Interview: Life on the left wing for John Colquhoun

A right winger on the pitch, off it John Colquhoun’s politics lay in the opposite direction. Today, his passion for Labour remains undimmed, as do memories of a football career with Celtic and Hearts he wouldn’t change for the world

On the campaign trail for Labour with, far left, Helen Liddell, the former general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, and candidate Lynda Clark in 1997. Picture: Ian rutherford
On the campaign trail for Labour with, far left, Helen Liddell, the former general secretary of the Scottish Labour Party, and candidate Lynda Clark in 1997. Picture: Ian rutherford

John Colquhoun is getting nostalgic, but this time not for his days as a footballer of considerable vim and vigour. He had a spell as a columnist on The Scotsman’s sister paper and greatly enjoyed the scribbling life, the brainstorming sessions with time-served journos over what he insists were only coffees – and the fact the pub used for these confabs had previously been a bank which could no longer sustain itself must have amused this lifelong opponent of the capitalist ideal.

“Yes,” he says, “there’s one piece for Scotland on Sunday that I wouldn’t mind seeing again. It was after the 1996 Scottish Cup final [Rangers 5, Colquhoun’s Hearts 1]. I had to write it in the changing-room, still in my strip, and then nip up to the press box to dictate my copy over the phone before running back downstairs to catch the team bus. The reason I want to read it again is to have confirmed my firm belief that it was the biggest pile of shite to ever appear in a Scottish newspaper!”

I don’t have Colquhoun’s column to hand although I am absolutely sure it wasn’t. For this is a man with finely-tuned antennae for the guffiest of football clichés, entirely capable of holding a discussion on whether the perpetuation of the hoary new-signing-holds-aloft-scarf image is ironic, post-ironic or – and this is JC’s theory – “just plain laziness” on the part of photographers, club PR departments, everyone.

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John Colquhoun today. Picture: SNS

“I had to do that shot when I signed for Celtic from Stirling Albion and there was a race for a bus that day, too. The team were leaving for a Uefa Cup-tie at Nottingham Forest and Alex Smith, my great old manager, just got me to Parkhead on time. I wasn’t going to be playing in the game – for one thing I hadn’t been registered and for another I plainly wasn’t yet good enough – but the superstars on that coach like Danny McGrain, Paul McStay and Roy Aitken must have thought: ‘Who the hell’s this two-bit punk from Stirling?’ ”

Was he disappointed his nickname hadn’t been more inventive? “Well, you can’t really add an ‘i’ or an ‘o’ to Colquhoun so I suppose JC was inevitable.” Pity that notorious 1980s moustache wasn’t exploited for a moniker, I say – especially since being framed so spectacularly by his mullet and the silver away strip favoured by Hearts in that skin-tight decade. He pretends to be offended, then chortles. “One of the tabloids used to have a lookalikes spot and I don’t remember anyone else getting into it twice. Once they paired me with John Francome, which pleased me, and the other time with Tony Ferrino, Steve Coogan’s crap latin lothario alter ego, which I wasn’t so happy about. But I wore all my shirts with pride. Listen, I’m at the stage in life when I wouldn’t be too fetching in spray-on silver. Back then, though – worked like a dog by Alex MacDonald and Sandy Jardine and with only 5 per cent body fat – let me tell you that I looked okay.”

Played pretty well, too. Reminding myself of Colquhoun’s pomp – performed occasionally in silver; silverware remaining tragically out of reach – I happen across Jambo reminiscing on a fansite. Supporters remember his goals – big-match strikes, far-out ones and the odd freak – and his urgent running, a trait of the entire “nearly” team of 1985-86. They swap tales of how they cried when their favourite left Tynecastle for England (though he would return later) until someone panics: “Christ, I thought he was potted heid!” Satisfied he’s not, the faithful resume their reverie: “Shirt tucked in at the front, hangin’ oot at the back - loved his style… My mum used to fancy him… Remember the day three Falkirk players were sent off for kicking him?” Then they finish with a song: “The runaway train came over the hill, all the way from Abbeyhill, Colquhoun, Colquhoun, Colquhoun… ”

Now 52, JC is indeed still with us, although right at this moment he’s 5000 miles from Gorgie. My text confirming that Scotsman expenses would still stretch to buying him a coffee is answered like this: “I’m standing outside my favourite cinema, just about to see Steve Jobs –can you afford the plane fare to Southern California?” The whole family has made the trip to Palm Desert: wife Anne, daughter Jade, granddaughter Poppy. It’s a holiday although Colquhoun is also fitting in a bit of business, having recently given up the bulk of his work as a players’ agent to buy the rights to Box Soccer, a football development programme, from Ian Cathro, training guru of Ryan Gauld and others.

