Interview: Alan McLaren on man-marking Roberto Baggio

As Scotland prepare for their match against Italy, former defender recalls marking Roberto Baggio out of the game in 1992

Former Hearts, Rangers and Scotland defender Alan McLaren has not strayed far from his Niddrie roots. Picture: SNS
Former Hearts, Rangers and Scotland defender Alan McLaren has not strayed far from his Niddrie roots. Picture: SNS

Although he had just turned 18, Alan McLaren had a well-developed routine for a big game against glamour European opposition. In 1989 before Hearts hosted mighty Bayern Munich in the Uefa Cup, his mum cooked him scrambled eggs on toast. The Germans were duly humbled in front of a rabid Tynecastle – indeed they were der toast. “And afterwards,” he laughs “I caught the No 2 bus back to Niddrie.”

A doughty defender with the Jambos, Rangers and Scotland, McLaren was still living with his folks, Jimmy and Doreen, on the tough Edinburgh estate. He was still Hamper Boy at Tynie, responsible for packing the team coach for away games, having only recently passed on the brush for sweeping the terrace steps to the next kid in line. “I think it went to George Wright who then passed it to whatsisname, the new manager of Raith Rovers – my very good friend Gary Locke.” A YTS recruit on £50 a week, McLaren was still learning the game – but boy was he picking it up quickly.

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Immediately following both legs against Bayern, Hearts were at Celtic Park, first in the league and then the Scottish Cup, so McLaren was back on kit duty as well as right-back duty. The cup-tie was hugely frustrating for him, coming after Hearts’ Euro exit in Munich. Yes, he was only 18, plenty of opportunities lay ahead, but he was already a winner and would captain his club at that age.

With Paul Gascoigne celebrating nine-in-a-row. Picture: SNS

Anyway, Celtic were awarded a penalty, there was an almighty kerfuffle, and McLaren was sent off. “For the one and only time in my career,” says a player who was hard enough but prided himself on his high-grade interceptions. “The referee was David Syme – not my favourite, an arrogant man – and I was already in the dressing room when Tosh McKinlay turned up. ‘It’s not half-time,’ I said, ‘what are you doing here?’ ‘That bloody Syme’s sent me off too’, he said, ‘and Mick McCarthy as well and I think he’s coming down the corridor for me’. So Tosh quickly locked the door and big Mick, who was threatening to kill Tosh, thumped it for long enough.”

Entertaining though this anecdote is, it’s not my real reason for tracking down McLaren, 45, to the Fort Kinnaird retail park in the capital’s south-east. Scotland play Italy in a friendly tomorrow, opposition which sometimes produces an unlikely dark blue hero. In 1965 it was Neil Martin for disrupting the Azzurri back-line’s keep-ball, in 2007 it was Alan Hutton for his horsing runs – and in 1992 at Ibrox it was our man for a memorable night of Baggio-taming. The bold Roberto was the pony-tailed prince of calcio, an extravagantly gifted footballer who would be Italy’s top scorer in qualification for America’s World Cup where they’d ultimately finish runners-up – but in Govan his shadow from Niddrie ensured he would draw a blank. Hugh Keevins in The 
Scotsman enthused about McLaren “displaying a maturity far in excess of his years”. He smiles when I read out the match report. “That’s what a quality paper would say. The tabloids got a bit carried away about how good I was. It was a great team performance, though, and we should probably have won.”

A shy fellow, McLaren was unsure about doing this interview. When he was at Rangers, skippering the team to nine in a row, the football fates ended a stirring career prematurely and a few years later his marriage broke up. He ran a stretch limousine business for a while. Following the death of his mother he has moved back in with his father to look after him. But I meet a cheery fellow on this misty and unseasonally raw afternoon who displays no bitterness. His three children keep him busy and upbeat.

Fort Kinnaird is close to Musselburgh, where McLaren now lives, and his boyhood Niddrie. The first coffee shop is full so we try another, almost as busy. “Christ,” he says, “is no one working today?” On the walk across the mall we discuss the Scottish Cup final. Born a Jambo he was more than happy to be watching his youngest daughter’s drama show last Saturday, thereby missing most of Hibernian’s triumph. “It was even sunny for their parade – despite the little rain dance I did that morning!”

