Interview: John Freebairn, goalkeeper and athlete

John Freebairn, pictured in his home town of Kilsyth. Picture: Ian Rutherford
John Freebairn, pictured in his home town of Kilsyth. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT could be said that John Freebairn’s long and varied sporting career has been framed by sticks.

At one time appearing between them on Saturday afternoons as goalkeeper for Partick Thistle and others; at a later stage heaving them over at Highland Games, tossing the caber on Saturday afternoons up and down the country.

Versatility was his byword, perhaps to the extent of preventing him from fully fulfilling his sporting destiny. Still, performing with distinction at venues so iconic yet so contrasting as Wembley and Braemar would, for most, be more than notable markers along the road to acquiring a weighty set of sporting laurels. Even at 75, Freebairn has recently participated in an indoor athletics meeting.

As a youngster, Freebairn and pals in Kilsyth were into a variety of activities which provided a good sporting foundation. Apart from kicking a ball, rudimentary pole vaulting using a clothes ‘stretcher’ over burns and fences was one pastime, while performing hop, step and jump across street junctions was another. Sprint practice along the local railway track using short steps over the sleepers, foreshadowing modern football training methods, was yet another.

Soon he built up an outstanding pedigree at Kilsyth Academy where, in his final year, he was Scottish Schoolboys’ champion at high jump and goalkeeper for the Scottish Schoolboys’ team. A leap of six feet for a schools’ representative team underlined his natural ability.

His aerial prowess served him well in goals. The Scottish Schools team with Freebairn as custodian played England at Wembley, losing 0-1 but only because “our forwards missed sitter after sitter”. Caps for the Scottish Youth team followed playing alongside Billy Stevenson, later of Rangers, Liverpool and Scotland, and Johnny Macleod, later of Hibs, Arsenal and Scotland.

Despite a number of clubs wanting to sign him, Freebairn was determined to go to university to study civil engineering. Keen to retain his amateur status because of athletics, he played some games as an amateur for Airdrie with players such as Doug Baillie and Ian Macmillan. In these days, any suggestion of an athlete being paid tainted him and spelled the end of his amateur career.

Once his university course was under way in Glasgow, he combined keeping goal for the students with representing them at athletics. In 1958, he took part in the AAA’s decathlon championship, his debut in any kind of decathlon. In a field bolstered by overseas athletes, he finished a very creditable fifth. He gained three Scottish Amateur international caps against England, Holland and Wales, and clubs were still pursuing him to sign professional forms, with Spurs and Arsenal among them.

A change in family circumstances at this point meant he needed financial help to continue his studies. Torn between economic need and preservation of his amateur status, Freebairn had a difficult decision to make. Despite Dunky Wright, the former marathon champion, trying to dissuade him, he accepted Partick Thistle’s offer of a part-time contract, enabling him to follow his studies at Glasgow. Thistle were then a prominent old First Division team and, under the guidance of David Meiklejohn, the ex-Rangers and Scotland captain, he soon established himself as a first-team regular on £14 a week plus bonuses.

“Jackie Husband was the trainer then – a stand at Firhill is now named after him – and my team-mates included Joe McBride, Dave MacParland and Tommy Ewing,” recalls Freebairn. “Jackie was a hard man but then the game was more physical than now and all the players could take care of themselves. Some of the Old Firm players in particular would indulge in ‘sledging’, indicating where on the terracing you’d end up once they’d tackled you and that type of thing. I remember in one game at Parkhead coming off my line to contest a 50/50 ball with John Hughes and flattening him. The home fans gave me dogs’ abuse. When the same scenario occurred later, I cushioned my collision with Hughes, then helped him to his feet prompting referee Tiny Wharton to chide me: ‘Mr Freebairn, that’s not the done thing’. To which I replied: ‘What do you want me to do, flatten him again?’”

The two players who stood out at this time for Freebairn were Pat Crerand and Jim Baxter, against whom he played several times. “They had real finesse. I quite liked their parties too.”

Freebairn’s football fortunes were about to change after Meiklejohn died suddenly and another former stalwart of Rangers and Scotland, Willie Thornton, replaced him. The two of them failed to hit it off, Thornton holding a poor opinion, ironically, of Freebairn’s aerial play. Freebairn was frozen out and given a free transfer. He signed for Albion Rovers, again part time, as, by now, he had begun his engineering career.

Near the end of the season, when he had to withdraw from a midweek afternoon game due to work commitments, Tom Fagan, the legendary Rovers chairman, was furious. “Take your f****** boots and get out of here”, he roared, and then, seconds later, “Heh, did we pay for them?”

It was becoming more difficult to combine football with a career and he began to turn his back on football. Besides which, the previous year, 1962, he had competed in an ‘unofficial’ decathlon event in Glasgow and recorded an excellent points total, sufficient to fuel ambitions of an international vest. He then spoke to Dunky Wright about a reinstatement to amateur athletics. Wright told him he would not have to “pay back too much money” but that he would never be allowed to compete internationally, only at domestic level.

That led Freebairn to the Highland Games, the only form of professional athletics then available. Over the next 25 years or so he went on to have a highly successful Games career, mastering the arts of the heavy events – caber tossing, Scots hammer throwing and putting the shot. He also shone in running, jumping and pole-vaulting. Being an all-rounder, Freebairn regularly chalked up more than ten events per day. He would flit from the throwing zone, removing his kilt as he did so, to the jumping area, then back again with kilt restored. Competition at the time was stiff, with Bill Anderson and Olympic shot putter Arthur Rowe standout “heavies” and the MacBeath brothers and John Robertson in the light events.

He enjoyed competing successfully in front of the royal family at Braemar, but also venues such as Pitlochry, Portree and Glenisla. During the Glasgow Fair fortnight, there were Games every day from Dunbeath in Caithness to Luss on Loch Lomond. His highest winnings in one afternoon in the 60s were £40, equivalent to about £500 in today’s terms.

There was danger also. Once at Oban Games as he bent over, back facing the hammer throw, a flying 22lb hammer hit him flush on the rear end. Ewen Cameron, of Lochearnhead, the famous Games figure, insisted he have a ‘restorative’ dram – “the worst thing I could have done” – but, minutes later, he won the high jump. They made them differently then.

Away from the domestic circuit, he competed in Games in Australia, Indonesia, France, Germany and Sweden. Latterly, he has competed in veterans’ athletics, winning a clutch of British titles as well as being involved in coaching at national level. He continues to compete and will do so as long as he is able.

He looks back on a sporting career that gave him a lot of satisfaction as well as some regrets. In particular, he regrets being denied the opportunity to represent Britain in the decathlon. It seems anomalous and unfair that, because he was also a talented footballer, access to the higher levels of amateur athletics should have been blocked. That said, he does think that if he had his time over again he would concentrate on football – “with the money they make nowadays!” he laughs.