The ups and downs of Hearts legend Drew Busby

WHEN I phone Drew Busby to arrange our chat, his wife Annette answers and says I’ve just missed him. Then comes a revelation that – if you remember his hard-man marauding around 1970s football fields – may be a little bit devastating: “He’s having a massage.”

Drew Busby shoots during the 22 draw with Hibs at Tynecastle in April 1977. Pictures: Alan Ledgerwood
Drew Busby shoots during the 22 draw with Hibs at Tynecastle in April 1977. Pictures: Alan Ledgerwood

The Buzzbomb, receiving pampering? Now you’re probably imagining simultaneous out-of-character softness up and down the land. At the same time as the Busby massage, maybe Tom Forsyth of Rangers is meditating and Pat McCluskey of Celtic is sketching bucolic loveliness and Motherwell’s Willie McVie has just put down some chaste romantic fiction, the fairytale ending producing a little baby sigh of contentment that is repeated when he fetches his sponge cake from the oven. But were all of this true, would it really be so bad?

Certainly I don’t think I could hope to meet a gentler soul than Andrew Douglas Busby, who picks me up from the station in Dumbarton, drives past the pub he runs in the town where it’s often “pure bedlam” in search of somewhere with a nice view, apologises for Annette’s car being cold, which it’s not, because he doesn’t know how to work the heater, parks up at Cameron House Hotel on Loch Lomond, point-blank refuses to let me buy the coffees, apologises if I’ve heard his yarns and he’s boring me, which he’s definitely not, pays a compliment to just about every player he ever clattered into – and all the time speaking so softly that it’s sometimes a strain to hear him above the chatter of ladies who lunch and the hardcore massage brigade.

But on the subject of relegation-doomed Heart of Midlothian this comes through loud and clear: “The club didn’t mean anything to me before I signed for them, and I almost didn’t. Sunderland were interested. They watched me score against Hearts for Airdrie. I wasn’t sure which way to go. I was headed for Edinburgh but then I stopped off in Balllieston and rang Roker Park from a phonebox. I asked for [Sunderland manager] Bob Stokoe but he was playing golf so I thought ‘Ach, stuff it’ and carried on through to Tynecastle, me in my new tie bought specially. I’m really glad I did.”

Because of his unforgiving style, I probably thought Busby wouldn’t be a sentimental man. He tells me his father died when he was eight – “So he never saw me play, or try to play.” He says he hasn’t spoken to his brother, who lives in London, for 25 years – “We’ve just never had anything in common.” And after his time in maroon was up, he admits he never went back to Gorgie for 20 years. “I didn’t want to be one of those ex-pros, aye hanging around. I think that’s wrong. Football’s about the guys playing now.”

But then he was persuaded to return, for a supporters’ function, and as he puts it, “the whole place started singing that song about me”. There were a few, which one? “Busby’s gonnae get ye!” was an old Shed standard. And, to the tune of Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz: “Jimmy Cant at the back/Said everyone attack/And it turned into a Busby blitz.” But no, he means “the whisky one”, which goes something like this:

“His name is Drew Busby, the cock of the north. He plays at Tynecastle, just over the Forth/

“He drinks all your whisky and Newcastle Brown. The Gorgie Boys are in town!”

Busby didn’t know whether to be touched or appalled. “I don’t like a fuss, and it can be a bit embarrassing,” he says, because the ditty is almost the standard greeting now. “I was down at Anfield [2012 Europa League qualifier]. I walked into a pub near the ground and right away these Jambos got on the tables for another rendition.” In the end, he’s decided to be touched. “I played for a lot of teams in my career and I check all their results every Saturday, or at least the ones who haven’t gone bust. But it’s always Hearts first. They’re the club who’ve really seeped into me.”

Tomorrow Hearts could seep down to the Championship, depending on results this afternoon and Hibernian beating them at Tynecastle. Relegation is inevitable but the cult hero would rather the internecine nearest-and-dearest from across the capital didn’t get to operate the trap-door. He was involved in Hearts’ first-ever relegation back in 1976-77, and hopes the current side can summon up the spirit of his team who battled out a 2-2 derby draw to at least delay the demotion.

Busby admires the pluck of the current side and sees some hope. “I like how these kids all fight for each other. Lots of folk think Rangers have got next season’s Championship sewn up, but from what I’ve seen of them they’re playing dark-ages football, big humped balls. Hearts actually look like a better team.”

Thirty-seven years ago, Busby’s team reached the semi-finals of both domestics cups and enjoyed probably their most thrilling European victory, over Lokomotiv Leipzig. Were these distractions? “Ach, I dunno. And you’re going to ask me about that Hibs game but to be honest I can’t remember much about it. The crucial one was Ayr United. I remember marking it off as a ‘must-win’, something I learned from being relegated with Airdrie. Before it I went for a massage – I’ve always loved them – and felt tremendous, like I could beat Ayr all on my own. But I was dropped! I never forgave [manager] John Hagart for doing that. I’m not really saying I could have kept the team up but I was so angry. I don’t remember the mood at the final whistle. It was the first time Hearts had been relegated – that’s something to have on your cv, eh? – but no-one was sitting on the pitch greetin’ – footballers didn’t do that back then. I just beat it.”

Busby joined Hearts the season after Hibs’ 7-0 derby rampage and immediately endeared himself with a goal in the next derby, 4-1 to Hearts, and the winner against Everton at Goodison in the Texaco Cup. Now 66, he is wearing pretty well, still with the lolloping walk and the desperado moustache, grey like the hair. He was an old-fashioned toe-bash centre-forward who shot on sight – “Players don’t shoot enough now” – and relished the physical. “In my day you could shooder the keeper, something I was quite good at.” A few weeks ago on these pages, Bobby Kerr, the Sunderland FA Cup-winning captain, testified to the hotbed of football talent that was the Vale of Leven. “I went to school with Bobby, we ran around together,” says our man, who grew up in Alexandria. He hasn’t seen Kerr for years so asks for his phone number.