Alan McLaren in action for Scotland during the famous World Cup qualifier with Italy. Picture: SNS

McLaren’s Rangers debut, a couple of days after signing, was away to Celtic. In intense situations he always seemed completely composed, and he loved the Edinburgh derby as well. “I came from a Hearts family, all my aunties were Jambos. My mum and dad met each other in the Craigmillar Hearts Supporters’ Club.” Did any from his neighbourhood make it as Hibs players? “Aye, there was one. He said he was a footballer but I dunno. I think his name was Keith Wright – have you heard of him?” The Hibs striker – “His dad was emcee at the supporters’ club” – was of course a regular foe in the Edinburgh skirmishes.

From nearby came a clattering full-back: “Willie Miller was a Bingham boy and another dyed-in-the-wool Hibby. All through that long unbeaten run of ours he never shook hands. ‘Come on, Willie’, I’d say, after we’d maybe escaped with a lucky draw, ‘the game’s over’. Then when Hibs finally did beat us, Gordon Hunter scoring the winner, he decided he wanted to shake my hand. I binned him that day!”

We talk about the pitch invasion. It must have been frightening for players caught up in it, he says, although with many of the fans on the park merely there to celebrate, McLaren reckons he had it worse during the first capital derby after Wallace Mercer’s failed bid to buy Hibs. “There might have been fewer folk on the Easter Road pitch that day but they were all incredibly angry. Before I led our players off we’d had golf balls chucked at us, only they’d nails hammered into them.” He pauses to consider these missiles, evocative of medieval times. “The fans presumably couldn’t have smuggled them into the ground like that so did they stick hammers down their breeks as well?

“It made a difference from pies and hot drinks being thrown at us, I suppose, and listen, I’m sure the Hearts lot did the same to the Hibs players. The derbies were hectic but I loved every minute of them.” They unnerved some, though, and McLaren recalls Jim Weir’s debut in the fixture: “No offence, but Jim came from Hamilton. I was telling him: ‘It’s the derby, get your long studs in’.

Playing for his boyhood heroes Hearts back in 1992. Picture: Jeff Mitchell

He was full-back but didn’t want to take the throw-ins. ‘The Hibs fans are too hostile’, he said. ‘Just bloody get on with it’, I said, but eventually I had to go over from centre-back and take the throws. It was raining spit by then.”

By comparison, McLaren’s Old Firm indoctrination was a bit of a dawdle. “None of my new team-mates said to me ‘This will be a level up’ and to be honest I didn’t see how it could be. Yes, it was going to be blood and thunder but I enjoyed those games more than most. Basile Boli was alongside me. There was an obvious language problem although that was the least of my worries. How was a boy from Niddrie supposed to tell a European Cup winner that his positional sense was a bit askew? But even though Celtic took the lead, Brian Laudrup was brilliant and so indeed was Charlie Miller. We won 3-1 and towards the end, when I got in a couple of nice challenges on Andy Walker and Willie Falconer, the Rangers fans were chanting my name. It was a good start.”

A week later he was back at Tynecastle as a Ranger – “They booed their old captain!” He’d been happy at Hearts, the only club as a young man that he wanted to play for, but they needed to sell and he was keen to win things. A championship badge, the seventh of Rangers’ sequence, was soon his. McLaren won his only Scottish Cup against the Jambos, the so-called Laudrup Final of ’96 even though Gordon Durie scored a hat-trick in the 5-1 triumph. “Would I have minded if my old club had won? Yes. Just ask John Colquhoun, a great guy, who I smashed with two minutes left. ‘I knew it was coming’, he said as we exchanged shirts, ‘but I didn’t think it would be so hard’. ‘Sorry JC’, I said, ‘just business’.”

Now we must talk injuries. McLaren was forced to hang up his boots in ’98, two days before the Jambos got their revenge over the Gers to win the cup. “I held a press conference to announce my retirement and blubbed like a baby.” A career which should have had many more highlights to come was over at the age of 27. “The specialist told me I had the right knee of a man 20 years older, it was in such a worn-down state. There was no cartilage left, it was bone to bone. He refused to operate on it again.” McLaren is sure he played too much football as a kid but in Niddrie there was nothing else to do.