John Colquhoun battles with Rangers Ian Ferguson during the 1986 Scottish Cup final, which the Ibrox side won 5-1. Picture: TSPL

It’s another interesting diversion in a well-rounded life, not just a round-ball one. A right winger on the park but a left winger off it, his passion for politics meant that Neil Kinnock was keen to meet him on the former Labour leader’s visits to Scotland – and, having campaigned during elections to help others win seats, Colquhoun even contemplated running for parliament himself. Though he didn’t ultimately challenge Malcolm Rifkind in Edinburgh Pentlands, that passion remains undimmed, as it does for music. “Back in the day I used to make pilgrimages to the Hacienda in Manchester, also Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy, and the Smiths were my favourite band. I can’t have too many regrets because I’ve had the most fortunate of lives, but one is that I never saw them play. Would I go now if they reformed? Doubt it. Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart was my favourite song and it still is. But I try not to be an old fart and listen to new stuff. I like Frightened Rabbit and First Aid Kit.”

Box Soccer, he says, isn’t tricks for tricks’ sake. “There’s no point mastering Cristiano Ronaldo’s rainbow flick if you don’t know when to use it.” What was Colquhoun’s trick? “I don’t think I had one. An eight-year-old kid nowadays can watch all the highlights from La Liga on TV and, down the park, keep consulting his tablet to learn all the fancy-dan stuff whereas my generation was self-taught. I think I had a decent first touch and could put the guys up against me on the wrong foot. But, really, I was a painter and decorator from Stirling who got lucky. The view I’ve got of Southern California right now, in this lovely heat, I know that to be true.”

As Colquhoun mentioned in an essay he wrote for The Scotsman in the run-up to last year’s independence referendum – stating the case for a No vote – he was conceived in Oldham. But, after a tortuous, ten-hour car journey, he was born in his parents John and Susan’s home town of Stirling, just in case he turned out good enough to play football for Scotland – which he was. “The nationality rules were changed later, which would have meant my mum could have had me in the hospital across the road from Boundary Park. Dad played for Oldham Athletic, a left-winger. I only saw one of his games and this is sad: Oldham were thumped 5-1 by Southport and he scored an og. But he took me to see Man U when Oldham weren’t playing – in the era of Best, Law and Charlton. The house was always full of football folk – Jimmy Frizzell was his big pal – and I was never going to do anything else with my life. He saw all of my career right up until that 1996 cup final which he was too ill to attend. I scored that day but it’s the only one of my goals that I’ve never watched back.”

Colquhoun had an interest in what he calls “the wider world”. Although – by then back in Stirling for good – he left school at 15, some classic texts for inquiring young minds, including JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had made a big impression on him. But not as much as The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists would.

At the time he was working as a housepainter, often doing up big homes like author Robert Tressell’s characters, and the book politicised him. “The stuff in it about how beyond capitalism there had to be another way really resonated with me. I worked with a journeyman who was fond of saying how he would paint these swanky houses but never be able to afford to live in one. And what was interesting to me was that when we had a job in a well-to-do area like King’s Park in Stirling we took our breaks outside, sat on paint pots with our sandwiches, sometimes in minus five. But we were better treated in the schemes like Coalsnaughton in Alloa and would be invited in for a bowl of soup by folk who were struggling to make ends meet.” So he must be handy with a paintbrush, then? “Actually, I’m horrendous. Once I stuck the wallpaper in a mate’s kitchen upside down – no one asked me to do another ‘homer’ after that. We’re having our house back in Scotland re-decorated right now – by a professional with me far away.”

Colquhoun, who would later lead the Scottish PFA, remembers being stopped by police manning road-blocks around one of the Lanarkshire collieries involved in the miners’ strike. He told them he was on his way to training at Celtic, which was true on that occasion – but this became his “cover” for subsequent trips to lend support to the picket-line.

