Only a member of a select group of people that includes an Airdrie fan with a death wish and John Brown would try to pick an argument with Robert Douglas. But when he says his career hasn’t been at all bad for a “wee lad from Lanark”, it’s possible to wonder just how big one needs to be to pass as even ‘medium-sized’ in the mean streets of Lanark.
‘Wee Rab’ simply doesn’t have the same ring. It’s Big Rab to his friends, acquaintances and even passers-by. Only the nearby Broughty Castle landmark casts a longer shadow than the one which accompanies the towering Douglas as he strolls down Broughty Ferry’s main thoroughfare, the acclaim from well-wishers ringing in his ears. “I always knew you had another year in you,” trills one. Only another year?
When I phoned Forfar Athletic manager Dick Campbell to get the green light to interview Douglas – even 6ft 4in 43-year-olds need permission to speak from their manager – he embarked on a lengthy paean to his goalkeeper. It included the news he’d happily pin Douglas down to another season after the up-coming one.
Indeed, Douglas has no definite plan to retire even at the end of this, his 23rd season as a professional footballer. The latest campaign kicks off today against Paul Hegarty’s Montrose in the Petrofac Cup and Douglas can hardly wait.
So, while it’s not yet time for the complete retrospective, the ‘wee lad from Lanark’ is right to cast an approving eye back across the peaks and troughs. Douglas’ career to date hasn’t been at all shabby, especially considering he didn’t turn full-time until he was 25-years-old.
Twenty years ago this summer, Douglas was preparing to fit in goalkeeper duties for the recently formed Livingston FC with being a bricklayer. He is the last of those who turned out for Meadowbank Thistle, Livingston’s previous incarnation, still playing, making his debut for them in a midweek fixture down at Palmerston Park in December 1993, where they lost 5-1 to Queen of the South.
“I don’t think I flogged any, which is a surprise,” he says. However, the detail neatly illustrates the stretch of his career – he has lasted longer than Livingston.
Not that his waistband is expanding. While he says he has “pairs of pants that are older than some of my teammates now”, Douglas is only a 1lb heavier than when he was at Celtic – and it’s easy to believe.
He made 43 appearances for Forfar last season, the most he’s made in a single campaign since the Uefa Cup final season with Celtic. He turns 44 next April, by which time he hopes to have reached 650 career games. He also wants to assuage the pain of missing out on promotion with Forfar in the play-off final last season by gaining promotion with them this season.
“If we’d won the play-off, perhaps I might have been persuaded to call it a day,” he muses. “If we had gone up, I would probably have thought about hanging them [the gloves] up. It would have been a nice way to go out.
“But I can’t go out on that note. I have to give it another go. I have had a great innings. I might not be everyone’s cup of tea but you ask any fans who have followed me wherever I played – I have played injured, I have been dropped and got back in, I have put my head down, I have worn my heart on my sleeve. If it is not good enough then I have always held my hand up.”
In his case, literally so. With Forfar seemingly cruising towards securing a place alongside the likes of Rangers and Hibs in this year’s Championship, Douglas and Darren Dods got in a fankle and the mix-up allowed Alloa’s Liam Buchanan to level the scores on aggregate at 3-3.
Douglas took responsibility, signalling ‘mea culpa’ to the impressive number of Forfar fans who had travelled that afternoon by raising a giant gloved hand into the Clackmannanshire air. A further goal for Alloa extinguished Forfar’s hopes of returning to the second tier for the first time since the early 1990s.
Douglas was the fall guy. It has often been thus, of course. He ponders why he and Jamie Langfield seem to be the goalies who most often get it in the neck. Langfield was Douglas’ understudy at Dundee and has battled through serious health issues to earn a hugely deserved testimonial for Aberdeen against Brighton & Hove Albion tomorrow. Douglas applauds his friend’s perseverance. They have been brothers-in-arms and shoulders-to-cry on since their days together at Dens.
“Jamie is probably above me now for top clean sheets in the SPL,” he said. “So he must be doing something right. But when Jamie makes a mistake or I make a mistake it is a disaster or a calamity. There is no hiding place. Boys let the ball run under their feet week in week out for a throw-in – no problem. When we let it run under ours it is a goal. You have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.
“The play-off final was the most recent example for me,” he continues. “I would have said the whole season I probably cost Forfar two goals out of 36 goals. I cost us a goal there and I was looking for them to dig me out and none of them dug me out. That’s the nature of the game. We had got to the play-off final because I had been so consistent. Never mind losing a play-off, I was more disappointed we didn’t win the league with Forfar. But that’s football.”
It is good to meet Douglas, this former Scotland goalkeeper who, like Stewart Kennedy before him, has found a very productive and hospitable berthing at Forfar. Like Kennedy, he claims to have played some of his best football at the Angus club, despite the advancing years. There is, however, one unusual problem that Kennedy was spared during his stay at Station Park.
“The Astroturf is f*cking freezing,” Douglas protests. “See in December, I have my boots off and my feet in the teapot at half-time. Mind you, I am not sure if that is just me getting old, and the circulation is not what it was.”
Douglas’ handshake grip is reassuringly strong even if his choice of coffee – some vanilla-flavoured concoction – doesn’t quite fit with the image of someone with an apparent penchant for duffing up fans of opposing teams. One of the best parts about joining Forfar is the banter with away fans at places such as Dunfermline, Ayr and Morton. One of the few downsides, however, has been when such jesting has crossed the line to full-on abuse and risk of physical assault, as happened versus Airdrie in April.
