Interview: Brian McClair on his new life in a New Town

Former Celtic and Manchester United striker Brian McClair, who also had a spell as SFA Performance Director. Picture: Alistair Linford
Former Celtic and Manchester United striker Brian McClair, who also had a spell as SFA Performance Director. Picture: Alistair Linford
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New Town Flaneur, a droll, knowing Twitter account, has amassed more than 11,000 followers by mocking the plum cords-wearing, Prosecco-quaffing ways of residents in that part of Edinburgh. But watch out, a rival is in town.

Based slightly further down cobbled streets in Stockbridge, on the edge of the civilised world separating north Edinburgh from Fife, resides Brian McClair – or @BrianMcClair13, in honour of the shirt number he wore in his latter days with Manchester United.

An unlikely convert to social media, more than 25,000 have been attracted by his wry musings on football, life and music, as well as many photographs of frothy pints of Guinness 
settling in a range of bars.

There are also snaps of him riding snowmobiles in Norway and clarifications about his Jaffa Cake consumption while a player: five on training days, three before games and none at all since 1998 (he does still enjoy a custard cream with a glass of Ribena, full fat, of an evening).

What’s it all about Choccy?

McClair, now 54, seems to be living the life. He is less the bearded “Embra recluse”, as described by one colleague, and more boulevardier. The recent addition of a greying beard has not been allowed to grow out to David Letterman proportions, yet. If he walked into the pub, which he does at precisely the time he said he would, you would still know it was Brian McClair of Motherwell, Celtic and Manchester United fame, as well as the front page of the odd music magazine.

“What am I doing now? Well, a couple of things,” he says. He is an ambassador for Red Army Bet, a betting cooperative in which 50 per cent of the profits go back to supporters’ trusts. “I am not a big gambler myself. But people will gamble. I like these guys because they are people I have met who are all Manchester United supporters and are passionate about football. They don’t want to be involved with the commercial side of the football club. They want to be involved with the supporters. Their idea is that 50 per cent of their profits they will give back to the supporters – or the supporters’ club.

“If Hibs, for example, have a supporters’ trust and they are registered with this, then any money the Hibs fans bet, 50 per cent of the profit will go back to them. It may well be that the Hibs trust could subsidise travel to Glasgow or Aberdeen or whatever. You can find your own club and register under your club.”

If David Beckham is the face of modern Manchester United, McClair represents the club’s transitional period – from a well-supported side with limited success to the full-force global powerhouse they became. He’s on the side of the real Man Utd fan, the loud, lairy ones who populate the away ends of grounds rather than contribute to the current sterile atmosphere of Old Trafford. Not that he’d say so himself.

“FansBet are football fans themselves,” he continues. “Their view is that a lot of the money goes to places they don’t want to be seen supporting, like agents’ fees for example, or frittered away on any other kind of stuff. I am also doing other bits and pieces, like freelancing – coaching, questions and answers stuff.

“I am enjoying nobody trying to tell me what to do.”

This may or may not be a reference to the last official role he held in football, the very un-Brian McClair-like sounding post of performance director at the Scottish Football Association. This wasn’t how we wanted one of our dearest mavericks to end up – standing in front of a projector detailing projected performance pathways.

It didn’t last long, only 13 months. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “In that time I made a difference – I am proud of that. I’ve no issue with the time I was there. It was another part of my adventure.”

Crucially, it’s why he moved to Edinburgh, where he has remained in the nearly two years since he departed the role. Strangely, since former manager Gordon Strachan lived in the Midlands and chief executive Stewart Regan flitted back and forth to Yorkshire, this newly- created post included the contractual stipulation that the appointee must be based in Scotland.

So Choccy headed back north, with his Rega Planar 3 record player and collection of vinyl albums.

Last record bought? Two come instantly to mind, he says – This Time It’s Personal by John Cooper Clarke and former Stranglers singer Hugh Cornwell, and the 20th anniversary re-release of Radiohead’s OK Computer. He once listed The Waterboys’ The Thrill Is Gone as his favourite song. Is this still the case now? “Maybe. Possibly How Long Will I Love You [also by The Waterboys]. It’s difficult to choose.”

