Interview: John McGinlay on his love of playing for Scotland

I'll meet you in Bolton,' says John McGinlay, 'but don't get off the train there.' He means the Wanderers' stadium, which isn't in Bolton but Horwich, a town in its own right. When the Wanderers wandered from Burnden Park, where McGinlay scored the last-ever goal, some fans refused to come with them. 'So see you at the Reebok, then,' I say. 'Well,' he sighs, 'that's what I still call it but it's the Macron now.'

Former Bolton Wanderers and Scotland striker John McGinlay at the Trotters' Macron stadium. Picture: Matthew Pover

If Boltonians suffer from disorientation then at least this craggy Highlander, who scored 118 goals for them in 245 games, has always known where he’s going. Right through a career which took him from Nairn to New Zealand, his compass, his homing device, has been the Scotland team.

This is a man who cheerfully signed up for those unglamorous expeditions to the Faroes, San Marino and Estonia, the latter infamously adding just two and a half seconds to an international record he protects with fierce pride.

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This is a man who got on the plane to Belarus when his wife was about to give birth to their daughter. “Lee’s waters had just broke but she told me to go because she knew how much playing for my country meant to me. Amie Lee was going to be our first girl after having four boys and by the time the plane landed she’d arrived. She turned 20 yesterday and it’s a ritual every birthday that she digs out the pennant I got from the game. She’s never let me forget that I was at the births of all the boys but not hers!”

And this is a man who, when he found out he hadn’t made the cut for the Euro 96 squad, quickly forgot about his disappointment and joined the Tartan Army on the march to England. “I didn’t need a replica top any more,” he smiles. “I could wear my own shirt.”

McGinlay would be a good guy for an inspiring chat before any Scotland game, but maybe particularly the first home match of the qualifying group that we hope will take us back to the World Cup. The last time we reached the finals, first home match in November ’96, he scored the only goal of an extraordinary encounter – played at Ibrox because Hampden was under reconstruction – against Sweden.

The first extraordinary thing about it was the lead-up to his eighth-minute strike. From inside his own half Tosh McKinlay sent the ball forward. Standing level with the centre-circle in the Swedish half, Darren Jackson let it pass through his legs, a manoeuvre The Scotsman’s Glenn Gibbons described as a “bewildering feint”. McGinlay didn’t collect the ball until the edge of the Swedish box which surely meant that no dummied pass had ever travelled further.

“It might look like we worked on that one in training but we hadn’t,” says McGinlay who finished with his customary deadliness. “To be honest there was never much time for that sort of thing with Scotland. But the move worked a treat. I always liked playing with Darren. I liked playing with anyone in a dark blue shirt.”

But the most extraordinary aspect of that victory under Craig Brown was the performance of Jim Leighton. “Never mind my goal, Jim won us the game. He produced seven or eight world-class saves. Sweden battered us and he was saving shots with his face while big Colin Hendry and the other guys in the defence made some fantastic blocks.”

We’re talking in Whites Hotel which nestles under the stadium where the previous evening Bolton, who McGinlay once fired into the top flight after many an FA Cup giant-killing act, were engaged in a Lancashire skirmish with Blackpool in a more modest competition, the EFL Trophy. Now 52, he may not love the Macron but he loves Wanderers and lives just three minutes away.

Wanderer would sum him up as well. He would go anywhere for a game and ended up playing for 15 clubs, banging in goals at every staging-post. And wherever he went – apart from New Zealand’s North Shore United, that was too far – he’d always try to get back for the next Scotland game. “I am what I’ve always been, a fan. I still go up for the matches.” Then his eyes narrow. “You’re probably sorted for the England game next month. I’m still looking for a ticket.”

McGinlay’s wandering began from the village of Caol, a pimple of a place next to Fort William, and you might think he’s its most famous resident but he isn’t even its only brawny, bustling Scotland striker. “Duncan Shearer is two years older than me. We worked on a building site together. We helped build the British Aluminium smelter at Inverlochy. But all we really wanted to do was play football.

“Duncan got his start at [Inverness] Clach. I was envious although we were always friends, not rivals. We only ever competed to be the boy who attended school the least. I used to turn up for registration then skive off to play football on the village’s new five-a-side pitch. Then Fort William, who weren’t in the Highland League at the time, gave me a game when I was just 14.”

McGinlay’s father Arthur was a lorry driver and his mother Ellen worked in the local care home. They liked Caol just fine; he didn’t really appreciate its natural beauty. “You could see Ben Nevis from our kitchen window. It made zero impression on me; I was only interested in somewhere flat with posts at either end. In winter, when the tourists had long gone, the place was dead. If I was going to be a footballer I needed to get away.”

He did that alright. At Nairn County, manager Malcolm Cowie was emigrating to New Zealand and his 20-year-old hotshot decided to go with him. “That was how impatient I was. But the journey out there was a nightmare – 32 hours on a plane, seven under virtual house arrest in Los Angeles because I didn’t have a visa – and I got sunstroke right away. For the first three months, I lived for my mother’s phone call every Sunday. I wanted to come home.

“I was a country bumpkin. My only other trip abroad had been the World Cup in Spain in my kilt and Adidas Sambas. At the Brazil game in Seville, I was behind the goal when Zico bent in that free kick. Afterwards there was a wonderful street party. My pal Alan McKinnon exchanged strips with an absolutely stunning Brazilian girl who was wearing nothing underneath. I swapped with this big bear of a bloke.”

McGinlay, playing with half the New Zealand team beaten by Scotland in that tournament, eventually made a success of his Kiwi adventure. “The club wanted me to stay. I’d met a girl out there and I thought about applying for residency.” Scotland would then have had to find someone else to trump Sweden. But he returned to Nairn, continued to average better than a goal every other game, and was soon getting noticed down south again. Not quite as far south as the antipodes, but Yeovil Town was still a fair old hike.

