Hearts hero John Colquhoun on European nights at Tynecastle: 'Sometimes, when you feel low, you take yourself back there ...'

Now in his 60th year, John Colquhoun is wearing golf slacks in the middle class enclave that is North Berwick. What happened to the thrusting young hipster and famously left-leaning former rector of Edinburgh University?

Another European night, this time against Austria Vienna in 1988, as John Colquhoun (right) watches his effort saved by Vienna goalkeeper Franz Wohlfahrt
Another European night, this time against Austria Vienna in 1988, as John Colquhoun (right) watches his effort saved by Vienna goalkeeper Franz Wohlfahrt

On the face of it, he could be accused of being more concerned with lowering his own handicap than other weightier issues more in keeping with his roots. He’s even invested in the development of a golf swing aid called GEM that’s being rolled out from an industrial estate just along the coast from where we are sitting and which he says is why he’s now playing off a handicap of 2.1.

But then it’s always been thus. Or at least the accusation of selling out has been put to him before. He was among the first high profile players to enter the murky world inhabited by agents. Indeed, he still retains links to that world due to his sole surviving client: Manchester United defender Phil Jones.

It’s good to find the former Hearts winger and, indeed, one-time colleague – Colquhoun wrote a brilliantly insightful column for Scotland on Sunday, even rushing from dressing room to press box to file in the aftermath of a Scottish Cup final defeat to Rangers in 1996 – in such fine fettle. And relax, he’s not lost his edge. Only two nights ago he was in the audience at a Frankie Boyle show at Fringe on the Sea.

John Colquhoun (right) and Mike Galloway bear down on Bayern Munich goalkeeper Raimond Aumann on a famous night at Tynecastle in 1989

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Colquhoun recently turned 59. One wonders what his 20-year-old self might have thought about his current whereabouts and activities in a place described by journalist – and North Berwick native – Alastair McKay as a “beautiful place to die”. So at home does he seem in this bucolic coastal graveyard that Craig Levein, Colquhoun’s great pal, has now dubbed him the unofficial “Lord Mayor of North Berwick".

It must be stressed he is also helping develop the next generation of footballers through the Box Soccer programme he now owns; directly after our meeting he is treating a few coaches to lunch. Colquhoun is still a livewire.

“I don’t think at 20 you never, ever thought about being nearly 60. You thought: ‘Oh my god, at the millennium I am going to be so old – 37,’ or whatever I was,” says Colquhoun. “If someone had said to me at 20 this would be my life now and I was able to do what I had done, I would have snapped your hand off.”

Near the top of the list of things he has done, if not right at the top, are sampling European nights at Tynecastle. It’s the main reason why we’ve met though it’s not necessary to require a reason to spend time with Colquhoun and enjoy conversation ranging from his views on Twitter, where he represents such an oasis of good grace, to music.

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John Colquhoun puts Hearts two up against Atletico Madrid in 1993: "The loudest noise I heard at Tynecastle in my career"

These two subjects collided after he shared a link to the Frightened Rabbit cover of the Waterboys song The Whole of the Moon and someone replied to remind him that they used to sing the song on the terraces at Tynecastle with the lyrics changed to “We’ve got John Colquhoun”.

He likes the directness and immediacy of Twitter. “I can communicate what I feel – there are no barriers in between,” he says. He appreciates being sent clips and old photographs.

“There is an ego part too. A lot of the goals I have never seen. I was never one for watching myself. It is tough sometimes – even the good things! You have to have an arrogance when you play to reach a certain level.

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“But when you’re living it, you don’t realise what you are doing. You just do it. You don’t appreciate it. I probably didn’t – and I hope this doesn’t sound too arrogant – realise how good I was when I played.

“And that’s because you had insecurities about worrying about whether you were going to play. If you put in a performance they kept you in the team. Back then, we had to perform or you didn’t play. If you didn’t play there were no holidays at the end of the year because of the bonus system employed by Hearts at the time. That was the reality.”

But he’s not complaining. He stresses he had the better deal compared to players of equal talent now who might be better paid but won’t know what it’s like to put your team 2-0 up against Atletico Madrid and hearing an explosion of noise that made the foundations of the nearby brewery buildings shake.

Nights under the Tynecastle lights are what we’re to discuss with Hearts set to begin another European campaign against FC Zurich in a Europa League play-off tie on Thursday. “It’s funny how life works,” he says. “Probably the reason I am now in North Berwick is because of European nights.

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The late Pilmar Smith, former Hearts vice-chairman and director, lived in North Berwick and reckoned the Marine Hotel and its seaside setting would be a good place for the players to prepare before big games.

“When you came from Stirling it was weird, we all just faced west," he says. "If we were going out shopping or going when you got older for a night out, it was always west. Glasgow. North Berwick, to be honest, I had never even heard of.

"Because he lived here, Pilmar knew it would be a good place to come and get peace and quiet before European games. And he brought us out here. It was hard not to fall in love with it. But I have never thought, ‘oh, I am going to end up living here’. My life’s a bit more organic than that.”

What is it with North Berwick and former Hearts wingers? Gordon Smith made it his base and Neil McCann happens to walk into the bistro where we’ve met.

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The town is now routinely named No 1 place in Scotland to live in in newspaper weekend supplements. Ask the same question about places to watch football, Tynecastle – both modern and old versions – might well rank as highly. It was certainly special when the likes of Dukla Prague and Bayern Munich visited.

“There’s been a lot about the spate of flares recently,” says Colquhoun. “We had the same problem. Well, we had that same visibility issue, but it was nothing to do with flares. It was just the atmosphere was smoky and the lights weren’t very good. And the evenings were heavy with damp and rain. Just amazing.

