Interview: Danny McGrain still going strong at 62

WAITING in reception for Danny McGrain, I’m enjoying the view of the Campsies as they rise out of the mist.

It’s a stunning backdrop and you can’t help wondering how many Celtic-minded bods have fantasised about the phizogs of Hoops notables being carved out of the hills, Mount Rushmore-style. Kenny Dalglish, Henrik Larsson, Wayne Biggins? It’s a good parlour-game, deciding who should be immortalised in rock, and surely today’s subject would be a top contender.

International week means the Lennoxtown training complex is quiet, although a lycra-clad expert in stretching is attending to Fraser Forster’s troublesome neck. This is the kind of specialist care which simply wasn’t available to the likes of McGrain. Forty-one years ago at Brockville, he banged heads with Falkirk’s Doug Somner and, on coming round, was greeted with a swish of the “magic sponge” and a reluctant substitute. McGrain played on with what was later diagnosed as a fractured skull.

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With or without characterful dents, his face would be a stone-carver’s delight, just as it appealed to the painter Humphrey Ocean who crafted his likeness for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery a few years back. The beard is grey now, giving him a craggy, seafaring aspect, and his specs are kept close on a piece of cord. But there’s also a glint of gold round his neck, while a fat ring bears the initials “DM”. He may have always looked older than Dalglish and the rest of the Quality Street Gang, but he was still a footballer from Glasgow. That requires a degree of gallusness which you simply don’t see anywhere else, at least not in men of 62.

Now it’s possible you do not regard McGrain, these days part of Neil Lennon’s coaching staff, as one of oor fitba’s towering intellectuals, wherever they may be. If so, there’s a good chance your reasoning, itself wholly non-intellectual, is largely based on that dunt on the head. Well, regarding the incident, consider this afterthought: “Brockville was always a defender’s park. It suited me but not guys like wee Louie [Lou Macari, the 12th man who stayed put] because it was just too tight for attackers.” An obvious point? Ah, that must be why I’ve never heard anyone make it before...

McGrain questions accepted wisdom. He says things like: “Before the term ‘world-class’ became such a cliché … ” (and this a full 24 hours before England captain Steven Gerrard called for the phrase to be banned in relation to Jack Wilshire, for the player’s benefit). He self-edits (“No, not like a shark smelling blood, like a lion that hadn’t eaten for days…”). And rather than quote from his own highly romantic backstory for the umpteenth time, he throws me by casting doubt on its veracity. Did a Rangers scout really decide not to pursue interest after discovering his full name was Daniel Fergus McGrain? “That’s the legend, but I’m no’ sure. In fact, I wonder if it wasn’t started by some wee Glasgow guy. I must have been 16, playing for Queen’s Park Strollers. If the scout was doing his job properly then he could have easily found out I was a pupil at Kingsridge Secondary in Drumchapel – a Protestant school. That’s if the scout even existed... ”

Fraser Forster is trying to get fit for Juventus and Champions League knockout on Tuesday. Back in September 1981, according to reports, McGrain “rose from his sick bed” to captain Celtic against Juve in the first round of the European Cup. He laughs. “Did I have a cold maybe? That must have been all it was because I wouldn’t have wanted to miss a great European night at Celtic Park. Juventus wore blue, I remember. An exquisite team, [Roberto] Bettega and all those guys.” (And Dino Zoff, Marco Tardelli, Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini and Gaetano Scirea who would help Italy lift the World Cup the following summer).