Even while he was an instantly recognisable Celtic player, McClair was happy to throw himself into the sweaty mass of punters at the front of a Pogues gig at the Barrowland Ballroom. “I came out soaking,” he recalls. “I probably worked harder at the Pogues than I ever did in training.” His favourite Pogues record, at least on the day we meet, is Rum Sodomy and the Lash.

I’m beginning to fear this interview is going the way of the last time I interviewed McClair, about 15 years ago, when he was working at Manchester United’s youth academy. “Is this a f*cking music interview or a football one?” he growled when the opening volley of enquiries were related more to his listening habits than Darren Fletcher’s development.

“I wasn’t rude was I?” he checks. “I don’t like that. People often have an impression I am rude because of the way I am – I have a wicked sense of humour. That’s only got more pronounced the older I have got.”

He isn’t the first to move from Manchester, or at least the city’s environs of Wilmslow and Altrincham, to Edinburgh. Another awkward customer, the late Fall lead singer Mark E Smith, did so for a brief period in the early 1990s. Like Smith, McClair loves to appreciate the city on foot, spending entire days roaming around his adopted home. But he is careful to avoid criticism he has left his Airdrie roots behind. “My brother and my mum and sister still live there – only one person in the family is allowed to move away!”

On the wall of the gents in the bar we’re in, there’s a Tennents lager advert celebrating “Buenos Airdrie”, which tickles him. A half ‘n’ half image blends together the colonial splendour of the Argentine capital with Airdrie’s toon centre. “I thought I recognised it,” says McClair, now relishing his freedom.

“I have never really had a job where every day is the same,” he says. “I like the unstructured-ness of it. I get up in the morning and watch other people go to work. I quite enjoy that. I walk all the way up here to the [Waverley] train station and watch other people go to work – it is very entertaining.”

“I have not been to games,” he adds. “I watch on TV. That’s the thing, we are too spoiled. I like just watching the games. I try not to watch as much as I do. I just love football.”

He fell for the Lisbon Lions-era Celtic after being shown highlights of their European Cup win in primary school.

“One of my earliest memories is kicking a ball about,” he says. “It’s not watching it that’s the difficult part. Football is on every day. It’s trying to limit yourself, maybe not watch the ones you have no real connection with.”

He certainly has a connection with two taking place at Hampden Park this weekend – today’s Scottish Cup semi-final clash between Motherwell and Aberdeen and tomorrow’s Old Firm derby between Celtic and Rangers. There’s also Manchester United v West Bromwich Albion to monitor.

If we were really to stretch it, last night’s Aston Villa v Leeds United Championship meeting is also relevant – McClair spent a year as a youth signing at Villa Park, which also happened to be the season they won the First Division title in 1980-81. “I was responsible for that,” he says. “I cleaned [skipper] Dennis Mortimer’s boots.”

Mercifully, he’s probably thinking, we’ve returned to football territory, to where it all started.

It was while at Villa that he visited Old Trafford for the first time. “They used to take an apprentice to an away game – there was only one sub then. We went to Middlesbrough and I was like: ‘If someone falls ill I am on the bench here, just by default.’ I could not even get in the youth team!

“I went to Old Trafford with them, 3-3. Pissed it down. Great game.” Of his English sojourn at such a young age, he says: “I grew, put on a stone and worked hard.”

But that wasn’t enough for him to be kept on. He signed for Motherwell the day after his return and was put straight into the first team: “They got fined, I think, because I was not de-registered from Villa.” There was another problem to address since he had also begun a degree, never completed, at Glasgow University reading maths, physics, chemistry and statistics. “I told them that giving me what they were suggesting would lower my student’s grant, so they said: ‘Ok, here’s another 20 quid a week’.”

Motherwell got their money’s worth. In the opening weeks of 1983, while a part-time footballer and full-time student, McClair scored a hat-trick against Rangers and a double against Celtic. The reason he never completed his studies is that Celtic signed him later the same year, for just £75,000, meaning he turned full-time.

In a Shoot! profile while still at Celtic, he mentioned his ambition was to play until he was 35. He fulfilled it, just, returning to Motherwell, via a trophy-laden decade at Manchester United. But swapping Alex Ferguson for the running-obsessed Harri Kampman was not a success – McClair didn’t score in ten appearances.

Fittingly, his last ever game as a professional footballer was at Celtic Park. “I came on as a sub. I got booed on by the Motherwell fans and cheered on by the Celtic fans! I understand why. I was sh*t for Motherwell second time round. It was not personal.”

