Gordon McQueen: ‘Football prepared me for cancer battle’

THE home of Leeds United, Elland Road, Scotland rugby’s next stop on their World Cup journey, witnessed a tartan takeover in the 1970s. Here, one of the club’s greatest Scottish signings, Gordon McQueen, recalls those halcyon days, and talks of how he faced his toughest battle – against cancer

Gordon McQueen at his home in North Yorkshire. Picture: Ross Parry/SWNS Group
Gordon McQueen at his home in North Yorkshire. Picture: Ross Parry/SWNS Group

It’s going to be a proper takeover. The pitch at Elland Road, Leeds, won’t have had this many Scots on it since the fellow I’m meeting today was in his big, blond pomp and requiring what seemed like only five and a half strides to leave his own penalty box and go up – with extreme prejudice – for a corner.

Gordon McQueen, football man, is thrilled that the Scotland rugby team are playing at his old stamping ground tomorrow and by the time their World Cup reaches St James’ Park, Newcastle, the towering centre-half in the Caledonia-dominated Leeds United will be in the stands, willing them to victory. He’s as fervent a patriot as you could ever hope to meet.

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But it will be very much a case of wishing for dark-blue success with the oval ball rather than cheering wildly or shouting himself hoarse. McQueen, who’s always come across as a fan who got lucky enough to represent his country at his chosen sport, can’t raise his voice above a sandpaper rasp since cancer was 
discovered in his larynx four years ago.

McQueen in the thick of the action as Kevin Keegan and Billy Bremner are sent off in the Charity Shield in 1974. Picture: Getty

He hasn’t lost his sense of humour. “Do you know what people say about this voice? It’s sexy, but I’ve no’ got the face for it. Whit a cheek!” The cancer was treated but in March McQueen suffered a stroke. He got over that only for his joints to start seizing up. It’s my ankles, my hips, my knees, my wrists – everything. I can’t play golf anymore, couldn’t even play you at marbles right now. Just walking’s a struggle.” This is all too apparent when he leads me to his study. It’s sad indeed to see this brilliant rampager for the cause – the man who leapt so high for that pulverising header against England at Wembley in 1977, the one which lifted crossbars from their moorings and the grass off the pitch and is commemorated on the wall of this room – reduced to a painfully slow shuffle.

Jim Holton was six-foot-two, eyes of blue. 
McQueen’s peepers are just as blue and he’s actually an inch taller. Now 63, he’s still getting over the death of his father, so 2015 has been a helluva year. But, as I say, he hasn’t lost his ability to laugh. When I point out how, in the photograph, he seems to be hovering at least three foot above the nearest Englishman, Ray Kennedy, he says: “Cheers, but that was actually me on the way down. And I don’t know why Ray Clemence had the cheek to dive for the ball. It was coming back out of the goal before he even moved.”

McQueen and his wife, Yvonne, only got back from holiday in Portugal the previous night, but he’s happy for me to pitch up in the North Yorkshire village of Hutton Rudby just after breakfast to talk football, old pals, the dear-departed and tartan-trimmed Leeds.

He lives in a leafy avenue called Doctor’s Lane, the name dating from the cholera outbreak of 1832 which killed 23 villagers. When a doctor got in touch with Sky Sports where McQueen was working as a pundit to say he should get his croaky voice checked, he knew where to go – the ear, nose and throat 
specialist to whom he’d recently sold his old house, two doors away.

“The radiotherapy was awful. I had to wear a mask and be bolted to a table. There was a chance the treatment would damage the voice-box and that’s what happened. I couldn’t speak for a while. I did think: ‘Oh my God, my voice is never coming back.’ But I’m happy with what it sounds like – put it this way, I’ve got to be.

“I wasn’t scared I was going to die. My specialist said the cancer had been caught early and now my check-ups have been reduced to every six months. Maybe I’d have been more worried if the cancer had been found some place else but, you know, I think where I’m from and what my football life was like got me through it. Most of my playing contemporaries came from tough council estates and going into football in that era it was a whole lot rougher than it is now. There were no agents or PFA to tuck you in at night. It was a harder life which prepared me for what’s 

We’re back in McQueen’s sunny kitchen with its splendid views of the Cleveland Hills. On the walls there are caricatures of Gordon Highlanders and photographs of his children. There’s Hayley, the Sky Sports presenter, Anna who works in advertising and has just presented McQueen with his first grandchild, and Eddie, who gave me directions to the house while the old man was catching his last few rays in the 
Algarve. “You’d maybe like to know,” he said, “that Dad called me after Eddie Gray.”

