Interview: Brian Rice on early years at Hibs, learning under Brian Clough, the Hillsborough tragedy and rewiring houses with Stuart Pearce

Brian Rice has spent so much of his career as an assistant manager but says he is 'loving' life as Hamilton's boss. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
Brian Rice has spent so much of his career as an assistant manager but says he is 'loving' life as Hamilton's boss. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS
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I am always amused by that red double-decker parked at the far end of Hamilton Accies’ ground. It makes me think of the movie that Summer Holiday could have been, if Cliff Richard had drunk something more adventurous than a bottle of pop. So does Brian Rice have any stories about buses? Oh yes he does.

The Accies manager’s father Benny drove them for a living, football specials and also the scheduled service which wound its way through North Lanarkshire, picking up 
Lisbon Lions along the way. John Clark got on at Holytown, Billy McNeill at Bellshill and then it stopped at Viewpark – Jimmy Johnstone’s village. Says Rice: “Jinky was always late but Dad, a big Celtic fan, would tell the rest of the bus: ‘We’re not leaving until the wee man appears.’” I’d heard that Benny sometimes had to vacate his cabin, run up the stair and chap on the wing legend’s door. “Oh quite possibly.” And that the other passengers would mump and moan about being late for their work, with Benny eventually being moved on to another run. “Then that makes it an even better story!”

Young Brian from Whitburn, who would go on to learn from the self-styled greatest-manager-of-all-time-and-who’s-arguing? in Brian Clough and become a Nottingham Forest comedy-cult favourite, started out as a Celtic S-former. “Then I got released on the same day as Pat Nevin and Hibs picked me up. My bus through to Edinburgh left at half-past six in the morning, stopped at West Calder, East Calder and every tree, and took an hour and 20 minutes. Then I had to get a connecting bus to the top of Easter Road and run down to the ground. I had 
to report for 8.45 and was never late. It 
was the buses that got me there on time, not my pace!”

Another bus ferried the players to random training locations. Anywhere that was flat, basically, although sometimes Arthur’s Seat. “The goals would be on the roof and young guys like me had to hang out the windows to hold them down. We had loads of jobs. I had to clean Erich Schaedler’s boots and if they weren’t spotless he’d squash me up against the hot pipes. I never got home until almost eight o’clock at night. John Lambie [part of manager Willie Ormond’s coaching staff] lived in Whitburn but he never gave me a lift. Some folk are surprised when I tell them that but, do you know, rattling through on that No 27 was the best thing that happened to me. I had to fend for myself. My apprenticeship was a tough school but it hardened me and that was good.”

This was the early 1980s so of course millennials didn’t exist and neither did snowflakes. In common with many of his generation – Rice is 55 – he encounters more sensitivity and softness among the young than was prevalent back then. “I tell youth players they have to be on time. They’ll go: ‘Oh, I’ll need to see if my mum can drop me off.’ I’ll say: ‘It’s not your mum that wants to be a footballer, it’s you.’”

Rice’s protégés at Hamilton know nothing of Cloughie which is a shame, for what stories he has to tell about the man. Like Churchillisms and Marxisms (Groucho, not Karl), there are Cloughisms, and in still-compiled lists of them one about Rice figures as high as No 3. “I wouldn’t say he was pale and thin,” Ol’ Big Head remarked of his left-sided midfielder after an away-game stopover, “but the chambermaid in the hotel turned down his bed without realising he was already in it.”

Rice isn’t so thin now but then none of us are. The flash of red hair has gone although inside the baldy heid he hopes to have retained enough insight gained at the feet of the master which can be referenced in his own career as a boss. Continuing on the bus theme, the 55-year-old has gone from clippie to the guy at the wheel. From manager’s assistant to the main man. He spent 22 years as a No 2 at Falkirk, Hibs, Inverness Caley Thistle and latterly St Mirren – mostly alongside John “Yogi” Hughes who he actually rates as funnier than Cloughie – and for a lot of that time thought it was his place in life. He could work on the training ground. He didn’t have to do the grim stuff, like 
telling players their contracts wouldn’t be renewed. Or the tricky stuff such as media duties and talking to the likes of me.

