Andy Halliday opens up on Hearts, Rangers. Allan McGregor prank and number change, Hibs song and more - Aidan Smith's Saturday Interview

Every footballer has a funny story in them but some can’t tell it and some won’t tell it. Some are too polite, some are too guarded, some have been overly media-trained and some, bless them, forget. Andy Halliday, though, has been paying attention over the years is one of the gallus guys.

Andy Halliday won't hide his fondness for Rangers but he's a Hearts player now and loving it
Andy Halliday won't hide his fondness for Rangers but he's a Hearts player now and loving it

Two years ago, kicking his heels during lockdown, he wasn’t afraid to tell what has become known as The Great Allan McGregor Baws Oot Story, and it’s the one which has earned him his current comedy gig, combined with charging around the midfield for Hearts.

Halliday is a star turn on the Open Goal podcast and, almost unique among its regular roster of jokers and jive-talkers, he’s still getting a kick at the ball. Indeed for the Jambos this lunchtime he’d like nothing better than for a thumping left-foot strike to be whizzing past his old mate Greegsy.

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He hasn’t waited until retirement to open up the pages of his bumper book of fun. Now, for the journo-fan, this is undoubtedly a good thing, but I suggest to Halliday that perhaps it’s just as well not everyone does this. Imagine the mayhem if the entire SPFL were trying to outdo each other with raucous, ribald tales.

“Maybe we should!” he laughs, as we talk on the phone while he drives back home to Glasgow from training. “Aye, bring it on. That would be us showing our proper character. We may not have the best league in the world but we’ve got the best fans and we’ve definitely got the best banter, the best patter.”

The perils of social media encourage clubs to be protective. They don’t want offhand remarks by their charges growing arms and legs – and indeed baws – and provoking pile-ons. But vetting and controlling can strangle personality. “You should never change who you are,” adds Halliday when I mention in-house tutoring for saying the right – and very often the bland – thing. “I’m always telling young players this. As a professional you have to be respectful of your peers and represent your clubs properly, but you also need to show your personality. Footballers should answer questions honestly and truthfully but shouldn’t be afraid of speaking their mind. We’re in the public eye but we’re only human and this, don’t forget, is a branch of the entertainment industry.”

Honestly and truthfully, Halliday did not expect to be welcomed into the warmth of the Gorgie bosom to quite this extent. The 30-year-old’s cv chronicles a career that’s taken him from Livingston to Azerbaijan via Middlesbrough, Blackpool, Bradford City and Walsall, but one club sticks out. He was the Rangers-daft laddie who got to live the dream.

Really, this is soppy movie stuff. Born on the Copland Road. Ibrox season-ticket holder. Sneaked into away games inside his dad’s coat. Skipped an exam at school to be at the 2008 Uefa Cup final. Heartbroken to be released by the club as a 14-year-old. Quit football for a while but came back later and kept believing. Despite significant experience down south, was willing to submit to a Rangers trial. Only the thumping left-foot strike which whizzed past the Hibernian goalkeeper in 2016 but didn’t ultimately win the Scottish Cup spoils the fairytale.

So how was all of this going to be received by the Jambo faithful? “I wasn’t entirely sure,” he says. “It’s not a new feeling for me to have to go out and prove myself: I’ve had to do it at every club. I knew Hearts would be a good move after Rangers – it only took a half-hour phone conversation with Robbie [Neilson, manager] to convince me – but I still needed to show the supporters that I wanted to be at Tynecastle and would give of my best. I’d like to think they can see I’m committed to Hearts but, really, I’ve been surprised at how much affiliation I’ve had from the fans, the whole club in fact.

“Everyone knows I was a Rangers fan and I still am one. My family and friends all support Rangers and many of them will be at Tynecastle on Saturday but what’s maybe not too well known is that there’s a black sheep in my dad’s cousin, Gary Halliday, who had a big role in the fan ownership group which managed to get control of Hearts. When the talk started about me coming to the club my phone blew up with texts from him and he was happier than anyone when I signed.

“I reckon I must be one of the very few players in Scotland who doesn’t use social media but I’d like to think there’s no one who could question that when I play for Hearts, I give everything. You know, I’m happy to see Rangers winning 34 games a season, just so long as we can get results against them in the other four. If that means my nearest and dearest not talking to me, starting this Saturday, then so be it.”

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This might be the moment, for the benefit of those who don’t know The Great Allan McGregor Baws Oot Story, to recount it. Open Goal host Simon Ferry declared it the funniest in the history of the show. It’s Halliday’s “Stairway to Heaven”, if you like, and it happened in Tenerife.

The 2019 winter training had gone well enough for Rangers manager Steven Gerrard to allow the players to enjoy a few beers, although traditionally on these excursions the veteran keeper has always been the first to doze off in the corner of the bar.

Slouched in his beach shorts, the snoring goalie’s goolies were on full display. Halliday found a photo on the internet of a passed-out holidaymaker which exaggerated the pose and woke up McGregor to show it to him, explaining his immodesty was all over Sky Sports News. But the prank was even more elaborate than that.

“I got Greegsy’s phone, changed my number on it to Walter Smith’s and then fired off a text.” The message from the Ibrox icon let it be known his severe dischuffment with the deviation from Rangers deportment and decorum. ‘Smith’ explained he happened to be in the Canary Islands resort and suggested they meet for “a wee half-volley session” – in other words, a punishment boot-camp. Eventually Halliday and co-conspirators including Scott Arfield and Jamie Murphy ’fessed up to the ruse.

