Willie Donachie on how football and philosophy saved his life, how he dragged Manchester City back from oblivion and how he beat England at Wembley

Fancy a quote from War and Peace? Thought you might. “One must believe in the possibility of happiness in order to be happy, and now I believe in it,” wrote Leo Tolstoy. “Let the dead bury the dead, but while I’m alive, I must live and be happy.”

Willie Donachie before a Scotland Under-23 international in 1972. Back with the big team five years later is the win he treasures most.

Now, imagine Willie Donachie, Scotland’s classy left-back from the 1970s, with his head deep in that giant walloper of a novel - all 587,287 words - on the Manchester City team bus. “The very fact I was reading a book at all amused the rest of the guys while they all played cards,” he laughs. “One or two of them will have thought I was a bit weird but, you know, happiness is the great quest. We’re all looking for it.”

Donachie contributed to that very Scottish form of happiness - the bittersweet kind, the three minutes of Dreamland kind - with our ’78 World Cup victory over Holland. And he helped send the Tartan Army into delirium after one of our most famous wins over England. As the current team are warming up for the Auld Enemy in the Euros with a friendly next Wednesday against the Dutch, I thought he’d make a good subject. But I’d no idea how good.

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Made in Castlemilk

Donachie was 12 years a player at Manchester City and as a coach helped rescue them from the third tier.

Donachie’s journey took him from the Gorbals to Gandhi. From a family tragedy to spiritual curiosity. He brought his passion for meditation into the self-styled most macho dressing-room in the land. He’s coached everywhere from Antigua to Accrington Stanley. Meanwhile tonight, as Man City bid for the greatest prize in club football, he’ll be taking charge of Montserrat in a World Cup qualifier, still questing and still in love with the game which he says helped “save” him.

The 69-year-old’s story begins in a tenement single end. “It was me, my mum and dad and three sisters but I was lucky: as the first son I was a little bit spoiled in that wee room.” His father, also Willie, was a lorry driver - “He delivered fish, so we’d got plenty off of the back, but it also meant he was quite smelly” - and then when the future 35-cap international was six and with the slum clearances gathering apace, the family were decanted to Castlemilk.

“That was fabulous for children - being so close to the countryside we could spend all our days running in fields and playing in woods - though not so good for the parents. There were 100,000 in Castlemilk but no amenities and not one pub. For Glaswegians, just imagine … ”

He remembers a rite of passage: “Not long after we moved there I was huckled up the close into the back green. There were about 50 fifty kids in a circle and a lad in the middle wearing boxing gloves. Someone put a pair on me and everyone started chanting: ‘Fight, fight, fight!’ Years later, I must have been 15, I was stopped in the street. It was my opponent that day. He said: ‘You made my nose bleed.’”

Willie Donachie ahead of the ill-fated 1978 World Cup.

Donachie jokes that Glasgow’s gang culture and the religion rammy were good for his sprinting but by 15 he was planning his escape and the following year would be at Manchester City’s old Maine Road. “Did I have it tough in Castlemilk? No more than any other boy. No one had a TV or access to music or even a phone. I’ve coached youths and they’re amazed by that.” Maybe Castlemilk encourages an interest in social history. “Did you know that in the early 1900s there were six posts a day? Though this was in London and probably just for posh folk.

A family tragedy and turning to philosophy

“Another thing about kids’ football now: every dad is on the touchline. Even the nice ones are bringing a subtle pressure to bear on their boys. In my day I’d come back from a match and if we’d lost my dad would tell me I was never going to be a player and when we’d won 7-0 he’d go: ‘Who were the other team - the Blind Asylum?’ In my day we played on black ash and I didn’t see a grass pitch until I went to secondary school. Now I really do sound like an old git, don’t I?”

But Donachie must have had it harder than many because his mother Jessie died when he was 12. “She suffered from diabetes and was a heavy smoker. There wasn’t the health care for someone like her back then and for my dad there wasn’t counselling or anything like that. He found it really difficult bringing us up on his own and like many folk around us he would drink to forget.”

