Interview: Alan Gilzean, former footballer

In his first major interview in 40 years, the Dundee, Spurs and Scotland legend says that reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated

They say you should never meet your heroes. When that hero is Alan Gilzean, there seemed little danger of that ever happening.

Someone often described as British football’s most famous recluse isn’t given to meeting new people, particularly if they happen also to be journalists. He has had his fill of many who have already crossed his path, including one writer called Hunter Davies. His celebrated book, The Glory Game, portrayed Gilzean as a hard-drinking Scot with little time for social frippery, and who, the author later wrote, was so lazy, he would climb into his Jag to drive 100 yards to fetch his morning newspaper.

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It seems worth noting that Gilzean, 40 years on from when Davies researched a book chronicling a season in the history of Tottenham Hotspur, set a brisk pace as he walked along the promenade to our appointed meeting place in Carnoustie last Monday morning. Although, in his heyday, he had looked older than he was, it is now possible to mistake him for younger than his 73 years.

There have been no obvious ill-effects from hearing his name again cheered to the old Dens Park rafters on Boxing Day on what was a rare, but rapturously received, public appearance during the half-time interval at Dundee’s First Division clash with Morton. He had survived. Hell, he might now even go as far as to say he enjoyed the experience. The good news for Spurs fans is that he got a taste for it again. The King of White Hart Lane is ready to return.

“I have not been back for years, I am going to go back,” he says, firmly. It truly has been years. Asked for the last occasion he can remember watching Spurs in the flesh, he mentions something about an “FA Cup final”. He doesn’t mean the club’s last appearance in it either, or, indeed, even the second or third most recent. We are talking 1981 and the first game against Manchester City rather than the replay, Ricky Villa’s mazy winning goal et al.

He has been a slightly more regular attender of Dundee matches. The impression he gives is of someone almost terrified of the adulation that he knows awaits him at White Hart Lane. “It is sentimental for me,” he says. “It’s some place, very special for me. I don’t know why [I am adored].”

Possibly it has something to do with the 133 goals he scored in 429 matches for the London club, just as the roar greeting his appearance on the pitch at Dens Park last month can be traced to the 169 goals claimed in 190 games with Dundee. And then there is the matter of the 12 goals scored in just 22 international appearances for Scotland, a goals-per-game ratio that is the exact equal of Denis Law’s record of 30 in 55 games.

“I was always treated well by Dundee and Spurs fans – but the Spurs fans were very special,” he says. Gilzean had clearly already been contemplating a trip to see Spurs in any case, but an extra nudge was applied during his recent visit to Dens and came courtesy of a rock musician. Tom Simpson, the Dundee-supporting keyboard player with Snow Patrol, was at the game. “I had never heard of them, but my son has,” says Gilzean. “He came over to me and we were chatting. He told me he was friends with Pat Jennings, who was once my team-mate, and had played golf with him recently.

“He had Pat Jennings’ number, and he gave it to me. I’ll give him a call and maybe organise a trip to a game. Pat does the hospitality [at Spurs]. I never fancied doing that myself.”

The notion of Gilzean meeting and greeting fans seems preposterous. The nearest he comes to such a transaction is when replying to the requests for autographs – “always from Spurs fans, it’s amazing how many still remember me” – which, to this day, still get pushed through his letter box in Weston-super-Mare, his conveniently out-of-the-way base of operations for the last 15 years.

One regular correspondent is a vicar from the south coast. Along with each request for an autograph, he includes a £20 note. Gilzean does what is required on the signature front and then carefully folds the note and slips it back into the stamped addressed envelope provided. “Why would I keep the money?” he asks.

Although there had never seemed like a good time to broach it, the anecdote provides an obvious juncture at which to address the rumour that has attached itself to Gilzean, though clearly not bothered him, in recent years. It is one which asked us to believe that the man whose style of play was invariably described as elegant, and whose disappearing hairline had even suggested regal status, was now living as a down-and-out in the West Country.

“Someone wrote that on a Tottenham website,” he says. “It was probably an Arsenal fan. I don’t know how you control these websites. I don’t do computers. I stopped at bloody spread-sheets when I worked in the transport industry. My son says ‘I will get you a laptop’. I said: ‘don’t bother, I will never use it’.”

Would a down-and-out return £20 notes to the sender in the post? Would a down-and-out bring out a mobile phone – the one Gilzean has rather proudly claimed only seven people in the country have the number for – in order to show you photographs of their grandchildren?

