Interview: Derek Riordan plots his return

Derek Riordan: Contrasting spells in green of Hibs and Celtic. Picture: Neil Hanna
Derek Riordan: Contrasting spells in green of Hibs and Celtic. Picture: Neil Hanna
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THE SPL’s all-time third highest goalscorer is scowling and it’s a look many of us will remember from those moments when a team-mate failed to deliver a pass, spot his run or trust in his abilities to make the net bulge, even though he had big-lump defenders grappling with him like so many rule-crazy nightclub bouncers.

Unfortunately it’s not a football scowl because Derek Riordan, one of our game’s special, can’t-teach-it, maverick and maddening talents, hasn’t figured in a while.

He meets me on what he says is the only day for the foreseeable that he’s not playing golf, though when he shows up at the Toby Carvery in Edinburgh’s Silverknowes dressed in shorts and T-shirt it transpires he’s just sneaked in a round on the local public course. “I cannae believe it,” he says. “My mate’s ball just hit a stane. It was going miles to the left then it veered back, not sheepish at all, bounced off the back rim, up in the air and back doon into the hole. So the match was halved. Nightmare. I was ragin’ ... ” This is his golf scowl, then, but it soon disappears.

Sad? Bitter? Fallen out of love with the game? Fed up of being dubbed one of its lost boys? He’s none of these things. It should also be said that he doesn’t seem over-burdered with regret, that he bears no scars from a frenzy of self-criticism while wielding a three-iron. I meet a chatty, cheerful, friendly, funny Deek who sips his Coke unenigmatically.

This is his manor. Football has taken him to Bristol, China and, yes, even Glasgow. But – you can take the boy out of Pilton etc – he likes it best round here. His mum lives near the golf course, his little brother is a regular playing partner and so are various cousins, while his Aunt Maria and Uncle Frankie run The Gunner, his local pub. You know you’re getting old when Derek Riordan turns 30, as he did in January, but he still looks remarkably boyish, like he could be set for a long, carefree summer of golfing with his mates, which used to be working-class north Edinburgh’s equivalent of the gap year.

Did his apprenticeship on this course begin at the toerag stage, hanging around the 17th green and pinching the flag? I don’t ask because that would be regional stereotyping. In any case, the 17th isn’t so accessible from the tower blocks anymore and it’s the 15th which presents the unusual local hazard. “That’s the wee par three down by the Commodore Hotel. You have to dodge the motorbike tracks.”

Riordan got into golf about seven years ago, the time of his ill-fated move from Hibs to Celtic. He plays the public courses rather than the posh or nouveau riche ones and the capital’s Braids is another favourite. “Me and the guys, the friends I’ve had for ages, were playing snooker and having wee gambles but now the weather’s better we’ve got the clubs out. You know, I might be better at golf than fitba now.”

He’s joking (I hope). “I’m still better than some guys I see playing in the Premier, I know that.” SPL or England’s Premier? I don’t ask, but wouldn’t put it past him fancying himself in the league where Garry O’Connor once performed, and where the Stevens, Fletcher and Whittaker, still do. Of all those Hibs Kids with their blond plumages and silver boots (not as prevalent then as now), he seemed like the most gifted, a scorer of blazing goals with both feet.

Right now, though, in between the golf, Riordan’s football is confined to kickabouts with his pals. He’s doing this to stay in shape but also because it’s a laugh. “What am I like? Frightening! Too good! Wooden floor, hard walls so you’ve got to be careful but I take my turn in goals where I don’t mind saying I’m a bit of a cat.”

The five-a-sides are only temporary. “I want to be back playing next season, definitely. Nothing’s fixed up yet but hopefully soon. I want to play for as long as I can.” Nevertheless, this is quite something, isn’t it? To glimpse Scotland’s former Young Player of the Year, Hibs’ top scorer for three seasons in a row and Celtic’s best finisher of the Gordon Strachan era according to the manager who rarely picked him, you must get down early to the gym hall at Craigroyston High School – and even then a good view may require the removal of some small boys. It pains me to say this, but: Derek Riordan, where did it all go wrong?

