Interview: Jim Jefferies on his near death experience and why he would have stepped in as Hearts caretaker

Jim Jefferies is back on his feet and back on the golf course following his recent heart-attack. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Jim Jefferies is back on his feet and back on the golf course following his recent heart-attack. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Down in East Lothian, the Gullane No 1 course can present a hilly, blustery challenge for golfers not feeling especially sprightly and, on 16 
September, that was Hearts legend Jim 

“Lifeless” is how he describes his physical condition that day. “I wondered if I’d been overdoing it with the grandkids. Billy Brown [his faithful No 2 in numerous dugouts] had told me that when I became a grandad it would change my life and he was right. I love playing with Harriet and Edwin but thought I’d been chucking them around too much because I looked out over the fifth hole, which is uphill, and remembered that the sixth is the same and just went: ‘Not for me’.”

The good thing about the sixth, if you make it that far, is the clubhouse is a short hop away – particularly useful when admitting defeat to battering thunderstorms. But on this occasion it wasn’t raining. “Brilliant light,” is Jefferies’ memory. “The paramedics asked me if everything lit up just before I went and that’s what happened.” By “went” he means died. The ex-Jambos captain and manager when the club won the Scottish Cup in 1998 now has among his mementoes a printout given him by his mercy crew which confirms he was dead for 25 seconds.

It’s great JJ survived his heart attack and is still with us. Great, as he prepares to turn 69, that he’s looking so well. Great that the venue for our rendezvous, Edinburgh’s Braid Hills Hotel, sparks funny memories from the life and times of this doughty football man. “I remember coming here with Hearts one Hogmanay. There was a rock-hard frost on the ground and [manager] Willie Ormond was convinced the Ne’er Day derby against Hibs would be off. He summoned us down to the bar for the bells. We were made to drink sherry. At half-past midnight I thought I’d better get the boys up to bed. ‘You never know, gaffer,’ I said, ‘the game might be on.’ ‘Nonsense,’ he said, and topped up our glasses. I think he wanted some drinking buddies. It was half-two in the morning before we got away. And guess what: the thaw came and the game went ahead!”

Let’s get back to Gullane. Jefferies’ regular golfing pals include Hibs great John Blackley and three guys whose Easter Road appearances were more fleeting: John Murphy, Mike Korotkich and George McNeill, the whizz of the professional sprint track who went on to make Hearts run harder with the help of the speedball. Jefferies jokes that surrounding himself with so many Hibbies may have caused him to come a cropper. Indeed he’s amassed quite a few gags about his big drama already and it only happened a few weeks ago.

“I like to say that I’m still here because when I got up to Heaven there was a bunch of Hibs fans in charge of checking credentials at the pearly gates and they turned me away.” He laughs, clearly proud of that one. Is this Jim Jefferies, Gorgie icon, or Jim Jefferies, his Australian stand-up comedian namesake? Oh and by the way, that JJ knows about our man’s recent plight, joking the other day that when he read about the heart attack he went to check his own pulse. “That’s nice,” says Jefferies. “I met Jim a few years ago when he performed at the Edinburgh Festival. He thanked me for helping sell out his first show. The audience was full of guys in Hearts strips and he said they must have thought I was the big attraction. I said I wasn’t sure about that. The next night he said it was all green and white strips and he got bombarded with tomatoes, although I’m sure that was a joke.”

First on the scene on No 1 was a woman golfer in a buggy. “She was up from London for the Solheim Cup, playing a last round before heading home. She said: ‘I saw the commotion. I’m a first-aider – can I help?’ She gave me a ride back down the hill. This American was about to start his round. ‘I’m a surgeon,’ he said. There was a plan to move me into the clubhouse. ‘Don’t,’ the surgeon said. ‘I’m not sure I like the look of him – he needs to go to hospital right away’.” Jefferies knows he was fortunate that such expert medical help was close at hand. Yes, I say, the first two people he encountered could have been a double-glazing salesman and a sanitary inspector. “That’s good,” he says. “I’ll use it in my act!”

But here’s something which isn’t a joke: after Jefferies realised he was out of danger, and after he thanked everyone who rushed to his aid, from fellow golfers to the ambulance teams to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary medics, he thought about work. Not his current gig as sporting director of Edinburgh City, which he greatly enjoys, but the vacancy which had just happened at his beloved Hearts.

“If they needed me, if they wanted someone to take charge of the team temporarily, I would have done it,” he says. “That’s not the situation [Craig Levein’s No 2 Austin MacPhee is manning the shop right now] but I would have helped out, no problem.” At death’s door he might have been just a short time before, but we should hardly be surprised by this gesture.

“Hearts are in my blood,” he asserts. This doesn’t need stating but considering what Jefferies has recently endured, we can indulge him a little. This is a man, insisting he never bets on football, who was so confident the Jambos would beat Hibs in the 2012 Scottish Cup final that he put £20 on the triumph with the dear rivals being given two goals of a start. We all remember how that one turned out. “It was basically my team,” he says, Jefferies having been sacked from his second spell as Hearts boss just two games into that season by Tynecastle’s tinpot dictator, Vladimir Romanov. “Hibs seemed to go on the park knowing they would lose. Billy Brown [then assisting Hibees boss Pat Fenlon] said to me afterwards: ‘I’m just glad Hearts stopped at five’.” Jefferies sneers. “What’s that called again? ‘Managing the game… ?’”