Famously, the Lisbon Lions were gobsmacked by Inter Milan’s matinee-idol handsomeness and their colognes. Were the Juve of ’81 similarly fragrant? Another chuckle. “I’m sure they were, but I think the personal hygiene of us Glasgow boys had come on a bit since ’67 so we wouldn’t have noticed and probably we thought we were smelling quite nice ourselves!” He remembers the slow tempo the Old Lady tried to impose on the game, and some diving. “In Scotland at that time if you kicked somebody they’d swear a bit – actually, a lot – but no one went down like they’d been shot. Now they all do. But I hate to sound like an old footballer moaning … ”

A Murdo MacLeod goal gave Celtic the narrowest of leads but before the return McGrain broke a leg in a clash with Partick Thistle’s Kenny Watson – “a big hulk of a guy with all this hair but a total accident.” In Turin a young fellow called David Moyes deputised while he watched from the stands. “The Juve fans threw fruit at our guys as they walked up the tunnel, or maybe it was tatties.” That man Bettega won it for the Italians, 2-1 on aggregate.

This gets McGrain thinking about other Italian jobs, including a Celtic youths tour at a highly impressionable 17. Was that his first time abroad? “Naw, I’d been to Butlins at Margate! But that was an incredible trip for a boy to make and, yes, just the smell of Italy was exciting. And, boys being boys, Italian girls were very exciting.” Then there was Milan and Celtic’s second European Cup final in three years under Jock Stein whom 
McGrain still refers to as “Mr”.

“Kenny Dalglish and I were picked as the boot boys, an enormous privilege. I couldn’t get over how relaxed the build-up was. The final of the European Cup and there was Mr Stein officiating games of headers on the hotel tennis-courts. I sat them out, probably because I wasn’t good enough, but Kenny played alongside Big Billy [McNeill], John Clark, Yogi [John Hughes], Bobby Murdoch. And Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Lennox – two funny guys. Funny sitting down together – I’m picturing them right now – and funny walking about. They were just two cheeky imps who were aye thinking: ‘How can we have a laugh here?’”

Did the young McGrain dream about some Jinky-Lennox malarkey inadvertently injuring the regular full-backs, 
propelling him into the starting line-up? He scoffs. “I must be one of few players who doesn’t dream. They all do now, don’t they? ‘I dreamt I was going to score the last-minute goal that won us the cup,’ they say. Just tosh. I don’t believe you can dream about something that hasn’t yet happened.”

This sounds like the same McGrain who used to be so uncomfortable wearing the epithet of “the world’s best right-back”. He still thinks such proclamations are daft, with huge potential for embarrassment. “I know they’re compliments and well-meant, but they were made when we didn’t see much football from other countries on TV and now that we do, folk are still at it. Then you go to a big tournament and realise there’s a heck of a lot of football played in the world. Who was talking about Feyenoord before they beat Celtic [in ’70]? Then quickly after them came Ajax, the whole Dutch 

Nevertheless, McGrain was pretty good, wasn’t he? Amassing 663 appearances, he was part of Celtic’s nine-in-a-row, the team that won the league with ten men (this is where his hungry lion comes in), the team that caught Hearts at the last-gasp. Seven championships, five Scottish Cups. All of that despite the fractured skull, the broken leg, a mystery, year-long ankle injury – and the diabetes. “At the 1974 World Cup, half-time in the first game against Zaire and right through Willie Ormond’s team-talk, I was lying underneath a tap used for washing boots – I couldn’t get enough fluid in me.” The condition was only diagnosed on his return from Germany having shed two stones. Against Brazil, he would still saunter across to the left-back berth and shackle Jairzinho. “Ach, he wasn’t the player he’d been in Mexico,” says our man of the night Scotland annihilated the world champs 0-0. “Jarzinho had won the World Cup and been feted for it. Over those four years he’d enjoyed himself maybe a bit too much. Rivelino was the same and, to be honest, Brazil disappointed me. Even though we benefited, I felt let down.”

Yet more evidence of the thoughtful football man. “I didn’t even want to be a footballer,” he continues. “I wanted to be a mechanical engineer but couldn’t understand Higher Maths. I watched the ’66 World Cup on TV, and fabulous Brazil in ’70, and never dreamed I’d be playing in the next one. Well, you know I dinnae dream of such things. Before my Celtic debut [’72, the old League Cup groups, sub for Harry Hood] I’d been going: ‘Please don’t let anyone get injured.’ Mr Stein almost had to push me on with a fork handle. Then at the final whistle I was like: ‘Brilliant, I want more.’

