Aidan Smith's Saturday Interview: Clydebank's legendary goalkeeper Jim Gallacher recalls colourful career at Kilbowie

“Excuse the voice,” says goalie legend Jim Gallacher, “but it’s aye been like this.” Not for ever and, not while he was fashioning his legend of 738 games between the sticks, but certainly since 2001 when the croak was checked out.

With these hands ... Jim Gallacher kept goal 738 times for Clydebank. The legendary keeper will be cheering them on today when they return to the fourth found of the Scottish Cup after a 22-year absence. Photograph: John Devlin
With these hands ... Jim Gallacher kept goal 738 times for Clydebank. The legendary keeper will be cheering them on today when they return to the fourth found of the Scottish Cup after a 22-year absence. Photograph: John Devlin

“I was in America at the time. A doctor heard me talking and didn’t think I sounded right. I’d worked in a factory after football and suggested to him it was maybe the dust. But it wasn’t that … ”

Throat cancer. “That was a shock,” he adds. But Gallacher – “East the Gal” to the fans – beat it with the help of radiotherapy and what is obviously a keen personal interest in longevity. He sounds quite sexy, I say. “Aye, you’d think my wife Philamena would like these husky tones but she can’t stand them!”

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In 2008 there was another drama for the man who kept goal for Clydebank for two whole decades. On a fast stretch of road in East Dunbartonshire his car was struck by a van. “I hit a fence, went over a wall and when I was in the air upside down I could see the Clyde below me.” Gallacher suffered a broken back but, really, the fates should know better than to tangle with him. He simply endures.

Gallacher played for Arbroath and Clydebank in the Scottish Football League. He made over 600 league appearances for the Bankies in a career that spanned four decades and was fondly known as 'Easy the Gal' by the club's supporters.

You might see Gallacher’s appearances total posted as less than 738 but this he says is the complete tally, not just the league matches. His closest pal in football is another Bankies dependable, Jim Fallon. “There’s just seven games between the pair of us and we’re still meeting up twice a week for a pint and a natter.” Well, for these two there’s so much to reminisce about.

Clydebank have had many incarnations bearing the name. If you count ES Clydebank, in existence for just one unloved season in the mid-1960s, the current lot who play in the West of Scotland Football League make it six. Amid this disrupted and occasionally chaotic history, Gallacher, now 70, was one of the few constants.

The Scottish Cup welcomes a Bankies team back into the fourth round today for the first time in 22 years and Gallacher, a great-grandad whose son Paul won eight caps as Scotland’s keeper, will be hoping they can cause an upset and beat Annan Athletic.

In 1990 he helped take Clydebank the furthest they’ve ever been in the competition – to a semi-final against Celtic. He remembers the thrill of a police escort for the team bus from hotel to Hampden and a first half played in dazzling sunshine (in the second a monsoon struck). “Before kick-off in the tunnel Paul McStay leapt forward, turned to his team-mates and let out an almighty roar. For such a mild-mannered guy that was a surprise.” McStay must have known his team would be in a game and Gallacher did his darnedest to keep out the holders. After the 2-0 defeat he was awarded man of the match.

Andy Walker slots the Celtic opener past a helpless Jim Gallacher in the 1990 Scottish Cup semi-final.

He has many stories so let’s start at the beginning. Clydebank-born, Gallacher encapsulates the place thus: “Kilbowie Hill, the shipyards, the Singer clock.” There wasn’t much football locally for a kid turned on by Pat Jennings’ one-handed saves but eventually, at 15 and already an apprentice joiner, he got a game for Clydebank Boys’ Guild who played in an under-21s league with occasionally players taking the field straight from the pub.

At 17 he was spotted by an Arbroath scout and the manner in which he joined the Red Lichties is straight out of a spy movie. “Or a romcom,” he laughs. “The team were travelling by train to a game at Berwick Rangers and I was to meet them at [Edinburgh's] Waverley Station. I didn’t know anyone at the club so I was told to stand on a certain platform with a rolled-up newspaper under my right arm. [Manager] Albert Henderson produced a form, I signed it and they carried on to their match.

“Then there was an announcement over the Tannoy: I was to report to the station master. What had I done wrong? I couldn’t think. I was given a phone number to call. It was Dumbarton – they were interested in me, too. That would have been much handier for me but footballers were loyal in those days, weren’t they?”

Gayfield by the seaside was a grand day out for Gal but when he helped the club win top-flight promotion his reward was to be freed. “That was disappointing. I thought: ‘I’ve tried but that’s football over for me now.’ I took a job in a cash-and-carry in Clydebank. A mate got me a game with his welfare team so it was back to hanging round the bars. Then one day at the cash-and-carry a customer came in and said: ‘I’ve given your name to the Steedmans.’

Jim's son Paul has won honours with Scotland.

Brothers Charlie and Jack ran the Bankies, often colourfully, sometimes controversially. Gallacher, who lived ten minutes from Kilbowie Park, walked to the ground for his 1972 debut against Queen’s Park with his neighbour Gerry Mehigan who was making his first start. That was the latter’s only game while Gallacher, who started out when glam-rock filled the charts, would still be playing in the grunge era.

Didn’t he ever get sick of it? “You mean when I had to play in the wind, the rain, the hail, the sleet, the snow? Not really. I think goalkeeping is a vocation. Maybe a calling.

