Interview: Chick Young, football commentator and broadcaster

BBC veteran reflects on changing with the times – or not – on and off the field

BBC veteran reflects on changing with the times – or not – on and off the field

Things happen to me, says Chick Young, they just do. He was saying this ten years ago at the height of his strange kind of fame when he got given his own TV show, and it’s still true now. So I’m a bit worried when, phoning up to arrange a chat about the new football season, his familiar, chirpy tones can barely be heard above the wind, the lapping water and some squalking seagulls that sound positively Hitchcockian.

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“I’m in the Firth of Clyde,” he says. What, actually in the water, zazzy shirt, gold chain, the lot? “Naw, on my boat.” But it’s really hard to make out what he’s saying and, as the screeching gets louder, I’m remembering that Chick and seabirds don’t really get on and I’m fearing for him. (A post-match interview with Walter Smith had to be abandoned when our fearless reporter got bombed by a gull which didn’t, after all, fancy the lunch it had pulled from a rubbish bag. “A baguette,” noted the former Rangers manager).

Actually, when I think about this some more, Chick and various forms of transport can have their issues, too. Last month, the big story was the horrendous summer weather, which had been majorly responsible for one London-Glasgow train taking 17 hours to complete its journey. The news crews were at Central Station to meet the shell-shocked travellers, and one looked especially familiar in his zazzy shirt and gold chain. Old journo pro that he is, he delivered the best soundbite, but how would he fare on the open sea?

Just fine, it turns out. Young, the skipper of the good ship Forever Young, has been ploutering about in the Firth for some years now. This is his second boat and it’ll be his last. “The first was called Emerald. My son Keith was ten when he pressurised me into buying it. It was really expensive and I couldn’t really afford it but I’ll never forget him saying: ‘Dad, if you don’t buy it you’re a poof.’ And we had great fun together on that boat.” Eleven years ago Keith was killed in a motorcycle crash. Young was heartbroken and says he’ll never get over his death. “I sold Emerald but then I heard Keith telling me: ‘Dad, buy a boat again.’ I swear I could see him, too. So this is Forever Young because that was Keith’s nickname when he was a boy. I’ll never sell it.”

Every summer, Young rounds up his three oldest friends and they might sail up the coast to Oban or, as happened this time, across to Arran. “It’s a motor launch, not a yacht. On yachts you tend to spill your drinks too easily.” Presumably, though, it’s customised, Chick-style. “Well, I took Allan Preston [fellow Radio Scotland reporter] out last year and he said on Sportsound the next Saturday: ‘You should see the bar. If that boat ever sinks it’ll be worth diving for.’ His friends go all the way back to primary school and there are rituals to their week on the “watter”. “Every time we leave harbour my pals insist we sing the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West. I can’t stand the song and every year I swear I’m going to chuck the CD over the side.” If you know Young you’ll be aware of his deep love for the Beach Boys.

We all know Chick, don’t we, even just a bit? That’s why, in the first bulletins about that train ordeal, the caption “Chick Young: passenger” looked so odd. Even the amendment later to “BBC Scotland sports presenter” failed to properly identify the “Chick Young – court jester for oor fitba” that we know and ... well, I was going to say “love” except that’s quite a strong emotion for the punters, but this is surely true: when he hangs up his mic, when he retires as undefeated Open-all-Mics champ for screaming “Isssagoal ... naw!” the loudest, then you, dear Sportsound listener, will miss him.

Is that day here or something? Not quite yet. Young is 61 and looking good on it back on dry land in Glasgow. He’s all smart-suited, but with the neck-chain still glinting, for the last day of his close-season break – “When I don’t get paid” – which always begins straight after the Scottish Cup final. Over coffee he takes a call from his producer at the Beeb; his postings for the week. “Rugby Park on Saturday, Tannadice on Sunday.” Back in the old routine.

So, after the odd trauma of the summer – his choice quote about the train ordeal listed “flooding, a landslide, fire ... just about the only thing we didn’t suffer was pestilence ... or a plague of locusts” – he must be mightily glad for the certainties of the SPL. Except, except, he’s not going to be reporting from Ibrox any time soon.

If there’s one thing we know about Chick, it’s that he’s a Rangers fan. Complete raving nutter for the boys in light blue. Reporting from riot-torn Manchester during the 2008 Uefa Cup final, he told us the trouble was being caused by a “tiny miniscule minority of persons 
unknown”. As missiles flew over his head he insisted: “No one knows who these people are.” Then he got spotted. “Hi, Chick.” “How ye doin’, Billy?” No, no, that was Jonathan “Only an Excuse” Watson, arch-impressionist, who does a better Chick than Young himself, according to some in the advertising industry (“Heh, heh, heh!”).