Eddie, prince of the patter-merchants out on the left wing, was but one of McQueen’s countrymen who were imperious in all-white. Leeds were one of the clubs who flouted Bill Shankly’s joke-rule about Scottish influence: “Every English team needs two Scots in it – but if you’ve got three you’re asking for trouble.” Indeed, go back exactly 40 years 
to season 1975-1976 and you’ll find a clear working majority.

There was David Harvey, the helmet-haired goalie. Billy Bremner, constructed out of barbed wire, was the captain. Peter Lorimer had a right foot like a siege gun. Eddie brought along his wee brother, Frank. David McNiven, son of Shotts, was a regular 12th man.

Have I forgotten anyone? Ah, yes, Joe Jordan who was missing from the line-up for the first half of the season, possibly through injury, and by the time he returned our Gordon was absent. Damn. I was hoping that Leeds, often with six Scots clamouring for attention, would have magically made it to seven.

“We actually had 17 Scots on the books at that time,” he says. “Apart from David McNiven, the young guys included John Taylor, Billy McGinley and Gary Liddell, who died a couple of months ago. Don Revie loved Scots, you see. He loved the edge they brought to, above all, an English club’s dressing-room. At that time, from one Scotland-England international to the next and the whole year in between, the Scots guys wanted to outdo the English. Five-a-sides at Leeds 
became all-out war and eventually had to be stopped. And, of course, Don’s wife Elsie was a Fifer.”

McQueen reels off his first-choice countrymen, starting with David Harvey: “Was David an extrovert or an introvert? I was never quite sure. He was certainly into pigs, used to turn up for training in his wellies, and now he farms them on Skye. A one-off, for sure.

“Billy [Bremner] was a great, great player and I was devastated when he died. He looked after me when I arrived at Leeds. He’d been hot-headed when he came, in a tearing hurry to get ahead, and he could see I was having the same issues and he helped me. I thought the world of him.

“Peter [Lorimer] is Leeds through-and-through. I haven’t seen him for a while but we’re having lunch next Wednesday. Eddie [Gray] is coming over to stay with us tomorrow. What a big softie! How the hell did he end up playing for Leeds?” (Obviously 
McQueen doesn’t use the epithet “Dirty” like just about everyone else).

Not one to duck out of a challenge on a toilet roll-strewn mudheap, he tends to avoid the city which made his name. “I don’t like going back to Leeds now. I loved the city when I played there but then everything went sour.” He’s talking about his move across the Pennines to hated rivals Manchester United. “When you see your umpteenth lad, not even born at the time, in a T-shirt reading Red scum – Cantona, Ferdinand, Jordan, McQueen, you think, ‘Ach, that’s enough.’”

His bullishness exacerbated the situation. “Ninety-nine per cent of footballers want to play for Man U,” he remarked, “and the rest are liars.” Provocative comments like that would get him the Sky gig later and he’s devastated his voice is now too weak for TV. 
Post-stroke, he’s not been able to drive and climbing into stands has got too difficult, so he can’t do any more scouting. More than ever, McQueen needs the company of his old muckers.

“I saw Frankie [Gray] at a party at Eddie’s house not so long ago. He was over from Australia where he lives now so that’s it, I’ll probably never see him again.” He pauses for moment, gazes out at the stunning vista, and lifts the mood with a funny reminisce. “Wardrobes – that’s what separated me and Joe [Jordan] from the rest of the guys down from Scotland. Our landlady, Mrs Jones, Edinburgh wifie, was a cut above. She had wardrobes and looked after us wonderfully.

“Joe and I were thick as thieves right from the start. Peter and Eddie were great mates, too, but there wasn’t a Scottish clique at Leeds. For instance, Billy was best pals with Big Jack [Charlton] and Sniffer [Alan Clarke] – two English stalwarts. Joe was Morton and I was St Mirren, although we never quite managed a Renfrewshire derby together. I never played against him and, given how good he was, I’m glad of that. I followed him everywhere – Leeds, Man U, Scotland and even to the church to get married. I was his best man and a week later he was mine. Why did we become such good friends? Because we’re opposites, I think. Joe was a supremely dedicated professional and me… well, I wasn’t so much!”

