Archigoles: Steve Archibald on his Barcelona days

Steve Archibald remains a revered figure among the fans at Barcelona. Picture: Contributed
Steve Archibald remains a revered figure among the fans at Barcelona. Picture: Contributed
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THE popular striker recalls forging of a special bond, 30 years after signing for Barcelona

On the front page of the 25 July 1984 edition of El Mundo Deportivo, there is a photograph of Barcelona president Josep Lluis Nunez pointing towards a slim, blond-haired striker who looks more at ease than might have been expected. “Este es el hombre,” Nunez is quoted as saying. This is the man. This is the man who will replace Diego Maradona.

But who was he? That is the question some Barcelona fans were asking. For those armed with knowledge about British football, Steve Archibald was already well-established as someone with a knack for scoring goals and who was willing to stand up for himself. Such self-assurance meant he possessed a fighting chance of replacing Maradona, who had left for Napoli after being bruised, battered and almost broken by one fierce competitor in particular: Andoni Goikoetxea, otherwise known as the Butcher of Bilbao.

Still, it surprised some that Barcelona turned to a “skinny motor mechanic from Rutherglen” – to use Archibald’s own description – when looking to replace the chunky Maradona, who was already reckoned to be the greatest player on the planet.

Terry Venables, the manager who signed Archibald, has since explained how the Scot has an innate ability to survive, which is why he prospered while several other notable British players who sampled life abroad at the time did not.

But had you peered below the bonnet, Archibald, who started his own motor mechanic business in his late teens when with Clyde, admits he was not purring along quite so confidently. How could he be? He was not cowed but there was some anxiety. This was the case even for someone like Archibald, who once responded to Alex Ferguson’s demand for him to return the ball he took after scoring a hat-trick for Aberdeen by booting it into his office the next morning – “here’s your fucking ball!”

Archibald’s new team-mates explained how Maradona had introduced himself by grabbing an orange from the bowl of fruit sitting on a table in the centre of the dressing-room and then played keepie-up with it, before doing the same with a ‘ball’ made out of rolled-up socks.

“My most flamboyant act was managing not to sweat when I shook each player’s hand in the dressing-room,” smiles Archibald. To have some idea how he was feeling in that summer of 1984, when Ghostbusters and Gremlins were competing against each other at the cinema box office, imagine being the person next in line to inherit the Barcelona No 10 shirt from Lionel Messi.

But then an injury-hampered Maradona had scored only 11 times in his last season at the club. Archibald, meanwhile, had hit 33 goals in all competitions as Spurs won the Uefa Cup. Barcelona were a big club with big expectations, where even a run of a few goalless games meant a misfiring striker risked prompting a display of disgust registered in the form of thousands of waved white hankies. But they had won the league only once in the preceding 24 years.

Archibald, by contrast, was on a run that had started with a league title win at Aberdeen in 1980, and included two FA Cup wins as well as the aforementioned Uefa Cup triumph. “Del Aberdeen…a la gloria” (From Aberdeen to Glory) is how El Mundo Deportivo put it in a profile piece about Archibald.

However, the truth is that both the Pittodrie club and Spurs were more successful than Barcelona in recent seasons on the European stage. Maradona helped Barcelona win only the Copa del Rey and League Cup.

“Certainly in my head, I was not replacing anyone,” says Archibald. “Someone had gone and I was coming in. It wasn’t as if I was coming to replace Maradona as his substitute, as the papers reported. I was not coming in to do what Maradona had been doing because obviously Maradona is extremely special. And more special than anyone I have seen, before or since. His ability was sublime.

“I would have to be a lunatic to think that I could come in and do what Maradona had been doing. It never entered my head. That is what I told the press when they asked me: how does it feel to be coming in to replace Maradona? I said I am sorry to disappoint you. I am not here to substitute Maradona. Maradona has gone and I have arrived. That’s it. I am coming in to play the way I can play and that’s it. They wanted to tag it as me coming in to replace Maradona and that was never going to happen. My play was totally different.”

But he did take Maradona’s No 10 shirt – eventually. In what Archibald describes as two defining moments in his time at Barcelona, he recalls how he employed psychology to assist his settling-in process. Aware of how the club’s two foreign stars, Bernd Schuster and Maradona, had warred prior to his arrival, he sat down with the German midfielder in the centre circle following a presentation day to discuss how both could work well together on the pitch. “I will be making moves into space for you,” Archibald assured Schuster. Their relationship survives intact to this day.