Busby is, of course, a pub-quiz question for having scored Third Lanark’s last-ever goal before going bust, but I didn’t know about an earlier chapter in his career and the comic-book manner in which it came about.

“At school myself and some pals, all football-daft, divided up the old English First Division and wrote off to half a dozen clubs each asking for a trial. We didn’t have the right addresses so we’d put, say, ‘The Manager, Coventry City FC’ on the envelopes and hope for the best. I got a reply from them! I got off the train at Birmingham New Street. It was dark, and I was seeing black people for the first time. My digs were run by this sweet old couple who were completely deaf. I had to kneel down and shout into their ears. The manager was Jimmy Hill. He saw me score for the youths a couple of times. But I got homesick.”

Third Lanark were breathing their last when Busby got his chance. Other players’ accounts of the final season, about the dressing rooms having no lights, the fruit machine being hidden from the taxman and an old ball being painted white to get round the rule of a new one for every match, have passed into sad legend. He says: “I wasn’t concerned with the money stuff; I only wanted to play football. I was a wee boy in a dream, raw but full of running.” And that goal? “We were playing Dumbarton at Boghead. It was a big drooler under the keeper’s body. Me being a local lad I got dog’s abuse from the home fans.”

Colourful characters flit through Busby’s story such as the Firhill Flyer, Johnny Mackenzie, then the Thirds trainer and a “really lovely fella” who got him fixed up with Derry City. But he opted to stay local in the junior leagues before returning to the pro game with Airdrieonians – “a friendly, homely club” – to begin the first notable strike partnership of his career alongside Drew Jarvie.

Ask how the double-act worked, though, or ask the same question about his Hearts buddies, first Donald Ford then Willie Gibson, and he just shrugs. “My control wisnae the greatest. I just got the ball put in front of me so I could leather it.” Plays down his abilities, plays down the tough-nut image too. Full and frank exchanges of views with the likes of Celtic’s Johannes Edvaldsson may be part of the Jambo tapestry but Busby doesn’t glory in them like he’s got a football psychos DVD to flog. “I wasn’t any harder than anyone else,” he insists. “I was quite small but I was expected to win all the headers. I had good timing but I had to, er, compensate in other ways.” He remembers his Airdrie debut against St Johnstone at the old Muirton. “I was up against Buck McGarry and Benny Rooney. The ball came to me and Rooney ran his studs down the back of my leg. That was a lesson. My attitude, and it was the same for everyone, was: kick or be kicked.” Not that Airdrie were pushovers. “At Hearts Kenny Aird told me that when St Johnstone came to Broomfield, Willie Ormond’s team-talk was: ‘Right lads, do your best, but I’ve got this one down for a home win’.”

The hard men in this tale bounce around, reappearing later. Willie McVie was a fearsome opponent in Scotland, then a team-mate at Toronto Blizzard. “We were recalling the old days over there and he said: ‘Hey, you elbowed me once’. You had to get your retaliation in first with Willie. Good lad – ‘most fouls committed’ in the NASL.” Rooney would become Busby’s manager at Morton, issuing a key task for a game taking him back to Tynecastle. “He told me to stick on Alex MacDonald, so I did: followed him everywhere. Alex got pretty sick of this. He started whistling – ‘Come on Fido.’ That was one of only two times I deliberately went over the top of the ball. We tackled with the front of the boot back then. There was a mutual respect.”

The hardest of the hard? He nominates George Dickson and Billy McLaren of Queen of the South who “tackled you round the neck”. They all bow down, though, to John Cumming, as immovable as the old Castle Rock in the great 1950s Hearts team and the Tynecastle trainer when Busby arrived. “Sometimes training was up in the Pentland Hills, although it was more like army manoeuvres. ‘Do as I do,’ John would shout, and he’d jump over barbed wire into a forward roll. Once he jumped through a bloody great combine harvester. Can you believe that? We were like: ‘Aye on you go!’”

Bobby Seith was the manager then. “He was a loner but I liked him.” Busby got on less well with Hagart and had an even more difficult relationship with Willie Ormond as Hearts were promoted and went straight back down. “At one stage there was a lot of experience in the team – Fordy, Cruicky [Jim Cruickshank], Alan Anderson, Dave Clunie and Ian Sneddon – and then there wasn’t. The team was to be all-Edinburgh. The guys who travelled through from the west like Ian, Airdy, Jimmy Stevenson and myself got dropped. This was to save on expenses.

“None of us knew the club’s finances were so dire. Ian was let go before he qualified for a ten-year bonus. I didn’t want to leave. The Hearts fans had been great to me. ‘Give me a free’, I said. The club said: ‘If you go to Toronto we get £15,000. We really need the money’. But that worked out okay. I had a great time there.” He was still sharing a pitch with the bold McVie but he was no longer being kicked by him.

Before then there were some derby duties to fulfil. In Hearts’ first season outside the top flight they still got to play Hibs, although the Buzzbomb was rather overkeen for a reunion. “Des Bremner and Arthur Duncan got caught with the ball between them. I went in like a lunatic and took out the pair of them. They got carried off, I got sent off. I was sent off four times in my career and definitely deserved to go that day – I was an absolute nutcase. And as I was leaving the field [Hibs assistant manager] John Lambie took a swing at me.

“But we all made up later. It was that respect thing…”