Henry Hall on why beating Hamburg is still St Johnstone’s greatest day

Saints legend recalls his best Muirton Park moment and shrugging off fans’ ‘baldy’ jibes

Henry Hall in St Johnstone kit at the beginning of the 1971-72 campaign. Picture: SNS

Half a century ago, Henry Kissinger was throwing his weight around in the Vietnam War, Henry Cooper was throwing his around in the boxing ring and I’m Henry VIII, I Am had just sent Herman’s Hermits shooting to the top of the American pop charts. Then there was Henry Hall.

The St Johnstone footballer was nothing like as demonstrative and went about his work quietly, but what work it was. He was a small, compact, prolific and dead-eyed forward from the great and constantly-thrumming Scottish assembly-line, until someone mucked about with the settings. It is good to be speaking to him today, and to find him as modest as ever.

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When I sing the old Muirton Park refrain down the line, “We all agree, Henry is better than anyone”, I’m imagining some blushing before he says: “I’ve always maintained it was my mum and dad who started up that chant. So there were two people at least who didn’t mump and moan at me.”

Henry Hall, the then Montrose manager, at Links Park in the summer of 2005. Picture: Alan Harvey/SNS

This is Hall on his failure to win a full Scotland cap: “That would have been nice but I wasn’t too bothered. Don’t forget, the country had a lot of good players at the time. I played twice for the Scottish League and so was pleased to get some recognition.”

And this is him on his failure to earn a big move to England like the other members of the Perth goalscoring trident, John Connolly and Jim Pearson: “I was told by a journalist once that Bill Nicholson, the manager of Spurs, was looking at me but nothing happened. That would have been interesting but I was happy at 
St Johnstone; we had a good team playing exciting football. When John and Jim got their moves I was pleased for them. They were way more talented than me.”

Now he’s being too modest but Hall was a quiet-living fellow in his 114-goal Saints heyday and still is now, aged 75, and happiest in his garden in Monifieth. When I ask if there was good camaraderie among the team he thinks I’m fishing for tales of over-refreshment. “Some of the guys would go out on the town but I was always straight home. The manager had his ears to the ground, though, and seemed to know when there had been a night out. The next day at training he’d go: ‘Right, double-session.’ Those who’d been drinking would be raging. Usually it was the Glasgow-based boys.”

The manager of course was the canny Willie Ormond, fond of a morning snifter himself at a friend’s hotel just outside Perth before rounding up his charges, who would go on to boss Scotland after stirring efforts at Muirton. In 1969-70 St Johnstone ran Jock Stein’s Celtic close in the League Cup final and the following season bumped Rangers down to fourth in the old First Division. This must have shocked the Ibrox side having been runners-up to Celtic five years in a row. Eddie Turnbull’s Aberdeen claimed second in ’70-’71 and while the Dons and Dundee United both went on to win the title, and Hearts and Hibernian succeeded in splitting the Old Firm later, that bronze-medal position achieved by the Saintees is remarkable because, of all the contenders, they were the most provincial and to some – Glasgow’s Big Two mainly – the most diddyish.

It seems a good idea to be calling Hall for a chat for a number of reasons. Ormond turned up on TV the other night in a re-run of his Scotland team hammering Brazil 0-0 at the 1974 World Cup. With Tommy Wright having stepped down as St Johnstone manager, the club are entering a new era. As the football-starved everywhere turn to the Bundesliga there’s an excuse – though one isn’t really needed – to recall the night Hall & Co dumped top German opposition out of Europe. Also – and I’m not quite sure how to raise this – does our man as a 
follicly-challenged footballer have sympathy for David Beckham whose hair loss seems to have stunned those for whom a global pandemic isn’t sufficient drama?

In the end Hall, married to Janice with two grown-up sons, raises it himself when he recalls his goal celebration: “The first thing I did after scoring was thank the guy who’d made the pass. You don’t see that so much now; most scorers are ‘Me, me, me!’. Usually John was the supplier. I had to go to him to keep the peace. He could get quite grumpy if he’d beaten three men leaving me with a tap-in – understandably so. Then I’d run back to halfway where our captain, Benny Rooney would go ‘Well done, wee man’ and ruffle my hair. That’s why I went bald!

“I must say I missed that story
about Beckham. Footballers these days are so vain, aren’t they? I tried to copy Bobby Charlton’s comb-over but it didn’t do anything for my long-range shooting. And of course I got shouts of ‘Baldy, baldy’.” He mentions Luke Chadwick, the Manchester United player who revealed this week how jibes about his looks on the BBC panel show They Think It’s All Over left him depressed, a problem which brought apologies from Gary Lineker and the comedian Nick Hancock. “Mental health? You didn’t hear about that in my day. I wonder if some folk maybe bring it on themselves. Fans can be cruel, though, and jump on the slightest wee thing. The chants never bothered me – and they used to call me ‘Big-nose’ as well.”

Confession-time: I’d never heard of Bothkennar, the Forth Valley hamlet where Hall was born. “It got swallowed up by Skinflats,” he says, making the village near Falkirk with one of the great comedy place-names sound like a rapacious conurbation. He used to get asked if he was named after the old dance-band leader. The son of a motor mechanic, he was taken to Brockville to witness the final flourishes of John White before “The Ghost” took flight to Spurs (“A beautiful player”). In common with many boys of his generation he played football from dusk until dawn. Good at maths, he landed a job in the old national Commercial Bank while turning out on the left wing for Kirkintilloch Rob Roy.

