Andy Roxburgh at 80: Former Scotland manager energised and still at very top of his game
For those who may have missed the detail in newspaper birthday columns, and Roxburgh himself isn’t about to start making a big thing of it, he recently turned 80. Last Saturday in fact. And while many that age might be checking out, most significantly this week the great Robbie Robertson, former leader of The Band, Roxburgh is checking in: next stop Australia, for the latter stages of the women's World Cup and a series of conferences, panels and high-end football powwowing.
Roxburgh is a phenomenon. Still hard at it as technical director of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), he has been blessed with good health and a sharp, active mind, all things one might have said about Craig Brown until his health began to suffer in the last couple of years. Roxburgh’s former assistant died in June at the age of 82. The Scottish game is infinitely poorer for his absence.
With regards Roxburgh’s relationship with Brown, one of the aforementioned Robertson’s songs comes to mind: Once Were Brothers. “For a long period we were that,” says Roxburgh. “For a decade we were partners. Afterwards we met on many occasions as well. When I was at Uefa, we kept in touch from time to time. Latterly, it was not so much.
“It became like Christmas and things like that. But that’s how life goes. It’s one thing being in different countriesbut being on differentcontinents it becomes very complicated.”
Brown’s death hit him hard. He wonders if he’s still processing it. He went into autopilot. Brown’s funeral was confirmed for a date when Roxburgh was in Kuala Lumpur. “I went from Kuala Lumpur-Doha-London-Glasgow,” he says. “It was not a discussion. In any case, the general secretary of the AFC immediately said: ‘Go, no problem’.”
It was non-negotiable.Roxburgh had to be in Ayr. Indeed, it would have looked odd had he not been there. Although Brown forged his own way as manager of Scotland, linking up with his own assistant in Alex Miller, it was always Roxburgh and Brown, Brown and Roxburgh. The pair seemed interchangeable. They formed an alliance against the inverted snobbery of those who used their articulacy and academic qualifications - both were former teachers, a head teacher in Roxburgh's case - as a stick to beat them with. It must have felt like they were in the trenches together. In some pictures, where they are peaking out of sunken dugouts in some European outpost, it very much looked like they were.
Owing to commitments, Roxburgh could only stay in Scotland a couple of nights. But with Brown’s funeral and memorial service being scheduled for the same day, it meant he could attend both and say a proper farewell to someone who occupied the seat next to him at 61 internationals. When Roxburgh resigned 30 years ago next month, Brown was the obvious choice to shuffle along one.
Roxburgh announced he was stepping down on September 13 1993 following the 1-1 draw with Roy Hodgson’s Switzerland. The result confirmed Scotland would be absent from a World Cup for the first time since 1970. Asked at the time how he thought history might assess his achievements in a post previously held by Jock Stein and Alex Ferguson, Roxburgh replied: "He was a trier".
History has been kinder. As it has been to Brown, who replicated Roxburgh's record of one World Cup, one European Championship. There isn't much about football Roxburgh doesn't know. But not even he could foresee Scotland falling off a cliff. A trier? He’s revered. "I'm not sure about that,” he says. “But I won’t argue!"
He finds it easier to hail Brown. "In a word, Craig was gifted,” he says. “He was very intelligent. Second thing, everyone knows this, he was a brilliant communicator. He could tell a story. He could convince people. Among professional players, that ability to persuade them - you need a very strong personality to do that. And that was Craig.
"In other words, he could charm them, but he could make sure things were in order. He would not let them mess him around."
It says it all that Roxburgh's top two coaches at training courses in Largs were Walter Smith and Brown. "They were the guys that would deal with the top pros,” he says.
Both Smith and Brown enjoyed significant second acts after managing Scotland. Roxburgh’s has now reached 30 years - and counting. It’s hard to credit now, but he was only 50 when he left the post (current manager Steve Clarke turns 60 later this month). He was an even fresher-faced 42, with hair as black as a raven’s wing, when he was appointed, the ‘unknown’ trumpinghigher-profile names suchas Billy McNeill and Jim McLean.
“Andy Roxburgh knows more about football thananyone else in Britain, maybe even Europe,” was SFAsecretary Ernie Walker’s seemingly bold claim at the time. This now seems inadequate in the extreme: surely there’s no one in the world who knows more.
At his unveiling, Farry conceded Roxburgh was "better known outside Scotland than in it". He was handed the same brief as his more acclaimed predecessors.
“They employed me with one simple aim: get us to the next World Cup,” recalls Roxburgh. “Up to that point we hadnever been to the Euros. And even Jock said to me when he took over: 'Scotland’s too small to make two of these events one after the other'.
“The attitude was: use the Euros to build your team up and then get us to the finals of the World Cup. That’s what keeps the place ticking over and keeps the fans happy and brings in the money. Of course, when we did get to the World Cup, we could have gone further – it was the usual, what could have been? And then immediately, well, let’s have a go for the Euros [Euro ’92] – and we were fortunate to do that.
"At that point, to go for three-in-a-row, we were maybe asking a little too much – well, we were obviously asking too much. I was very pleased that they took Craig on. He did it his way after that. And he achieved the same, although he did it the other way round. He did Euros  then the World Cup ['98].”
Brown came close to an unprecedented three-tournaments-in-a row but could not quite overcome the challenge of England, despite a 1-0 Euro 2000 play-off second-leg win at Wembley. "That would have been good," says Roxburgh, flatly rejecting the notion of any potential jealousy on his part.
