On the way to meet Scott Allan, as so often happens to me in Lanarkshire, I get lost. Bound for Bothwell, I overshoot and end up in Hamilton, close to the SuperSeal Stadium where last Saturday Allan overshot, skying a penalty for his latest club Dundee. I’m unsure if I should make a joke about this, telling him I thought I glimpsed his spot-kick finally coming in to land, what with his team bottom of the league, but decide what the heck.
No worries; he’s quickly offering up that fetching smile of his. “I was devastated to miss that one,” he says. “When I got back home I didn’t leave my room for three hours. Then I moaned to my agent, who was on his way to Asda, for half an hour. After I was done he said I was like someone who was ready to sign himself into Carstairs.”
I tell Allan that I didn’t remember him taking a penalty for Hibernian, where he played his best football of a quixotic career high on promise but low on minutes on the park. “That’s because I could never get the ball off Jason Cummings,” he laughs. “On Saturday no one else put their hand up for the pen and I fancied myself, as I usually do. I should have scored earlier in the game, too, and it’s really frustrating when I don’t play well. I’m a perfectionist, you see.”
Allan is trying to recapture his glistening Hibee form of 2014-15. He made the switch to Tayside from Celtic for a season-long loan after getting the same good vibes off Neil McCann that he did from Alan Stubbs. He wants to do well for the club and thinks that at 25 he’s now more mature as a player and a man, fatherhood helping in that regard.
Well, he’s taken his time about that. Over coffee in a hotel near his home I tell him that we seem to have been hearing about the Scott Allan saga, all its bust-ups and wrong turnings, for ever. He concedes that it hasn’t added up to a whole lot of games and quips that he’ll have to play until he’s 38 to amass a respectable amount. The Celtic experience hasn’t been a stunning success. Managers, he says, seem to love him or hate him. For supporters – and there’s that smile again – it’s a bit more clear-cut.
“Hearts fans probably don’t like me because I played for Hibs. Hibs fans probably don’t like me because I left. Rangers fans probably don’t like me because I went to Celtic. I started at Dundee United but their fans probably don’t like me because now I’m at Dundee. Celtic fans know that when I was a wee boy my favourite team were Rangers and that’s a good enough reason for Aberdeen fans to hate me. What a shambles!”
Impartially and objectively, though, and just as long as they haven’t tired of the tale and got fed up waiting on his talent to offer more than just firework fizzle, fitba aesthetes and flair connoisseurs will wish him well in his Dens quest because there are very few No 10s in the Scottish game with his vision, silkiness and desire to reverse-pass teams to death. Allan selects as his favourite footballer Juan Roman Riquelme, a pick of taste and discernment and perhaps the playmaker’s playmaker who delivered “balls on a plate” for Villarreal and Argentina in wonderfully unhurried fashion. It was Allan’s coolness in a chaotic box which set up Paul McGowan’s winner in the Betfred Cup Tayside derby nine days ago.
“We hoped we’d kick on after that result so the defeat at Hamilton Accies, after losing our opening league game to Ross County, was disappointing,” Allan says. “We wanted to win both these matches and now we’re going to have to try to gather points the hard way over the next few weeks.”
A challenging sequence begins today away to Aberdeen. “The last time I was at Pittodrie with Celtic their fans were pretty angry, I guess about the Rangers thing. The police – and Kenny McLean – had to help me to my car.” Next up, Hibs visit Dens. “I don’t know what kind of reception I’ll get from their lot. Hopefully some will remember I played no’ bad for them.” Then after the international break Dundee travel to Ibrox. “That’s going to be interesting. Maybe I’ll get the same treatment as Neil Lennon. Hopefully not. The funny thing is that when I went there with Hibs the Rangers fans chucked toilet rolls at me every time a took a corner. Two months later they were singing: ‘Scott Allan – he’s one of our own.’”