Do they send cards of congratulations to football managers, as Gilzean did to Barry Smith, once Dundee’s First Division survival, following a 25-point deduction, had been ensured last season? And would a down-and-out really resist selling a treasure trove of football memorabilia which includes one FA Cup winners medal and two from the League Cup as well as a Scottish League championship badge and a variety of very collectible football shirts? His favourite is the one he wore in Stanley Matthews’ testimonial, signed by the great man himself.

“I would never have sold them,” he says. “I have been asked to sell them, I have been approached. One of my grandsons will get them. I don’t know which one yet. There will be a riot. Maybe I will have to sell them to keep everyone happy!”

“I have never been a recluse,” he continues, putting another misconception to bed while he has the opportunity. “I always enjoyed myself.”

That said, Bobby Wishart, whom he knows from their time together at Dundee, is the only former team-mate he has kept in regular touch with. “I have always been a bit of a loner,” he says. “I became more of a loner at Tottenham. You are better that way. I wasn’t a loner so much in Dundee, because I used to knock about with Hammy [Alex Hamilton] a lot and also little Shug Robertson. They are both gone now, unfortunately.”

WHEN we first sit down together, the thought which has tormented me from the moment he agreed to give his first in-depth interview to a newspaper for, he claims, over 40 years, rears its head again. Where do you begin? The silence he attributes to a few bad experiences with reporters, one dating all the way back to the season after he retired. “Spurs got relegated the season after I left and this reporter had me saying it is time Bill Nicholson left,” reveals Gilzean. “He was more than a manager to me, he was a friend.”

Then there’s the Davies book, and the numerous mentions of Gilzean in association with drink. “There were four of us at Tottenham who used to play cards all the time: [Dave] Mackay, myself, Knowlesy and Mike England,” he explains. “Coming home on the train from games there would obviously be some beers. Sometimes the usherettes would take them away, but sometimes they built up. When we were getting off the train they all pointed down to me as if it was me who was drinking all the lager. I don’t even like blooming lager. I used to drink Guinness or Bacardi and coke in those days. Now it is only red wine.”

Such long-established grievances risk depicting Gilzean as a prickly customer. Nothing could be further from the truth, although he is firm about one thing: he is only speaking to me because of a cricketing connection with my father, and “we are from the same area”.

His power of recall is incredible. The names of fellow pupils at primary school nearly 70 years ago trip off his tongue. He reels off the number-plate of one of his old cars in a story about a party in Dundee which prompted one neighbour to make a complaint to Bob Shankly, the Dundee manager - “a Perthshire registration – TES 176,” he says, without hesitation.

It’s hard to avoid studying his great plain of forehead, wondering from which area flew off goals such as the winner, which saw him beat Gordon Banks and centre-half Maurice Norman to the ball, against England at Hampden Park in 1964. His renowned ability in the air has clearly not impacted on his mental agility.

He has retained a Perthshire lilt and, during the course of over two hours of conversation, is ready to go to most places in a remarkable life that, to many football supporters of a certain age, appeared to come to a halt sometime around 1975. Where has he been? Why the relocation to Somerset?

“I went down with my work, and I liked it,” he says, not unreasonably. “I worked there as part of the Ocean Group. They had a factory at Avonmouth. I didn’t work in Weston but I lived in Weston and came back to London at weekends. But I liked it down there so I stayed down there.

“It’s like the seaside. It’s got the pier – well it burnt down a few years ago, but it’s back up now. And you don’t get the blooming snow.

“I couldn’t live back up here now with the cold weather, and that wind.”

As with those late, drifting runs into the box, he has timed his re-appearance to perfection. In April Dundee will celebrate the 50th anniversary of their one and only Scottish title win with a dinner which the six surviving members of the team – Gilzean included – are set to attend. Though the side was made up of 11 quite exceptional players – respected historian Bob Crampsey described them as the “most classical” Scottish club side he had ever seen – the glamour quota was shared between Gilzean and Gordon Smith, the original G men.

According to Gilzean, the signing of Smith, then 37, was the “turning point for Dundee” in the club’s bid to win a maiden league title. Everyone at the club got a lift when he came in the door. “We were just young lads starting off and he arrived in his Porsche,” remembers Gilzean. “No one else had a car like that, not even the directors. And yet, he was such a down-to-earth guy.”

Gilzean recalls the night of the championship win, following a 3-0 victory at St Johnstone’s Muirton Park. Fans had gathered outside the city centre hotel where the champions were celebrating upon their return to Dundee. “All the players were going out to the window to wave to the fans,” he says. “I always remember Gordon – he was such a lovely man, so modest – saying to me, ‘do you mind taking me out to the window to wave to the fans?’”

