Interview: Fan to hero '“ Donald Ford's Main Stand memories

Away up in Gorgie at Tynecastle Park, as the old song goes, an eight-year-old boy passes through the turnstiles in the main stand and, once on the other side, regains his father's hand. In his maroon and white scarf he is excited but also nervous '“ he has never been in a gathering of folk this big before.

Former Hearts striker Donald Ford on the beach near his Carnoustie home. Picture: Paul Reid
Former Hearts striker Donald Ford on the beach near his Carnoustie home. Picture: Paul Reid

They re-emerge into daylight and the boy catches a glimpse of the lush pitch between adult legs while they nudge their way down to the enclosure wall where his father asks other junior spectators if they wouldn’t mind making room for a lad who, before a grumbling appendix was finally diagnosed and removed, would measure a mere 4ft 11ins tall until he reached the age of 16. Donald Ford is about to witness his first Hearts game and his dad has one important piece of advice before 
moving back up the steps to his own vantage point: “Watch what Willie Bauld does.”

A Jam Tarts legend pranced in front of that famous old stand and, down at ground level in 1953, a future hero was studious in making mental notes about elite-class centre-forward play. This won’t happen anymore; the stand is coming down after tomorrow’s match. Hearts have to hope that the magic of Bauld, to say nothing of the magic of Ford, doesn’t vanish into the dust as the wrecking ball does its worst.

Now Ford is laughing. King Willie never pranced. “He would watch the defenders, he would watch the centre-half,” says Ford, “and then suddenly without his man knowing it Willie would have stolen four yards on him. But just before then, sizing up the situation, he walked around the pitch pretty much like Cruickie walked off it.”

This will only make sense if you’re in the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, watching Ford impersonate Jim Cruickshank, the goalkeeper in his Hearts team (1964-1976). It’s a slouching, mournful shuffle which reminds your correspondent of Sad Sack from the US Army bubblegum comic strip. “I’ve never seen a greater contrast between a footballer’s demeanour playing and not playing. On the park of course Cruickie had a brilliant eye and was so quick off his line to narrow the angles – a fantastic keeper.”

Ford loved those excursions to Tynecastle every second Saturday from his home in Linlithgow where his father Alec was a vet.

“Think of this: I was peeking over the wall to see the forward line of [Jim] Souness, [Alfie] Conn, Bauld, [Jimmy] Wardhaugh and [Johnny] Urquhart. The magnificence of Bauld at No 9, then the magnificence of Alex Young who succeeded him. Thirty-thousand of a crowd, often more. In the league-winning season 132 goals would be scored. Amazing, just amazing.”

Hearts were Ford’s team which made playing for them special, but far from easy. “When I walked into the club for the first time as a player I was a skinny right winger from Bo’ness United and I was thinking: ‘If I can just get myself into that jersey… what on earth is it going to feel like?’ I defy any player, even the biggest big-head, not to walk down the tunnel at the start of his career and have his stomach churning like a concrete-mixer. And I was doing this for my beloved team!”

Donald Campbell Clark Ford, now 72, is a good man to speak about the stand although not in an obviously nostalgic way. “You entered the ground under it and were greeted by the doorman,” he explains. “Then it was left down the corridor, manager’s office on your right, past the boardroom to the little tea-room.” Ford’s world, beneath seats commandeered by camel-hair-coated Edinburgh businessmen with their season tickets, was a quaint and snug one. Of course, he says, there’s sadness about bidding farewell to the stand because it’s stuffed with memories, but the structure needs replacing. Life goes on, as it does for Ford.

He’s not an obviously nostalgic man but a restless soul, looking forward rather than back. His wife Carol is always telling him to slow down. “She’ll say: ‘Donald, why do you have to win all the time?’ It’s not that, it’s just I’ve always wanted to be the best I can be. The best centre-forward I could be, and I had to work at that because I wasn’t blessed with lots of innate skill. The best cricketer. The best accountant.
The best photographer.” The day after our chat he is up at 3am for what he hopes will be a dream picture, looking from the beach in the north of Gigha towards Jura. If the shot works it’ll go into a 2019 calendar. He produces two every year, one landscapes, one golf.

Ford was a Gorgie polymath, doing most of these other things while amassing 188 goals – he was Tynie’s renaissance man. He also strove to do a good job as a councillor, representing his home town on an Independent 
ticket, but still regrets not being able to halt the “award-winning rectangular garbage” constructed next to Linlithgow Cross or keep the M8 from encroaching too near the loch.

For Ford, that stand is emblematic of a different era of football, a nobler one. He remembers the conviviality of matches as a boy down at the enclosure wall – “I’d chat to Queen’s Park fans, even East Fife fans” – and despairs of online bickering between supporters now. His old winger Roald Jensen 
“hated aggression of any kind” but the little Norwegian possessed deedle-dawdle skills which have disappeared. Why don’t goalies come for the ball anymore? Cruickie did all the time. Ford compares defending past and present: “Forwards aren’t tightly marked now; we get this pathetic four-in-a-line routine and the attitude: ‘There’s enough of us back here’. But a guy like Willie Hamilton would have a defender right up his back constantly, not that it did the fellow much good.”

Hammy was ghost-like – “The things he could do with his body,” adds Ford – and just as elusive off the park. “We were staying in Largs before a cup tie. Willie daunered back about 11, having been goodness knows where. He was sharing with Bobby Kemp and fell into bed leaving the light on. ‘Come on, 
Willie, we’ve got Rangers in the morning’, said Bobby, ‘be a good lad and get the light’. So Willie reached down, picked up a shoe and threw it, smashing the bulb.”

Even if he didn’t approve of the deed Ford must have appreciated a skill which would have been useful on the cricket pitch. Ford played his other
sport in the summer with Hearts’ blessing – “I always came back for pre-season training nice and sharp” – and after he was finished with football. He turned out for Scotland in the 1980 Benson & Hedges Cup but caps weren’t awarded. “That was disappointing but I was thrilled to be at Lord’s to see my big brother Malcolm hit 66 against the MCC.” A fine left-handed batsman, Malcolm sadly succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 50.

Ford’s father also represented his country with the bat and at one time the lad contemplated following him into veterinary work. “Dad had a country practice and he’d knock on my bedroom door if there was time to go with him to a calving before school.” But, thanks to an inspirational maths teacher at Linlithgow High, John 
Ferguson, Ford also loved sums. He opted for accountancy and then Hearts spotted his talent.

Still an amateur while studying for his degree, the 19-year-old made his debut against Celtic at Tynecastle in September 1964. In the stand that day were his parents, mother Betty in a green and white hat, much to her son’s embarrassment. “Mum didn’t know anything about football but Dad was very knowledgeable. He played Juniors and had been a good tutor to me, ensuring I was reasonably two-footed. But he never saw many of my games for Hearts. He worried he’d be a jinx.”

The debut went well, a 4-2 win with Ford laying on a goal for Alan Gordon. Ah, the chartered accountants’ double-act – did they have an on-field understanding based round numbers and sympathies with each other over brains-in-heid jibes? Ford laughs and, not being one to over-embro