Injuries would eventually force McLaren into early retirement. Picture: SNS

He can laugh about the Ibrox treatment room, the cruciate-ligament queue putting pressure on him for a table because there were only six. He remembers the visit to Harley Street to be told he should maybe think about an alternative career, then relaying this news dumbstruck to Paul Gascoigne. “Gazza just said: ‘Aye well, are you coming for a bevvy?’ He couldn’t deal with it, probably because he was remembering the time he injured the same knee.” And McLaren chuckles some more when he recalls Richard Gough, a superfit man forever in peril from a broken toenail. “Goughy was a hypochondriac. I’m sure he had a big book of ailments. He was always going: ‘Guess what I’ve got today, lads?’ ”

But McLaren, now a match-day host at Ibrox, doesn’t think he coped terribly well with the bombshell. Who on earth would? “I know,” he says, “but I was in denial for a long time and I’m sure I was difficult to live with. Gazza struggled to come to terms with his career being finished and I’ve been the same.

“Paul’s still struggling, really. We went on a joint family holiday to Florida after Glenn Hoddle hadn’t picked him for the ’98 World Cup and it was all over for me. While the wives stayed by the pool we took the kids to the theme parks. He was pretty down and I could have said ‘But at least you can still play!’ although I didn’t. He’s a lovely, lovely lad although I haven’t seen him for a while. He didn’t ever want to grow up – he just wanted to play football and have a laugh. I helped him a lot, like everyone else, when he’d phone at three and four in the morning. But now I fear for him. It’s tragic.”

McLaren enthuses about his star-studded Rangers team. “I was No 8 peg in the dressing room with the lunatic Ian Ferguson on one side and Mark [Hateley] on the other, then Brian [Laudrup] Ally [McCoist], Stuart [McCall] and Trevor [Steven]. It was like a football Who’s Who – scary.” He played every game of his first full season at Ibrox, though, when his problem knee flared up halfway through he stopped training and started swimming. “Come Saturday, I was like a kid in a sweet shop, re-introduced to the ball and able to kick somebody.” But, having appeared in all but one of the qualifiers for Euro 96, he was to miss that tournament. The next season was critical – could Rangers get to nine? It was injury-hit for McLaren who was offered a new three-year boot deal. “The sponsors couldn’t believe I turned it down. I just didn’t think I’d last that long so told them I didn’t want to take money under false pretences.” One last herculean effort by him helped Rangers over the line, the title being clinched at Tannadice.

“With a Laudrup header, a collector’s item. The ball must just have bounced off him. He wasn’t a pretty boy for nothing!”

Now he must be going. He sets off to walk so I offer him a lift but he wants the fresh air to try to get rid of a chest infection and to listen to the latest song mix his nine-year-old has 
compiled for him. He asks about my family and when I mention the football-daft son he says there’s better awareness of the risks of boys over-playing but nevertheless advises a watchful eye.

With Paul Gascoigne celebrating nine-in-a-row. Picture: SNS

Being so near to his old stamping-ground and his current home, it might not seem that Alan McLaren has travelled very far in life, but this is a proud Scot who made his international debut in Denver’s Mile High Stadium, delayed his honeymoon so he could help us secure victory in Estonia – and en route to 24 caps was just as thrilled to be playing in front of three men and a goat in the Faroes as 60,000 in Rome. “I loved representing my country, it was the ultimate, and I’ve never understood guys who call off from Scotland games. If I was manager they’d only do it once.”

Germany’s Jurgen Klinsmann and Holland’s Dennis Bergkamp knew they’d been in a game with him, just like Baggio. “That was my first competitive international. When Andy Roxburgh asked if I thought I could man-mark I said I was willing to give it a go. I remember the sniggers from Gary McAllister, Paul McStay and Ian Durrant. ‘I think you might have bitten off more than you can chew’, they said. The first few times Baggio had the ball I couldn’t get near him, but then I did. Late in the game he had to go off – someone had given him a dull one in the ribs but it really wasn’t me.”

So, go on then, what was the 
Niddrie boy’s routine that day? “Oh, you know, scrambled eggs on toast. But the team were staying at Cameron House Hotel so I had to make do with five-star cuisine rather than my mum’s cooking. And obviously I was a bit off the No 2 route for getting the bus back home.”

Alan McLaren in action for Scotland during the famous World Cup qualifier with Italy. Picture: SNS
Playing for his boyhood heroes Hearts back in 1992. Picture: Jeff Mitchell
Injuries would eventually force McLaren into early retirement. Picture: SNS