On the right flank at Kirky was another likely lad, Tony Green, who’d go on to become a Newcastle United favourite and win six Scotland caps. The lives of these two chimed. Both combined further education with football when they went part-time with senior teams, Hall studying physical education at Jordanhill College as a Stirling Albion protege. And both devoted themselves to teaching after hanging up their boots with Hall speaking just as warmly of his time in the profession as he does football.

Indeed, it’s the one time he gets really effusive. “I loved teaching,” he says. “My first job was Larbert High, my old school, so it was funny walking back into the building as a member of staff. I taught in the Raploch and Easterhouse –they were lively places. At Falkirk High one of the kids was Jim Pearson so I got advance notice of him. Full-time at St Johnstone meant I had to give up a regular post but after training, when some of the guys were down the bookies, I helped out at schools with their swimming galas. As soon as I went back to part-time with Dundee United I got another post and by the end I’d done 20 years at Rockwell High in Dundee, finishing up as head of PE. I had a passion for sport, tried to pass that on to the kids and it was a thrill to see them develop. A couple at Rockwell went on to play hockey for Scotland and the under-16s football team won the Scottish Cup with Bobby Mann the set-piece specialist. Great times.”

So, did he perhaps prefer teaching to football? “There might have been moments when I did but that St Johnstone team were special. I was grateful for being able to enjoy both.” Before the Saintees with the Binos, top-flight back then but usually battling relegation, there was a 1-0 victory over Celtic in 1966 with 17,000 squeezed into Annfield. And while he might have been Henry Hall from Bothkennar, near Skinflats, he did manage to pack in some interesting foreign excursions, beginning that same year with the first visit to Japan by a British team.

“The story about that trip is Southampton were offered it first but declined, and Stirling were next on the alphabetical list. We played two games against a Japanese select and there must have been 80,000 watching both times. On the way we stopped off in Tehran and took on the Iran national team. And there was even a game before that, in Athens against AEK. I missed that one because of college exams and caught up with the guys later. I’ll never forget my taxi journey from the airport, weaving through six lanes at 80mph. As I’ve told you I’m one for my home comforts. That was me at my most terrified.”

Hall joined St Johnstone in 1968, a record £15,000 signing. He chuckles at the amount but admits the move was a step-up which caused him some apprehension. Alex Rennie was a friendly Forth Valley face and Hall got on well with the boss. “Willie wasn’t a great tactician; with him it was all about players. Finding the right ones, gelling them into a team and making the system fit them. We played 4-4-2, it worked a treat and he rightly gets the credit. He wasn’t one for big speeches but a very good man-manager.”

More old team-mates are reeled off: Willie Coburn (“The local hero”), John Lambie (“Underrated, and just as comical as a player as he was a manager), Ian McPhee (“Beautiful left foot”), Buck McGarry (“If someone needed to be hit hard, Buck was your man”). Up front Kenny Aird, Freddie Aitken and Gordon Whitelaw were all sterling contributors, the latter having a story-and-a-half to regale the grandkids with: “Did I ever tell you about the night I stunned the Bernabeu with a 30-yarder?”

This was a friendly in 1971 and another of Hall’s unlikely jaunts. “Real Madrid had a few weeks between the end of their season and playing Chelsea in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final. As we were already booked for a club holiday in Spain we got asked to help them tick over. We led at half-time but unfortunately we died in the heat and they won 3-1.”

The Spanish trip was a reward for that third place, clinched with a rare Saintees win at Ibrox, an achievement which brought Uefa Cup football – and Hamburg – to Muirton the following season. These were two games which greatly enhanced the reputations of Connolly and Pearson, scorers in the former game and latter one respectively, and the pair would go on to near identical careers down south with Everton and Newcastle United.

Both tall and long-haired, they get these testimonies from the wee yin with the flyaway strands who played in between them: “Jim was gangly, excellent in the air, good football brain, a nicer guy you couldn’t meet. John was silky, wonderful movement with a lovely drop of the shoulder and the best we had.”

But Hall’s forgetting something. He netted against Hamburg, too. “Oh yes,” he says. And Rangers. “Did I? I don’t really remember many of my goals. A 25-yarder which sailed into the net against Falkirk sticks in the mind because they were my team as a boy and I hardly scored any from outside the box. It was great to finish third and beating Hamburg was fantastic. We lost 2-1 over there but thought we had a chance in the return. Willie Ormond as usual didn’t say much before kick-off but taking on guys who’d played in World Cups for West Germany at a packed Muirton didn’t need any build-up.”

At this Hall signs off. He wishes St Johnstone well in their recruitment of a replacement for Tommy Wright. Following the latter’s reign will be tough – “They’re a difficult club to manage because the money isn’t there” – but the Hall era still looms large, too.

It’s as close as he gets to blowing his own trumpet when he says: “My team are old blokes who meet up once a year for a reminisce and we’re down to eight of us left. I think the chairman and some of the fans get a bit peeved when it’s said that the Ormond side were the best. Younger supporters will argue that winning the Scottish Cup was St Johnstone’s greatest day but I’m sorry, I can’t see past Hamburg, three-nil to us.”

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