“I like to think I have a good vocabulary but even me describing it I still can’t describe it well enough for someone to actually feel what it is like. And then you score….”

In the specific case of Colquhoun, he scored a few on such nights - and might of course have scored more. His miss in Germany against Bayern Munich, after Hearts won the Uefa Cup quarter-final first leg 1-0, is another profound what if moment in the club’s annals. Napoli and Diego Maradona awaited in the last four.

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One goal he did score, which he says was greeted by the loudest roar he can remember at Tynecastle, was against Atletico Madrid. It was extra special because he had a score to settle on behalf of the Celtic team from 1974 who had been kicked off the park against the same side in the first leg of a European Cup semi-final.

Although a Hearts legend, Colquhoun has never hidden his affection for Celtic, where he lingered on the fringes of the first team prior to moving to Tynecastle in 1985. He even got a first taste of European nights there, coming off the bench at Old Trafford in another notorious game, v Rapid Vienna, shortly before he moved to Edinburgh. “The most hostile atmosphere of my career,” he recalls.

His blood was up when Atletico came calling for a Uefa Cup first round tie in 1993. “I got injured on the Saturday and we trained up on the rugby pitch here in North Berwick,” he recalls.

“I knew I was really struggling. But I wanted to play so much. A massive game against a club with whom I had some historical baggage with – because of what they had done to Celtic and wee Jinky...

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“And it was the glamour! Atletico Madrid coming to town. And I can play against them, a kid from Stirling. I was so desperate to play.”

He declared himself fit and swept home the second goal. “I might be guilty of retrospectively glorifying it, but I think Atletico Madrid was the biggest noise I heard at Tynecastle in my career,” he says. A late strike for the visitors changed the complexion of the tie and they lost the away leg 3-0 – although that result hinged on a pivotal, incorrect, decision.

“What I remember most about the away game – it is weird, because I don’t remember a lot about actual games, but I remember having a very serious and intense discussion with Justin Fashanu over dinner. I could not understand how he could advocate such a right wing position. That obviously sat well with me!

I was saying to him, ‘how can a man like you, with your life experiences, be sitting where you are politically?’

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“As for the game, I scored a volley. And they called it offside. It wasn’t offside. And we didn’t know that ‘til we watched it on TV back at the hotel. It was so far onside. But that’s how it goes.”

Europe can giveth as well as taketh away. “You can have nice cars, nice watches,” says Colquhoun. “But when you look at a watch or sit in the car, it is never the same as the experiences you have personally.

“Not everyone can experience going away to Vienna on a frosty night and winning through against Austria Vienna with an offside goal that is still beyond belief how it was not called as offside.

“Walter Kidd was offside and he went down the right side to the byline – he must have started about seven or eight yards offside. He crossed and Mike Galloway scored…”

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Colquhoun suddenly turns a bit wistful. “Sometimes, when you feel low, you take yourself back there…”

Four Hearts legends walk into a pub. It's not the start of a joke. It’s what happened on 4 November last year. The occasion was John Robertson’s book launch and the star attraction, apart from Robbo himself, was former manager Alex MacDonald.

It was a reunion of Hearts royalty and the faces of those sitting drinking in the Tynecastle Arms when the quartet walked in at tea-time for a quick half before the second part of the evening must have been a picture. MacDonald changed the course of Colquhoun's life when he signed him for Hearts for £60,000. "Alex had a fantastic ability to connect," he says. "You'd run through a brick wall even with spikes facing you on it for him."

He was privileged to play a part in inducting MacDonald and Sandy Jardine - who was a posthumous addition, sadly - into the Hearts Hall of Fame.

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"His face has a way of going red after he has had too much to drink or else he is angry – which we saw often when we played!" recalls Colquhoun.

"I stood up. ‘Great to see Alex here. People ask me who was the best coach I played under, and I played under a lot, but he would not be in the top 15.’

“I could see his face getting redder. ‘But when people ask me the greatest manager was I played under, to paraphrase the great Brian Clough, he might not be the best, but he would be in the top one.”

Colquhoun is fascinating on his relationship with older football titans such as Alex Smith and Bob Shankly, the manager and general manager respectively at first club Stirling Albion. He adores Smith.

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He signed his first contract at Annfield in 1978 and told his father, who was a footballer at Oldham Athletic and Scunthorpe United after initially being on the books at Celtic, that he had heard he should get a signing on fee.

"I didn’t know what a signing on fee was. My dad said, 'well you better ask for one then'. I phoned up. The secretary answered: 'Alex is away to Argentina, ring back in four weeks’…She then says: 'I will put you through to Mr Shankly...'” The teenage Colquhoun gulped.

“'Mr Shankly, I hope you don’t mind me saying, but I think I deserve a small signing on fee’. ‘I’ll pass that on son’."

A couple of years later, it was re-signing time again. John Philliben, who had just won the European Championships with the Scotland Under-18s, was pushed into the office to handle negotiations.

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"There were three of us were standing there at the bottom of the stairs,” recalls Colquhoun. “We know we are getting what he is getting. ‘You’re a European Champion big man, get yerself up there..’”

"There was this car he loved. A Capri. Orange with black go faster stripes. He loved this car. He came back down. Literally, the door hadn’t stopped swinging from when he passed through it on the way up. ‘What did you get big man?' He said: ‘I think I’ve agreed to get the exhaust fixed on my car…’”

It seems crazy and more than a little regrettable that Colquhoun, who used to write his own columns and regularly promotes other people’s books on Twitter, is yet to chronicle his own career in an autobiography. “Nah, that’ll never happen,” he says, before pausing: “I might write it sometime, just for me...”

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