Willie Donachie in action for Scotland during their stunning but ultimately doomed 3-2 win over Holland at the 1978 World Cup. Rene van der Kerkhof, left, and Wim Jansen are the Dutch players. Picture: Colorsport/Shutterstock

The loss of his mum prompted a lot of soul-searching which continues to this day. “How long have we got, Aidan?” he laughs when we embark on this segment of the conversation. “As I say, at the heart has been the search for happiness. I think I’ve always been curious about the big questions. What are we here for? What’s life about? Where are we going? I remember asking a priest who was also a science teacher how he squared the two things. My mum dying increased the questions. Soon after arriving in Manchester I saw an advert in the local paper: ‘Practical Philosophy.’ I still go to their meetings now.”

Many Scots have appeared on these pages with tales from teenhood of homesickness, missing their mums’ cooking and rapid returns north from England. Not so Donachie who in 1968 aged 16 took to Manchester right away. “At school I’d been good at Maths so I started a job as a trainee accountant but only lasted two days. I couldn’t have worked in an office and only wanted to be a footballer. Thank goodness I was offered a trial.

Escape to Manchester

“I had to get out of Glasgow, which was unhealthy in a lot of ways. I managed to stay out of trouble with the gangs but my three best friends weren’t so fortunate. We all got out. Jim wanted to be a footballer and was broken-hearted when he didn’t make it at Bristol City but is now the headmaster at one of the biggest schools in New Zealand. Big Ed, a guitarist, is in Australia along with Little Ed, the artist. I credit football with rescuing me but also these guys, for their mums looked after me. They became like brothers and they’re still my best pals today.

Millwall were his first club as a manager. How would they take to meditation?

“Manchester was friendly and just different. I didn’t have to ask folk if they were Protestant or Catholic. No one knew, or cared. At City the only other Scot was Arthur Mann. The club had just won the league with an entirely English line-up - the last to ever do so. But the guys were so encouraging to me. I say this three times a day: it’s all about good people.”

This was the City of Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Franny Lee but Donachie wants me to mention the loyal service of less glamorous names: “Tony Book was Player of the Year at 35. He must have actually been 37 because Malcolm Allison lied about his age to get him in the door. And Alan Oakes played 600 games for the club and won everything. There’s a clamour for a statue for [Sergio] Aguero - fantastic player - but Oaksey’s the guy I want to see up there.”

Donachie lives in Newcastle with his second wife, Yugoslav-born Mileva. “She moved to London when she was three and hates it when I call her English. Almost as much as I do when she calls me English!” It was Tommy Docherty who first capped him in a 1972 Hampden friendly against Peru - “Massive pride,” he says. Asa Hartford was another debutant and Archie Gemmill and Willie Morgan had just begun their international careers, but some old hands were still around. “I’d idolised Billy McNeill and Jimmy Johnstone as a kid but John Greig, who I thought I hated because he used to kick everyone in a Celtic shirt, was the nicest man in the world. Again: good people.”

We could have won the World Cup

Donachie missed the World Cup rematch with the Peruvians six years later but played in the other two games of that fateful tournament, including the nearly-but-not-quite 3-2 win against the total football of the Netherlands. “Argentina was a disaster although looking back I really do think we could have won the World Cup. Typical Scotland, eh? If only Gordon McQueen hadn’t been injured. If only the coming men like Graeme Souness had been played from the start. And then there was Willie Johnston. What he took [the pill which got him banned] wasn’t a performance-enhancer; he was the kind of agitated wee fellow who needed calming down. Against Holland I’ve heard that some of the players watching from the stand were scared we were going to win by enough goals because they just wanted to get home. But no one on the pitch had that attitude. I didn’t have a great view of wee Archie’s goal although of course I’ve seen it on TV a million times since.”

Donachie’s method of achieving calmness before games was meditation. “I did it to still the mind.” He read up on Gandhi, Buddhism and was turned on by Vedanta, the ancient Indian philosophy which has it that religion is a search for self-knowledge. Another favourite book for away matches was Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the hippy bible concerning a young man who breaks away from his family and rejects opulence in a quest for deeper meaning.

Willie Donachie during his stint as a coach with Newcastle United, taking in a game at Celtic Park.