Someone who had coped with Jock Wallace and Frank Connor, sometimes in stereo, at Motherwell, not to mention Alex Ferguson, could handle some abuse from the terraces. But Fergie displayed warmth towards McClair, and no wonder, since, pound for pound, he might be considered one of his best-ever signings for United. “When I was coaching at Man Utd, Alex Ferguson would always want the new young apprentices to come into his room, 16-year-old scholars. He would talk to them to show them they are now part of this family. I was in there one day and he said: ‘See him, all he wanted to do was be part of the team’. It never really occurred to me before.”

Underlining this is the quirky detail that McClair assisted two of the most memorable Manchester United goals of recent times; David Beckham’s lob from the halfway line v Wimbledon and Eric Cantona’s deft chip against Sunderland in 1996.

But why demean someone who became the first player since George Best to hit 20 league goals for Manchester United by focusing on two assists? Thirty years ago, almost to the day, he scored in a 3-0 win over Luton Town towards the end of his first season at Old Trafford. He also struck a hat-trick v Derby County in the same month on the way to 31 goals in total. He scored freely, it seems, for everyone except, well, Scotland.

“It is what it is,” he shrugs. “30 games, two goals. I was probably in 60 squads.”

McClair finally scored on his 26th cap, a deflected effort against CIS at Euro 92. Clearly getting into his stride, he scored again in what proved his last appearance, against Estonia in Aberdeen. “I remember reading in one report that we could do worse than build a team around me, and I never got picked again! I go back to my 15-year-old self doing what the psychologists would say now is visualisation but which is really daydreaming – I daydreamed about playing for Scotland and I did. I played at the European Championships. I got left out the 1990 World Cup, having been involved in every qualifier, but that’s one of those things. Maybe to have me as another obtuse person away with them for three weeks was too much to deal with!”

It’s another reference to the impression he could be difficult. Or if not difficult, slightly stand-offish, perhaps even unlovable. Celtic fans are not known for withholding praise for their own but always seemed slightly reticent in the case of McClair.

Strike partner Mo Johnston earned most of the affection until he found an extreme way to alter this situation.

“I don’t feel neglected, if that is what you mean, either then or now,” reflects McClair. “I appreciate the attention and the stuff I get now is incredible. And from Rangers fans as well. I get quite a lot of ‘I don’t like you – and you know why I don’t like you, because you were a good player’.”

As for Johnston, he rejects the notion they did not get on. “It’s just that I was married and he was living his own life away from football. But we got on fine and had a really good partnership.

“We respected each other. If Mo 
sees someone we both know, I get a ‘tell him I was asking for him’. If I see anyone, I am the same. I have 
not seen him for a long time. I didn’t hate him and I don’t think he hated me – we were just different.”

McClair found a more natural ally in Pat Nevin, with whom he teamed up, finally, at Motherwell towards the end of both their careers.

“We had been friends since we were 17,” says McClair. “He was involved in Scotland teams before I was. I was not involved until I think an Under-18 friendly. Pat walked in with his beret on and an NME under his arm. I was like: ‘I think I could quite like this guy’.”

But it wasn’t Nevin with whom he featured on the front of Cut, the short-lived Scottish alternative music title of the late 1980s. McClair and Celtic team-mate Paul McStay agreed to be interviewed by Bobby Bluebell – the equivalent of Leigh Griffiths and Scott Brown being quizzed by Aidan Moffat of Arab Strap these days.

“I found that while cleaning out things the other day,” he says. McClair remembers them being plastered with make-up for the photo-shoot and feeling glad Cut didn’t feature on the reading lists of team-mates with a more easy-listening taste in music. “We were at least confident of that,” he says.

His favourite music publication-related memory is opening the pages of NME and finding both he and McStay, coincidentally, featured in a cryptic crossword clue: McClair, McStay, McManus (5,5), to which the answer was Green Shirt, a song by Elvis Costello. “One of my biggest achievements,” he says proudly.

Conscious we’re back to music, and fearful of another rebuke, I hurriedly wrap things up following a fascinating couple of hours with one of football’s genuine one-offs. We drink up then head out into the street. McClair, rucksack over shoulder, turns his face to the drizzle and sets off for home.