He does well in his office after training
today, only faltering twice, each time 
unsurprisingly. Rice was also an assistant in Qatar, at Al-Khor, when he got into bother with gambling, racking up £65,000 debts from online roulette and facing jail before friends in football came to his aid. Reluctant to rake over this black period, he says: “We’re all made up of different experiences, good and bad. We all have things of which we’re not proud or we’d love to change and I’m no different. I lived through the hell of that time and have put it behind me.”

Rice also lived through Hillsborough, an unused player that fateful day which thrust him into full view of the tragedy. “I was in the main stand with my dad and my wife who was pregnant, just the length of the 18-yard box from the Leppings Lane end. Little kiddies were being crushed. I saw a boy, no more than eight, lying on a hoarding being used as a stretcher.” At this Rice stops, looks up to the light and lets the tears fall. “I went down to the changing-room. The boss asked me what was going on. I said: ‘There’s been fatalities.’ He ordered everyone into the showers: ‘We’re going home.’” For far enough on the journey, fans swarmed round phoneboxes, desperate to relay news of those who’d been lucky and those who hadn’t.

Much of today’s conversation concerns Clough, and Rice is generous with the tales. He talks in modest, often self-deprecating, terms about his abilities as a player. He says that if Hughes was managing right now – the pair once lived together, a situation Rice likens to “Felix and Oscar, The Odd Couple” – he’d be back at his side. So is he managing Hamilton reluctantly? “Oh no, I’m loving it.”

Hamilton are the Scottish Premiership’s great escapologists. Rice may not be able to turn them into Euro champs but he’s determined to achieve more respect for them. “We’re in this league on merit, you know. We haven’t bribed anyone to be here.”

Rice was just 16 when he made his Hibs debut in an Edinburgh derby, the East of Scotland Shield at Tynecastle. “I was a sub, came on late, Ralph Callachan rolled one to me and with my first touch scored in the top corner from 25 yards. We eventually won on penalties.”

That was his only triumph in the derby. Back at Tynecastle later he was struck with a flying pie. “Knives were thrown that day, too. But that was football at the time and you just got on with it. It was a job everyone wanted.”

The audacity of that entrance wasn’t typical either. “As a boy I was shy, introverted. I think maybe my style was misunderstood. Folk would talk about my lazy left foot.” His running technique was clockwork and jittery. “I always hated watching myself on TV.” But he was the standout youngster at a less-than-vintage era at Easter Road, playing for four different managers in relatively quick succession. “Hibs gave me my chance,” he adds. “As a manager myself now I won’t be scared to play kids. I got that break and I’ll never forget it.”

No offence to any of them, but Ormond, Bertie Auld, Pat Stanton and John Blackley couldn’t prepare Rice for Clough. No one could. “Maybe the most unconventional thing any of these guys did was Bertie 
wearing his Lisbon medal to beat us up at five-a-sides.” Mind you, he was no slouch himself at unconventionality, as his flight to Forest demonstrates.

“Even though I was in the Hibs first team I used to have a kickabout in the afternoons, King George V Park in Whitburn with my mates. This time Dad came down. ‘There’s a phonecall for you,’ he said, ‘you’d better
get up the road.’ My first thought was: ‘What have I done?’” The summons came from Ronnie Fenton, Clough’s No 2. At the City Ground Archie Gemmill showed him into the manager’s office. “‘Here’s your new Scotsman,’ Archie said. The boss had his head down at his desk. He looked up and said: ‘Steve Effing Davis.’ Then, not having seen me play, he grilled me: could I run?
Could I head the ball? Was I brave? I answered yes to some of these. Then he phoned Archie Knox, presumably for a final recommendation.”

When was the first indication he was in the presence of an eccentric? “Right away, down on the south coast. I wasn’t playing because the transfer still had to be fixed by a tribunal but after the game he more or less ordered the team on a night out. He shouted me over, handed me a pile of money and said: ‘Scotsman, get the lads a drink.’ I thought I was being tested, that he wanted to find out how honest I was, how greedy.”

After that Clough just got more quirky. “When I came back from the tribunal and told him the fee [£175,000] he said: ‘I’d need to sell the stand to pay for you and I’m not doing that so you’ll have to go.’ I thought he was serious.