He was 12 years at Man City, only winning the 1976 League Cup. The club would be dazzled by opulence during that period. “Teams like Liverpool and Leeds United with their hard-working players were real machines while we liked stars. We were leading the league when we signed Rodney Marsh who wasn’t fit. That disrupted us and we fell away. But I can’t be too hard on Rod who was my room-mate. I’ve got fond memories of summertime when me, him and George Best would challenge local barmen and waiters to games of five-a-side.”

Bringing Manchester City back from the third tier

As City go for the Champions League Donachie reflects on the club’s incredible journey from the “back of beyond”. When they played third-tier football - 1998-99 - he was Maine Road assistant to Joe Royle and all the Macclesfields and Chesterfields wanted to kick the fallen giants off the park, condemning them to a longer stay in semi-oblivion. “That almost happened. In the play-off final at Wembley we were two-nil down to Gillingham with five minutes left. Fifteen thousand City fans had given up and left the stadium. I’m pretty sure the Oasis guys [Gallagher brothers Noel and Liam] were among them. But we won on penalties and the club began the long road back.”

Captain that day was Andy Morrison, the Kinlochbervie cult hero among Sky Blues who’d begun ’99 in a police cell in the Highlands after a brutal drinking session. Morrison had been prone to suicidal urges. “He was in a really bad way,” explains Donachie. “I took him to some Practical Philosophy lectures but he had to want to go. I think they opened his mind and he was able to find some peace. He was a real leader on the pitch, very brave. Just a shame that because of so many injuries he had practically no knees left.”

Donachie’s open mind while coaching at Oldham Athletic saw him recruit ex-ballroom dancing champ Lennie Heppell. “We were trying to get into the Premier League and he improved the players’ athleticism. For the club this was - as they say now - a tiny percentage gain.”

Caribbean calling

Donachie was into mindfulness before the term was coined although when he became a manager in his own right at Millwall there was resistance among players with a ruff, tuff reputation to uphold when he suggested they try meditation. “Perhaps calling it that put them off because Brian Clough pre-match used to get his teams to have a quiet moment to themselves. Pretty soon at the Den the guy who was most against it was shutting his eyes so he could focus on the game.”

Next was Antigua. Coaching the national team with help from Andy Morrison he was a familiar sight, driving round the island in a pick-up truck with bags of footballs in the back. “Children would shout: ‘White man, throw us a ball.’ I think I became accepted there because by the end when that cry went up the kid would be told: ‘You’ve gotta call him Coach Willie.’”

Now back in the Caribbean, Donachie is hoping Montserrat can build on an unbeaten start to qualifying for the Qatar World Cup in a double-header against US Virgin Islands and Grenada. Twenty-five years ago the British Overseas Territory suffered a volcanic eruption, destroying two-thirds of the island and sparking an exodus to the UK. This made a British-based coach a sensible choice. He’ll be making the latest trip - 11 hours by plane then 90 minutes by boat - with his captain, ex-Falkirk and Partick Thistle striker Lyle Taylor. You imagine, given that the old clump of Empire is as volatile as it is beautiful, that the team appreciate the calmness Donachie brings to proceedings.

A famous own goal and a telegram from Mick Channon

He still has family in Glasgow and on a recent visit was delighted to see new life being breathed into the Gorbals. Just as thrilling has been Scotland’s revival on the pitch with Andy Robertson and Kieran Tierney establishing us as a centre of left-back excellence. There should be no inferiority complex, he says, going into next month’s clash with England.

Donachie once scored against Scotland - a late equaliser for Wales in a 1978 Home International being possibly the furthest an own goal has ever travelled. With the English due at Hampden three days later Mick Channon sent a telegram to the team’s hotel: “Another one like that on Saturday, please.”

“There was a terrible groan from the crowd that night,” he recalls. “But before the England game when my name was announced I got a fantastic cheer. I had so much adrenaline in me I could have jumped over the stand roof.

“Beating them in ’77, though, is my favourite memory. Our bus was right behind theirs on the journey to Wembley and every time they passed a pub, a hundred Scotsmen would bend over and flash their bare arses. When we got to the stadium Joe Royle said to me [admonishing dad voice]: ‘Makes you proud to be Scottish, does it?’”

It did, and Willie Donachie doesn’t need to meditate on the desired outcome when the two nations clash again: another Scotland victory would make him very happy indeed.

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