“It’s a remake of 10 Rillington Place this time,” says John, the well-informed barista. The manager of Ayr United is an aficionado of gripping crime yarns but doesn’t know this one. “True story,” adds John. “This guy lured women back to his flat and killed them, then had sex with their corpses before burying them under the floorboards.” “I see,” says McCall. “Not a romcom, then?” “Ach,” quips John, “that’s Maryhill for you.”
Oh the merry banter of a trendy West Endy morning. It’s just gone nine, McCall having only got to bed five hours previously following the bus ride back from the Honest Men’s 4-1 Championship play-off victory at Peterhead. But he’s on sparky and candid form as he looks back over a harum-scarum career of promise not always fulfilled – and forward to what he hopes to achieve with Ayr, who take that commanding lead into today’s semi-final second leg at Somerset Park.
He says he can’t chat for long but even the incidental stuff is revealing. For instance, when his son phones him – they’re visiting his new school for the first time later this morning – and he signs off “See you, Edson” I’m bound to ask: named after Edson Arantes do Nascimento, by any chance? “My heroes are really all the flawed guys – John McEnroe, Tiger Woods and particularly Diego Maradona – but you can imagine there wasn’t much chance of my ex-wife letting me call him Diego. So, because I was nicknamed Pele back in Dumfries, he’s Edson.”
Then, before we know it, we’re talking about books, favourite authors and crime novels which are about a whole lot more than the dastardly deed. “I love George Pelecanos who co-wrote The Wire. His books take you right into 1960s and 1970s Baltimore: the cars people drove, the clothes they wore, what music was on their radios. Another favourite is Lawrence Block. I love his character Bernie Rhodenbarr, who runs a Manhattan bookshop by day and by night is a gentleman burglar. He hates his work being called ‘breaking-and-entering’ because, while he enters, he never breaks anything. If you came up to my flat round the corner from here you’d see my three new bookcases. My pal built them and I painted them. Well, my other pal painted them. I’ve got a thousand books and all 18 by Pelecanos. I don’t know if I wasn’t allowed to have them on display when I was married but now I’m single again they’re all out. Arranged in order, too. I’m anal like that.”
But back to Ayr, all told the 18th stopover for this wild rover of a football man, although we might argue over this total. “Was I really at Hamilton Accies?” he groans. “I’ve tried to erase that from my memory.” I could interview McCall, 51, at any moment and one of his former clubs, as player or boss, would be in the news. Right now, two have been declared champions (Rangers and Dunfermline Athletic), one has been relegated (Dundee United), two are trying to avoid dropping down (Hamilton and Partick Thistle), while four are hoping to come up (Falkirk, Queen’s Park, Bradford City and the Somerset Parkers).
Following three-and-a-half years out of the game, McCall got back in last January when Ayr were wobbling. The turnaround this season has been fairly dramatic: now they’re hoping to exit League 1 the glamorous way, though he insists they’ve not beaten Peterhead yet. I ask if he’s been involved in a comeback from three goals awry, either as a hero or the humiliated. “Christ I don’t know, maybe. But I think I would have been the one throwing away such a lead.” A certain fatalism accompanies many of McCall’s tales but not that of Ayr.
“I don’t want this to sound sycophantic but there are a lot of really fine people at this club and for them I’d love to take Ayr into the Championship and re-establish them there. Historically I think we’re Scotland’s 14th or 15th club. One of these people is the chairman [Lachlan Cameron]. He lives in Pasadena, an extremely busy man, but into this for quite a bit of money. We get on well. I was telling him on the phone only yesterday that there are plenty of chairmen I’ve known who I wished had ran the show from somewhere that remote.
“Somerset Park is a cracking little ground. It’s where I scored my last-ever senior goal, coming on for Clydebank. There are guys in the crowd, just to my left, who I know remember the place packed to the rafters with 17,000 folk when Rangers or Celtic came to town and they’d love to see us move up to what should be a really competitive Championship with lots of great old names in it – not least if Kilmarnock are going to be meeting us on the way down. Football rivalry in Ayrshire is fierce. I played Cumnock vs Auchinleck as a 16-year-old and it was wilder than Celtic-Rangers.”
