Comment: Alan Pattullo on Jimmy Calderwood's biggest battle
Calderwood, 62, sat in the room of a PR company in Glasgow and revealed he had been diagnosed with younger onset Alzheimer’s disease as long as two years ago. His last role in football, a short stint as manager of Dutch club De Graafschap, was just over three years ago.
And that’s where it’s now confirmed his football odyssey, taking in Birmingham City, Cambridge United and several places in the Netherlands as a player, as well as Dunfermline and Aberdeen among other managerial stops, did in fact end for good.
It’s a comfort of sorts. It was getting harder to accept that football had become such a cruel and heartless place there was no place in it for such a colourful, friendly figure.
Only last week I’d been thinking about Calderwood, and how, even where, he now was. On journeys involving the M6, and the seemingly endless miles of Cumbrian tarmac, I’m always reminded of the irrepressible former Dunfermline Athletic and Aberdeen manager. He once very colourfully explained to me how he’d drive back over the summit at Shap, snow swirling towards the windscreen, in the wee sma’ hours after signing expeditions down south.
This wasn’t when he was manager of Dunfermline, which would have made it tough enough to get back in time for training the next morning. This was while he was manager of Aberdeen. And yes, he had training to take the next morning.
It wasn’t just him either. Jimmy Nicholl and Sandy Clark, his assistant and coach, were in the car with him, foregoing a night in a hotel somewhere to help save the club money. They’d take turns to keep each other entertained.
Calderwood told me that if it meant discovering another Sone Aluko, who helped Aberdeen reach the last 32 of the Europa League under Calderwood nine years ago, then it was all made to seem worthwhile.
He never does do anything by half.
So bitter were the circumstances when he left Dunfermline for Aberdeen in 2004, having just led the East End Park side to the Scottish Cup final, he was described as having burnt every bridge between the town’s Carnegie Hall and Maryculter.
Even yesterday, when revealing such devastating news, there was a sense of theatre. With the same gung-ho attitude displayed when urging his Aberdeen players forward, in the 4-3-3 formation he always favoured, he wasn’t going to let the light go out without a fight.
If he was going to reveal he was suffering from this particular illness, such a scourge of football, then he was going to make damn sure it was for the wider good. That meant he and his partner, Yvonne, getting Alzheimer’s Scotland involved, to help spread the word further.
Calderwood is now another brave soul determined to help raise exposure about a disease that has struck down some of our finest football men. From former Dundee United defender Frank Kopel, whose wife Amanda has been such a force for good since starting campaigning for Frank’s Law, to Celtic hero Billy McNeill, who it was recently revealed has been a sufferer for seven years.
It has been described as football’s dark “industrial illness”. And it is, with particular suspicion falling on the number of times players have to head balls that, decades ago, were a lot harder than now.
In his playing days Calderwood was a dependable defender for Birmingham, well thought of by fans at St Andrew’s. He still goes down a couple of times a season to watch them play and perhaps discuss why he was left out for an FA Cup semi-final v Fulham in 1975, something still argued over by fans. But he did play nearly 150 times for the club.
These are memories that might help sustain him in this fight. Dementia sufferers often discover they can remember such seemingly fleeting details as a scored goal, or a great save, from half a century ago, and yet not the names of those closest to them. If so, there’s plenty for Calderwood to recall in a rich career. If there’s one regret it’s probably that he was sacked from Aberdeen when he was in 2009. He never saw it coming, he once lamented, particularly since it was Willie Miller, an old friend from Govan, who pulled the trigger.
The last time I interviewed him was six years ago in Dingwall, where he was helping save Ross County from demotion to the third tier. He told me he’d wanted to get back into football on a permanent basis, not just as this Red Adair, manager-for-hire figure to fight fires as was becoming his trademark.
He told me how he wanted to work with Jimmy Nicholl once more, get the old gang back together again. It’s not going to happen now, sadly. Calderwood has a bigger battle.