Ian McCall takes an extra-long draw on his cigarette. A double espresso cup – no saucer, a quirk the waitress knows since he’s a regular – sits long since drained on the pavement table in front of him.
He’s calculating the number of full-time managerial posts in Scotland. “Maybe 22? If you have one you want to keep it. And I have the best one. Red and yellow mate, red and yellow…”
He’s helping heal Partick Thistle after a traumatic few years, on and off the park. After the deaths of managerial greats John Lambie and Dave McParland in 2018, the club’s benefactor and largest shareholder, lottery winner Colin Weir, passed away last month. They met only once, at Weir’s home. “We chatted over tea and sandwiches,” he recalls. “Three weeks later it all happened. It’s a very emotional time for a lot of people within the club. I do not know the ins and outs [of what it means for Thistle]. But my hunch is the club is in very good shape. Very good shape.”
One blessing is McCall being back. There’s no one better equipped, or more determined, to seek to create a fitting legacy for Weir. “My absolute dream is to take this club up and keep them up for a year, and then maybe do something else – but at the club,” he says. “What they know now is that unless they sack me – and if I lose lots of games, that might happen – I will not move now. The Hibs and Hearts jobs came up the week after I left Ayr and everyone said, ‘well, you should have stayed to try and get one of them’. No chance. Thistle is it now.”
It’s late afternoon in Glasgow in early January but we’re yapping away in the open air like we are in Barcelona or something, on account of the Partick Thistle manager’s desire to have a puff.
We know he is the Partick Thistle manager because he is wearing Partick Thistle training kit following geargate, which was when he was snapped at one of his first training sessions after leaving Ayr United still wearing a pair of his former club’s tracksuit breeks. It was a deliciously Ian McCall kind of story. Maverick, mercurial, he’ll wear what he wants.
He’ll also do what he wants but that’s not to say the switch was an easy decision to make. It was, perhaps, the hardest of his life. There might have been no fulfilling second chapter to McCall’s managerial career had it not been for Ayr United, and, more specifically, the club’s owner, Lachlan Cameron.
One thing McCall has always worn is his heart on his sleeve. And while Thistle are his club – he knows, for example, that, if resorting to shorthand, it’s always “Thistle”, never just “Partick” – then Ayr United, it could be said, were his redeemers. It’s where he was re-booted.
“Because of my problems I always think I have had two management careers,” he explains. “My first one, between 1997 and 2011, and then it all ended because of my problems – well, one specific problem. And then the second one, Ayr United was my re-start. The phone call from Lachlan completely changed my life. And now here I am back at the best club in Scotland.”
Due to the perception he was damaged goods, Ayr United directors took the time to compile several testimonials from Scottish football figures before ending McCall’s exile of more than three years from the game.
“Word filtered out that I was living my life the right way, that I was fit and I had lost a lot of weight and I was doing a lot of running,” he says. “Ayr phoned two or three people about me and every one of them, including Ronnie MacDonald, the then Hamilton owner, Neil Lennon, Derek McInnes were all very good about me. So I must have been doing something right.”
Despite this support and the fact he clearly has a multitude of friends in the game, there was something he said at his unveiling press conference at Firhill in September that felt very poignant. Detailing what he’d gone through since leaving Thistle the first time with his life spiralling out of control due, principally, to a gambling addiction, he said the only people proud of him were his mother, Emma, and son, Edson.
Surely, more than 20 years after he first became a manager, with Clydebank, and given his many associations, there were more looking out for him than that? “No, not really,” he says.
I mean, he’s best pals with David Moyes, newly returned to top-flight English football at West Ham United, for example, while the man at the very top of the Scottish game, SFA chief executive Ian Maxwell, is only there because McCall set him on that path, a truth he clearly revels in. Comparing Maxwell to Gerry Britton, who’s another long-time pal and now, essentially, his boss, McCall exclaims: “The current chief executive of the SFA could not lay a finger on Gerry Britton, and you can quote me on that!”