“I should be a Rangers fan because the wind should have taken me there,” says Young, who’s fond of his nautical allusions. “I was born in Govan, a little fishing village on the south side of Glasgow. I went to Baillieston Academy, a lusty by-kick from Ibrox whose heidie, George Brown, was a Rangers director. All our games of 23-a-side would stop when Ronnie McKinnon, then Scotland’s centre-half, walked past the school gates after training. One of my sailing pals, Ian, was a Third Lanark fan and me and him would go on the No 4a bus to Cathkin to watch them. Another chum, Dave, supported Clyde and I remember it was a No 3 then an 18 to get to Shawfield. But absolutely everyone else supported Rangers. I just decided I was going to be obstinate, fight against the tide, and so Hearts became my team. Alex Young, Chris Shevlane, Davie Holt and of course Willie Wallace. When they were pipped to the old First Division title in 1965 I was devastated.”

Well, this sounds more plausible than his allegiance to St Mirren, one of those clubs with an unfortunate reputation as a Trojan horse for those who’d prefer to keep their support for either half of the Old Firm secret – although this has a basis in truth as the Buddies were the team of his much-loved stepdad, Young’s real father dying when he was five.

Fight against the tide; he’s doing a lot of that right now. We never see him on TV any more, unless it’s a take-off. “Not my decision,” he says. “When the Beeb decided to bring in video journalism, guys with their own cameras, I said to my gaffer: ‘This isn’t for me. Give me a night oot and I’ll be away.’ He said: ‘Your generation will probably be the last to get away with not doing this.’ And so I do only the radio now, which suits me fine, because it allows you to breathe. On Reporting Scotland your sports round-up is 1 min 23 secs. That will never stretch to 1 min 24 secs. How can you tell a tale in that time?” He pauses. “Though there must be an art to it.”

Just as there must be an art to Twitter, but for the life of him Young can’t work it out. “The Beeb wanted me to join that revolution, too. I said no. ‘But you’ll find that a large number of people will want to [pretends to stumble over the terminology] follow you.’ ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘I’ve got a lot of folk following me at the moment – I cannae shake them aff!’ They call it tweeting, I call it twatting. [Radio 2 DJ] Ken Bruce, who’s a friend, calls it virtual graffiti, which is brilliant, although to my complete and utter dismay he’s now signed up to Twitter. I mean, I see how journalistically it can be a useful tool, but when it’s guys sitting at home in their pants slagging off the world and doing it anonymously, then how’s that advancing mankind?”

Young gets some of the slagging, of course, and a YouTube clip of him demanding his detractors remove their masks is popular though not as big a hit, still to this day, as Chick being upbraided by Walter Smith for his remarks about Rangers’ under-performing foreign stars, with Archie Knox suggesting our man’s mic be “rammed right up his arse”. Young heh-heh-hehs. “I had to tell Walter what YouTube was when that clip started to become a phenomenon. He was staggered when he found out how many folk were looking at it, thought we should be making at least a penny per viewing and wanted to get a lawyer on the case. ‘We could donate the money to charity,’ he said. I said: ‘Walter, you can do what the hell you like with your half!’”

Smith has gone from our game; Young is still hanging in there. Rangers have gone from the SPL; Young says to the rest: “Kick them, just don’t kick them to death.” He admits he’s a “dinosaur”. A stegosaurus chum in the print game – a Dundee man, just retired – told Young the other day: “We’ve probably had our last toddle up the brae.” He was meaning the days of wine and roses and expense accounts for journos; World Cups for Scotland. “This is a guy who, wherever we went to watch football – and that was most places – would always say upon arrival: ‘Lets have a wee beer, just to break the phlegm.”

Well, Chick Young isn’t ready for that last toddle quite yet. He still loves the game and for us that passion – “Just my natural enthusiasm” – means fun, an important commodity. He’ll be on duty today, tomorrow ... oh, and what about Rangers v East Fife on Tuesday? The Beeb say they don’t need him that night? He’ll be at Ibrox, anyway.

“And even if Scotland don’t qualify for the next World Cup I think I’ll have to go to Brazil anyway.” Perhaps not by boat, though – and certainly not by train.