McGrain won a lot, where does he keep the medals? “They’re up in the loft, mouldering away. I don’t need them on display. The kids know who I am.” He and his wife Laraine have three daughters and one of their grand-daughters, four-year-old Dawn, has posted them a photo from Hong Kong for every day she’s been alive. A few images from his career adorn the walls: one with Stein and another leading out Scotland at Wembley in ’81, a game won with a penalty by John Robertson (“Brian Clough ripped into him for his slovenliness but with a ball at his feet he was wonderful”). A third is of McGrain and Dalglish, fast friends from the off.

“You find your pals through likes or dislikes which in Scottish football can often mean: does he drink? Neither of us did, although in Kenny’s case that was down to him being too bloody miserable to buy any!” He remembers the day they were the only ones to be spared a half-time blast from Big Jock despite the Celts being two-up against Hearts and how much that unnerved them. The upbraiding would follow later, in private, from Billy McNeill and Jimmy Johnstone. “Mr Stein’s psychology was it would have more impact coming from guys we were in awe of. Apparently, he thought we had a bit too much swagger about us. I can just imagine Jinky taking his orders: ‘Yeah, Gaffer, swagger – we’ll deal with it.’ Did we? I’m not sure, although I never doubted Mr Stein. We went on to win that game 4-0, by the way – quite a swaggering performance!”

McGrain reckons his big thing was consistency, nearly always the same level of performance. “I can’t remember many bad games, nor many outstanding games,” he says, though many would take issue with him on the latter. He’s been consistently entertaining and insightful for a full 90 minutes today. On what our great game might have lost, he says: “Supporters’ club functions. Not for the prizes – silverware, some crystal or for Frank McGarvey once, a vacuum-cleaner – but so that fans could meet the players. Mr Stein sent us out to them all the time but they don’t seem to happen so much now. Maybe the associations think what they could afford to give the modern footballer is too paltry.”

He’s been happy to talk up the immortals some more (“In ’74 we wanted to do well for Billy Bremner and Denis Law who would never get to another World Cup”) but also careful not to forget other notables, less quoted. “John Brownlie was probably a better right-back than me but he suffered such a bad leg-break.” Then there was Brownlie’s Hibs team-mate Erich Schaedler. “What a superb physical specimen. In Germany, because of IRA death-threats against Sandy Jardine, we had security with us at all times. Erich was aye asking them how they neutralised a guy but they wouldn’t say. He was convinced they had a technique like Mr Spock’s in Star Trek – you know, just a slight squeeze of the shoulders – and would try it out on the rest of the boys. But Erich – hard, hard man – couldn’t do slight squeezes!”

Among the Quality Street Gang, George Connelly was the great enigma. “He was from Kincardine, loved the place and you couldn’t take it out of him. As much as I’m from Drumchapel I think I’ve grown through football and learned how to communicate with people. The poor lad just couldn’t handle being recognised but he was a rare talent.” Now we’re circumnavigating Planet Football with this would-be sailor – to Real Madrid (“Another debacle”) and Atletico Madrid (“Veins sticking out of necks with hatred – but I always loved games where the fans booed you”). To Ujpest Dozsa (“Godawful strips, just lilac T-shirts”) and Partizan Tirana (“There was a rumour I’d be banned from entering Albania because of my beard; I wish I had been. Every meal-time the same consomme with a raw egg on top, guys holding hands in the street. To us from the west of Scotland that wasn’t right”).

We’ve come full circle and are back in Turin. “That was when I discovered champagne! We were in Italy’s region for it, so we were told, so with me not playing and my leg in plaster I thought it would be impolite not to try some at lunchtime and downright rude not to have a bit more with my dinner. Although as you know I dinnae drink!”