Interview: Eddie Gray on why SFA must stay at Hampden - ‘our mecca’

Scotland's Eddie Gray holds off Wales' Malcolm Page (left) Eddie Gray holds off Wales' Malcolm Page in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden in 1976. Picture: SNS
Scotland's Eddie Gray holds off Wales' Malcolm Page (left) Eddie Gray holds off Wales' Malcolm Page in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden in 1976. Picture: SNS
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Eddie Gray well remembers his first visit to the home of Scottish football as a teenage prodigy. He was representing Glasgow Schools in a game against Queen’s Park, a fixture which was booked for Lesser Hampden although there was nothing reduced about the day’s 
experience for the famous wingman.

“Before kick-off me and my best pal Jimmy Lumsden wandered across to the main stadium which was deserted,” he recalls. “We ended up in what looked like the boardroom where there was a massive spread of sandwiches and cakes. We assumed they were for us – just for this pair of chancers, mind, because we didn’t bother telling our team-mates – and scoffed the lot. In fact, the spread was for the Queen’s Park boys. They weren’t too happy when they found out it was gone.”

Gray’s latest visit to Mount Florida comes next week. “My mother has just moved into a nursing home across the road from Hampden. Last month I was helping her pack up in Castlemilk. She was finally leaving the house where I grew up at the grand old age of 96. No 14 Cavin Drive – I remember playing football round the back as if it was yesterday. She showed me a suitcase full of newspaper cuttings from my career that I didn’t know she’d kept. ‘Gray to be next captain of Scotland’ – stuff like that. Maybe when I’m up to see Mum’s new place I should call in at Hampden. They might have a wee bun for me!”

They might, or Hampden might not be Hampden anymore. Still there but not the same. Not for much longer the home of Scottish football, if the powers-that-be decide that in future internationals should be played at Murrayfield. Gray for one would be sad about that.

“Hampden is iconic,” he says. “The history of our game is wrapped up in the place. It was a terrific thrill to play there the first time and something I’ll never forget.” He’s not talking about the schoolboys game now but his home debut as a full international, the 1969 World Cup qualifier against Cyprus, 8-0 to us, with the 21-year-old on the left flank starting the goal blitz.

Mind you, Gray’s second game was pretty memorable as well. On 15 April, 1970 he was one of the stars of the Leeds United team which took on Celtic in the Battle of Britain for a place in the European Cup final. The astonishing attendance that night is part of the 
history: 136,505.

“Bobby Lennox said he’d never seen a bigger sea of faces and I agreed with him,” adds Gray, who celebrated his 70th birthday this year. “You looked up and it was never-ending. And big Billy McNeill has always maintained that the crowd was even bigger than the official figure, maybe 150,000. I don’t know how he knows but I’d agree with that too. What a noise those people made. Do you know that before the game the away dressing-room was actually vibrating?”

Now, I’ve never needed much excuse to look up Nice Guy Eddie. The last time we talked he was driving me back to the station in Leeds and, spotting Peter Lorimer in the street and knowing I would want to meet him, screeched his car to a halt. I ended up missing my train but that was an unforgettable two-legends-for-the-price-of-one day.

Hampden’s uncertain fate seems like a good enough reason to catch up with a player who shimmered, phantom-like, over the cabbage patches and gluepots which passed for playing surfaces in his era, although lucky Elland Road saw the very best of him. Don Revie, who spirited him south, swore blind that when he played in snow he never left any footprints. It’s 55 years since Gray left Scotland for the Yorkshire Dales but it’s pleasing to report, as he chats down the line from Majorca where he’s on holiday with his wife Linda, that the Castlemilk accent has never left him. A centre-half like McNeill is still a “centre-hauf”. The other centre-hauf in the Battle of Britain was of course Jack Charlton. “Jackie couldn’t believe the number of people in the ground that night or the noise they were making. I remember him turning to Norman Hunter and saying: ‘What’s going on here?’ Or words to that effect!” Gray, you see, never swears.

Hampden is a special place for our man, no doubt about that. “I reckon I was first was taken there by my dad in 1954. The Scottish Cup final, Celtic-Aberdeen, and the crowd if I’m not wrong was 130,000-plus that day as well [130,060, to be precise]. I was at the Celtic-Hearts final [1956] and saw the great Dave Mackay. Later I got to play against Dave when he was at Derby County. He steamed right into me, but at least he warned me he was going to do it. These finals were wonderful occasions in a magnificent arena for football. And if Scotland were ever playing at Hampden in the afternoon, which sometimes happened, Jimmy Lumsden and I would skip the school, jump on the back of a lorry and go and watch Denis Law. I was also at the greatest game of them all – Real Madrid vs Eintracht Frankfurt [1960 European Cup final]. I got a ‘lift-over’ for that one.”

As a player, in his pomp but injured, he continued to visit as a fan. “I was there to see Joe score that header against Czechoslovakia [1973, World Cup qualifier]. I was with Peter and Gordon [McQueen] and a pal who’d driven us up. When the goal went in we all jumped up and our mate lost his car keys. We had to get a taxi back to Leeds.

“It’s Hampden’s size that was so special, the fact you were never in it when there was less than 100,000 other guys. Listen, I know the capacity has been reduced. I know we’ll never get such big crowds again. I know the upkeep is expensive. But it’s our mecca and I don’t think we should be giving it up.”

Because he never played for a Scottish club, we had to be alert to catch TV glimpses of Gray in the all-white of Leeds, and this added to his ghostly aura. His most-rewound clips came from a game in England’s old First Division 11 days before the big match at Hampden when Burnley were Elland Road’s visitors.