A Celtic fan from a long line of them, he was thrilled to be at the club but was “forced out the door” after just 18 months. Hearts had wanted to sign Davie Provan but were offered his understudy instead. You’d struggle to find a Jambo who thinks their club didn’t come off best. Colquhoun reflects on his time in hoops: “I was in awe when I went to Celtic, I felt like a little boy. That jersey’s heavy, it’s difficult to wear. Even though I had my best days at Hearts, even though I love the club and the Hearts supporters were fantastic to me and still are, Celtic were my team and I cried when I walked down the steps for the last time.

“But the king is dead, long live the king. I arrived at Tynecastle which was this amazing place full of cast-offs and kids, a Rag, Tag & Bobtail crew. Alex MacDonald and Sandy Jardine were new to management and didn’t really coach: they just told you to go out and do what you were best at. And look what we almost achieved.”

Colquhoun’s two clubs meet in the League Cup quarter-finals next week, a tie which hasn’t a hope in hell of matching the drama of 30 years ago, final game of the season, last seven minutes. Up until that moment Hearts were drawing at Dens Park and winning the Premier League. After it, with Celtic scoring the requisite number of goals at Love Street, there were tears on the terraces, tears all the way back down the motorway – and right through to the following Saturday when the Gorgie boys lost the Scottish Cup final as well.

An incredible season, one which makes just about every other football reference to “rollercoasters” redundant, and which some of the fans are still getting over. Mind you, it was a campaign that at exactly this stage three decades ago, seemed to promise nothing but relegation.

Colquhoun had scored on his debut for his new club, a season-opening 1-1 draw at Tynecastle, and he netted another in the next game at Love Street, but Hearts would lose that one 6-2, the first of five away defeats in a row. “We’d been some people’s favourites for the drop, hadn’t we? And we proceeded to play like it.” But then they won at Celtic Park and wouldn’t lose again, until you-know-when.

As a young reporter, shadowing manager MacDonald for a day in the build-up to Dens, I was allowed a sneak peak of the changing room before being hustled out of earshot of the team meeting – and this was long enough to note that it was red-tops all round apart from Colquhoun who had his head buried in The Scotsman. A former rector of Edinburgh University, he laughs at this. “If I played badly, which was quite often, wee Alex’s jibe was: ‘Stop reading these big papers and start concentrating on your football’.” What would he have been reading? “Well, if it wasn’t the late, great Ian Wood on the sports pages it would have been the politics pages to find out what catastrophe Margaret Thatcher was inflicting on Scotland. The Conservative government at that time used to make my blood boil and I actually think it motivated me [in football]. By the time I put down the paper, I was raging.”

So how did he get on with Wallace Mercer, the Hearts chairman and one of Edinburgh’s most flamboyant Tories? “Famously,” he says, and there’s more chuckling as JC recalls the time the bold Waldo gatecrashed his first meeting with Kinnock. “Remember those footballer questionnaires? Car: ‘Ford Capri’. Favourite food: ‘Steak and chips’. Person most like to meet: ‘The Queen/the Pope/the bloke who hands out the big pools wins’. Either because I was different or thought I was – probably the latter – I answered ‘The future Labour prime minister of Britain’. Then Pilmar Smith, Hearts’ vice-chairman who was a big Labour man, arranged a dinner with Neil at the party conference in Perth.

“But there’s no show without punch and Wallace invited himself along. ‘I’ll be your designated driver’, he said. On the journey, with Pilmar and I so excited about this great socialist event, Wallace was regaling us with the story of how he’d just secured himself a prime Edinburgh parking space for the ‘bargain price of £75,000’ and not really understanding the irony.”

Some final thoughts on ’85-’86, at least until next May’s anniversary of the great collapse: “There was no rocket science. Every week if we’d won we got Sundays and Mondays off. Tuesdays we were battered on the running track, then it was up to Brown’s gymnasium, a place which nowadays Health & Safety would close down. Wednesdays were rest days – we needed to recover – and the first time we saw a ball would be Thursday.

“So we didn’t win the league. If we had, who knows, maybe we’d have gone on to win even more things but there was mental scarring and a fragility after that. Losing it the way we did was devastating; there were no more tears on 
the supporters’ buses than on ours. You try to find the positives, and they’re there. Didn’t we have a bloody brilliant go at it? And when people say to me I must wish I played football now, with all the money in the game, I say that I couldn’t have enjoyed my time any more than I did.”