Interview: Peter Grant on why he felt ‘blessed’ to play for Celtic, why he’s a fitness fanatic and why he thinks Scotland’s current crop are mentally weak

Peter Grant's Alloa Athletic side take on Elgin City in the third round of the Scottish Cup this weekend. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Peter Grant's Alloa Athletic side take on Elgin City in the third round of the Scottish Cup this weekend. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Waiting for Peter Grant outside the Alloa Athletic colosseum, I’m thrilled by this juxtaposition: a catering van unashamedly calling itself Fatboy’s Snacks next to turnstile doors, closed for the moment, which obviously date from an age when the average physique of Fitba Man was officially listed as “skinnymalink”. Indulge in too many of Mr Fatboy’s tasty treats and you might not be able to squeeze in to the game.

That will never be a problem for Alloa’s manager, however, for Grant begins each day in the gym. He’s as religious about this as he is about mass, also attended daily. His fitness fanaticism dates from when he was a wide-eyed kid at Celtic, following Tommy
Burns and Danny McGrain around the whole time and mimicking their every move, which included visits to the Parkhead weights room.

A cold place with no mirrored walls before we all became such a bunch of raving narcissists, it was modestly equipped – “So much so that Tommy would put the solitary five kilo on one end of the bar and the solitary ten kilo on the other
end and then have to quickly swap them over otherwise he’d have been lopsided,” he laughs. “Meanwhile over in the corner would be Danny … [Grant, now in his office, gets up and, back to the wall, slides down it so his legs form right angles] … He would hold that position for ages while still wearing his coat because it was freezing in that room and that’s how he ended up with those magnificent thighs.”

He ponders the fitness issue some more. Celtic in his era (1982-1997) once unleashed Mickey Rourke’s kickboxing personal trainer on the players. Later, 1,000 sit-ups before training properly began were demanded. Manager Billy McNeill, at a time of universal ignorance about refuelling, barked: “If I see anyone drinking water you’ll all be doing the drill again!” But, says Grant, the team were superfit. “We were never outrun.”

The modern Scottish player? Grant worries about him. Were the national side to actually qualify for finals, reach the knockouts and be taken to extra-time, he fears they would lose. “Mentally, we’ve never been over the edge.” His stint as the team’s assistant to Alex McLeish, before they were both sacked in April, was hugely frustrating. Players were hidebound by individual
training plans set by their clubs and the recovery from weekend games that was deemed necessary, delaying full attendance at Scotland sessions for three days. The double-header arrangement was a problem. “Guys like Ryan Fraser and James Forrest can’t play two matches together. You don’t get the same performance from them [each time]. Their bodies don’t allow it.” Grant’s youth amounted to a blizzard of games. “Now, academies have a thousand kids and the coaches will be like: ‘He’s had his ten minutes, you go on for five.’ Listen, good things have come out of sports science. Diet is excellent and players look like athletes. But they don’t have the mentality. Young guys will say: ‘Oh, I’ve had a hard day.’ I’ll be like: ‘Eh? I do what you do and I’m 54!’”

As a player Grant maximised his effectiveness as Celtic’s hard-running, fierce-tackling midfielder because he couldn’t pass the ball as silkily as Paul McStay. But while the gym was a boon to his fitness there was a practical reason for using it, and why it’s still big in his life.

Grant is like his own petrochemical plant which produces too much hydrocarbon gas and has to be burned off. The Alloa job came out of the blue. Such an abrupt end to his Scotland tenure might have prompted soul-searching in others, a pause for reflection. Grant’s wife Lorraine – for now still living in Norfolk, the family home since his time managing Norwich City – knows him only too well. “She said: ‘What do you want to do – sit in the garden for eight hours every day?’ Actually she put it like this: ‘Take the job, because you’re absolutely doing my nut in!’

“When I was playing I was as nervous before my last game as I was my first,” he continues. “I never played golf because I didn’t think I was a good enough footballer
not to be fully concentrated on the next match. Nerves, tension, the adrenalin rush – they’re what get me going and the gym has become a necessity. I wish I was still playing but I can’t anymore. So I get out on the grass with guys who can. It’s the next-best-thing.”

You might assume that managing a club who can only train part-time and currently occupy the relegation play-off berth in the Scottish Championship would be the cause of some frustration. Not at all. His Wasps’ fitness is “phenomenal”. Their day jobs include kids’ special needs, income tax, menswear and the police, with midfielder Jon Robertson recently coming off the nightshift with the force to drive up to Inverness for a game then returning to work straight afterwards. Grant is in awe of efforts like that and, following Scotland, Alloa are no consolation prize. “I treat being here like it’s Barcelona,” he says, adding: “Barca with the ball and Atletico Madrid without it.”