Just seven years later McCall was at Ibrox, snapped up by Graeme Souness as one of Scotland’s most gallus young midfield talents, but he was to squander his big opportunity. “I’m flawed,” he’ll say more than once today. Something else he repeats is: “I don’t want to come across as arrogant.” He’s brutally honest about what went wrong at Rangers: “When I was fit – and I don’t want this to come across as arrogant – the game came easy to me. But Graeme had arrived from Italy with a new set of standards for what was required of professional footballers and Ray Wilkins and Trevor Francis, who’d also played there, reinforced his message. I just wasn’t a good pro at Ibrox; I didn’t apply myself. When I was fit I could hold my own. Half a stone overweight, though, and average players would fly past me. It’s a huge regret and it’s why as a manager I’m big on players living their lives the right way. Do I tell them where I went wrong? All the time… ”
Let’s go back to where it all began for McCall and Dumfries. “I was my mother’s favourite and my two older brothers would absolutely confirm that!” he laughs. Mum Emma is still going strong, being taken out for dinner by her sons the previous week to celebrate her 82nd birthday, but their teacher-father Walter’s death from cancer 15 years ago hit McCall hard.
“Head examiner for Higher English for 25 years,” says his laddie, as proud of that as anything football could offer. Walter would be keen on McCall joining his brothers at university but had already introduced him to Palmerston Park. “He first took me to see Queen of the South when I was seven. We always stood to the right of the Cowshed. I remember Allan Ball playing, and a great game where we beat Ayr 5-4, Peter Dickson scoring a hat-trick.”
The local heroes reckoning him “too wee” to make the grade, young McCall joined Motherwell, woke up to views of Ravenscraig, got homesick for rolling hills, quit the Steelman and the game, contemplated sportswriting. A friend from home who was at uni in Glasgow invited McCall to share his flat and so began a love affair with the West End which has endured for 32 years. The only break was a year-long stay in Edinburgh while playing for Dunfermline Athletic. Didn’t he like the capital? “Oh it was fine. There are just as many fannies in Glasgow as there are in Edinburgh.”
Student football brought him to the attention of Queen’s Park and you might not be surprised if their irascible coach, Eddie Hunter, had ended up killing McCall’s interest in football for evermore. “Christ, he was hard. I suffer from eczema and at that time had asthma too. Once, when I couldn’t stop itching during a match, he ran from the dugout and shouted: ‘McCall, ya f****n’ wee allergic b*****d!’” But Hunter proved to be an inspirational figure. “He gave me back my desire for football.”
Moving to East End Park, McCall was a big hit. Then a Souness phonecall more or less ordered him across to Govan.
“Jim Leishman, making out I wasn’t keen on Rangers, was being crafty. Then when the money went up to £250,000 he opened the door and booted me into Halbeath Road!”
McCall ponders his Ibrox experience some more: “I was strong-willed – no, I was arrogant. I thought I knew everything. There were a lot of run-ins with Graeme – Walter [Smith] too. Folk think Walter’s this lovely guy but you don’t want to get on his wrong side. Later, when I was manager of Dundee United and Graeme was at Blackburn Rovers, he phoned me about a player and I said to him: ‘ You were right and I was an absolute choob.’ He just burst out laughing.
“I was young, I was hanging about with students and musicians, I was enjoying myself too much. But you cannot dress this up. I was an athlete and I should have been looking after myself. Some players are lucky. Owen Coyle could eat the world and it wouldn’t affect him; I wasn’t like that. Throughout out my career I was maybe only my proper weight for three years. Mind you, I saw Owen being interviewed the other day and he was looking rather chunky.
“But I’d like to think, in pointing out the error of my ways, that I’ve helped other players. Gary Harkins is one and Peterhead’s No 2, David Nicholls, was a stone and a half overweight when I had him at Clydebank but I got him in shape and he enjoyed a good career.
“Then there’s Charlie Miller. In a wee spell at Dundee United he was the best midfielder in the Premier League. He took Barry Ferguson apart and did the same to Neil Lennon and Paul Lambert. Mind you, his contract was coming to an end. Maybe he wasn’t listening to me at all.”
