Rangers legend Sandy Jardine on battling cancer

SITTING in his garden in Edinburgh, surrounded by his begonias and geraniums and the two golden rabbits that sit as ornaments overlooking his freshly cut grass, Sandy Jardine is laughing.

Sandy Jardine was humbled by the affection of the fans on his return to Ibrox. Picture: Kirk O'Rourke
Sandy Jardine was humbled by the affection of the fans on his return to Ibrox. Picture: Kirk O'Rourke

Black humour in everything, he says. One minute he is talking about the cancer of the throat and liver that brought him to death’s door, talking about the Friday his wife and children were sent for because the medics weren’t sure he was going to make it through the night, then he’s chuckling at the memory of something else that happened to him on this journey. “This is a brilliant one. You’ll like this.”

He is in a nice quiet room in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, a Hibs fan as his principal carer. “I won’t give the boy’s name away, but he was a great old lad. I was really weak so I needed somebody to help me shower and he’d come and wheel me in on a chair and I’d just sit there and get myself washed. It could be quite a feat some days.

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“One time, I had a sore back and I told the boy to leave me a bit longer so I could let the water ping on the sore bit. He says, ‘Aye, nae bother, Sandy. I’ll just shut the door and wait outside’. I’m doing that and then the fire alarm goes off. I’m thinking ‘What the hell is going on now?’ He comes in and he’s as confused as me. ‘What’s that about?’ Hadn’t a clue. The fire brigade came in the room and they were looking about everywhere. The Hibs lad was saying ‘There’s nae fire in here boys. I’m telling you’. They’re pacing around my room and I’m still in my chair in the shower not knowing what the hell is happening. Apparently, I was in the shower so long the steam had set off one of the fire alarms and triggered an emergency. My back felt a lot better afterwards, though!”

It’s Thursday and Jardine, 64, is looking well. He’s in a world now where little things mean everything, where going an extra 250 yards on his walk every day brings him great satisfaction, where cutting the grass in a oner and not the stop-start style of before gives him a boost. The other day he drove to the shops for the first time in seven or eight months. Felt fantastic.

“See those begonias? There was a time when I was bringing them on in the greenhouse and thinking that they’d outlast me. You’re carrying on with your daily life, out the door to Ibrox or Murray Park at ten to seven pretty much six days a week and coming home to work in the garden and then everything’s in slow motion all of a sudden.”

This is how it was for the gentle colossus of Ibrox, the man – the gentleman – who played 674 games for Rangers, scoring 75 goals and winning 14 major trophies. He went to the doctor with a sore throat which turned to be three cancerous nodes. Cancer of the throat, Sandy, they said. Sorry to have to tell you that. Jardine was thinking that cancer meant a death sentence. So far, so grim.

He went for a scan and they found something else. Dark spots on his liver. Secondary cancer. Marvellous. They said they’d do the liver first and, once he’d recovered, they’d get to work on the throat. “I said ‘What happens if I don’t want to get the treatment? She says ‘You’ll probably be dead in six months’.”

Everybody says the same things about Sandy Jardine. Naturally, they say he was a wondrous player, which he was. They say he is a lovely man, which he is. And they say he’s a fighter, and there is no doubting that either.

Before he went in for the operation on his liver he intentionally upped his exercise to make himself stronger for the battle ahead. He walked more, he played more golf , he went in there in the best of condition and then he got an infection and could have died. That’s the truth of it. His body rebelled and he spent 12 days in intensive care talking gibberish to his kids, who remind him of it now with a smile.

“They operated and ended up taking 80 per cent of my liver away. Funny, isn’t it? Not a smoker, not a drinker, physically fit, yet that happens. Then I got that infection and, on any one of those 12 days, I could have died. One Friday the whole family got called in because they thought I might not make it. The reason I made it is because I had a really high fitness level. They opened me up again, cleaned me out and it worked. I got out on the 24th of December. That was the biggest Christmas present.”

If, in your mind’s eye, you can see Jardine marauding up the touchline in blue or maroon, then here’s another image to conjure with. After he came home, he almost had to learn how to walk again. He suffered a panic attack in the process. Then he got on top of it, walking to the wall near where we are sitting and back again, then walking to the front door, then extending it out of the house and up to the turn in the street. Little victories, every day.

But that was just the first half. There was still radiotherapy on his throat to endure. Thirty doses with his head bolted into a scanner that zapped the same spot over and over, each of the sessions lasting ten minutes. He says all of this with not an ounce of self-pity. Mostly, he is grateful. Grateful to NHS hospitals – the Royal and the Western in Edinburgh – grateful to the doctors and nurses, grateful to his family and friends and to the Rangers supporters, but above all to his wife, Shona. “My wife never wants mentioning but she’s been fantastic. I wouldn’t have made it without her.

“Because you’ve been in football and you’re used to fighting for a victory and fighting for a cup then everybody presumes that dealing with stuff is second nature to you but I’m just like anybody else. I’ve got my wee faults and insecurities and that. I mean, I have a very positive attitude but, when you find out you have cancer, you look in the paper and it suddenly feels like everybody is dying of it. So-and-so has died and so-and-so has died. It’s negative and negative. You look at the adverts and it’s ‘X number of people have died of cancer in the last year but with your donations we’ll beat it’. But what about all the people who have survived? How about a positive message. Ten years ago 40 per cent of people survived cancer and now it’s 80 per cent. Something like that. When you’re trying to recover you don’t hear about people surviving, you just hear about people who are dying.”

So many things gave Jardine strength, though. He had messages from all over Scottish football. Rod Stewart sent him an email. Hazel Irvine sent him a card that moved him. Mostly, it was ordinary people getting in touch and their letters, in their thousands, meant the world to him. “When I went back to Ibrox in March for the East Stirling game I just wanted to say a thank you to the supporters over the microphone. It might have sounded corny but it was something I wanted to do. I was very humbled. When I heard they were clapping every two minutes I thought that was fantastic. I was there last weekend and it was just brilliant.”

What he sees at Ibrox – off the field at any rate – is ugliness and upset. There’s always been power battles at Ibrox, he says, from James Bowie versus Bill Struth and even before. “What these people have got to remember is that, whoever takes the club, all they are is custodians. The life of the place is the fans. Some of the old guys have been supporters for 80 years. Sons, fathers, grandfathers going in there for long before we were born and will be going in long after we’re gone. We’ve had boardroom battles but it was kept within the four walls. Let them get on with it but what they’ve got to remember is don’t embarrass our club. I speak on behalf of the fans now. They’re sick of it. They want to get on with it.”

A boardroom battle, of course, is no kind of battle, not in the world Jardine has been living in for almost a year now. He talks about “crossing over” into a new reality when he was told he had cancer and he’s not sure when he’s ever going to cross back. “It’s in remission and I’m doing well but I don’t know, the doctors don’t know. You go for a test in three months and if it’s clear you go back in six months and then maybe a year. But, at Christmas, I could have been dead. Every day’s a bonus.”

n Sandy Jardine will be honoured by supporters, former players and friends at a tribute dinner on 27 October at Glasgow’s Thistle hotel. Tickets from [email protected] A donation will go to Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre in Edinburgh