As he admitted at the time of his cancer, McQueen smoked right through his playing days and had 
always been fond of a bevvy. No wonder the Tartan Army made him their poster boy. He was astonished, and greatly touched, when the Daily Record put his plight on its front page but, really, that was sound news judgement and deserving of the man.

He quit the fags a while back and since his treatment has tried to moderate his drinking, although the King’s Head in his village is a very nice pub 
indeed. But neither habit went down very well with his father, Tom. “Dad was teetotal and a non-smoker and warned me not to go into any boozers. He did, but only to sell The War Cry for the Salvation Army. He was the top tin collector in Ayrshire four years in a row.”

Tom was Tommy Younger’s understudy at Hibernian – “He only got three games but he played behind the Famous Five in them all” – and had a wandering career for ten clubs across junior and senior ranks and in both Scotland and England, stopping longest at 
Accrington Stanley. He helped his local team, Kilbirnie Ladeside, win the 1952 Scottish Junior Cup and those blue eyes brighten as McQueen shows me a display of photographs he bought at auction during the club’s centenary. There were 70,000 at Hampden that day and by the looks of things, not many fewer packed into the town centre for the victory parade.

“Dad died in March having had six strokes previously. When I was ill he didn’t say much – Scottish fathers of his generation don’t, do they? – but obviously he wouldn’t have wanted me to go before him. He was very strict but we had a good relationship. He wanted me to become a goalie because I was tall like him but I enjoyed playing outfield. I was outside-left in a trial game, my team won 11-0 and I scored nine of the goals, and was immediately installed at centre-half! But that was fine.

“Dad knew Bill Shankly from his Ayrshire days and he wanted to sign me for Liverpool at 16 but – despite Bill looking after me and picking me up from the Lord Nelson Hotel for training every day – I found England too big and alien and came back up the road. Then, at St Mirren, which I loved, Jock Stein [Celtic], Willie Ormond [St Johnstone], Bill Nicholson [Tottenham] and Bobby Robson [Ipswich Town] all wanted to sign me but I went with Leeds. Their scout, when I came up to Glasgow to meet him, gave me the £5 fare back to Kilbirnie which was a fortune and that swung it.”

His Elland Road debut came against Rapid Bucharest. Revie asked him if he was ready. More 
excited than daunted by lining up alongside “guys who looked like they’d all just walked out of a Charles Buchan Football Monthly Annual”, he answered in the affirmative, although wished his parents could be at the game. “I brought them down yesterday,” said Revie, “so they will.”

The “Dirty Leeds” tag only served to make them more United. “Do you know that we needed security for away games, guys to stop rival fans attacking the bus and booting us? There were always big crowds at those games with folk desperate to see us get beat.” McQueen and Co didn’t lose very often, despite a pre-match meal which would appal today’s nutritionists: “Fillet steak with fried egg, then apple crumble and custard. That would be two hours before kick-off and the food wouldn’t be digested until the following Tuesday.”

I could listen to his stories all day but don’t want to tire him out. He’s got another session of physiotherapy later and is putting a lot of faith in this treatment. “I just want to be able to get from A to B,” he says.

McQueen will confess to intimations of mortality. Another good mate passed away earlier this month and he was upset that his holiday caused him to miss the funeral. But, as usual, the sad story is sprinkled with comedy. “Willie Lamont wasn’t a footballer 
although when we bumped into each in Majorca in 1969 that didn’t stop him saying: ‘Get a team together, mine’s going to thrash yours.’ As luck would have it I could call on Joe, Kenny Dalglish and some more of Celtic’s Quality Street Gang and we won 26-0!”

Well, the memory’s still in great nick. He insists on walking me to the door, saying how much he’s looking forward to catching up with the Leeds boys over the next few days. “Maybe the chat will all be about rugby. Joe was at Scotland vs Japan in Gloucester. Eddie and Peter will be at Elland Road and I’m going to the South Africa game.”

It’s a nice image: four friends – all Scotland greats – traversing England in search of Saltires and a skirl of the pipes. One of them is moving a bit more slowly now, but he’s still with us.