Flawed legend - and greater for it

How do you remember a footballer who you never saw play football? How do you picture somebody who, in his latter years, became so far removed from the "Slim Jim" of his youth?

And how can you judge a man who you never had the privilege to meet?

It is supremely frustrating to know that the player many consider to be Scotland’s greatest is not of your time, yet such is the legend you feel as close to him as that ball he once famously tucked up his jersey.

The only thing worse than having been born too late, is dying too early. Jim Baxter, who passed away at the weekend aged only 61, certainly experienced the latter.

Most regarded him as a player before his time, a man whose talents should have furnished him with a mansion in the hills, and a different car for every day of the week. Instead, like George Best, football offered him the kind of rewards that would turn to dead leaves in his hands, but live forever in the memory.

As Baxter himself has stated: "I’ve never been a millionaire and I don’t want to be. I just want to live like one and I’ve done that."

Jim Baxter’s football career was, like his life, too short. It lasted barely ten years. He kicked his last ball in early 1970, though many contend that he never quite reached the peaks he attained years before that, during his initial stay at Rangers, and before his leg break in late 1964.

Incredibly, then, those born after he so briefly fired a country’s imagination are asked to believe that the Jim Baxter who so casually humiliated England at Wembley in 1967 was even then past his best, would play only twice more for Scotland, and, a mere three years later, was juggling pint pots in the Glasgow pub he almost inevitably bought.

And yet such is this man’s hold on Scottish football, that you do, you do.

You accept that he exceeded even the outrageous performer from Wembley ’67 we have witnessed countless times on video, and that he actually played better at the same stadium four years earlier, when he grabbed the right sort of double in a 2-1 win.

Not only was this the first time he had scored two goals in a single game, but it was also the first time he had taken a penalty, which gave Scotland a 2-0 lead. "It’s in a hole," one English defender is supposed to have remarked as he stepped up to take the kick. "It’s in a bigger hole now," he replied as he ran back, after sweeping it past Gordon Banks.

This may be apocryphal, since much about Baxter is. There is plenty of myth to be stripped away, but even then what is revealed is a legend. And like all legends, this one had the flaws that in the eyes of some makes him greater still. He could drink Bacardi like he played football - for Scotland.

Although Baxter has made numerous appearances in the papers of late, grey mop of hair atop bloated features, the image that still clings to the mind is of Baxter the player, on the pitch and off it.

He seemed always to be at play, but two photographs are to be particularly cherished. There he is, hands clasped together, with one foot up on a chair, wearing the kind of clobber that might have seen him dropped down a mine shaft in his home town of Hill O’ Beath.

A leather pork pie hat sits upon his head, and a leather jacket is wrapped around a body that still lends itself to the nickname "Slim Jim". Then there is Baxter in the aftermath of that game at Wembley in 1967, rolled down socks like doughnuts around his slight ankles, and two Scottish fans hugging him like they never, ever want to let go.

They eventually did, but we as a nation refuse to stop embracing this moment, or indeed adding to it. Of all the words written about Baxter yesterday, the best were invariably from those who had known him.

Journalist Jim Black was a friend, and yesterday he spent some time remembering him by deconstructing the man, or at least one particular story that has clung to Baxter like a barnacle. So cheeky were his string of keepie- uppies on the Wembley turf that day, that it seems strange to think we need to make up stories that are inferior to the true version. One has him sitting on the ball during the same game, with his English opponents having all but given up the ghost. It isn’t true, but even Baxter began to pretend that it was.

"So many people come up to me and say that they remember me sitting on the ball that I don’t argue any more," he told Black. "There seems little point. It’s a good story, and I grew tired of being told I was wrong, so I just nod in agreement. It doesn’t seem to matter that I was there."

It has been 34 years since that day, and 31 since he last kicked a football, but still the stories endure. One of the best, a tale that is by all accounts true, has Baxter and the legendary Ferenc Puskas out on the town together in Glasgow, after the Hungarian had been playing a European Cup tie against Rangers.

They ended up in a flat in Drumchapel, both having got lucky with two girls who, judging by the subsequent lack of tabloid coverage, are clearly the possessors of discreet souls.

As Stuart Cosgrove later wrote in his book on Scottish football wild men, Hampden Babylon, "had genealogy been kinder to Scotland that night of illegitimate sex should have produced two players around whom Jock Stein could have moulded a Scotland team in the early 1980s."

Baxter though was simply a one-off, a diamond from the coalfields of Fife, from the pits where he worked until he signed for Rangers. He was, in short, the greatest Scottish player this writer never saw, and the best he will ever see.