“He was nothing like I’d experienced before. At Hibs we trained and trained and ran and ran. At Forest there would be three or four days when the gym was shut and we did nothing. I made my debut in 1985 at Anfield, a Tuesday night. Straight afterwards the boss said: ‘Right, same team on Sunday at Leicester. See you then.’”

Clough’s fabled gambols along the bank of the River Trent with the double European Cup-winning team continued for Rice and the guy who became the latter’s best pal having joined the same day. This was Stuart Pearce, an electrician to trade who asked the boss if he could continue his spark’s duties in the afternoons and was immediately presented with Clough’s faulty kettle. Rice laughs at the memory of their schemes: “Once the job was re-wiring a director’s house and needed someone to burrow around in the attic. So for 50 quid a day I became Psycho’s labourer.”

Forest were a sociable club – very sociable. Players were permitted to drink the night before games, Clough joining them. “If we were away we’d have an Italian meal in Nottingham, glass of wine for everyone. Then at the other end we’d dump our bags at the hotel for three or four half-pints. I wasn’t a drinker when I came to the club so asked the captain, Ian Bowyer: ‘Is this not odd?’ He said it helped the players sleep. It didn’t help me because I’ve been a terrible sleeper all my life.”

He reels off his team-mates, the England internationals Nigel Clough, Neil Webb, Steve Hodge and Des Walker, plus the classy big Dutchman, Johnny Metgod, and then says: “I didn’t believe I belonged among them. I was always self-conscious and a worrier. It was just my nature.” But Clough had a soft spot for him, stressing to Pearce that Rice’s dependability in front of him 
had helped the left-back to his own 
international call-up. “I lived near the
stadium so the boss often phoned me up 
on Wednesdays, our days off, and say: ‘Scotsman, come and watch some cricket with me.’ I’d go to his office and he’d have the beers set up.”

Latterly, Clough became more erratic, the moods sometimes blacker. Rice had 
never known him in partnership with 
Peter Taylor but remembers a game at 
Derby County, the latter’s new club, where Clough bad-mouthed his estranged No 2 in the changing-room, having kept the door open so Taylor would hear. The players were aware of Clough becoming dependent on drink. Joshing with them before 
games would give way to him flinging golf balls at them. Rice played in five ties in 
the run to the 1989 League Cup final but 
was left out of the team for Wembley. He was promised a place in the rearranged semi after Hillsborough and told “Get your dad down” only to be informed on the bus: ‘I’m changing it.” Rice was devastated both times but, hey, that’s football. “He didn’t tell me why I wasn’t playing. 
Brian Clough didn’t have to explain himself, 
certainly not to me.”

Clough’s legend was assured and so, in a funny sort of lesser, semi-ironic way, was Rice’s. His lack of pace and languidness became celebrated by the Forest faithful, all the more so when he outstripped the Arsenal defence in another cup clash at the old Highbury and chipped a fabulous winner. “What I did that day didn’t fit with my personality,” he insists. Nevertheless, to the tune of Yellow Submarine, the chant began: “No 1 is Brian Rice, No 2 is Brian Rice… ” It goes on and on like that, spawning 
tribute shirts with numbers right up to 99 and supporters on fansites appealing for previously-allocated numbers which are special to them. Bemused younger followers have asked: “Was he the George Lazenby of Forest?” Older ones who know the score have reacted to Rice’s various appointments as assistant by asking: “Hang on, surely No 2 can’t be Brian Rice without 
No 1 being Brian Rice first?”

He chuckles at all of this. “Apparently the song still gets sung. I know the fans are having a bit of a laugh but it’s nice to be remembered. I loved my time at Forest and even though I missed out on some big games I was on the bench for the final of the Simod Cup in 1989. We won so I shared in the team’s bonus. We all got a box of chocolates with 
a ten pound note Sellotaped to it!”

So now that Brian Rice is No 1, how does he utilise the Clough experience? “It would be pointless me trying to copy him. He 
was a one-off original and a genius. I think he must have invented reverse psychology.
If I knew I’d played well he’d stop me on the way out: ‘Hey, you’re not as good as you think.’ If I’d had a bad game he’d go: ‘Well done.’

“He improved me as a footballer and I want to do the same for lads at Hamilton so they might eventually move on to better things but at least be fit and healthy, better players and better men.”

That would merit a pat on the back from Ol’ Big Head for his Scotsman, maybe even a kiss.