“And I loved keeping goal for Clydebank. In front of me, alongside Jim Fallon, were Norrie Hall, Gregor Abel and Billy Fanning – good guys.” Because Jack Steedman in particular loomed over proceedings like the Singer clock, Gallacher says Bill Munro, the coach, can sometimes be forgotten but our man really rated him. Then there was Eric Sorensen, something of a pioneer of goalie tuition: "He told us that when he was a keeper and moved from Morton to Rangers he was looking forward to training being more sophisticated. But it was the same as it ever was with a thousand shots fired at him. ‘Catch, don’t punch' was Eric’s good advice. He reckoned it would undermine the opposition centre-forwards’ confidence."

Wasn’t there another guy in that Bankies team, liked to hug the left wing in really tight shorts, name of Cooper?

“We actually played Davie on the right so he could turn inside onto his good foot. Lots of wingers do that now but maybe we were trailblazers. I also think we were the first to have everyone wear white boots. There was a wee routine we had at throw-ins where Jimmy Lumsden would collide with the guy closest to Davie. It looked accidental but was deliberate, and then Davie would be in for a goal. We got away with that for years. Davie kept himself to himself, never came on any of our nights out, and we were a highly sociable bunch. But a wonderful footballer who was obviously going to the top. In fact, I think he could have achieved a whole lot more in the game than he did.”

Most of Gallacher’s football was played in the second tier but twice Clydebank climbed the dizzy Premier League heights: “I remember a terrific win at Dens Park, 3-2 to clinch promotion, and Gordon Strachan who was playing for Dundee calling it a Roy of the Rovers game.” Suddenly, before the forty-quid-a-week part-timers, here was Parkhead, here was Ibrox. “These places were quite something after Kilbowie which was basically a pigeon hut with a garden shed outside where Mary and her entourage served the teas. At Ibrox [ex-Rangers chairman] David Holmes stood at the top of the marble staircase and said: ‘Boys, come and see.’ He wanted to show us the trophy room. We’d just been pumped and weren’t really in the mood.”

Jock Stein once dubbed Gallacher the best uncapped keeper in the country. “That was nice and I remember him coming to Holland to support the Scottish semi-pro team [the annual four-nations tournament, that year involving England, Italy and the Dutch]. I got injured against the English but we were leading 3-1 with only a few minutes left and all set to win the whole thing. Jock told us guys on the bench we weren’t to celebrate, so although not really understanding this, we didn’t. When we were all inside the changing-room he shut the door and explained his psychology: by being matter-of-fact, he said, like we’d only beaten Brechin, for example, we would have riled England even more. The mind games that man played!”

Gallacher stayed uncapped but presumably must have enjoyed seeing son Paul – ex-Dundee United, Dunfermline Athletic and St Mirren and now coaching at Hearts – pull on an international shirt. “Of course I was proud but there was a game where he made a mistake [the 2-0 defeat to Austria in a 2003 friendly] and I just wanted to be buried.”

Who’d be a goalie? Once, when Paul was playing for Dunfermline, the friend who’d accompanied Gallacher to the match noticed he was distracted. “My pal said: ‘Why are you watching the pigeons?’ Well, anything to stop me getting involved with the idiots shouting at my laddie.” In that moment Gallacher thought of his mother, Annie, and her clash with Scotland’s most notorious football fan, Ian ‘Fergie’ Russell.

“Clydebank were playing Hamilton and that should tell you his name – Fergie. Mum was at the graveyard end of Kilbowie, the one and only time she saw me play. She’s a good Christian and Fergie called me a name he very definitely shouldn’t. She had him round the neck before Dad said: ‘Annie, in the car.’”

Gallacher remembers another game against the Accies, the warm-up beforehand, when he couldn’t understand why his team-mates were deliberately firing shots high over the bar. “I looked round and there was Fergie, getting ready for another 90 minutes of non-stop abuse, so they were trying to hit him.” Maybe the cry that day was going to be “Baldy, baldy.” Gallacher played for so long that before the end most of his hair had gone south. “I know the likes of Henry Hall and Drew Jarvie got the chant, but it was worse for goalies because we couldn’t escape to the middle of the park out of range. And it seemed to get louder the better you performed.”

Over the course of 738 games it’s perhaps surprising he never scored a goal. The closest he came was back at Arbroath for the Bankies when a clearance was scooped up by a gale and sailed over Gordon Marshall’s head. “I was ready to leap into the air when Mike Larnach nipped in with a cheeky header.”

Best save? “One against St Johnstone and it might have been from Ally McCoist. I don’t know for sure because in stopping the shot I collided with a post and knocked myself out.” Biggest blooper? “No doubt about this: we were winning one-nil at Airdrie with only seconds left. I nicked the ball off the head of one of their guys and was rolling it for the big welly – only he scuttled round behind me to equalise. It happened at the far end of Broomfield so four thousand of their fans applauded me all the way to the pavilion. And then Bill Munro threw his stopwatch at me!”

The clock finally stopped on 20 years as the Bankies’ doughty custodian after a Scottish Cup tie in 1992 when Hibernian banged five past him. “Jack Steedman said, ‘Gal, I think it’s time’, and he was right.”

Still, though, he prevails.

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