Gilzean moved on to Spurs, who this week have established their credentials as title contenders. They were regular challengers in the Sixties, when Gilzean and Greaves – who Spurs fans will tell you were the genuine G men – used to share goals between each other, like friends finishing off each other’s sentences. Yet they haven’t seen each other since the day they played their last game together.

It’s a detail such as this which says everything about Gilzean, who, in the opinion of Greaves, is the greatest player he ever played with. Gilzean returns the compliment, comparing his old strike partner to Lionel Messi. “It was a sad day when Greavesie left Spurs,” he says. “He wasn’t a typical Cockney boy. Cockney boys take the piss. He wasn’t like that.”

Gilzean mixed with the best. At the end of his career he made up one fifth of perhaps the finest five-a-side team ever assembled on a tour of Sweden. “It was an old-timers’ thing,” he recalls. “We were all finished by then. There was Dave Mackay and myself, Cliff Jones, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles. Oh, and John Charles was the manager.”

Not bad for a lad from Coupar Angus, whose dream it had been to play for Hibernian. Gilzean seemed always programmed to be a bit different.

“I think I liked the colour green,” he says. “It was between Celtic or Hibs. Forfar played in green in those days, but I didn’t fancy Forfar.”

In a way, Dundee fans have Barbara Gilzean to thank for the goals which helped power the Dens Park side to the league title in 1961-62 - one of them came fifty years ago yesterday, in a 2-0 win over Hearts at Tynecastle. Gilzean reveals that he had the chance to sign for Hibs, and wasn’t about to think twice about letting Dundee down.

“I signed provisional forms for Dundee under Willie Thornton,” he says. “But he never registered me with the Scottish Football Association. Hibs got to know about it. So the Hibs approached me. And I was going to go to Hibs. No way would I pass up that chance. But my mother put her foot down. ‘You have given the man your word’, she told me. ‘You will play for Dundee’.”

He is remarkably dismissive of his famous four-goal haul for Dundee in the 5-1 victory at Ibrox Park against title rivals Rangers, preferring, instead, to focus on another outing, in a different season, when he scored four times. “I was just doing my job against Rangers,” he shrugs. “Those goals were not as important to me personally as the time in my last season at Dundee when I scored four goals at Easter Road. We beat Hibs 4-0 at Easter Road and I scored all the goals. What made it extra special was that Gordon Smith was there that day, watching. He had finished playing by then.”

As well as wanting to play for Hibs, Gilzean had one other wish when growing up in Perthshire. “We used to go to the picture house on Queen Street, just across from the church on the Dundee Road,” he recalls. “We used to see the Pathe news. They’d show the English Cup final at Wembley, with the teams coming out. And I thought: I am going there. I. Am. Going. There. And I got my dream.

“I couldn’t ask for more. I went there three times with Tottenham and three times we won.”

A picture house in Coupar Angus? Sometimes, while driving through the town during the last two decades, it felt as though there was barely a soul left in the place. A regeneration programme has seen things improve, though the statue of Gilzean, proposed after interest in him was revived by the publication in 2010 of a book on his life entitled In Search of Alan Gilzean, remains conspicuous by its absence, much to the relief of the man himself. “Ach, they would just be peeing up against it and everything,” he says. He believes doctors are the ones who deserve to be honoured but he is rightly proud of his induction in the Scottish football hall of fame three years ago.

Remarkably, in the local phone book, there isn’t now a single Gilzean listed as coming from Coupar Angus. The clear-out began as long ago as the Fifties, when Gilzean’s brother, Eric, departed for the States, closely followed by his sister, Thelma. They remain there to this day. It seems strange to think that they were so remote from their sibling’s heightening fame in the Sixties and Seventies.

“I was just a guy whose dreams came true,” says Gilzean. “I have no regrets.

“I have got friends. I go out. I enjoy myself. You have to at my age. You don’t know how many bottles of red wine you have left. You are waiting the call.

“I became what I wanted to be, a footballer,” he continues. “A lot of my uncles on my mother’s side, the Forbeses, they all played football, junior stuff. I remember saying to my mum when I was ten or 11, and starting to get keen on football: ‘Mum, how do I go about becoming a footballer?’

“She said: ‘Get that nonsense out of your head right away’. I thought: ‘Well, I better not mention that again’. So I asked my uncle: ‘How do I become a footballer?’ He told me that you just can’t go and walk in and ask for a game. You have to wait until somebody finds you.”

Gilzean pauses, then adds: “And I was just lucky enough that somebody found me.”