Interview: Ex-Scotland player Tony Green on being a Newcastle hero
And – same guy – which clever little midfield schemer is still applying deep thought to the game at the age of 71, meeting once a week in private with some English legends to predict results which could change lives with cash bonanzas and, who knows, prompt a spike in the sale of speedboats?
Give yourself a coconut if you answered Tony Green of Blackpool, Newcastle United and – these days – the Pools Panel. Better still, give yourself a macaroon bar. Green began his career at Albion Rovers where John Justice Lees, inventor of the coconut-flecked confectionery, was a director.
For fans d’un certain age the cry of “Erra spearmint ana macaroon barz” is as evocative of a bygone era as “You’re going to get your flippin’ heads kicked in”. Why the two treats were sold together on the terraces is one of life’s abiding mysteries. “Funny that,” says Green, “but I’m afraid I don’t have any insider knowledge.” Were the Rovers players given the “Lees, Lees, more if you please” sweetmeats before games and then a box each at Christmas? “No, we didn’t, but I once had a hurl in Mr Lees’ Rolls-Royce and there weren’t many of them parked up outside Cliftonhill. This was after we’d won the Police Cup which was a daft wee five-a-side tournament for teams in and around Glasgow played at Shawfield. We actually beat Celtic in the final and my brother John, who supported them, didn’t speak to me for weeks afterwards.”
Green is one of the lost talents of our game. He debuted for Scotland in 1971 in our first competitive match against Belgium who are coming to Hampden next Friday night. But five internationals later it was all over. Green smashed up his right knee and never recovered. He was 25.
What was he going to do with the rest of his life? There were young mouths to feed. He was offered a pub to run as convention decrees but had a better idea and became a maths teacher. “I did that for 30 years. Six times longer than I was a footballer. It was a very rewarding job. Of course, no one asks me about it. They all want to know about the football. And, aye, some of them will say: ‘Tell us about that time you dumped Georgie Best on his backside … ’!”
We meet in the market town of Poulton-le-Fylde, the train-stop before Blackpool, where Green lives with his second wife Chris. It’s a pretty place battling the tide of over-development but life for him seems good: there are two Mercedes in the drive and a holiday in Florida to come, the couple having only just returned from Majorca.
Now I know what you’re thinking: footballer-to-maths teacher? “Well, I studied maths at the University of Paisley while I was playing for Albion Rovers,” he explains. “I seem to have an aptitude for it so when I stopped playing I thought I’d try to put that to some good use.” Green’s parents, Thomas, a docker, and Agnes, wanted the absolute best for their three boys and hoped they’d all go to uni. “They didn’t get the chance. I think they were ahead of their time because most other lads would have been encouraged to leave school at 16 and get a wage. John, who’s dead now, was the brainiest but he went from job to job: bee-keeper, male nurse, etc. You’ll never guess what became of my other brother, also called Thomas: nuclear scientist! He worked at Dounreay among other places and has just retired. He says he’s going to try to get to the bottom of calculus, the study of continuous change, so that should keep him nice and busy.”
I suggest to Green, an inside-forward in the grand Scottish tradition, another pint-sized playmaker from the assembly-line, that compared to his contemporaries he’s the forgotten man. “That suits me,” he laughs. But, as I learn, it’s not true. The Newcastle faithful have never forgotten him. They cross the Pennines to knock on his door and get him to tell the story of his Magpies tenure one more time. All 33 bittersweet games of it.
Born in Glasgow close to Ibrox, Green joined Albion Rovers in 1964 for £7 a week. “You got that if you played, and even if you were injured, but if you were dropped it went down to four. One frozen Boxing Day I broke my wrist. My wee brown envelope only had four quid in it. ‘But I got injured’, I said. ‘We were just about to drop you’, I was told.” Crowds at the Coatbridge coliseum averaged 400 – “And Dad and brother John knew everyone. The comedy could be good. When Johnny Dillon, a nice lad who went on to play for Sunderland, was told by someone in the crowd, ‘Gie yersel a shake’, he’d stop and shoogle himself up and down.”
