IF ANOTHER Scotland footballer over-indulges on takeaway pizza and lap-dancers mere days before a big game or, perish the thought, if one of our strikers fluffs a hat-trick of open-goal chances against Gibraltar tomorrow night, then I think I know where they can come to escape all the humiliation and recrimination – down where Willie Young lives.
Young and Don Masson, in fact. Getting off the train in Grantham, I remember being in this flat, quiet, unremarkable corner of England before. It was seven years ago, the 30th anniversary of the Argentina World Cup. Now, 40 years on from the antics of the Copenhagen Five, here I am again.
“Don lives in the next village,” confirms Young, collecting me from a railway halt in his daughter’s stupendously messy car. Maybe the pair of them should start a colony, I say, offering mutual support for when playing for your country goes horribly wrong. He smiles tensely, having initially been reluctant to talk and telling me on the phone: “I’ve put football behind me.” But when he points out a pub where Laurel and Hardy once stayed the night and your correspondent is compelled to yabber a lengthy critique of why The Music Box is film comedy’s greatest 29 minutes, this seems to break the ice.
Masson, who lives in Elton-on-the-hill, Nottinghamshire, missed the penalty against Peru and then found God. In Bottesford, which is technically in Leicestershire, Young has found dog. Kennels have been his game for the last decade. Before that he ran a pub for 19 years. And before that? Only one of the most controversial and combustible careers there’s been.
Now 63, the former Aberdeen, Spurs and Arsenal centre-half has filled out a bit and his ginger hair is flecked with grey. There are photographs in the sitting-room of all three of his children on horseback, his wife Lynda being an equestrian nut who once participated in The Horse of the Year Show. Shy and soft-spoken and flicking at an iPad to show me snaps of the grandchildren, it’s hard to equate all of this with Young at his most carrot-topped and confrontational: the Bruce Lee karate-kick impressions, the manager he caused to quit the game, the swapping of sides in a fierce city rivalry, the sanctions-busting tour of South Africa and The Tackle Which Changed Football. We’ll get round to all of that, but first: less-than-wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.
It’s a night that’s gone down in infamy, commandeering a whole chapter of Stewart Cosgrove’s Hampden Babylon. Willie Ormond was in charge of Scotland in 1975 and, after beating Denmark in a Euro Championships qualifier, the players were allowed a little refreshment. Young had wanted to sample the Danish nightlife after the Under 23s’ victory the previous night, only to be told by Jimmy Bonthrone, also his club manager at Aberdeen, to wait for the big team. He was raring to go.
“Then Jimmy changed his mind and said the Under 23s had to stay behind. I was pissed off but Billy Bremner said: ‘Hey big man, just come with us.’ I’d never spoken to Billy before; he was in a different league. ‘Don’t worry about Jimmy,’ he said, ‘I’ve got way more clout.’
“We started in the hotel bar. A bottle of Bacardi was bought and quickly drunk. Then I saw Arthur Graham at the DJ’s being hauled over the console. I suppose he must have asked for a record and there was a disagreement. Anyway, I pulled the DJ back the other way and told him to leave my wee pal alone. The police showed up. I told them we weren’t looking for trouble but that we weren’t going to be too happy if we were badly treated. Fair enough, they said, and left.”
History doesn’t confirm Graham’s offensive musical request. A Shoot! player profile from the time describes the Vauxhall Victor-driving Young as liking steak and chips, the novels of Harold Robbins – and Dean Martin. Anyway, the quintet of national skipper Bremner, Graham, Joe Harper, Pat McCluskey and our man then left in a cab for a nightclub called Bonaparte’s.
“The place was empty, which annoyed me, and so did designer lights on the bar because I couldn’t see to order a drink,” continues Young. “I tapped one of the bulbs, not meaning to break it, but that’s what happened.” It’s gone into legend that the unhappy proprietor was called Bent Dorf and that the equivalent of £800 was demanded to make good the damage, only for Young to utter the immortal line: “I only want to pay for a bulb, I don’t want to buy the place.” He smiles and says he can’t remember saying this, but it’s hardly surprising that accounts differ, given the explosive combination of bevvy, the 1970s and Scottish footballers.
Bouncers appeared but, like the cops previously, Young sent them away. “I suppose I’m to blame for a lot of what happened that night but I was just sticking up for my mates,” he says. There was another confrontation with police, this time in full riot gear. “Billy was flung down some stairs and on to a paddy-wagon bonnet.” Young continued in his role of entertainments committee spokesman, vowing that any charge of assault against the Scots would be met with a counter-claim of rough treatment.