The Scot’s surrendering of the No 8 shirt at Barcelona was also tactical. It was written in his contract that he would be given this number, which had served him so well at Aberdeen and Spurs. There was one problem: the shirt was occupied by Schuster. Before the opening league game against Real Madrid, neither was prepared to stand down in the tug of war. Eventually, Archibald accepted defeat.

“Terry said to me: ‘I will tell him it’s yours’,” recalls Archibald. “Leave it,” I said. It was like the No 10 shirt was infected. No-one one else would take it. I did not have any phobias about it at all. That’s a load of nonsense. Whoever it is takes over from Messi, they would never step on the pitch otherwise – they’d be petrified.”

Archibald made a dream start, scoring twice in a 9-1 destruction of Boca Juniors in the pre-season Joan Gamper trophy and then, 30 years ago on Tuesday, striking the decisive second goal in a 3-0 away victory over Real Madrid in the opening game of the league campaign.

“It was a tap-in,” recalls Archibald. “If the ball hits the back of the net it’s what gets you the points. I am more than happy to score ugly goals and leave the spectacular ones to other people because the spectacular ones don’t come around that often. It is the little goals that win leagues. You can do it like me or you can do it like Maradona.”

Or you can do it like Hugo Sanchez. The extrovert Mexican striker was the club’s preferred choice to replace Maradona, to the extent that he was on standby in the same hotel as negotiations with Archibald and Spurs officials continued downstairs.

“Someone told me Hugo was upstairs,” he recalls. “It didn’t mean anything to me. If the manager wanted me then he wanted me. And he clearly did. The only thing that would break it was if they could not agree a fee. That had nothing to do with me. So I was not worried.

“Sanchez was the club’s first choice, no doubt. But I was Terry’s choice. And as a manager coming in you have to win your first argument.”

On the first occasion Archibald came up against Sanchez, who remained with Atletico Madrid, the Mexican hit the bar with an overhead kick inside five minutes. “But it didn’t go in,” the Scot says, pointedly. While Sanchez did in fact finish as the country’s leading scorer that season, Archibald was in third place with an impressive 16 league goals – and he also had a league winner’s medal.

The following season Barcelona fell agonisingly short of a first European Cup triumph, losing on penalties to Steaua Bucharest.

Injured shortly after scoring a famous goal with his ear in the quarter-final win over holders Juventus – “it was my head, but so many people refer to it as ‘the Scotsman’s ear’, I just go along with it,” he shrugs – Archibald missed the semi-final comeback win over IFK Gothenburg in which his replacement, Pichi Alonso, scored a hat-trick.

He returned for the final but some still doubt whether he should have started over Alonso. Not Archibald.

“I still tell Terry to this day that his biggest mistake was taking me off,” he says.

Despite this disappointment, Archibald quickly grew accustomed to life in Spain. He became fluent in the native language and worshipped the sun that many thought would devour him. A consummate professional, he relished how the heat made his muscles looser, and his body more flexible.

He met his second wife Monica, got married in the city in a kilt and has since had two children, Kersty and Elliot, to add to Emma and Lee, from his first marriage to Maureen. He remains based in Barcelona, where we met earlier this week. When watching old footage of him in action for the club he is always easy to spot. Despite the climate, his limbs remained as white as the crisp shirt he is concerned about splashing as he prepares to engage with a plate of prawns. “From Palamos – the best in Spain,” he says. A bottle of white wine is already sitting chilling in a bucket when I arrive.

Behind the bar, a kindly waiter fusses over the distinguished customer. It is impossible to avoid noticing how other diners in the restaurant look and then look again when they pass by Archibald. This is what I had wondered about when I suggested that we might meet somewhere in the shadow of Camp Nou. I was interested in how he was still regarded by fans, who were quick to christen him ‘Archigoles’ following his fine start 30 years ago.

“I don’t see what the relevance is,” he replied, in a somewhat blunt manner – it is a glimpse why some had warned me that Archibald is a challenging interviewee. We meet elsewhere in the city instead, in a restaurant chosen by him. It was the subject of a call from Venables just a few days earlier: “Hey, Steve, what’s the name of the restaurant we always used to go to again?”

A fellow diner apologises for interrupting and shakes Archibald’s hand, explaining how he watched him when he was a boy. “It makes me feel old,” says Archibald, who turns 58 next month. Before dinner he had tweeted about the anniversary of him joining Barcelona, something that had not occurred to him until contacted by The Scotsman last week. The replies he received on Twitter were all positive ones, as they tend to be with him.