Blackpool legend Stan Mortensen, then the Seasiders’ manager, took Green to Lancashire in 1967 for £15,500 – despite being expressly told not to sign him. “He told the chairman: ‘I’m going up to watch Albion Rovers’. The chairman said: ‘Just as long as you don’t sign Tony Green – he’s not big enough and he’s not good enough’. I think a lot of clubs looked at me and thought I was too slight. I went straight into the team. One Saturday it was Cowdenbeath in Scotland’s old Second Division – the next I was playing First Division football in England.”
Green suffered more injury, missing a whole year after damaging his Achilles, but had already impressed Bloomfield Road. “My first game back for the reserves, 10,000 turned out.” Then he shot to nationwide attention scoring two crackers in an FA Cup-tie win over West Ham United in front of the Match of the Day cameras. “What a good goal!” said commentator Alan Weeks of his mazy dribble and right-foot finish. “What a good goal!” Weeks declared again as our man volleyed home with his left. “No wonder they say this boy is worth £100,000!”
Blackpool’s fellow Scots included Tommy Hutchison and John McPhee, previously of Motherwell, who didn’t allow Chelsea’s Ron Harris exclusive use of the “Chopper” epithet, and Green’s big pal was Tom White, brother of the late, great John. The Scotland call-up came during qualification for the 1972 European Championships, a prize which was to elude the team and manager Bobby Brown.
Green was a substitute against Belgium in Liege, replacing Ron McKinnon, scorer of the own goal in what was ultimately a 3-0 defeat. Then in Lisbon he came on for Pat Stanton who’d put through his own net, Portugal winning 2-0. Incredibly John Greig did the same thing against Northern Ireland in the Home Championship, though at least this time Green got to start.
“Crikey,” he says, “I’d forgotten about those OGs. It’s all a long time ago. I was surprised to get picked for Scotland but obviously delighted. All of a sudden I was mixing with names I only got to read about and I think I was a bit starstruck. There were the top guys from Celtic and Rangers while the Anglos were the likes of Denis Law, Billy Bremner and Alan Gilzean. But they weren’t primadonnas. You might have thought there would be some strutting about but nobody did that. On the Portugal trip Willie Henderson, because he was friendly with Eusebio, got invited up to the great man’s villa. He came back with a crate of nice wine and we asked him: ‘So will you be getting Eusebio through to Caldercruix now?’ I don’t remember Willie sharing the wine with us but I did get Eusebio’s autograph for my mum.”
Green played twice against England – in the 3-1 defeat at Wembley in ’71 which was Brown’s last game in charge, and for Tommy Docherty the following year at Hampden, 1-0 to the Auld Enemy that time. “I was back to being a substitute again. The Doc told me to man-mark Alan Ball who’d scored England’s goal. I was dead excited to be getting on the park – there was 120,000 in the ground that day, the biggest crowd of my career – but he couldn’t have picked a worse guy for that job. I was about beating players, and that’s what we needed that day.” Sadly for Green there would be no more days in dark blue.
Four months later, by then the creative spark at Newcastle, he clashed with Crystal Palace’s Mel Blyth and the slight boy definitely came off worse. “I ripped the cartilage and ligaments in my right knee. It wasn’t malicious on Mel’s part but my recuperation wasn’t the best. The club didn’t think the injury was a big problem and I carried on training in a splint, running up the terraces. Nowadays I’d have had an operation right away.
“I was under the care of a general surgeon who was Newcastle’s vice-chairman, but as I told the club: ‘If I was a plumber I’d have seen an orthopedic surgeon’. The op, when it happened, wasn’t a success. I had two more. I made it back into the reserves, scored the winner at Coventry and phoned home with the good news. But the next morning my knee blew up and I couldn’t get out of bed. That was it – finito.”