No arrests were made and the players sloped back to the hotel, but they weren’t quite ready to try out their Scandinavian duvets, with Bremner instigating the trashing of a room, unaware it was that of SFA blazer Jock McDonald. “Billy was all apologies when Jock re-appeared. Jock hit him with a punch which lifted him clean off his feet. I skedaddled into the next room. Tom Hart and Tommy Younger from Hibs were there. ‘Like a drink, Willie?’ they asked. ‘Okay, just a wee one,’ I said. ‘It’s been an eventful night already.’”
Young knows there’s a fine line between high jinks and unacceptable behaviour and that the challenge of walking it in a convincingly straight manner would have been way beyond these desperadoes. Nevertheless, he was shocked when life bans were announced. “I felt bad about the night but angry at the outcome. We were given no chance to give our side of the story or to appeal. Footballers in those days always reckoned that if they’d done the job and won the game they were entitled to enjoy themselves. Things just got out of hand but, to my mind, the incident was blown up by the press because they’d grown tired of Willie Ormond and were looking for something to beat him with. I’d had my fill of SFA after that, and of Scotland to be honest. I think the whole thing turned me quite bitter. I was glad to get out after that.”
The son of a farm worker, Young was born in the Midlothian village of Heriot, schooled at Ross High in Tranent where he excelled at rugby, supported Hibs and would love to have played for them, and had a spell working in the laboratory attached to a brewery where they tested rival beers. This sounds like dangerous work for a 1970s footballer although Young told Shoot! that the long shifts “taught me to appreciate the comforts of life in the professional game”.
He became a Don under Eddie Turnbull, only working with him for a short spell, but his first boss made a lasting impression. “I got invited into the dugout where, first thing, Eddie always had a cup of tea. He said: ‘How are you enjoying it here, son?’ ‘Fine, but the training’s quite hard.’ ‘Just you wait,’ he said, ‘by the time I’m finished you’ll have muscles in your shite.’ A while later he called me into his office: ‘I’ve got to get rid of someone and it’s between you and Tommy Sutherland.’ He and I shared digs and I think Eddie saw Tommy as a bad influence on me so it was him that went.” And the paternalistic approach continued after Young moved to England, with Turnbull going to games in Newcastle to check on his progress. “I loved the man,” he says.
We talk about his Aberdeen days and the jousts with Alex Ferguson, then of Falkirk. “One time at Brockville, Fergie slid in on Andy Geoghegan and stood on his wrist to get him to release the ball. I obviously wasn’t happy about that, we had a barney, he swung a boot at me and the ref sent him off.” A 53-day ban was slapped on the future knight of the realm.
Young, though, was a big long streak of radge-red aggression. At 6ft 3ins, he could start a fight in an empty doocot. “It was kill or be killed,” he says, and this even extended to the home dressing-room at Pittodrie where he was forever scrapping with Joe Harper. Davie Robb he describes as a “gem”, although the striker told me recently that Young was “too big for his boots”. Still, the emerging Willie Miller admired his bloodyminded will-to-win. “We’ve never got on,” he says. But he makes Miller’s Dons dream-team. “Really? I’m amazed.”
Then he asks: “Have they fixed that door yet?” Young’s last act as an Aberdeen player was to put his foot through the dressing-room door. His second-last act was to throw his shirt at Jimmy Bonthrone as he blew his top at being substituted. “This was right after Copenhagen and Jimmy had already stripped me of the captaincy. Then he hauled me off as the second half began rather than in the dressing-room to make an exhibition of me. I never thought he was up to the job. He was too soft and let players talk back to him, me included. Because he was bald we called him ‘Coconut Heid’. I gave him a tough time but I was frustrated because he wasn’t taking Aberdeen forward. I apologised for throwing my strip at him but he said he didn’t want anything more to do with me. He resigned shortly after and that was me, too. Apparently the dressing-room was renovated later but the door was kept as it was, all bashed in, as a memento.”
Trouble seemed to follow Young around, while he was driving or pulling pints. Leery customers he could handle but after a gangland drugs slaying in the car park he quit the pub. He understood the aggro of football, though, and, early on at Tottenham, had to “sort out” Terry Naylor and John Pratt who had been giving fellow Scot John Duncan a hard time on the training field.
