Hamish McAlpine on telling Jim McLean he was just like Freddie Starr impersonating Hitler

One of Scottish’s football’s indisputable and imperishable characters is lining up a birdie putt when I track him down to his golf course at Alyth, Perthshire. “I’ll call you right back,” says Hamish McAlpine, goalkeeper in the great Dundee United team.

Former Dundee United goalkeeper Hamish McAlpine at home in Newtyle. Picture Michael Gillen

Sure enough, he does. “I got it, and then I did what I always do right after a birdie, cock up with a bogey. Two of them in a row, in fact.” Which is how it usually went for McAlpine when he was on penalty duties.

Yes, he was expected to save ’em and score ’em. For Jim McLean, so no pressure. This exceedingly modest fellow makes no great claims to his accuracy from 12 yards and cannot recall his success rate. But the fact the current crop of Tangerines face Hibernian in next weekend’s Scottish Cup semi-finals has triggered memories.

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Golf may be the passion in retirement with son Kevin a caddy on the US tour who’s just married the Swedish player Anna Nordqvist in a Zoom ceremony relayed from Arizona to McAlpine and wife Alison at home in the village of Newtyle. But with his old club returning to Hampden it’s possible to steer the conversation to the game he served with great distinction and humour.

Hamish McAlpine celebrating Dundee United's League Cup final win over Dundee in December 1980 with team-mates, including Davie Dodds, Dave Narey and Frank Kopel.

The keeper who took penalties

“I only became the penalty-taker because no one else wanted the gig,” admits McAlpine, now 73. “We’d been mucking them up badly so Wee Jim asked for volunteers one pre-match lunch down at Broughty Ferry but the room fell silent. And I stopped being that guy as soon as I was told!

“I remember scoring my very first one was against Hibs at Tannadice, top left-hand corner past Jim McArthur, and possibly it was the best I hit. We were desperate that day and in danger of going down.” This was United’s second-last game of 1975-76, the inaugural Premier Division campaign, but in the next match away to Rangers, McAlpine missed from the spot.

“The ball scudded off the junction of post and bar and I had to sprint back to my goal like Usain Bolt. Well, probably more like Nellie the Elephant, which must have looked quite comical, but that was the risk of a keeper taking penalties. I missed one at Parkhead by changing my favourite spot and Roy Baines saved it, and also two in one game at Somerset Park. Thankfully we got the point we needed at Ibrox to survive. And the following season, opening day, we were at Easter Road where I put another one past Jim. Hibs, I reckon, would be one of an exclusive group of clubs to acknowledge me as a penalty king!”

Hamish McAlpine taking charge of the situation at Ibrox and helping maintain United's Premier Division status

‘Crap’ wages, good bonuses

He was Hamish the Goalie of Tannadicci. He was celebrated in song. He was entwined, lyrically, with Grace Kelly. Regarding the Scottish Cup, though, the competition wasn’t so lucky for McAlpine. He won a replayed tie against the Hibees but lost another to the same opposition. He lost two finals and two semi-finals. Then, retired from penalty duties, he would lift the League Cup twice and on a sensational day in May, 1983 be acclaimed a title-winner as United’s ever-present, ever-moustached, ever-idiosyncratic custodian.

Those champions were a tight group and they remain so today. McAlpine, on the afternoon we talk, had been golfing with David Narey and Maurice Malpas. The following day his partner on the course would be Eamonn Bannon.

“Everyone knew their job and what we all had to do,” McAlpine explains of the Terrors reign. “If someone was getting a hard time from Wee Jim we’d be like: ‘Dinna bloody listen to him.’ We did that because it would definitely be someone else’s turn the following week. We were close-knit with no prima donnas and we had to be there for each other. We depended on the bonus because the wage was so crap.

Where's the ball? Hamish, as they used to say, "awaits developments".

“We had the lowest basic in the Premier League and that was a fact. When Dundee were relegated [1976] their players were paid better. I was on about £150 a week when we won the title but the bonus could be anything between £100 and £300, so at its best double your pay. You got what you got and you were glad of it but you had to win to earn it. There was no guarantee of a quarter of a million a week, paid into a Swiss bank account, which happens in football now.”