In the mini-fridge of his tiny lair there’s a single bottle of white wine bearing the Alloa crest next to the milk for the tea. Grant has brought along a jumbo box of shortbread and it seems to be entirely for your correspondent, his body being a temple and all that. Well, this turns into a long afternoon. Two hours later Grant is still talking passionately about football and lovingly about family (mum Helen, dad Daniel, the long-suffering Lorraine, who actually hates the game, sons Peter Jr and Ray who’ve followed him into it). Oh, and he also natters emotionally about Celtic.

Still sweating from his workout, the dark patches under his arms just keep getting bigger. There’s deodorant on his desk which promises “48-hour protection” but I don’t think it’s strong enough. To paraphrase Roy “Jaws” Scheider: he’s gonna need a bigger tube (and look out for a funny shark tale later). When he says that serving his apprenticeship he got to know all the cracks in London Road leading to Paradise – travelling on the No 35 bus from Chapelhall, Lanarkshire, jumping charabancs when kindly drivers flashed lights to indicate the lurking presence of a ticket inspector – I think he might be about to describe each and every fissure. A long afternoon, for sure, but never dull.

His conversation is peppered with self-deprecation and, it seems, self-doubt. He was lucky to play for Celtic – “blessed”. He would have done anything, any job within the team, to be able to pull on the Hoops. Just one game – or at least his first at Celtic Park, attended by both his grandfathers, ex-supporters’ branch drivers, one in a wheelchair by that stage – would have sufficed. He tried to stay at the club as long as he could. He always knew it wouldn’t last. He left so the team could be improved.

But he came to know his worth. “Maybe I was the first-ever defensive midfielder. I could read the game. I knew what everyone in the team did, or should have been doing. If they weren’t I’d be telling them: ‘You – over there.’ That’s why I used to get called Peter the Pointer. I know I was a moanin’-faced get. I would have hated to play with me. I would have killed me!”

His status, it seemed, was always under threat. “When John Collins, Pat McGinlay and, God rest him, Phil O’Donnell turned up it wasn’t Paul that everyone thought they’d be replacing, it was me. But I used to just shake these guys by the hand and say: ‘All the best in the reserves.’ I knew I had something no one else at Celtic possessed. My role was, if you like, defined by the rest of the team. When the Three Amigos came, that [carnival football] couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been running about daft in the midfield. [Paolo] Di Canio acknowledged this. A comeback from two down at Kilmarnock when I scored and we won 4-2 convinced him to join and Cadete said something similar.” He pauses before summing up his value: “Probably I was rubbish when I was playing but when I wasn’t there folk thought I was world-class!”

As a coach, Grant had a long stint in England, the high point being Birmingham City’s 2011 League Cup triumph assisting McLeish. Initially he was unsure about doing national service but reasoned that the job was “unturndownable”. When your country needs you, and all that. Not every player shares that view at the moment, I say. Grant has some sympathy: “In my day there were boot deals and you got more when you became an internationalist but that money wouldn’t amount to much for today’s players. They’d drop it running for a bus if they knew what one was!” Players are put under pressure by clubs not to play for their countries. “I know that for a fact,” he adds.

Scotland, Grant believes, have to decide if they really want success for the national
side, then everyone must get behind the effort. He was surprised at the “negativity”
towards McLeish from the start. Surprised, too, at the sneering aimed at some of Scotland’s opponents: “Albania had guys in the Bundesliga and a £50 million full-back. Before we played in Kazakhstan I overheard one Scottish journalist admit to a local reporter he didn’t know anyone in their team.” But of course losing that match 3-0 was a disaster.

Back to Alloa. Peter Jr is currently at Morton, perched above the Wasps at the wrong end of the table, and father and son are due to do battle for the first time four days before Christmas. “I’ll be studying his weaknesses,” the old man says, “and his strengths. We’re family but this is football. Both my boys [younger son Ray is at Clyde] are like me: they want to win. I would have kicked my grandmother on the pitch and I’m glad to say they’re the same.”

Today, though, is Scottish Cup third-round day and Alloa are away to Elgin City. The tournament has great memories for Grant and he launches into another reverie: “It was always my dream growing up to play at Hampden in the final and win the cup and I might have squeezed on to the bench in 1985 [Celtic 2, Dundee United 1]
but because of some injury doubts Pierce O’Leary got the place. Then in the centenary double-winning year [’88] I was desperately trying to come back from a broken foot, cycling 28 miles a day in a stookie, playing in a bounce match a day after the plaster coming off and four before the final [United again, 2-1 again], and then bursting into tears when [manager] Billy [McNeill] looked at the jutting bone and said I wouldn’t make it.