Green loved his time at Newcastle – but not as much as manager Joe Harvey and the fans loved him. “When we found out I couldn’t play again Joe took it really badly. I had to console him and I was the one who was knackered. The supporters were brilliant – and still are now. There’s a group of them called the Fairs Club who go on pilgrimages to the homes of beat-up old blokes like me. That’s very humbling because my time at the club was the blink of an eye, really. When I go back to the city I can get quite emotional because the love I get from the fans can be overwhelming. Once this young lad stopped me for a photo. ‘I never saw you play’, he said, ‘but you were my dad’s favourite. Every new signing he’ll still say: Not bad – but not as good as Tony Green’. The last time I was there my cabbie turned round as he was driving because he wanted to show me film on his phone of the Man United game.”
This league match, from 1972, has entered Magpie folklore for the 2-0 Old Trafford victory over Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law & Co was Newcastle’s response to being dumped out of the FA Cup by little Hereford, one of that competition’s all-time greatest shocks. “It was typical Newcastle that we’d go and do that,” says Green. “We were confident of beating Hereford, even though they’d taken us to a replay on their terrible park. That mud would have got the tie called off now. I was standing quite near to Ronnie Radford [scorer of the non-leaguers’ stupendous equaliser] and am supposed to have said: ‘Go on, shoot. You’ll never score from there’. Not true! At least I don’t think it was.” Against Man U, Green created both goals, the second of them after a run the length of the pitch, and that was when Bestie, trailing in his wake, was unceremoniously left on the turf.
Green is revered because he was the creative hub of a Newcastle side who played with flair. “There’s pressure on some teams – Man U, Everton and West Ham are others – to play free-flowing, attacking football and the Geordies crave that. We had Bobby Moncur who was a great captain and SuperMac [Malcolm Macdonald] banging in the goals and I’d like to think we entertained.” Green might not even have been the most mercurial member of the side – not with Jimmy Smith appearing disinterested on the right wing before rousing himself, sometimes sensationally. “When I’m asked, ‘Who was the best you played with?’ I say Jimmy and for the worst I answer Jimmy too. He was a brilliant talent when he could be bothered. I remember being in the bath with him after a match and Joe Harvey announcing he’d just been picked for Scotland. He was grumpy. ‘That’s all I need’, he said, ‘three days in bloody Largs.’ He liked to go to the dogs and an international was only going to get in the way.”
Green says the modern footballer whose career ends abruptly doesn’t want for advice and support, some of it psychological. “Back then, though, if I’d asked for counselling, folk would have thought I’d gone loopy. I did struggle for a while. I couldn’t stop thinking about football and the fact it was over. I probably needed a drink to get to sleep but eventually realised I couldn’t live the rest of my life like that. There was too much ‘Poor me’. I was probably becoming a bit of a bore.”
What a fascinating career change! Alan Weeks might have said that. Green moved round three different middle schools teaching algebra and geometry to nine to 15-year-olds. “I loved being a teacher. So much so that I almost forgot I was ever a footballer. At my first parents’ night a dad asked: ‘Didn’t you used to be Tony Green?’ ‘I still am’, I said. It was a very fulfilling job. Helping a kid crack a subject which scared them was very satisfying. But some knew way more about maths than me.”
Nuclear science, macaroon bars, love of learning – what a fascinating tale. Of course Green has not been entirely lost from football when every Thursday he is installed behind a locked door in Liverpool with Gordon Banks and the rest of the Pools Panel. It was feared the advent of the National Lottery would kill off the quest for eight score draws which, with Bakelite radios buzzing on kitchen tables, was once a national obsession. But the pools are still played and, in the event of postponed matches, the experts’ adjudication is required.
“In the old days if there had been a big freeze you might remember we’d turn up on Grandstand,” he says. “My first time on TV when there were six of us the car going to the studios wasn’t big enough and our chairman, Lord Bath, just jumped in the boot. That was 43 years ago. I’ve become great friends with Banksy and Roger Hunt, who’s just retired. We go on holidays together, these World Cup-winning heroes and me who hardly kicked a ball at all. Ah, but I did play for Newcastle. Once in Benalmadena in Spain we were approached by a bloke in a black and white shirt, camera at the ready, who rather embarrassingly shoved Banksy and Roger to one side and said: ‘I only want a picture of you, bonny lad’!”