Adds Halliday: “I suppose it’s one of those stories which seems too ridiculous and unbelievable but that’s exactly what happened. If you know Allan McGregor you’ll be aware he’s not the brightest. I’ve never let him forget Tenerife but I love him to bits, he’s still a great friend, one of the two all-time best goalkeepers in Rangers’ history and I’ll be looking forward to seeing him on Saturday.”

At the other end of the park at Tynecastle, of course, will be Scotland’s No 1 and our man admits it’s a nice habit to invariably find yourself in the same team as a top keeper, Craig Gordon again shining for Scotland in our midweek Nations League success in Poland.

“Craig does it time and time again, doesn’t he? At Hearts the number of points he’s won for us is nothing short of astonishing. It shows how much representing his country means to him when, right after the birth of his baby boy, not much sleep, he goes out and plays such a massive game.”

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Has Halliday ever been close to a call-up? “I think during my second season at Rangers there was a wee murmur but all the midfielders in the squad were doing really well at the time and it never came to anything. It would have been great to have won even just one cap but others deserved the recognition more. I’m not bitter and now I’m happy just being a Scotland fan because I think this is the best national team I can remember.

“Not just team, mind you, but squad. There’s great strength in depth now. In the past, if we’d lost five or six established guys, then we’d have been left with a pretty depleted line-up going into such an important match. But the boys that came in for them all did fantastic. I was pleased for Stephen [Kingsley, a second-half substitute against Ukraine] because, as well as he’s been doing at Hearts, the competition at left-back for Scotland is the fiercest. And I was delighted for Barrie [McKay] that he made the bench because I’ve been championing him for a call-up for the past year.”

Mention of the little playmaker brings to mind another Halliday funny from the ill-starred Pedro Caixinha era at Rangers when the Portuguese coach, delineating his masterplan on a whiteboard, scribbled the name “Robbie” and went on to elaborate about the key role this individual would play. Everyone was bemused: who did he mean? Halliday was the one bold enough to inquire. Caixinha meant McKay. Has “Robbie” endured as a nickname? “For a while, but Barrie doesn’t take jokes too well, he’s quite a serious character. Anyway, he’s playing so well just now that we’ve got to call him by his proper name.”

This was not the “cheekiness” Halliday had been guilty of when at Livingston, aged just 16, and he called manager Gary Bollan a “baldy so and so”. He fell out with Caixinha, though, and right out of the team, which brought about the banishment, not quite to Siberia, but Gabala FK in Azerbaijan. Enticed by the prospect of European football, the loan move quickly turned sour when it was obvious a homegrown players’ ruling was going to severely restrict his appearances in the local league. He fired off a “Get me out of here” message to his agent and returned to Govan to discover that Caixinha had been got out of there.

Halliday still had to convince new man Gerrard of his worth, though, the boss having had his card marked about the player being “difficult”. And then he was able to resume duties in light blue, always energetic and combative, sometimes good, sometimes not so good, just as it had been previously when there were bust-ups with the likes of Joey Barton and self-confessed shockers such the 4-1 defeat at Tynecastle in 2017, Ian Cathro’s only bright spot as Hearts manager, when as Halliday puts it everyone for Rangers that evening was honking.

His finest performance for his old club was a first start for Gerrard in midfield after stints at left back in the 2-2 draw at Villareal in the Europa League. The most memorable match, though, was the qualifier against FC Ufa when red cards left the team depleted to nine men for the last half hour. He admits: “I was obviously not the best player ever to pull on a Rangers jersey, nor anything like the most successful. Being the local lad, the boyhood fan, probably was extra weight to carry because I took every defeat, every setback, really badly and as my fiancee would tell you, the black moods lasted for 48 hours or more. But I was proud of running out on the pitch for the club each and every time I did.”

Finest and most memorable for Hearts? Halliday hopes these are still to come. After Rangers it’s Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League, two massive games which could prove pivotal to their ambitions this season. “We’ve had a sticky spell but hopefully it’s behind us. Injuries haven’t helped but you play the hand you’re dealt and no one here is complaining about the number of matches we’re having to play right now. Competing at home and abroad is where the club want to be. I’m guessing last season – third place, European qualification and the Scottish Cup final – was the most financially remunerative there has ever been for Hearts. We want more success.”

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And regarding any residue scepticism about Halliday and where he’d been before, he’s going the right way about endearing himself down Gorgie way. Yet to lose an Edinburgh derby, he scored a double in the fixture last May, with the first of his goals prompting a celebration which seemed to translate as “I told you so.”

The reason behind it was two misses – “One blazed over the bar, the other straight down the goalie’s throat” – had been greeted with wild jeering by the Hibs end, followed by the song they’ve belted out quite regularly for the past six years about how Andy Halliday thought he’d won the cup only to mess it up.

Is he tired of hearing it? “Actually, not really. In 2016 when I scored in that final I didn’t get carried away. I hoped the goal would be the winner but there was plenty of time left and Hibs were better than us that day and deserved their victory. Was I even a tiny bit pleased for them after 114 years of not winning? No way! But that song, I don’t mind it. They can sing it all they like because that sort of thing can spur a player on. It’s typical of the fun of the game. Maybe the two supports wouldn’t always want to admit this but I think there’s a camaraderie between them. And if I’m the biggest panto villain for as long as I’m here, then so be it.”

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