“I didn’t think it was meant to be, me and the cup, and then the following year we played Rangers – who were always the opposition in the dream of course – and they were going for the treble so, no question about it, we had to stop them. I did Mark Walters with a rabbit punch, snapped a finger, the ball went out for a throw but it wasn’t ours, big Roy [Aitken] took it anyway, I mishit a crossfield pass, the ball spun up in the air and wee Joe [Miller] pounced.”

When Grant broke into the Celtic team he thought he’d be winning a trophy every
year at least. But he hadn’t anticipated nine-in-a-row Rangers and would have to wait another six to get his hands on the cup again. Three weeks before the ’95 final, injury once more threatened his participation. “I just had to play in that one. I was prepared to lie about my fitness – that’s how desperate I was. We had to end the pain of always finishing second in the league behind our rivals, sometimes not even that.” Grant was in his usual place, played his heart out, 
Celtic beat Airdrie, third Amigo Pierre van Hooijdonk plundering the only goal.

He ponders the footballer’s mental health, not recognised at that time. “We probably had issues without realising. Don’t forget there was a transfer window every day back then; you could be replaced in an instant. It would probably have been frowned on to seek help because managers might have thought you weren’t properly focused. Same with thinking about life beyond playing. Tomorrow was never coming for us. You were only allowed to think about the next game.

“I reckon it’s true for many guys in football that we’re actors, really. There’s this face we have to put on all the time which can’t show any weakness. But Lorraine will tell you that any time I’ve been out of work I’ve been a nightmare. Maybe there’s this impression of me, because of how I played, of being mentally strong but I never
thought I was. Sometimes after a game which had gone wrong I’d sit in my living-room at four o’clock in the morning, still in my club tracksuit, and stare at the dark outside. Tommy Burns, God rest him, said a very perceptive thing: I loved playing for Celtic but did I enjoy it? That’s a whole other question … ’”

As a kid he didn’t want to do anything else. Everything about his very first appearance is vivid: “I was down to play for the reserves when my mum told me there had been a phonecall: I was to get to Parkhead as quickly as possible. I met Bobby Lennox and, God rest him, Jimmy Johnstone at the front door who said: ‘Aye son, you’ll catch your first breath at about ten o’clock tonight.’ I didn’t know what they meant. [Manager] Davie Hay summoned me. He said: ‘Your playing for the big team over at Ibrox. If I didn’t think you were up to it you wouldn’t be.’ I swore, burst into tears and started shaking like a leaf. My dad was working at the whisky bond. A neighbour ran up there and gave him his ticket for the game. He saw Ally McCoist put six studs on my neck, first tackle!”

He loved Old Firm games, playing in around 50 – ah, but did he enjoy them? “Probably not. Maybe I cared too much and tried too hard.” Notoriously, he blessed himself after scoring in another Ibrox potboiler, the triple red-card affair in ’87. “The next day Scotsport said of me: ‘There’s the man who should have been sent off.’ That angered me. Like how I always carried a prayer in my shinguard, what I did was personal. But, given the setting, I probably shouldn’t have done it. But, you know, it got me on to EastEnders. Remember when Dirty Den was banged up? There was a newspaper photo of me on my knees on the wall of his cell!” Grant was able to form cross-party friendships with McCoist, Ian Durrant and Derek Ferguson and had Souness, sharp elbow poised as the pair ran side-by-side for the ball, check himself and say: “Just as well it’s you, Peter.” But he laughs as he recalls his brief, miserable stint in Old Firm management as Tony Mowbray’s No 2: “After one defeat, Ally and Ian with Walter [Smith] and some other Ibrox legends were seeing us off. Tony, such a mannerly man, said: ‘All the best, guys.’ I couldn’t stop myself: ‘All the best? I hope you get f****d every week!’”

Finally, the shark story I promised you. A pre-season tour, Sweden or Switzerland, ended with a splendid barbecue, only Grant had to pass on the fish option: “A shark as big as my desk, decorated with prawns. It looked lovely but they’d left the head on it with this mad, staring eye. I was rooming with Di Canio to teach him about the traditions of Celtic. What did he do? Hid the bloody head in the bottom of my bed. When my feet touched the horrible slimy thing I chased him out of the room. I threw a fire extinguisher at him but unfortunately it missed.”

Flash-forward a few years, Di Canio is recalling the incident in his memoirs and Grant is manager of Norwich City who’re at Ipswich for the local derby.

“Some of their fans were waving fish, others had been to joke shops and were dressed as fish. They thought I didn’t like fish … ”