“It was me that put Maxy up the stairs at Firhill. He was my assistant and I said we didn’t have the money for a full-time assistant but, I tell you what, he will be brilliant upstairs doing that kind of stuff.”
As for the addiction problem, it was McCall v McCall – the way he wanted it. Few others were allowed in. He doesn’t have a standpoint on the recent controversy down south, where a streaming deal with Bet365 means FA Cup games are being shown on betting firm websites.
“I try not to have an overview on any of this stuff,” says McCall. “What John Hartson does with his charity is fantastic but, for me personally, I had to step back, I had to help myself. And in turn that helped the people in my life. Obviously, it might be morally wrong but I do not have a huge view on in it. My only thing is, I cured myself. It is now eight or nine years. It is not in me now and I am very proud of that.
“I would not go into what I went through,” he adds. “I am not into being a bloody drama queen. I kept that type of thing quiet. Actually, the only people who knew how bad it was basically was my mum, that was it. I don’t expect sympathy.
“Everything about that was self-inflicted. I am not one of these people who has the view I will now go help everyone else. I wish I was. But I had to help myself for the sake of the people I love. And I did. I am very proud of that considering some of the things I have been through.”
He returned stronger, fitter, happier, apart from a problem with his left eye that was later diagnosed as a detached retina. Even now, after an operation, he is forced to squint as he reads texts on his mobile phone (and given this is transfer window month, there are a few to get through).
Ayr United fans are naturally concerned he’ll return to raid them. Indeed, he already has, signing skipper Ross Docherty on a pre-contract. It’s tricky, McCall admits, because Mark Kerr, who succeeded him at Somerset Park, is one of the top ten players he’s managed. But then all’s fair in love, war and the Scottish Championship.
“He knows I have talked to another couple of players, which I am allowed to do,” he says. “I have had it done to me many times. He will find he will have to do it, too. It’s hard because he is a big part of my management career.”
McCall cannot deny he was hurt by the spiky reception he received on his return to Somerset Park with Thistle shortly after his departure. “When I went back down there and they beat us 4-1 – and it could have been 10-1 – I got pelters, I just felt… I mean, I could understand if I had left after a year. But it was five years, people were talking about Ayr United again, there were loads of players that other clubs wanted. It had turned round full circle.”
There were sustained attempts to convince him to stay, including cross-Atlantic appeals. He’s grateful that the United States-based Cameron never resorted to emotional blackmail based on the fact he’d given him a route back into the game. He, too, accepted McCall had certainly served his time, passing up several earlier opportunities to move on – sometimes for greater money than Thistle were offering. “I know I was on the phone to him a long time because my phone bill was 180 quid more than it usually is, and he’s never paid me that back yet…” he says.
Cameron also promised McCall that he would never sack him, which, while flattering, was also something he had heard before…
McCall has been lured back to Glasgow’s west end though he never left it. He hails nearly every passer-by by name. They know exactly who he is, what he does and what he can do. “A couple of tickets for the Celtic game? Aye no problem, just drop me a text to remind me.”
Before Celtic in the Scottish Cup next weekend, it’s Dundee United today, the club where he was closest to reaching the big time as manager and currently the other in-form team in the division. The impact he was able to make there was compromised by the need to inflict wage cuts on high-earning players, a task he took on himself rather than leaving to owner Eddie Thompson, who once told him he had a job for life at Tannadice. “Gordon Chisholm, my assistant, said let’s walk out now, we have taken the club to the top six, it is impossible now,” he recalls. “And it was impossible.”
He was axed in March 2005. “The right decision,” McCall says. Still, those United supporters present at Firhill this afternoon have someone very special to thank him for, star striker Lawrence Shankland.