There is a lot of love for Archibald out there. He has managed to retain the affection of the supporters at every club where he has played. And it’s a long list, including one game as a trialist for East Stirlingshire in the mid-Seventies. Amusingly, Archibald decided against signing because he didn’t like the hooped socks they wore. “They made me feel clumsy,” he says.

But it is not East Stirlingshire who are the reason we have met, nor is it Clyde, Aberdeen, Spurs, Hibs, St Mirren or even East Fife, where he was due to be named in their newly-formed Hall of Fame this weekend, before changes at boardroom level at the club saw the event postponed.

Rather, it is Barcelona, where Archibald was the first Scot to play for the club since George Pattullo, cousin of my great grandfather. Neither fared badly. Pattullo struck 43 times in 23 appearances between 1910 and 1912. In an era when few scored freely in La Liga, Archibald netted an impressive 42 goals in 95 games.

Although he lives very near to Camp Nou, Archibald chooses not to watch the current Barcelona team, surprisingly. He describes Messi as “too greedy”, an accusation that could never be levelled at Archibald, whose talent was to bring out the best in strike partners.

There was little he was able to do for Mark Hughes, however. The Welsh player was signed to partner another new arrival in Gary Lineker in the summer following the European Cup final heartache and while Archibald recovered from injury. With rules permitting only two foreigners to play, the Scot’s prospects did not look good. “Terry signed Mark Hughes on the back of the overhead kick that he scored v Spain,” says Archibald. “Maybe not just on the back of it, I suppose he thought he was a good player as well. But he did not fit in. I was injured at the time. I snapped my ankle ligaments. Schuster was gone. These were the two he brought in. I played for the Barca B team but got lumps kicked out of me.

“I was trying to get my fitness back. Mark was not working out. The fans were chanting my name and wanted me back in. He was demoted and I came back in because only two could play. I immediately started scoring goals and linked up well with Lineker.”

The turning point had been Barcelona’s loss to Dundee United in the quarter-final of the Uefa Cup in 1987. Archibald sat in the stand and watched his countrymen earn a famous victory in the second-leg at Camp Nou. “I was thinking: how long is Terry going to continue with this,” he recalls. “And, really, it was the fans who forced his arm. They did not want it any longer. They wanted me back in and let him know, and it happened. I am grateful I got back in. It’s a shame it did not work out for Mark but that is football, simple as that.”

The same could be said for the manner of Archibald’s eventual departure, following Johan Cruyff’s arrival as manager. The Scot was on loan at Blackburn Rovers and when he returned, the club had moved on. Incredibly considering all he had done, a security man prevented the Scot entering the pitch as Cruyff and his new signings were presented to supporters.

“They thought I was going to do something daft to Cruyff,” recalls Archibald. “Give him a Glasgow handshake or something, I don’t know! I saw one of the directors tell the security man: ‘watch him’. But the fans were great. My relationship with the fans was always fantastic because we had success together. We won the league for the first time in 11 years and they were grateful. They took me to their hearts.”

True enough, before he was huckled own the steps of the tunnel by the security guard, footage has survived showing Archibald waving to the fans, who hand him an ovation in return. It was the last time he set foot on the Camp Nou pitch as a player.

Describing himself as a religious man, Archibald has always felt there is someone – or something – watching over him. This sensation perhaps stems from the times his father Alex, who spent long spells away from home with the Merchant Navy, would point out the window and playfully warn his son that a seagull called ‘Wullie’ was watching out for any mischief.

Archibald himself did not go to sea. But he grew accustomed to searching out adventure, one reason why he ended up in a port such as Barcelona. He was always admirably willing to get his hands dirty in considerably less plush surroundings than Camp Nou, providing it meant he could still play football. Archibald is likely to remain the first and last player to move directly from Barcelona to Hibernian. Because he still owns a house in Rutherglen, Archibald will return next month to vote in a referendum that is, of course, of great interest in Catalonia.

He now describes himself as a “football entrepreneur”, with particular interest in the emerging football scene in India.

Exploits such as those of United’s against Barcelona now seem part of a bygone age and Archibald remains genuinely worried for Scottish football’s future prospects. “I would close the whole Largs institution down and expel all the coaches who have been there for years and years and have tried to coach Scottish football, because it has not worked, ever,” he says. But these are worries for another time.

You leave him walking across the street. A prince of Barcelona, and several other places besides. A passing taxi driver cranes his neck: Was that really Archigoles?