Young was signed by Terry Neill after impressing in a Uefa Cup tie against Spurs. So physical had he been in the first leg that Martin Chivers was reluctant to face him again. “Martin was a lovely guy but he lacked aggression.” Many did next to Young, with Neill complimenting him as being “a big awkward bastard who liked a drink”. Keith Burkinshaw wasn’t so endeared. Says Young: “He got rid of all the Scots and we were relegated.” Young then followed Neill to Arsenal.
Sent off for Spurs in a north London derby for what was described as kung-fu assault on Frank Stapleton – “Ach, it wasn’t that bad” – he re-entered the fray to loud jeers from rivals fans. But, by the end of that game, for battling on with a bloody and bandaged head, he’d won over the Arsenal lot. You’d never have accused that Gunners team of being over-pretty and, to the chant of “We’ve got the biggest Willie in the land”, Young became a Highbury cult favourite.
Arsenal were FA Cup finalists three years on the trot and he liked his time there the best, even though he still couldn’t quite love all his team-mates, with a long-running feud with Peter Nicholas culminating in Young congratulating Liverpool’s Graeme Souness for a ferocious challenge on the midfielder. “I told Graeme I’d wanted to do that for ages. He was flabbergasted. He’d never been thanked for kicking someone before.”
Arsenal still invite Young back for games but, he laughs, there are different grades of legendhood. “Last time I was at the Emirates, Alan Sunderland had been flown over from Malta. I ended up with a 60 quid parking ticket.” Sunderland of course scored the winner in 1979’s “Five-minute final” against Manchester United. The following year at Wembley, Young tripped West Ham’s Paul Allen. Cue national outrage.
“I was the last man and only got booked. After that the rules were changed and the ‘professional foul’, as it started to be called, became a red card offence. Paul was going to score so I had to take him down. Afterwards he said: ‘Don’t worry, big man, I’d have done the same.’ But everyone else was appalled. He was only 17, the youngest to play in an FA Cup final, and I’d ruined the fairytale. Big, bad Willie had done it again.”
The dramas didn’t end there. At Highbury, the brand-new fax machine revved itself up: “Welcome to the 20th century, I want to sign Willie Young.” This was Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest, a bid which surprised Terry Neill, who would remark: “Could you imagine Cloughie and Willie getting on? It was like pouring petrol on a fire.” And so it turned out. Forest were playing Derby County in the FA Cup, the Rams managed by Peter Taylor with whom Clough had fallen out and, desperate to beat his former No 2, he told Young: “Do a good job for me today, Willie, and I’ll never ask another thing of you.” But Forest lost and Clough accused his centre-half of taking a bribe to throw the game. The ill-advised South African tour followed, with Young signing up for Jimmy Hill’s all-star old-lags tour, although he didn’t actually play, the shoddy circus collapsing amid all the protests.
He didn’t fall out with all his managers; well not right away. At Aberdeen, working on the oil rigs in the summer to earn extra money, he got a phone call from Jock Stein. “I thought it was a wind-up but he was boss of Scotland Under-23s at the time and he wanted to take me to a game in Romania.” The pair bonded in unlikely circumstances, as Young was being ripped off by an unofficial Bucharest money exchange. “Underneath the top note there were bits of blank paper. Jock wanted to punch the guy.” Like Turnbull, Stein was protective of the raw and occasionally daft laddie, trying to sign him for Celtic. “He loved me but I let him down. After Copenhagen, when he was running the big Scotland team he gave me another chance. I can’t remember who we were playing but before the game Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness asked if I wanted to go for a drink. We only had one each, maybe two, but I ended up not getting picked. I’ve often wondered if Jock set me up, hoping I wouldn’t go but, unfortunately, I did.”
Aside from not winning a full cap, Young has no regrets. “I may not have been the most skilful but I absolutely hated losing and some folk appreciated that.” His exit from Scottish football was bad-tempered and it is obvious he has come adrift from the scene, being unaware of the off-field malarkey of the likes of Scott Brown and Barry Ferguson. But an old foe is offering him a chance to re-connect. “Joe Harper’s just Facebooked me. ‘Big man,’ he said, ‘I’m making way more money than I did as a player – next time you’re up let’s play golf.’”
He’s looking forward to that, though, with the occupants of his kennels starting to yowl for their lunch, he laughs: “I get on with dogs better. Give me them over humans any day.”
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