It says a lot for McCall that Scottish football’s two goalscoring phenomenons of recent years, Stephen Dobbie (who he had at Queen of the South) and Shankland, say much of their success is down to him. He handed Shankland a second chance after the striker left him waiting at an appointed spot and signed for Morton instead. When that didn’t work out, McCall forgave him. When his former players all gathered for an unofficial farewell night in a local Ayr grog house a couple of weeks after he joined Thistle, Shankland looked in, despite the fact he was reporting for Scotland duty the next day and was, by now, scoring for fun with league rivals.
“He deserves everything he gets,” says McCall. “My worry about Saturday is that he has not scored in two games and I don’t think I have ever known him not to score in three games in a row…”
It’s like Stella Street in Glasgow’s west end these days. As well as his opposite number today, Robbie Neilson, there’s Steven Gerrard and Lennon warily circling each other and Gerrard’s No 2, Gary McAllister, an old pal of McCall’s from his brief Motherwell days (they are the same age, 55).
“I am not the biggest fan but that’s one of the great things about Rangers and Celtic just now – the managers and staff at both clubs are top notch,” he says. “When you get players on loan now from Rangers and Celtic these days it is different to when I started because of the type of boys they are.”
At Ayr, he had goalkeeper Ross Doohan from Celtic and Stephen Kelly and Jordan Houston, a midfielder and defender respectively, from Rangers. Currently at Thistle there’s Cameron Palmer from Rangers. “One thing they have in common, and they all have varying abilities, is that they are great boys,” he says. “Unbelievably respectful. They want to work hard and do what they are told. That’s been a big change from before and it’s down to the managers at Rangers and Celtic and their staff.”
He had a few beers with Gerrard, McAllister and two friends of Gerrard’s just after Rangers had beaten Aberdeen 5-0 in September. Gerrard left but his two friends stayed. A discussion developed in his absence about who had been the greatest Liverpool midfielder – Gerrard or Graeme Souness, who signed McCall for Rangers in 1987.
“The younger one went with Gerrard and the older one, a big mate of Ian Rush’s by all accounts, went with Souness,” recalls McCall. “For me? Too close to call,” he adds, diplomatically.
McCall scoffs at the notion that Gerrard might have a view of him as a player, but he was one, an extremely good one, when the notion took. Admittedly, the early signs were not at all promising – he was short-sighted, allergic to grass and prone to homesickness when he turned up at Queen’s Park after failing to impress in a trial for hometown club Queen of the South and having quit Motherwell.
He was recently asked to speak at the Queen’s Park annual dinner shortly before the vote that saw the club’s amateur status come to an end. “I said I don’t like the thought but I understand the necessity,” he says. “I loved my time there being an amateur. Going in on a Thursday and any player who was not there I would just say, ‘I will collect their expenses as well’ and then head out on the town! Great times.”
Despite sometimes forgetting the new code of conduct to which he was expected to conform as a professional at Dunfermline, Rangers and elsewhere, McCall flourished into an artful winger. Even Simon Stainrod, with whom he encountered a little difficulty, could see that.
Prior to a Scottish Cup game against Falkirk, the then Dundee player-manager was doing a power point presentation and next to the No 10 jersey, inside of writing McCall’s name as he had done with the rest of the players, he put, simply: “The Maestro”.
The aforementioned difficulty in their relationship came later, on a pre-season trip to Aviemore. McCall’s always been adamant that one of Scottish football’s enduring myths is just that, a myth. Which is fortunate seeing as the story involved him leaving a deposit in one of Stainrod’s shoes. But there were some high jinks, including a “half-naked Greek wresting bout”, the ring marked out by discarded training gear, where McCall inadvertently bust Stainrod’s nose. Bad move.
Drink was taken that night, things got out of hand and the next time McCall was seen at Dens he was lining up against Dundee for Falkirk in the first league game of the 1992-93 season.
“The Dundee fans were always brilliant with me, I think they felt I let them down,” he says. But he’s let no one down. Not his son, not his mother. And certainly not himself.