From Rangers, McCall went to Bradford City but a change of manager and philosophy – long ball, missing out the midfield – hastened his return to Dunfermline. He remembers a game against Hibernian at Easter Road: “I was having a stinker but then I cut in from the right, the ball sat up nicely and I hit it perfectly past Andy Goram from 25 yards.
“What makes that goal special is my dad saw it. He never came to watch me because he got too nervous, but that day there was an outing to the football from the Scottish Examination Board in Dalkeith and he got dragged along. He never told me he was there and I only found out later from my mum.”
When did the player think he might become a manager? “Not then. I was flying by the seat of my pants, not worrying about the next day. David Moyes and Billy Davies shared a car with me. I think they’d have been surprised at me ending up a boss.”
He flew onwards to Dundee, then Falkirk, enjoying both stints. At Dens Park, fitness coach Harry Hay knocked him into his best shape. It was, however, a “total myth” that he exited Tayside after leaving a nasty deposit in one of Simon Stainrod’s shoes.
He approves of “harum-scarum” as a description. This has been just as true of his time in management, beginning with Clydebank. “That was two-and-a-half years of mayhem. There was the plan to move the club to Dublin and the fans turned on me as if I had anything to do with. A helluva grounding.” Morton was a “bad experience” – he’d say more about Cappielow but might get sued. Then came Airdrie, just as desperate, with new owners introducing McCall to 500 fans in the town hall as the new boss. “The first question from the floor was: ‘Are you going to do the decent thing and resign?’ Then someone chucked an egg. Brian Rice, my No 2, maintains to this day that he caught it on his chest and volleyed it straight back at the thrower.”
After all of that he was glad to get to Falkirk – “my first stable club”. He rates Campbell Christie, next to Ayr’s Cameron, as his favourite chairman and when he quit the Bairns for a bigger job it was with a heavy heart. “Folk say I went to Dundee United for the money. You know what? I did. They made me the third highest-paid manager in Scotland. I was 38 and I had a baby coming along – I don’t think that was me being greedy. I was scared, having turned down other approaches, that I’d get labelled unambitious.”
Under him United achieved their first top-six finish in a while but, shortly after beginning the next season with a standing ovation from the supporters he was sacked. “It was the right thing for Eddie [Thompson, chairman] to do.” So how does he view United’s current woes? “I get on fine with Stephen [Thompson] but I don’t think he’s got the strength of his father.” United won’t find it easy in the Championship, and of course McCall hopes Ayr will soon be joining them there, but he’s an admirer of the favourite for the manager’s job, Ray McKinnon.
Queen of the South were next for McCall, a labour of love for this Doonhamer, followed by Partick Thistle – “an utterly sensational football club”. The Jags get teased about their eccentricities but he heartily approves of them, citing as an example the send-off given to Gerry Britton, his assistant: “Gerry was called the King of Spain. Nobody knew why but there were at least five theories. For his last match, the programme was written in Spanish, the stadium announcements were delivered in Spanish and I’m pretty sure that paella was served at half-time.”
Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, as the old joke goes, but did McCall then anticipate being out of football for so long? He didn’t, though understands that managers can be hot and then not, and he no longer qualified as being the brightest young buck. Yes, he wondered if he might never get another job but kept hoping the call would come. During his exile he had to attend to a “personal issue”, something he’ll never speak about. This, he thinks, made him stronger. Then, having “spent a decade being obese”, he shed four and a half stones. “I needed a club and a chairman to open their minds a bit and thankfully Ayr and Lachlan did that.
“Listen,” he says finally, “no one knows better than me that I should have achieved more in football but my head’s completely rounded now and I live quite possibly the most sterile and straight life of anyone I know. I’m manager of Ayr United and I’m a dad, two roles in which I’m very happy. The only real problem is that part-time football messes with the fitness regime. After training on Tuesday and Thursday nights Lynn the cook makes all this great food and suddenly I’m eating after 9pm again. I’ve put a stone back on…”