This was the “surreal, weird” summer of 2015 when, after the Championship’s player of the year couldn’t quite steer Hibs past Rangers and into the Premiership play-off final, the two clubs reconvened in the Petrofac Cup with the sideshow of Stubbs refusing to sell his star man to the promotion rivals. Hibs stuck Allan’s pretty-boy features on the cover of the programme. Rangers, whose hierarchy had bragged of their intention of getting their man “at any price”, only came up with niggardly bids. Allan started on the bench and remembers grumps from some Hibs supporters during warm-up. When he eventually appeared, with Rangers well ahead, their fans cheered his every touch.
His experience that day is interesting given Rangers’ efforts to net another prize Edinburgh asset – Hearts’ Jamie Walker – with these clubs meeting this afternoon. Does Walker play? And if so what will his state of mind be like and what should be his ambition in the game?
“I wanted to play the whole 90 minutes against Rangers although not to impress anyone,” Allan stresses. “If you just go out there and walk about in a situation like that it would say a lot about your character and nothing that’s very good. Even though there might be rumblings in the background a footballer should be able to put them out of his mind and play his game. You’d have a point to prove, but only to yourself. You don’t want to be the guy getting yourself a reputation.
“Having said that, it was a strange, strange day for me. At the final whistle all the Rangers players were coming up and cuddling me. I don’t know what the Hibs boys thought but if I was having to watch that happening to a teammate I wouldn’t like it. There were a lot of great boys at Hibs, guys with good stories of having disappointments at other clubs like Dylan McGeouch and David Gray then turning their careers around at Easter Road, as well as others who’d been brilliant servants like Lewis Stevenson, and that summer it just became all about me which was wrong.”
The tug-of-war was typical of the dramas which have often superseded anything Allan has achieved with a ball kept close to his feet, and there was one of those at Dundee United right away. In 2011 after just 242 minutes of first-team football, Allan asked for a wage rise. Told he was one of three club assets he reckoned he’d outgrown his £175-a-week youth contract. An apoplectic Peter Houston claimed he’d demanded £1,600-a-week, although the Allan camp insist far less was initially requested, and a still smaller figure would have been acceptable. When he moved to West Bromwich Albion Allan claimed Houston threatened to “make him disappear from the earth”. Today our man says: “He told me: ‘I’ll get all them oot there [the United supporters] on your back’ and that’s what happened.” So from that moment his character was formed in more than a few people’s eyes: talented, difficult, greedy? He nods.
It was always going to be football for Allan growing up in Glasgow, despite or perhaps because of his schoolteachers believing a career in the game to be too fanciful a notion. “The only guy at Rosshall Academy who encouraged me to follow my dream was the art teacher, Mr Leven. The others probably thought they were being realistic and I can understand that, but it’s a problem we have in this country, always being presented with the worst-case scenario.”
Allan, who has similarly never allowed his diabetes to hold him back, was taken to The Hawthorns by Roy Hodgson. He moved to Portsmouth on loan, did well, attracted interest from other English clubs. On the brink of a switch to Crystal Palace in what turned out to be their promotion season back to the Premier League, having already been fitted for a tracksuit, the deal collapsed. What if it hadn’t? What if Hodgson hadn’t left WBA to manage England? What if he’d been allowed to go to Rangers? What if Stubbs, who took him to Rotherham United, hadn’t quickly been sacked? While he admits to making mistakes in his career, the stars haven’t always aligned for Allan. So far, anyway.
What if he hadn’t been driving his car in 2012 while at Pompey? When he says of fan abuse that he’s suffered “far worse” he’s almost certainly referring back to the tragic accident which left a pedestrian with head injuries described as “devastating”. The player’s insurers agreed to pay out £6 million in damages. Emphasising that his stresses were nothing compared with those suffered by the crash victim, Allan says: “I didn’t sleep for three months after that. At the same time, stuck in a hotel far from home, I found out my mum had cancer.”
At Birmingham City during yet another loan spell he was described as “an unbelievably talented young man” only for Lee Clark to add: “There’s more to the game than just talent.” Such qualified praise, allied to calls for him to demonstrate a greater work ethic, has echoed down the years for Allan and the smile is a wry one when I read out further examples.
