The Celtic redoubtable was a 16-year-old schoolboy in 1975 when, at Stenhousemuir, the Hoops were pulled over that already strapping frame for the first of what would be 682 appearances, a total only bettered by three others in the club’s history.
That was a night game in the League Cup but for the League debut away to Aberdeen, a day off studies at St Andrew’s Academy, Saltcoats, would be required. “Thankfully the head, Tom Finn, God rest his soul, was a Celtic fan. After that, every Monday he’d call me into his office from the library where I’d have been swotting for my Highers and sit down with a cup of tea for a wee chat about the game just gone.”
Soon Aitken would need to be excused for his European debut, Celtic’s first venture behind the Iron Curtain to play the former East Germany’s FSV Zwickau, as he explains: “That was a funny one because I was deemed a minor and refused an entry visa unless the club made me a ward of court. Effectively I was adopted and [caretaker manager] Sean Fallon had to pop down to the local police station every day to provide a report on my well-being.
“Just remembering that makes the trip sound crazy. I suppose me playing for Celtic then going into a Biology exam sounds crazy but my pals were cool about it. There wasn’t the hype around a schoolboy footballer you’d maybe see now – just a photo in a newspaper of me in my strip trying not to set the classroom on fire with a Bunsen burner. I took it all in my stride and regarded playing football as a job of work, albeit one of the best jobs in the world.”
And what a stride. Look at old footage and the swishing of his feet seems sped up, like in an old silent movie. It got him from centre-circle to opposition penalty-box in never more than three and a half seconds. Or, if Aitken hadn’t come straight from the silents, maybe he was a cartoon strongman, moved up from defence to save the day. Did he swallow a tin of Popeye’s spinach to effect the transformation, or perhaps a raw steak? Either way the cry from Parkhead’s Jungle was “Feed the Bear!”
One of the great spectacles of Scottish football, Aitken’s rampages were as emblematic of Celtic’s late 1970s and right through the following decade as Jimmy Johnstone’s mesmeric dribbling had been in the years before. But, he stresses, there are legends and there are legends. We’re talking while Aitken, now 63, drives from Celtic Park back to his home in Harrogate, Yorkshire following a lunch to mark the 55th anniversary of Lisbon. The Bear loves encountering the Lions, these days just comprising John Clark, Jim Craig, Bobby Lennox and Willie Wallace, with the latter Zooming in from Australia while John Fallon and John Hughes, the original Bear of Glasgow’s East End, joined in the celebrations having provided valuable back-up for Jock Stein’s history-makers.
“It was a brilliant day, as they always are,” he says. “But since the 50th anniversary - Rod Stewart, the Bay City Rollers and Susan Boyle at the Hydro, which was sensational - we’ve lost big Billy [McNeill], Bertie [Auld] and Stevie [Chalmers]. I said to the organising committee before leaving that maybe they should be holding these get-togethers every year now.
“The Lions, because they were the first British winners of the European Cup and all more or less local boys, are the one team in Scotland’s history that’s special. I heard it said that Rangers going to Seville had the opportunity to emulate if not better Celtic’s achievement. I was like: ‘Hold on here. Let’s get back to reality … ’”
There speaks a craggy veteran of Old Firm firestorms, who’s pretty sure he won more than he lost, and can certainly claim three Scottish Cup triumphs over the great rivals among the five in total sat next to his six league flags. Yet there is no bigger admirer of the magical wingplay of Davie Cooper while of Ally McCoist he says: “I love him to bits.”
An early clash stands out, 2-2 at Ibrox in 1977, the brawny teen scoring both Celtic’s goals including a thundering volley from a Johnny Doyle free-kick for a late equaliser. Afterwards he was interviewed by Scortsport’s Arthur Montford. “That was nerve-wracking. Compared to it the game was a doddle,” he laughs.
The Bear’s in good form today. It’s now 16 years since a malignant tumour was removed from his colon. “My wife Jane forced me to go for a check-up because my mother had died early from cancer. The fantastic surgeon cut out 12 inches - ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘you’ve still got 29 feet left’ - and I’m fine now.”
Aitken won the first of his 57 Scotland caps aged 20 when he came off the bench to replace Cooper in a 1979 friendly against Peru. Just as at Celtic, Stein was the man to hand him his debut. The pair enjoyed a good relationship right up until the Big Jock’s tragic death on a touchline in Wales in 1985.
“I’d been aiming for Jordanhill College when I broke into the Celtic team,” says Aitken who although he went to school in Saltcoats points out he’s an Ardrossan boy, adding that there is a difference. “I needed three Highers, passed the two toughest in English and Maths and was all set to resit Biology and History, but then Jock said: ‘Forget it. You’ve played 20-odd games for us now. Your career is right there in front of you.’”
Did his parents - John, an engine driver at the local docks, and Lily - approve? “They were very supportive of my football. Dad drove me everywhere to play. I took piano lessons to please Mum and reached level 5 but was never going to go any further, although I think there’s another daft press photo of me somewhere done up as Liberace in frills.” Bobby Lennox, from Saltcoats, would drive the kid to training, the winger’s stories leaving him wide-eyed with wonder, and from Lennox Aitken would inherit the gig, every Thursday during holiday season, of helping out at the five-a-sides at the Butlin’s camp in Ayr.