“I dinnae think it did,” he says calmly, not riled by the inquiry. “Folk say to me I should have done a lot more with my career. Obviously I could have done, but I don’t think it was down to the trouble that I didn’t.” By “the trouble” he means the headline-grabbing football downtime, the uptown partying – and the subsequent life ban from Edinburgh’s nightclubs. He continues: “I believe as a footballer you have to be lucky and at certain points I just wasn’t. Aye, I could have done more but, you know, it was a dream for me to pull on a Hibs shirt. For me that was huge, as it is for loads of laddies round here. They never quite get to play for their boyhood heroes but I did and I also turned out for my country.”

Time for some re-capping, and I don’t mean additional retrospective Scotland honours (three caps is a paltry figure). Riordan was last mentioned in connection with Brora Rangers. “No offence, but that would never have happened. Some funny stuff gets written about me. Mates who’re on the websites have told me about some amazing nonsense.” Most amazing? “That I do drugs. Folk who know me ken I’m not like that. I like a drink, as do 90 per cent of footballers, but I’m only out once every couple of weeks. I’m a quiet laddie.”

His last club were Bristol Rovers, managed by Mark McGhee, and he played 12 games in England’s League Two without scoring a goal. “Great bunch of guys, great boss but maybe the worst time playing-wise in my career. To be honest, it was more like rugby. There were all these big boys and the ball just kept going whoomph.” Another issue was the commute back to Scotland where Riordan’s partner Suzannah was expecting their second child. The family home is in Airth, near Falkirk. “It’s a wee Rangers toon with a lodge and an Orange walk but dead quiet and we love it.” Riordan’s daughter Ruby, 3, has since been joined by baby Romy. “Another girl. I’m probably going to have six of them until I get a boy!”

Before Bristol, and just as briefly and unsuccessfully, there was a stint in China with Shaanxi Chan-Ba – a gobsmacking move for a homeboy reckoned to have held himself back. Did he go at least partly to prove the doubters wrong, albeit that his two-year contract was mutually terminated after only four months? “No, it doesn’t bother me what folk say about me – they say so much, how can I? But when the offer came up I thought about how I’d turned down Lokomotiv Moscow when maybe I should have gone there. Gaz [Garry O’Connor], my best pal in football, was desperate for me to buddy up with him. But he had the girlfriend and the bairn at that time and I wondered if I’d end up playing gooseberry.

“Anyway, China was okay for the first month or so but then everything fell apart. There was corruption. There was a different manager every month – two Serbians and a Chinese. And as for the standard of footballer, I was playing with guys you could have grabbed out of The Gunner and that’s not a joke.” The misadventure in X’ian came to a head when news reached Pilton and the rest of Scotland that Deek had apparently dematerialised. “The man has disappeared,” reported the club. “I was back in my hotel, training on my own,” he explains. “I got a row for swearing. I don’t know if you’ve noticed that if I shoot and miss I might swear – I’m a huffy, angry guy when I’m not playing well. I wasn’t swearing at anyone that day but they’re pretty strict about that sort of thing over there.”

Culturally, over there, Riordan struggled to adapt and he laughs as he tells stories against himself. “I had terrible problems with the food. There was a big welcome meal for the new foreign players at a fancy restaurant, Chinese obviously, and I was glad when I spotted chicken fried rice on the menu. But when the plate came the chicken was basically running aboot. There was some team bonding in another restaurant, Chinese again, but this time it was chicken feet, what I was told was frog and other no’ right stuff. I reckoned it probably caused offence not to eat but I couldn’t choose anything. X’ian isn’t the most westernised place in China but there was a Subway so I was able to live off their sandwiches until this Italian boy, Fabio Firmani, took pity on me. He was a former Lazio captain and I ended up moving next to him so he could cook me tomato pasta every night.” Ultimately, he missed his family too much. And what of Bruce, his faithful bulldog, so attached to our man that tripping over the mutt and injuring himself caused him to miss an Edinburgh derby? “He passed away when I was in bloody China. I was devastated.” Now I wish I hadn’t asked; he looks like he’s going to cry.