“I think I’ve changed,” he says. “I used to think the defensive side, tracking back and all that, was the job of other guys while I could concentrate on my passing. There were times when I wondered if I was born in the wrong era. But unless you’re playing for one of the best possession sides in the world you can’t have that attitude anymore and I think in my first few games for Dundee I’ve been trying to work harder.”
His main job, though, must be as provider because he can pick passes in the attacking third which others can’t. Occasionally he’s shown his frustration when they haven’t been read by a team-mate. “I know,” he says, “but hopefully I do that less now. And I try not to moan at managers as well. In the past if I was angry about something my body language could be bad or at training I’d maybe have downed tools. But the reason I did those things is not because I think I’m so much better than anyone else. It’s just that I take my football so seriously.”
In his one full season at Hibs he managed 42 appearances – a figure he’s never come close to bettering, before or since – and more often than not Jason Cummings anticipated those dinked, disguised through-balls. “And how does he thank me for all those assists? By sending up a shirt from Nottingham Forest for my wee boy – not with Zac’s name on the back but ‘Cummings’! Is that not typical?
“My agent, who also represents Jason, was telling him on the journey down to Forest that English football would be a step-up for him and that he’d really have to apply himself. Jason said: ‘I think I’ll be fine. The goals will be the same size, won’t they?’ Do I miss him? Who wouldn’t miss a guy who, first time you meet, is wearing shiny silver swimming trunks and a daft wee singlet? He’s a great character and I couldn’t believe the criticism he got last season for that clip of him wrestling. There’s nothing that brings a team together more than the players having a laugh.”
Allan enjoyed his time at Easter Road and says he’s still haunted by the Scottish Cup failure of losing the semi-final to Falkirk, an astonishing tie in which even his superhero efforts couldn’t retrieve the situation. The Bairns of course are managed by Peter Houston and Allan says: “We sorted out our differences later, man to man. I’m not one to bear grudges although sometimes I think I should be!”
Still, it all worked out for the Hibees the following season with Allan, by then at Celtic, watching them finally lift the cup while on holiday in Dubai. “I was delighted for my pals at the club and a wee bit envious, too. I’d managed to play enough games for Celtic to get a Premier League medal but because of the history of Hibs never winning the cup that was really special.”
It’s generally assumed that Allan regrets his switch to Celtic because his preferred option had been Rangers and most of his appearances under Ronny Deila were as a substitute. Not so, he says. “It doesn’t happen very often that both halves of the Old Firm compete for a player from the Championship. I was happy to go to Celtic and genuinely believed I could get into that team. I wasn’t bothered about any scepticism their fans might have had. I like to be doubted. That’s my character and it probably gets the best out of me.”
His doggedness comes from his apprenticeship at Dundee United. “There were 18 of us boys from Glasgow in a house together. David Goodwillie, David Brophy who went on to win a Commonwealth title at boxing, Johnny Russell and the rest. Imagine the name-calling and submission matches that took place every night. That was a hard school and it taught me good.”
As it turned out he was admired by more than a few in the Parkhead stands in those fleeting showings. He insists there was no friction between him and Deila – “He’s not a bad guy at all” – but wished in vain for those four games in a row offered others to properly show off his bonnie talents. He hoped a new manager in Brendan Rodgers would mean a new start. “I learned more in the four weeks pre-season under him than at any other time.” But, rashly, he opted for Rotherham. What did he learn there? “How to play rugby!” he grimaces. Rock-bottom of England’s second tier wasn’t the place for Allan’s dancing feet and deft touches. In one game which he mercifully sat out, the Millers managed only 99 passes. Idealistically he always hopes for 400. A grim situation got even worse after Stubbs was sacked with Rotherham’s third manager of the campaign desperately demanding “ugly football”.
So here he is back on Tayside in search of beauty, striving to create some of his own. “When I play I want folk to go: ‘I saw something out there today. That’s the kind of football I like’.”