All grown up, the young participants would remind him later of the day they nutmegged the Celtic, and later Scotland, captain. “Not just kids but their dads, too, although they mostly wanted to kick me.”
It was Lennox, in cahoots with Kenny Dalglish and Danny McGrain, who on account of Aitken’s frizz of hair first christened him “Shirley”. “These three still call me it, but the curls were natural. All those boys who got perms later like wee [Davie] Provan just copied me.”
In 1984, against Aberdeen, Aitken became the first player to be sent off in a Scottish Cup final for 55 years. “I’m friends with a lot of the Dons lads but that was premeditated,” he says, with the red card being flashed by Bob Valentine. “You could get a referee too often.”
Not feeling great about that incident and with Jane expecting their second child - both Ashley and big brother John are nurses - Aitken stepped back from a Scotland summer tour. Stein installed him as the overage player in the Under 21s and it would be more than a year before he returned to the big team and after nullifying Bryan Robson in the 1985 Rous Cup he was almost ever-present. Then, following that victory over England came Cardiff, Jim Leighton’s contact lens drama, the manager’s exhortation to Alan Rough (“You’re on, you fat bastard”) and Wales seemingly headed for the World Cup playoffs at our expense.
“Then Coop struck that penalty - absolutely nerveless. It was in the dressing-room that we found out about Big Jock. Some reckoned that after his car accident he mellowed but it didn’t seem like that to me. That night we all saw the damage such terrible stress can do. Big Jock lived his life under these conditions but down in Wales he was pushed over the edge.”
Alex Ferguson took over for the shootout against Australia, the Scots holding a 2-0 lead going into the away leg at the Olympic Park, Melbourne. “We weren’t complacent. That Australia team were the first generation from the country to have a chance in the World Cup. Alex was like Big Jock in that he knew how to build a team. I remember after about 15 minutes Jim Leighton producing a wonder reaction save to keep out a bulleting header from big Dave Mitchell [Glasgow-born, played for Rangers]. That was the turning point.”
In the finals in Mexico, Scotland based in densely-populated, crime-ridden Nezahualcoyotl, the team landed up in what Uruguay coach Omar Borras dubbed the “Group of Death”, an unfortunate observation given what happened to Stein, but nonetheless accurate.
Aitken recalls how Scotland battled hard against Denmark and West Germany but lost both games - “I scored against the Danes but the goal was wrongly ruled offside.” Next, the Uruguayans, by then very much fading aristocrats of the world game. A 55-second sending off seemed to give us a great chance. “That’s what we thought, but it was the worst thing to happen. They time-wasted from that moment until the end. I never played in a game when the ball was off the park more. Having said that, [Enzo] Francescoli produced the greatest lone-striker display I ever saw.”
So near yet so far - just like at Italia 90. The camp on the Italian Riviera may have been more salubrious but after defeat in the opening game against Costa Rica Scotland still couldn’t get out of the groups. “They were unknown but a good little side. Maurice [Johnston], my room-mate, missed two chances he’d have normally put away.” The next match was a terrific win over Sweden, skipper Aitken charging forward in typical style to win the crucial penalty. “Then it was Brazil. We deserved a draw against them but it wasn’t to be. Still, captaining my country at a World Cup - that was the ultimate.”
Those trademark Aitken surges - real Roy of the Rovers stuff, rescuing games, the power of his running seeming to send an electrical charge through his team-mates - helped Celtic to famous wins. His goal began the comeback in 1979 for “Ten Men Who Won the League”. In the Scottish Cup final in ’85 after careering towards the touchline he somehow contrived the cross for Frank McGarvey’s winner. The following season, when Hearts lost the league on the final day, the recurring nightmare image for Jambos was of the entire Celtic team streaming forward in search of the requisite number of goals, led by you-know-who.
Aitken terms himself a fan who was lucky enough to get a game for his boyhood heroes but hard work came into it. “I always had a good engine but I thank Bobby Lennox for teaching me good habits. He was a brilliant trainer on his own which some guys cannot do. I knew plenty - great footballers - who would only ever just do enough. I loved hearing the ‘Feed the bear!’ chant and would like to think fans appreciated me for my honesty.”
Management and coaching would take Aitken on a somewhat eccentric route from Aberdeen to the Maldives then Leeds United and Aston Villa before seven years in Dubai with Al-Ahli for whom he later became director of football. Before the Middle East, though, there was Scotland as assistant to Alex McLeish for that thrill-ride of a campaign which saw us just come up short against world champs Italy for a place at the 2008 Euros.
There were many fine victories at Hampden, though, none more so than against Andriy Schevchenko’s Ukraine, Kenny Miller, Lee McCulloch and James McFadden scoring in the 3-1 success. “Unlucky Scotland again, but that was a great effort from a great bunch of boys. We had the spirit of a club side and that’s being replicated by the current team under Steve Clarke who, by the way, is another product of St Andrew’s Academy.
“Wednesday promises to be a night like we’ve never experienced before. It’ll be us against the world with everyone else cheering for Ukraine. Our hearts go out to the Ukrainian people and it’s a tragedy what’s happening in their country. The team are bound to play with massive pride. We support them in their fight but we want to win this game.”