Bruce Cleland comes on the line. “I’ve only just finished the counselling sessions, too…” He knew the call was likely to come. As soon as he was informed of a Scottish Cup draw that had pitched Stranraer against Celtic, he had, like a James Bond villain, been expecting me.
Regret, like love, has an eloquence of its own. This is what I wrote in 2001, having met Cleland for the first time, in the countdown to the last clash between the teams.
But Cleland has since been reminded that missing a penalty, the rebound and then an open goal all on the same afternoon against Celtic at Celtic Park on his last ever appearance in senior football isn’t the end of the world. It just felt like it at the time as little Stranraer, then bottom of the Second Division, came so near to humbling a Celtic side celebrating their centenary season.
Even back in January 1988, Cleland was a few years into a career in the aviation industry. He had already reached the decision that playing part-time football for Stranraer did not dovetail with his work commitments in London, nor, at £25 a week, was it as financially rewarding, hence his decision to hang up his boots, aged just 29.
“Stranraer wanted me to stay,” he recalls. “But I said no, I am finishing on such and such date, which happened to be a Scottish Cup tie v Keith.
“We won 6-2, I scored a hat-trick. What a way to sign-off! It was about five minutes to five in the dressing-room, and I was getting dried. The chairman says: ‘Oh we’ve just drawn Celtic, stay for the Celtic game’.”
It proved a game too far. Part-time Stranraer did well enough. Frank McAvennie, who had recently returned to Celtic in a £750,000 deal from West Ham United, scored after six minutes.
But Stranraer were the ones who grew stronger. Shortly after half-time, they earned a penalty. Cleland struck it low to Pat Bonner’s right, which he now knows is the way the Celtic goalkeeper always dived.
Bonner blocked the effort and Cleland skied the rebound. Worse followed. In the dying moments of not just this particular game but also his football career, Cleland wrapped his foot around the ball after it had broken to him on the edge of the six-yard box. With Bonner stranded to the right, some have described it as an open goal.
Cleland just remembers thinking how well he had struck the shot.
“I will always remember the ball whizzing back past me,” he says. “It must have landed about 25 yards behind me, I’d hit it so well.” The shot, well struck though it was, had bashed back off the bar. Stranraer lost 1-0. When a journalist later asked manager Alex McAnespie to confirm the match had been Cleland’s last, he reportedly replied: “I hope so”.
Cleland hasn’t even attended a match since heading to Stair Park in 2001, when Stranraer were last drawn to play Celtic. He was running his own business, driving a Mercedes convertible. Life was good.
Cleland watched Celtic win in rather more straightforward fashion, 4-1. “We had some lunch, did a wee pub crawl in Stranraer,” he remembers. “I was trying to keep a wee bit of anonymity. But one of the boys who was with us kept saying: ‘do you know who this is?’ I was terrified I might get an awful reception. But everyone was so nice.”
It felt like the closing of a chapter. But a more serious challenge than processing a missed penalty awaited him. Just a few months later, the horrifying events of 9/11 led to a downturn in the aviation industry, which meant Cleland’s business, trading aircraft parts, collapsed almost overnight.
“We lost everything,” he recalls. “Not only did we lose everything, the industry I was involved in went into free-fall, so I couldn’t get a job back in it.”
He retreated to the bar of a local hotel near to Rachel House, a children’s hospice in Kinross. “For three or four months I was almost in a state of grief with the situation, drinking far too much,” he recalls. “Gail, my wife, a typical Fifer, said: ‘give yourself a shake, this will either beat you or you will beat it’.”
One afternoon in the bar he got talking to a stranger, a Motherwell fan – the team Cleland once played for. “Turns out he had two boys in the hospice with leukaemia. Teenagers. That’s it. I gave myself a shake. That afternoon I put on my suit and went and got a job with a Ford dealership. Within six months I was promoted.”
Now he is a sales executive at the John Clark Jaguar garage in Perth, where last month he received a Motherwell FC yearbook in which he features, dating from the First Division championship-winning season of 1981-82, as a secret Santa gift. It is a reminder that any review of Cleland’s football career should not be treated as a lament.
After all, the £40,000 Albion Rovers were paid in 1979 when Cleland left to join Ally MacLeod’s Motherwell is to this day the highest transfer fee received by the Coatbridge club. Looking around the showroom where we met yesterday, this sum could still let you drive away in a nifty set of wheels.
Even now, aged 57, Cleland is comforted by the knowledge he can seize his chance when it matters, whatever happened one afternoon against Celtic over quarter of a century ago.
“We have just came back from a holiday in Dubai spent lying by a pool,” he recalls. “I saw this wee kid walking round the pool with the nanny 20 feet behind. I was having a drink watching this scene unfold. The pool is the deepest in Dubai, about 15 feet. Next minute, the kid was head over heels in the pool. I was in the water within seconds, dived down and got him, pulled him back up.
“We gave him a shake, he was fine in the end. Turned out he was the son of a rich family, so we drank free for the whole holiday. Gail was like: ‘I have never seen you move so fast’. But you don’t think. It’s like when the ball breaks to you, you don’t think. It’s instinct.
“Sometimes it goes for you,” he adds. “Sometimes it doesn’t.”