the first to admit he could not hold a candle to Baxter. Almost no-one born in this country since pigs’ bladders started being kicked around could. He was a one-off, a genius. But yes, a flawed one.

This side to his character is of course explored by the Purple TV documentary titled simply Jim Baxter that was premiered at the Glasgow Film Theatre last night. But it isn’t the whole tale. There is a family backstory that more than one talking head proposes as being why Baxter, who died in 2001 at the age of just 61, lived life to such 

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There are other, more celebratory lines that linger long after the credits roll. Baxter’s coach at Crossgates Primrose is heard recalling why he stood out: “He could trap and pass a ball – 75 per cent of players can’t do that now.” This was vintage footage which means today’s complaints are clearly not new ones.

Baxter with the Scottish League Cup after Rangers' 2-1 victory over Celtic in the final at Hampden. Picture: Topham Picturepoint

As well as being present last night for the first screening, author Val McDermid is interviewed at length for the documentary itself. To the uninitiated, this might seem slightly odd, since, apart from her Fife roots and support for Raith Rovers, not much else links the crime author to Baxter.

But her father, Jim, was the man who scouted Baxter for Raith. McDermid was the person Baxter had to thank for supplementing the £7 he was then earning a week as a miner by another £10, which is what he originally earned from Raith.

According to Val, Baxter was “god’s gift to the working classes”. He was also god’s gift to those Scots dismayed by England winning the World Cup in 1966, leading the world champions a merry dance the following year (having already done so at Wembley in 1963).

Perhaps highlighting how the documentary seems to want to present a more rounded portrayal of the man, footage of his famous keepie-uppies is glimpsed only very briefly towards the end – and by which time Baxter has been given the tribute he deserves.

As well as Baxter, the stars of the show include his parents, Agnes and Rab. There is brilliant archive footage where Baxter himself is interviewing his mum and dad. Agnes recalls a Christmas where Baxter was given a pair of football boots and a mouth organ. Baxter put the mouth organ down at side of the pitch and went to play football. This isn’t to decry Hill of Beath, the Fife village from where Baxter hails. But, yes, the moothie was lifted. So had it not been for a quirk of fate, Baxter might well have gone on to distinguish himself by joining fellow Fifer Jimmy Shand’s band.

But he didn’t. He became a footballer, a quite brilliant one at that. He also allowed himself to become snared by some of the trappings of fame. Baxter, of course, would have appreciated being the reason for some Glasgow glitz last night. It wasn’t quite the red- carpet glamour of Hollywood. But then, as a child of Fife, there was also a likeably down-home quality to Baxter, despite the renown.

Plenty of stars turned out, however. Two of Scotland’s finest goalies, Andy Goram and Alan Rough, were present in the audience, as were contemporaries of Baxter, including Willie Henderson from Rangers, and, from his earlier Raith Rovers days, Denis Mochan and Jim Thorburn.

There were even whispers Denis Law might attend. But his presence was restricted to the screen. His words could only add weight to the legend. One of the most effective contributions came from Alan Baxter, Jim’s eldest son. Neither he nor Steven, Baxter’s other son, appears in the film.

But Alan took to the stage afterwards and admitted to having felt uneasy at the start of the evening, since he had not seen the film prior to its premiere. In his view, some attempts to capture his father have been hampered by a tendency to linger on the caricature, as opposed to the real man. He expressed relief this production did not stumble into these pot-holes.

Above all, Alan wanted to stress that his father had been an entertainer. “He was a Sinatra fan – he thought being on the pitch was no different to being a singer on stage. “It was never dull,” continued Alan, 49. “You were growing up in the 70s, your dad drove a Capri, holidays in Aderdour. You were living the life!

“There were more laughs than tears,” he added.

There certainly was last night, as poignant as some of the footage was. Alan re-told a story of when Baxter attended the 1966 World Cup final with the journalist, Ken Gallacher.

Yes, this is another myth – that all Scotland players were either playing golf or hiding under their beds when England were playing in the World Cup final.

But Baxter got tickets. Why? 
Because, despite everything, he simply loved football. But as he walked out at the end, he turned to Gallacher. “Imagine, eh. England world champions. I’m puffed oot beating them…”

l Jim Baxter will be shown on BBC Alba on 24 September, at 9pm.