‘I should never have gone to the World Cup’, says 1978 penalty villain Don Masson
When downsizing from the hotel he owned with his second wife Brenda, to the boutique B&B they currently run in Nottinghamshire, Don Masson decided to sell medals and other souvenirs from a long and eventful career. From the proceeds raised he helped his son, Neil, put a deposit down on a house. And then he bought a hot tub with what was left.
“I am looking at it now,” he says, as he scans his garden, and, beyond it, loamy Nottinghamshire fields.
“It’s like being back in Banchory!” he adds, with reference to the Aberdeenshire town where he lived for the first dozen years of his life prior to his family relocating to the north-East of England.
“As for the hot tub, we bought that 17 years ago,” he continues. “So, the reward for kicking a silly football around for 20 years is that I have somewhere to go after I play tennis.”
He is about to head off to do exactly that at the local tennis club, where he still plays three or four times a week, and so is looking forward to giving his bones a soak later. Now 74, he has learned to be more at peace with himself. He knows, however, there are some aspects of his life, and one moment in particular, he will never be allowed to forget.
As he might reflect now, the Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, sometimes in the space of a matter of months. Later there would be far greater, more profound loss. And then an awakening.
His saved penalty against Peru in the 1978 World Cup is one of Scottish football’s greatest what if? moments. Shortly afterwards, when he was back home considering whether to quit the game, he received a call from a Scottish journalist. Would he like to write a book?
“It was too early, too raw,” he recalls. “I needed longer, wanted more perspective. I would not talk to any reporters after that. They can twist things, you know that.”
He had already given an interview to Mike Langley of the People chronicling what had gone on – and wrong – in Argentina. It earned him a sine die ban from the SFA.
“I would never have played again anyway,” he says. “It was a joke. They were looking for an excuse.”
He hadn’t visited Hampden before his debut against Wales in 1976. He hasn’t been back since the controversial farewell parade prior to heading off on that fateful trip to Argentina.
Masson eventually re-signed for his beloved Notts County, cutting short a spell at Derby County under Tommy Docherty, who ranks somewhat lower in his affections. He wonders if things – Scotland’s World Cup fiasco included – might have turned out differently had he moved to Newcastle United, as was mooted, rather than Derby.
In May 1978, having been placed on the transfer list the previous day, he couldn’t face attending a pre-match meal before the last game of the season v Arsenal and was fined a hefty £500 by Docherty.
The Scotland skipper (Bruce Rioch) and vice-skipper (Masson) were both at Derby at the time and both far from happy.
“He [Docherty] was playing us on and off,” he says. “He made my life a misery. The team we had at Derby, if we had been left to our own devices, would have been successful.
“We had Charlie George, [Roy] McFarland, [Colin] Todd, Bruce and I, Gerry Daly, [Billy] Hughes on the left wing, David Nish.
“It is good for me to get this all out now,” he adds. “I did not realise how bad a state I was in really. I was injured as well. Looking back, I should have said to Ally [MacLeod]: ‘Listen, don’t take me’.”
Staying with Derby post-Argentina simply wasn’t to be borne. Meadow Lane awaited like a comfort blanket. Masson was tasked with completing the job of helping Notts County reach the top flight, which they did in 1980.
Meanwhile, any book plans remained on hold. “How long do you want to wait?” asked that Scottish journalist in the aftermath of Argentina. How’s another 40 years – at least – sound? Masson has now been persuaded to write the story of his life. He is planning a signing event in Banchory later this autumn, Covid-19 restrictions permitting. He still has cousins in nearby Rhynie.
“I am coming up in November, all things being equal,” he says. “I would like to spend a lot of time there. I am not averse to going anywhere in Scotland, if there’s interest.
“I will go anywhere, definitely the Banchory area. Terry tells me the book shop in Banchory already has six orders.”
“Terry” is the ghostwriter, former sports reporter Terry Bowles. He eventually convinced Masson about the worth of the project. Bowles – no relation to the mercurial QPR midfielder Stan, who Masson rates as the best player he ever played with, above even Kenny Dalglish – was woken one morning at 7am by Masson. Yes, the former footballer told him, it was time to face the past.
Still Saying Sorry is the result. The title suggests a tone of self-recrimination and regret. Masson stresses that what occurred in Argentina is not the sole reason he feels the need to apologise. The process of compiling the autobiography has proved as soothing for the soul as any hot tub.
“It’s been very therapeutic,” he says. “Twenty-one chapters, the first seven are the hardest for me – they are to get people interested. They deal with things like what it was like with the players when I was at Notts County. When I see them now my opening gambit is how sorry I was about my behaviour 50 odd years ago.”
“It’s my mouth,” he continues. “I always say to people now, like my grandkids, your mouth is the strongest weapon you have in your body. Once you have said something you cannot retract it. I am very, very careful now with what I say. But back then I was impetuous. I was young, inexperienced. I didn’t think before I said things.”
A lot of this pent-up frustration dates to when he was a teenager growing up in Middlesbrough – his father, who had a hole in his heart, moved the family there because the local council had less stringent health rules for bus drivers than were then in place in Aberdeen. Masson got busy cleaning Brian Clough’s boots while an apprentice at Ayresome Park.
“Once I got to the level I felt I should have been at, it was OK,” he says. There were, however, victims on the way, dust-ups in training. Masson wonders whether his son might have made it as a footballer – he played to county level – had there been more of a devil in him. “I always said you have to be a bit of a b to be a success,” ponders Masson.
“Still, that is no excuse for some of my behaviour, which comes over in the book. The book deals with the good and the bad, that’s what I wanted to get across.