Eccentric? That was Hugh Sproat at Ayr

Football now. It isn’t much discussed when the Arabs of Alyth - who can also include Paul Hegarty and Billy Kirkwood - rest creaking bones at the 19th hole. “The modern-day game doesn’t excite any of us,” adds McAlpine. “The cheating is terrible. A multi-millionaire will go down like he’s been shot. The boy will hold his face although the - alleged - dunt was to his leg. Or maybe it was to his leg and he’s laddered his tights! That’ll be him out for a fortnight at least. In our day at United you were fit alright - Drill Sgt McLean saw to that - but even if you were carrying a knock you didn’t let on. Come out of the team and you might not have got back in.”

McAlpine is often dubbed eccentric but he isn’t sure about this. “To my mind that was Hugh Sproat at Ayr. He’d wear a blue top to play Celtic and a green one against Rangers. He’d wear earrings which were actually razor blades. Me, eccentric? I just liked to enjoy myself. A game on a Saturday then a few pints and laugh with the boys followed by a curry at night. Golf on the Sunday then back to training on the Monday to face Wee Jim again. It was just a job, but a great one.”

A night out with fellow league-winning legends Richard Gough, Paul Sturrock, Maurice Malpas and David Narey.

The prototype sweeper-keeper

Still, the penalties made McAlpine different; there weren’t many keepers with that responsibility in his era. The moustache? He plays down its emblematic status. “That wasn’t inspired by anyone. I grew it out of laziness.” Okay, if his zaniness has been overstated, what about those charges from his goal-line to head off centre-forwards at the pass? “There was a logic to them. I could save my full-backs and the centre-half having to backtrack.” But weren’t they like Russian roulette even if the opposition weren’t Soviet cracks - death or glory? “Running towards a boy went wrong sometimes but, rather than just leaning on a goalpost, it kept me alert. I liked being involved in games as much as possible. Ach, maybe I was frustrated outfield player.”

Look back old cuttings of Hamish the Goalie and you’ll find him referred to as a “keeper-cum-sweeper”. The term has since been finessed to sweeper-keeper and, well, they’re all at it now. So what does he think of the current fad for playing out from the back? “I hate it. Back and forrit from goalie to left-back to centre-back to right-back slows the game right down. It’s just faffing about, hardly ever leads to anything meaningful and someone will aye make an arse of things.”

Typical of McAlpine, he remembers when he did this, his biggest clanger, and in minimising his mythology some more, struggles to nominate his greatest save. “We lost a hectic Dundee derby 6-4 and one of their goals was really terrible from my point of view. I was on one knee ready to collect a nothing ball and in my head was already throwing it to our left-back, Jim Cameron. This was going to be the quick dispatch of the season! But the ball bounced up and went over my shoulder and into the net.”

Celebrated in song with Grace Kelly

This could be one of those special campaigns for the goalies’ union when a keeper is acclaimed as Player of the Year. What does McAlpine, winner of the football scribes’ prize in 1985, think of contender Allan McGregor? It sounds like qualified praise when he says the Rangers No 1 “doesn’t make a lot of saves”, but that’s one of the benefits of playing for Old Firm champs. Our man, though, rates McGregor’s stop to keep out Lukas Masopust’s header for Slavia Prague as “magnificent”.

In action in 1980/81, the season of United's second League Cup triumph.

Did McAlpine enjoy Sunday’s dramatic, last-minute Scottish Cup intervention of McGregor’s opposite number Zander Clark? “Of course. Goalies coming up for corners is a thing now but it helps if you’re six-foot-five. I didn’t reach six and neither did Andy Goram. Jim McArthur was wee’er than me and Ronnie Simpson wasn’t a big guy. Would my manager have approved of me doing that? What do you think! It’s a shame Zander had the goal nicked off him but I don’t know how the Rangers defence didn’t see him coming. He’s a muckle big bloke and he was wearing yellow. They shouldn’t have missed that muckle big beard either. He looked like Grizzy Adams.” By the way, McAlpine did once score a goal other than from the penalty spot, this from a kick-out at Raith Rovers once his 20-year Tannadice tenure had come to an end.