Gray’s first goal – a 40-yard chip over a goalkeeper who’d strayed from his line – was exceptional but the one which proved the winner was out of this world. How many men did he beat in that dream-like dribble beginning down by a corner flag before firing into the net? Four, or was it five? Maybe six if you count team-mate Albert Johanneson lying in the penalty-box having been injured earlier in the play. “Ach, it just evolved,” he says with typical modesty. “My first thought was: ‘Can I keep the ball in play?’ Then I beat one, then another, and you know the rest.”

Identified as a special talent back in those cake-snaffling days, Gray, who was christened Edwin, had 35 clubs chasing his signature, narrowly beating his golfing buddy Lorimer in the latter’s Broughty Ferry where the tailback of managers and scouts’ cars stretched to 30. Gray in 1963 was wanted by English champions Everton, FA Cup winners Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham and boyhood heroes Celtic among others but Revie and Leeds, then of the Second Division, had already stolen a march. “I didn’t know who they were. I actually thought they were called Leeks United and might have been Welsh. I was 14 when I went down for trials around Christmas 1962. There was snow on the ground and a big centre-hauf blocking my way. I nutmegged him and he spun round and booted me up the backside. It was Jackie.”

Revie, on the other hand, turned on the charm, impressing Gray’s parents, Edward and Helen, as well. With all those big rivals circling, the boss made regular trips to Castlemilk, Europe’s largest housing estate, to check on his future left-winger. “One time he was sweet-talking my folks there was a knock at the door so he dived into their bedroom to hide. It was [Chelsea manager] Tommy Docherty. Don actually signed me illegally while I was still at school and promised to keep the forms in his drawer. Maybe he got nervous about the competition because he suddenly told me I had to pack my bags. He came with me to school, had a word with the headmaster, and that was me gone without having sat any exams. But Don was brilliant. He was the reason I joined Leeds. I just thought: I believe in this man and this club are going places.” Gray ended up staying his whole career – 17 years and 772 games.

Jimmy Lumsden was part of the same Castlemilk intake and there were plenty of Scots already at the club to make Gray feel at home. Well, sort of. For the cross-country challenge at training he was in Bobby Collins’ team. When he allowed himself to be done out of first place by the ageing but crafty ex-Airdrieonian Jim Storrie, Collins was raging. “Aye, he chinned me,” laughs Gray. But without Collins’ oxy-acetylene exhortations, he reckons, Leeds might never have got anywhere.

When Collins eventually ran out of gas, Billy Bremner took over this key role and Gray is still chuckling as he recalls an everyday ritual at Elland Road with his captain and countryman ensuring that even lunchtimes were competitive. “After training we all piled over the road to Sheila’s Cafe and tossed coins to find the poor sucker who would foot the entire bill. There were normally 15 of us so it could be pricey. But if it was a Scot who ended up losing the toss Billy would just have a cup of tea. If it was an Englishman he’d order three courses and then request three Kit-Kats – one for himself and one each of the kids back at home.”

Gray made his first-team debut on New Year’s Day, 1966. It was a surprise call-up so he was glad that his younger brother Frank, a future Leeds and Scotland star like him but then just ten and down from Castlemilk for the holidays, was able to see him open with a goal from a midfield berth. “I wasn’t a winger; Don converted me.” And although the team was bursting with big personalities and internationals including Bremner, Charlton, Lorimer, Hunter and Johnny Giles, Revie would soon be starting every teamsheet with “No 11 – E. Gray.”

Carpet bowls and bingo fostered what we now call team bonding and Revie always sent the wives and children cards and presents on birthdays. He assembled a formidable unit, sometimes a fearsome and ferocious one, prompting the bon mot, Dirty Leeds, although Nice Guy Eddie was never sent off or even booked. Under Revie he won two titles and the FA, League and Inter-Cities Fairs Cups, though injuries would restrict him to just 12 appearances for his country. A long-standing thigh problem necessitating five operations would prompt Revie’s short-lived successor Brian Clough to quip that if Gray was a racehorse he’d have been put down long before. “That was my one big regret, not being able to play more for Scotland, because I loved pulling on that dark blue jersey.” In 1976 he had the satisfaction of beating England on a joyous Hampden afternoon and for his final appearance helped the team on the way to Argentina with a victory over Wales.

Gray’s standout season was probably ’69-’70 when Leeds were going for the treble of league, FA Cup and European Cup only to finish empty-handed. “Between the two ties with Celtic, Everton pipped us for the league, Paul Reaney suffered a broken leg and we were four minutes from winning the FA Cup when Chelsea equalised [and the Blues would go on to win the replay]. Nevertheless we went up to Hampden confident we could win, and that was despite being one-nil down from the first leg.”

Among the sea of faces that historic night – a record crowd for a European tie which will never be beaten – were Gray’s parents and Frank who was then a Celtic ballboy. Gray might at one time have wished to be lining up in the green and white hoops, something his son Stuart would achieve, but there he was, face to face with Jimmy Johnstone: a big yin and a wee yin, the two finest wingers in the land, in a classic contest of line-hugging and shoulder-dropping. “We thought we should have won at Elland Road but Celtic played well and wee Jimmy was exceptional. Then at Hampden he was sensational. I know Jock [Stein, Celtic manager] is supposed to have told his players that Don was dead nervous before the game but that was probably kidology on the big man’s part. We took the lead and maybe Billy [Bremner] never struck a better shot. But Celtic came right back at us.

“Of course the crowd played their part. Only about 5,000 Leeds fans made the trip but they couldn’t be heard and I don’t know if there’s ever been a team in football who’ve had 130,000 people willing them to win. It was disappointing to lose – and all we ended up with that season were loads of condolences – but that was a fantastic contest between two fine teams and one of Hampden’s greatest nights. I think back to it a lot and when I come up next week I’ll be remembering that dressing-room and how we wondered if the walls might have been about to fall down.”