He is wary about proclaiming the well-positioned Scotland as already bound for Germany next year under Clarke. Experience urges caution.
"If you have the whole first team guaranteed, OK. But you never know. It has happened to me. I have been down to a fifth-choice centre half!
"That [qualification] would be fantastic, of course. And the guy who would have loved that more than anyone would have been Craig. Not only was he gifted, but he was passionate about Scotland. He could quote you Rabbie Burns. I couldn’t do that!”
"He always had this sense of humour," he continues. "Even when I went to that funeral, a couple of the former staff coaches were at it again… One of the things Craig used to say to people was: 'If you look closely you can see the elastic band under Andy’s neck, this is to hold up the wig!'
“Because he always used to say: 'Your hair is always too neat and tidy'. I was even on a plane once and an air hostess was looking down the back, looking at me. And I was like: 'What’s the story here?' And it was him! He’d been going, 'If you look closely, you will see the elastic band holding up the wig'. That was him. He was a line-a-minute.
"In Scotland you just have to take it." he adds. "And you have to be ready with a quick one back."
Brown would heartily approve of quips about Roxburgh’s immaculate barnet being made at his funeral. Humour featured prominently in the eulogies
Of course, there was plenty of sadness too. How could there not be? And not all of it was because of the man Roxburgh had taken three flights to honour. He was moved to consider some very Burnsian themes.
“Nae man can tether time or tide,” the poet wrote. Being away so long meant Roxburgh was confronted by faces that have aged decades since he last saw them.
“By the way, it was great to see so many of them, but it was also slightly depressing," he says. "Because some of the stories I heard about colleagues and former players, it could drive you round the bend.”
The heroic Murdo MacLeod hirpled up to him. “I spent quite a while talking away to him,” says Roxburgh. “He is on crutches and has had quite a few health issues. I really like Murdo – he was a right good team player. Even when he was not starting and things like that, he was always the first to encourage everyone else. I liked working with him.”
No wonder – MacLeod put his life on the line for Roxburgh and his country when sticking his head in the way of a powerful Branco free kick against Brazil at Italia '90. "He actually reminded me of it, where he got smashed on the head and then got shoved back on – you would never do that today. He was obviously not right. We had to take him off before half time. He goes up to Big Roy (Aitken) and asks: ‘Which way are we shooting?’ And Roy says – and we are playing Brazil remember – 'Don’t ask me, I haven’t a clue!'
"That touch of humour in the middle of a match like that….Murdo reminded me of it two weeks ago...
“I was being reminded of a lot of things,” continues Roxburgh, who enjoyed catching up with the likes of Willie McLean, Jocky Scott and Ross Mathie, his old youth development guru at the SFA.
“The sad thing was when Eric Ferguson, the old physio at Dundee, whipped out his phone and showed me a photograph, with seven of the national team backroom staff, including Craig and myself, Alan Hodgkinson, the goalkeeper coach, the whole lot of us. Eric was like: 'He is away, he is away’… And I hate to say it, of that group I think Eric and I might have been the only two left.”
There’s not a moment to waste. By the time you read this, Roxburgh will be back on the other side of the world. He provides brief mention of a small family celebration to mark his latest milestone. “It’s just an age,” he says.
Roxburgh is based in Switzerland but has a backpacker’s schedule. Although still the fierce patriot with a tartan scarf, he has a global vision. “Two or three years ago, I checked,” he says. “I had actually worked in 70 countries in all continents. Not that this makes you particularly special. But in terms of Asia, I am a regular in Japan.”
Earlier this year he attended a dinner with Hajime Moriyasu, the Japan head coach. “I asked: ‘What do you need to do to be a world champion?’ Because that’s their aim,” he recalls. “He took the back of the menu and wrote out half a dozen things. The last one and the key was their links to the world – that means players playing in the best leagues, where they know the best coaches are and how they are trained, they know what is going on.
“In other words, their awareness of the world is key to them. They feel detached and far away from the hub of Europe. There is no argument: everyone still looks to Europe because that’s where the top leagues are. It’s where the big money is.”
There is an obvious challenge from Saudi Arabia, somewhere else with which Roxburgh is familiar.
“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “We have been aware of that coming. It is not just clubs buying players there. They are spending a fortune on player development.” Might they become a force in the world game?
Currently, Saudi players mainly play in Saudi. "When it comes to playing World Cups, many of them are very talented, but they don’t have the experience of non-stop, top-level club competition, which is what develops players to their full potential," explains Roxburgh.
“That’s what happens when young talents come out of Argentina and Brazil and out of Africa, particularly out of west Africa, to go to Europe. You don’t get that many coming out of Asia, particularly the west of Asia. They earn too much money! They are treated like royalty. I don’t think there’s any great urgency to race to Europe. The Japanese, you see, have a different approach.”
But who knows? Roxburgh is all about change, adapting, sharing ideas. “When I was a coach, my job was to win the next game or qualify for the next tournament,” he says. “I always say my job now is to win the next ten years.
“At the end of ten years, success is if I can look back and say a lot has been done in terms of developing players and coaching and competitions.”
It would not be a surprise if he’s still talking with such passion and energy when he's 90. Rather slimmer are the chances of it being at the behest of the same interviewer. He'll outlast us all.
Japan will be world champions, Saudi Arabia will be running them close. And a wiry Scot will be imparting his knowledge of the game elsewhere in the world.
Rave on Andy Roxburgh.