Perhaps a St Johnstone-minded songsmith is right now composing a tribute ditty to Clark. The late Michael Marra did this in McAlpine’s honour, titled Hamish the Goalie, and the subject loved it. “Not because the song was about me but when we played AS Monaco at Tannadice [Uefa Cup, 1981] Michael noticed that Princess Grace was sat above the hoarding for Taylor Brothers Coal.” The glorious incongruity was akin to “United” and “league winners” being jammed together in the same sentence, as happened in every Dundee Courier write-up when football achievement in the city matched, well, jam excellence.

Heaping incongruity upon incongruity like so much coal, Leo Sayer was a bizarre choice of act to cover the song. McAlpine, though, is loyal to the Marra original. “When I had my pub, The Goalie, one of the girls working behind the bar played it all the time on the jukebox. I’ve still a few copies up in the attic. Do you want to buy half a dozen? … ”

Who would have thought this would be the extent of McAlpine’s celebrity when he was growing up a country boy in the Carse of Gowrie? Not him for sure. He says: “We played football in a field and if no one had a ball then we scrunched up paper and tied it with string. Christmas was an apple, an orange and an annual, The Broons or Oor Wullie. For us, tablet was something nice to eat. A pair of trainers today can cost £200; when our shoes started talking we had to stick the soles as best we could. And I only became a keeper because my school team would aye get beat 14-nil and 12-nil with everyone taking a turn until they’d conceded three goals and I lasted the longest.”

Sent home from the Far East by Jim McLean

On Saturday afternoons, the thrashings already forgotten, he’d go turnabout to Tannadice and Dens Park, the latter being where his father had played as a wartime centre-forward. For his son it was the place to see champions. “Under one of the floodlight pylons at the far end was known as ‘Gowrie Corner’. The whole of the Carse - Inchture, Errol, Glencarse, Abernyte, Longforgan and Invergowrie - congregated there, maybe 500-strong.” But McAlpine still had no idea that Dens would become the scene of his greatest days, the two cup finals and the league clincher, as the balance of power shifted a few hundred yards to United.

All of that was down to McLean, the brilliant, Calvinistic, hard-to-please and often explosive master strategist. McAlpine, once described by the boss as “the player who single-handedly destroys everything I have believed about the game”, laughs as he recalls their biggest bust-up: “It was on a summer tour of the Far East [in 1979]. In a friendly against a Japan select one of their boys was causing us a bit of bother. I wanted to re-organise the defence; Wee Jim said no. ‘But I’m the poor sap who’s got to deal with his shooting,’ I said. ‘And I’m the f****n’ manager,’ he said.

“After the game we were up on the roof of our hotel. It was a hot night so - typical professional footballers - we’d just bought these high-performance water pistols and were having a fight. That was when I was told to fly back home the 6,000 miles by myself. Probably I shouldn’t have told Wee Jim that all he needed were wellies and a Hitler hat and he’d be a dead-ringer for Freddie Starr!”

United began the season with Peter Bonetti but five months after thinking he’d committed career kamikaze, Hamish the Goalie was sipping champagne from that first cup. He and McLean had agreed to disagree: “At training I didn’t like the specialised stuff for my position. Focusing on flaws, as far as I was concerned, was only going to make me obsess about them. Wee Jim said: ‘I bet you practise your golf.’ I told him I didn’t, that it only made my game worse. ‘Oh, okay,’ he said.

“The manager was the way he was and it worked superbly. He thought: ‘If I ask the players for 80 per cent I’ll only get 60.’ So he asked us for 120 and got 100. We were too stupid to realise that this had been his plan all along. Some couldn’t handle the slaggings he’d dish out but the rest of us were like: ‘We’ll show the little s**t.’ I know that in his later years Wee Jim wondered if he should have been less grumpy, more ‘player-friendly’. I don’t know about that. It could have transformed us into world-beaters but it could just as easy have made us a rubbish wee team who never did anything.”

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