Travelling back through Riordan’s story we’ve reached the crucial juncture: the (non-Subway) sandwich of two spells at Hibs either side of Celtic. A different decision – he had “tons” of offers to join other clubs including Anderlecht, Kaiserslautern and Nuremberg – or a bit of that elusive luck and his career might have worked out differently, better. But was he not, at least in part, master of his own downfall through attitude – he’s pleaded guilty to sullenness and stroppiness – and a hectic lifestyle? “Well, I think I quietened down at Celtic, to be fair. I moved to Glasgow to put a lid on things and hardly ever went out. At Hibs the first time, the young ones under Tony [Mowbray], we used to hit the town three or four times a week. But that team – Broony [Scott Brown], Thommo, [Kevin Thomson], Boozy [Guillaume Beuzelin], Deano [Dean Shiels] and the rest – had such frightening potential that if we’d stayed together we’d have won the league easy by now.”

His bizarre Celtic interlude has been well-documented, in as much as anyone knows what went wrong. Strachan hardly needed another game-changer but couldn’t resist signing him.

He was an unused sub so often that Only an Excuse spoofed him being considered alongside a one-eyed man, a pensioner and a flute-playing Orangeman before the manager ordered a drunk to get stripped. “Brilliant sketch,” says Riordan. I remind him of the time, with Celtic going out of the League Cup to Hearts, that big, lumbering Evander Sno was sent to the rescue. He counters with big, lumbering Craig Beattie getting the nod against Milan in the Champions’ League.

I ask if distance has resulted in any more perspective on Deek: The Wilderness Years; he shakes his head. Yes, everyone thought he’d get on well with the manager – “although he’s not really from my bit, more Muirhouse”. There were bust-ups with Strachan “but you get them anywhere”. No, he never had a problem with left-midfield, although goals have always been his business and energy should be conserved for them.

What of the story that Riordan was stepping out with Strachan’s daughter and the boss wasn’t best-pleased? Yes, heard that one “but I’d never met the lassie”. The Scotland boss had been at the Silverknowes clubhouse the previous evening; maybe just as well Riordan left early and missed him. Press for further insight into why this scorer of goals of often brilliant nonchalance is currently without a club and he apologises for offering up the line that, truly, football is a funny old game. His cult status is assured; so to his own chapter of an updated edition of Hampden Babylon, should Stuart Cosgrove ever find the time to write it. But, with a family to support, Riordan would much rather still be out there, scoring and scowling.

He’s envious of Broonie and another ex-teammate, Anthony Stokes, trying to win the Scottish Cup with Celtic tomorrow – and he’d love to be in the Hibs team. Some think he’s been a money-grabber in the past, he says, but after Bristol he offered to play for the Hibees for nothing. “Pat Fenlon said he had enough strikers,” adds Riordan, but maybe there’s another reason. The manager is much preoccupied with persuading Leigh Griffiths of the benefits of a having a long career free from waywardness. Perhaps he thinks Riordan and Griffiths’ strike partner last season, the also currently clubless O’Connor, can’t help in this regard. “I know,” he shrugs, “and if I’m being held up as a bad example I’m no’ happy.” The nightclub ban is ongoing, as he found out to his cost – £800 – when fined last November for a breach of the peace, a teen-era reunion party proving too seductive to resist. But, he insists, the blackballing is punishment aimed at drug-abusers and knife-wielders and he’s neither.

What of Griffiths, does he rate him? “Of course, he’s fantastic. He says I was his hero growing up and I’m flattered.” And O’Connor – post-Siberia, how’s doing? “Funnily enough, I got a text from Gaz last night while I was in bed. I tried ringing him this morning but he’s an awfie man for keeping his phone off and not getting back to you for three months. I hope he’s all right.”

Just then Riordan’s mobile beeps, flashing up a photo of his daughters. On this non-golfing day does he fancy another round? Ach, why not? Before he goes, I ask to see his tattoo, half-hidden by a sleeve. “It’s Hibs, kind of in instalments: the ship, the harp, the castle. I don’t know where I’m going to be playing my football next – hopefully somewhere – but I’d love to finish up at Easter Road. The club have done loads for me and I love them to bits. Just one more season, not even playing every week, just coming on when needed, that would be brilliant.”

If that were to happen, surely any drunks would have to defer to Deek.