“I think I went on ten trains. Even then I overshot by 30 miles and got lost. Ian Botham was their striker but he had to miss the end of the season and go on a cricket tour so I was to be his short-term replacement, only to end up staying three years.” It was in Somerset that he got together with Lee and they started the family before the nomadic urge returned him to the Highlands.

“Steve Paterson, who I’d played with at Nairn, took over at Elgin City and asked me up but Lee didn’t settle there. Then I got told: ‘McNeill’s been on the phone asking about you.’ I thought: ‘Billy McNeill? Celtic? Braw.’ It was Ian McNeill at Shrewsbury Town.”

Once again McGinlay was heading for England to a town he couldn’t place on a map but nowhere was too far away from Hampden for those Scotland excursions. He’d trekked up from Yeovil and by the time he got to Shrewsbury, fellow Scots David Moyes and Dougie Bell were ready to share the car journey with him.

But, despite maintaining his impressive goal rate, wearing the shirt on the park as opposed to the terraces was still just a dream. Then, at Bolton, the call came. “I was sent to Manchester, to the Jaeger shop on King Street, to pick up my team blazer. Never mind the strip, just putting that on for the first time was enough for me. The buttons had the Scotland badge on them. You wouldn’t have been able to get that blazer off me that day. I felt like I’d just been handed Augusta’s green jacket.”

McGinlay’s international career began and ended with games against Austria. The debut, in April 1994, was a friendly in Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium. He scored the opener in the win, then guess who replaced him? Shearer. “That was ridiculous! Two boys from Caol, this tiny, shinty-mad place, playing football for Scotland. Like any kid I’d fantasised but there didn’t seem the remotest chance that would happen.”

Even more ridiculous, the pair then formed a two-pronged Caol strikeforce against San Marino. They were given the freedom of Fort William after that, with the honour of being able to drive their sheep along the High Street, though McGinlay admits the Scotland routine took some adjustment for the country bumpkins.

“At training myself and big Dunc would grab a big bag of balls, rush out on to the park and lash them into the net. We didn’t know any better. Gary McAllister taught us the error of our ways. He said Craig liked the players to take the field together.

“That was Craig, very precise, everyone dressed identical, even at training. But I had great respect for him as a manager. He did an excellent job with the players at his disposal. Him being as organised as he was covered up a lot of our deficiencies.”

That’s a generous tribute given that Brown would overlook him for Euro 96. Says McGinlay: “Of course I was disappointed not to make the tournament but I just kicked everything back five years to when I’d never have imagined playing for my country. At least I’d done my bit in helping get Scotland to the finals.” Did he think that was the end of his international tenure? “I hoped it wasn’t. Scotland back then had the same problem they’ve got now: scoring goals. I thought that if I kept myself sharp I might get back in.”

There were far more grim situations for McGinlay than banging them in for Bolton. He talks with great warmth about the town – “It’s been fantastic to me and my family, it’s a good place” – and the club under Bruce Rioch when team-mates included Alan Stubbs, Andy Walker, Owen Coyle, Mixu Paatelainen and Jason McAteer. He counts himself lucky to have enjoyed the benevolence and encouragement of Wanderers icon Nat Lofthouse, whose statue stands outside the new ground. “Imagine coming to training every day and this absolute legend saying ‘Good morning’ to you; he was the nicest man”. Fortunate, too, to have performed at the old one, which was itself immortalised in lovely chimney-stack fug in LS Lowry’s painting Going to the Match: “Burnden Park will always be my favourite ground. Yes, it was falling down by the end but it meant so much to people and when the club moved here the heart kind of went out of the town.”

McGinlay’s rollicking style had already been a huge hit with Bolton fans thanks to those FA Cup victories over Liverpool, Arsenal and Everton and an equally thrilling Wembley play-off against Reading which returned the club to the big league – and straight after Euro 96 he was able to force his way back into the Scotland team. He treasured every one of his 13 caps, the goals and the laughs along the way. “We were a tight group, more like a club side, although I remember the uproar when butter and tomato ketchup was removed from the dinner table. Craig was impressed with John Collins’ diet at Monaco – plain chicken, plain pasta, no sauces – and tried to copy it. There was a revolt.”

But then the man who missed the birth of his daughter for the national side took the tough decision to give up on his beloved Bolton. “It broke my heart to leave here but I thought I had to do it to stay in the Scotland team for the World Cup in France. Bolton had been relegated from the Premiership but had gone straight back up. Myself and Nathan Blake had scored a lot of goals – I’d got 30 of them – but then Colin Todd, who was in charge by then, signed guys like Peter Beardsley and Dean Holdsworth and I thought I might not get a game too often. I needed to be playing to stay in Craig’s thoughts. A few clubs were interested in me but, don’t ask me why, I went to Bradford City. I carried an injury right through that season, taking anti-inflammatories before and after training and last thing at night. I never made it to France.”

McGinlay’s wanderings then took him to America and Cincinnati Riverkings but he was only there a few months when he had to rush home. “Mum discovered she had breast cancer. She was missing the grandkids terribly so we packed up and came back home. We had one more year with her – and unfortunately just seven weeks after that Dad passed away. He suffered a heart attack at her funeral. We were going to move him down here to be with us but he never made it. He died of a broken heart, basically.

“That was tough but thinking back to that Sweden game the best thing about it for me is that the whole family were there to see it, including my parents. That was the proudest moment they ever had. Mum took a photo of the team, maybe not the best there’s ever been, but special to her. She had it blown up and framed. I haven’t seen it for a while. I must look it out.”