Jefferies called time on being a boss at Dunfermline Athletic five years ago. “But I told myself: ‘Of course if this one club came calling, and they got me at a daft moment, I’d come out of retirement’.” Maybe he won’t manage Hearts again but is there another job he could do? The role of sporting director is very much in vogue and the Jambos have just decided they need one.

Back to Gullane: Jefferies’ ambulance needed back-up en route to the ERI. “I remember someone saying: ‘It’s a priority one case, we can’t hang about.’ One of the new folk to come on board was Korky’s wife,” he says, that being the nickname of his buddy Korotkich. “Aye it’s a small world. Then I felt this wavy dizziness. When I came round after CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] I said I couldn’t remember being out. I was told: ‘That’s because you were dead’.”

At the hospital, Jefferies’ wife Linda and son Callum feared they were too late. “They expected me to be there first because they were coming from home in Lauder. There was no record of me being admitted so they thought I was a goner. But I’d had to be rushed right through.” The paramedics stayed with him until he was out of danger. “Then one of them said to me: ‘Hey Jim, remember 6-2?’.” When Jefferies was Hearts manager they lost by that margin to Hibs. “It was nice of him to wait before he said it. So of course I reminded him we once beat Hibs 4-0 – same margin of victory.” (Jefferies of course was playing for Hearts when they lost 7-0 to the Leith team but, because he’s had such a tough time of it recently, let the record show that I didn’t actually bring this up).

His phone had no signal in the ERI and, when it was reactivated, there were quite a few messages of concern. “Four hundred and thirty-two. I couldn’t believe it. A pal out in the mid-Atlantic on the QE2 said he almost had a heart attack of his own when he turned on Sky Sports and found out what had happened. Rudi Skacel got in touch from San Francisco: ‘When you’re better, boss, come out here for a game of golf’.” There were plenty of Hibee sympathisers and of course Jefferies’ former charges were anxious for good news.

I’ve met a few of them over the years. Neil McCann told me a JJ oxy-acetylene blast at half-time when things weren’t going well for the team would remove the paint from the changing-room walls. Gary Naysmith recalled how, when Falkirk were seriously threatening the run to glory in 1998, Jefferies very nearly hung him on a hook, roaring: “You’re going to cost us the chance of this effing trophy!”

He laughs. “My old players think it’s funny that I had my heart attack on a golf course, given I was sometimes a right grumpy bugger as a manager. These would be the times when Billy would say: ‘Sit down, you didn’t half go through them’. I’d say: ‘Do you think they got the message?’ But I like to think the guys thought I never missed them when they played well. Hard but fair, I think.”

Did he ever worry about his health in the dugout? “Not really, although maybe I should have done. You throw yourself into work, don’t you, to give your family a decent standard of living. I was a boss 24/7, eating the wrong stuff and late, getting heavy. My wife brought up the kids, Callum and Louise, as I was hardly around. There’s a bit of guilt about that so I’m trying to make up for it by being a hands-on grandad.”

After learning there had been no damage to his cardiac muscle tissue and having a stent fitted, Jefferies has been able to make a quick return to his duties at Edinburgh City. “I got involved with them to give something back to the game but I don’t interfere,” says this casualty of Romanov’s mad meddling. “The manager knows I’m there for help if he needs it. But I say to him: ‘You don’t have to take my advice. I’m not the boss, you are’.”

During Jefferies’ enforced absence, his first loves were unable to get out of their rut and, eventually, Craig Levein was sacked. He’s saddened by Hearts’ current plight, saying: “You’ve got to give Ann Budge a lot of credit for supporting her man. A load of managers would love the backing Craig received. But the way Hearts were playing, as well as the results being bad – they were going backwards.” Levein’s team became tough to watch and he questions why they never found room for an authentic playmaker like Steve Fulton in Jefferies’ side, preferring muscle and going with the long ball. “Ann trusted Craig to get it right but if you don’t do that, the end is inevitable.” Who’s next? “So many folk will be in for the job and, I would imagine, some who haven’t been named yet. Or at least they should be. Hearts are a great club.”

Shortly after getting back on his feet Jefferies was saddened to have to wave off a Hearts legend and former team-mate, the mercurial left-winger Bobby Prentice, who passed away at the age of 65. “I made it to his funeral and it was lovely to catch up with some of the guys and remember Bobby, his brilliance and his daftness. My funniest memory of him comes from a League Cup semi-final against Celtic. [Manager] John Hagart wanted us at the club nice and early for the bus to Hampden and, as I always did, I was picking up Rab from the road end just outside Dalkeith where he lived. There was no sign of him and time was marching on. I drove up to his house to see him struggling down the street with a TV. I said: ‘We’ve got a semi-final, Rab, what’s going on?’ He said: ‘I’ve had a fight with my dad and I’m on the way to my granny’s. The telly’s mine – can you give me a lift?’ I told him, okay, but we’d better hurry, then he said: ‘Actually, Jeff, the old man’s dumped my hi-fi in the garden as well – could we go back for that?’ Rab could be sensational one minute and fall on his arse the next. He was a real free spirit.”

So now that Jefferies is back in the old routine, how’s the golf? “Fantastic,” he beams. “The last four or five games I’ve been relieving my pals of a bit of money. The other day John Murphy, coming off the 18th, said: ‘So this is what a stent does for you? Guys, I think we all better get booked in for one!’.”