“It was not all rosy. Far from it. But the end product, what my team-mates saw on the field, I like to think it made it all worthwhile.”
Imagine once playing for the world’s oldest professional football club, formed in the 1860s. And then when the club, namely Notts County, asked fans to vote the greatest player during all that time, from the thousands who wore the black and white stripes, the inspiration for Juventus, coming out top among all others.
“Not bad for a teuchter from Banchory!” says Masson, an artful midfielder.
And imagine skippering that club to three promotions, from the fourth division to the old first, something which remains a unique achievement in the annals of the English game.
And imagine, despite all this, despite also being a member of the great QPR team that came so close to lifting the English title in 1975-76, eventually finishing a point behind champions Liverpool, having your life defined by… two penalty kicks. One scored, one missed – or at least stopped.
It’s not as if Masson did anything differently. The kicks were almost identical. The crux of the matter lay in the decision of one goalkeeper to dive one way, another the other way.
Now a committed, if far from preachy, Christian, Masson might even attribute what befell him against Peru, when his failure to score from 12 yards helped send a nation into therapy, to a raw form of higher justice. After all, was it not Joe Jordan who hoodwinked the referee into giving the award against Wales in the World Cup qualifier, even having the audacity to clench a fist in delight when the penalty was given for handball against David Jones?
An Anfield full house, the majority from Scotland, held its breath. The nerveless Masson, the bold Masson, with photographers huddled so close to the action it seemed like they were in the back of the net, got on with the job of ensuring the ball joined them there. He placed his shot to Dai Davies’ right and saw the keeper head the other way, helpless.
A Dalglish header augmented a night of nights but it was Masson whose contribution proved critical in sending the Scots to Argentina, for better or for worse.
“I texted my son yesterday, who lives in Koh Samui, an island off Thailand, I told him I was doing an interview, and I told him, as a father does, I was so proud of him,” says Masson, who also has a daughter, Jayne, based in Spain.
“He texted me back: ‘And I am so proud of you. Forget the penalty miss’. I said: ‘If only I could’. There is not a day goes by when I think what might have happened. We would have gone on to the next stage of the World Cup, I am positive we would have.”
He has never watched it back.
“Neil, bless him, said: ‘remember there was the penalty at Anfield’. I went to the same side as against Wales. The Peru keeper [Ramon Quiroga] had obviously done his homework.”
Masson was broken. “You can’t get away from it. I am infamously known for that penalty, not the one at Anfield. At least I am remembered.”
However, worse, far worse, was to come. Within the space of three years he lost his first wife, Margaret, after a brain aneurysm at the age of only 39, and both his parents, Jock (heart attack) and Babs (cancer).
And then his best friend, Arthur Mann, the former Hearts left-back and team-mate of Masson at Notts County, was killed aged only 51 in an accident while driving a forklift in a factory in Birmingham.
What was that about wanting to gain some perspective? Grief-stricken, Masson turned to God as a comfort. He is no bible-thumper, he has no wish to convert anything other than that penalty against Peru. All he can show to people is the way in which he has changed for the better and let them make up their own mind.
“I have been given a second chance,” he says. “I mean, If I can change… well, the Lord has changed me. I don’t preach or anything.
“I used to give testimony. I have been back at clubs where people can see what I was like then and what I am like now. That is the only way I can live my life. I have been given a second chance.”
The work he does is the Lord’s work, almost literally so. He cuts the grass in the local churchyard. He doesn’t watch much football now but it’s not as if he hides the fact he was a footballer, a brilliant one at that, with 85 goals in 295 appearances for Notts County, and five in 17 caps for Scotland – including the “other” goal, a bullet header, in the 2-1 win over England in 1976, when Kenny Dalglish put the ball through Ray Clemence’s legs.
Some old photographs adorn the dining room of The Grange, in the Vale of Belvoir. One even captures one of the last moments of his former life, before Don Masson, then nearly 32 – too old for the rigours of a South American World Cup, according to some – failed to convert a spot-kick to put Scotland 2-1 up in Cordoba. The Scots, after leading 1-0, fell to a 3-1, Teofilo Cubillas-inspired defeat.
“It’s me, Ally, Archie [Gemmill] and Scruff [Alan Rough],” he says, describing the photograph. “We are on the pitch in our tracksuits before the game.”
A conversation stopper over breakfast if ever there was one.
“And which game is that from, Don?”
“Ah… Is there any more butter?”
Masson takes it all in his stride. But, self-critical to a fault, he admits to having flashbacks as he carries full English breakfast plates out to his guests.
Not only Peru, there’s a chance he failed to take in Wrexham against Wales in May 1977 that still haunts him. “I can see it now in my mind’s eye,” he says. “The ball came out, I smacked it in from six yards out against the bar, instead of just tapping it in. Things like that. I can still see it now.”
“They [the guests] have always been fantastic,” he continues. “It is only me. It’s there to my dying day, I apologise but I just cannot do anything about it. There I am, still saying sorry!
“No-one is bothered about me being a footballer,” he continues. “OK, if they are football-orientated, I will spend time with them and have a crack with them. But 99 per cent of people who come to stay know nothing about football, which is brilliant for me, and they treat me as an equal.
“It’s lovely for me to be treated that way. If I meet them at the front gate, I am just the gardener: ‘Go round the back, the boss [Brenda] will look after you – I am just the gofer!’
“This is the real world I am in now,” he says, politely drawing our conversation to a close.
“I now have to go upstairs, get all sheets down because the guests have just gone. This is what I am now, the laundry man.” And as he knows, everything comes out in the wash.
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