Of course, it is only because it happens so rarely that it becomes such headline-making news. There was one incident during a Dundee derby in 1998 that saw him wrestle with a Dundee United fan who had encroached on to the pitch while more recently, an Airdrie fan made an incredibly ill-judged decision to enter Douglas’ domain. It drew one of the quotes of the season from Douglas: “Stay out of my area or accept what you get”.
Douglas dealt with the interloper efficiently enough, but he knows it could have been a lot worse.
“The gaffer’s son [Ross Campbell] shouted out a warning,” he recalls. “I had my hat and my towel in my hand – I turned round and saw the boy running. I thought: ‘he is not running to shake my hand’. The abuse I got that day was embarrassing. It was the usual stuff – the wee boy was supposedly going to destroy me in the car park.
“But I am big enough and ugly enough. If the manager’s son hadn’t shouted to warn me, I might have been on the deck. You never know what they are carrying. They are in my box, I am not in theirs. I have a wife and daughter I want to get home to on a Saturday night. I had to phone and say I am with the police? She [Debbie] said: ‘What, have you been lifted?’
“I have been hit by lighters, coins and even by a baguette in Valencia – I took a bite out of it. There are places I love going, whether it is Brechin, Dunfermline, Ayr, Morton, Partick, St Mirren. But the Airdrie one was unacceptable for me. They couldn’t be the sharpest tools in the box because it didn’t register I was a Motherwell fan. It was all anti-Celtic stuff and bigotry. It is sad.”
He scoffs at a piece of Twitter idiocy advising him to bring minders to Airdrie in two weeks’ time, when Forfar kick off their league campaign at the Excelsior season. Nevertheless, police are apparently committed to stiffening up security behind his goal. But can Douglas really still be bothered with this kind of stuff anymore?
It seems he can. In fact, he almost relishes such challenges. But then he has been doing this since being cast aside by Lanark Juniors. “I was in my early twenties and one of the coaches there said I wasn’t good enough,” recalls Douglas.
By the end of his twenties he was playing for Scotland and had signed for Celtic, who won a race with Rangers for the then Dundee goalkeeper’s signature. The Dens Park club bought him for £100,000 from Livingston and sold him for over £1 million – it remains the highest fee the club have received. “The father-in-law says it’s the best investment he ever made,” smiles Douglas, with reference to Peter Marr, then Dundee owner and, ever since he married Marr’s daughter, part of the family.
The Ibrox club looked closest to signing him at one point as they sought cover for the injured Stefan Klos. However, Douglas opted for Celtic, concerned that he would not be given an opportunity to play regularly at Rangers. Although criticised for some high-profile mistakes, he did as much as anyone to help Celtic to a Uefa Cup final in 2003. A review of that game now makes a mockery of those who blame him – and the red-carded Bobo Balde – for the defeat to Porto in Seville.
“They wouldn’t have got there without Bobo and I,” says Douglas. “Porto were no mugs. They went on to win the Champions League the following year. That’s how good Porto were. You can get away with a couple not playing well, but apart from Henrik, who was exceptional, most Celtic players will be disappointed with their performance on the night.”
A save from Milan Baros on the line v Liverpool in the memorable quarter-final victory at Anfield sticks out for him and also what happened after John Hartson’s stunning clinching goal. “I turned round to the Kop. Sometimes you make eye contact with someone, and there was this one guy, hands up in the Kop, Celtic top on. You think: ‘Make sure you remember this moment’.
“I have done no’ bad for not being good enough for Lanark United Juniors,” he adds.
Douglas’ Scotland career can almost – almost – be traced back to the birth of his daughter, Brooke, who turned 13 earlier this year. Having been assured he would be making his debut against France in March 2002, thereby persuading him to miss the birth of his first child, Douglas remained on the bench throughout, cue a heated discussion with Berti Vogts at the airport afterwards.
He did eventually become Vogts’ No 1 choice. Douglas bears him no ill will. After all, he handed him his competitive debut, against, erm, the Faroe Isles, on that ignominious afternoon in Toftir. The last of 19 international appearances was ten years ago next month, against Austria. Douglas won’t ever forget his Scotland games, particularly those at Hampden, when he would always puff out his chest and sing Flower of Scotland with gusto.
“It was the Four Tenors including me,” he smiles. ‘Lambo’ [Paul Lambert] just used to look at someone in the crowd and focus on that. I would be belting it out. He called me Bobby Braveheart!”
While Douglas reached an accommodation with Vogts, who he now refers to as an “absolute gentleman”, it’s unlikely this will ever happen with John Brown, the man he blames for ensuring his long association with Dundee ended amid remarkable bitterness. They fell out over Brown’s clandestine plan to replace Douglas, who had re-joined Dundee in 2008, with Steve Simonsen towards the end of the 2012-13 season.
Harsh words were spoken at a meeting that Douglas, in the absence of a PFA Scotland official, recorded. On learning that Douglas had taped their spat, Brown later said he would advise any manager not to go near the ‘untrustworthy’ goalkeeper as he searched for a new club.
“I have managed another 60-70 games since he said that,” notes Douglas. “It hurt. It was a horrible time. I ended up ill with the stress because I got no support. But I will say my full bit on this the day I stop playing because I don’t think it is fair for myself, for Forfar, or for Dundee.”
But if he met Brown in Broughty Ferry tomorrow, what would he do? “Would you shake someone’s hand if he said that about you? What is he doing in football anyway? I am driven by principles. I stick to my principles. There is only one winner after you argue back to the manager. ”
Copies of the tape of their spat are in good hands, he confirms. “It will be more embarrassing for Mr Brown than it is for me. A couple of people have got it for safe-keeping.”
There are times when this genial big man seems close to tears, understandably so when he recalls his mother Joy’s influence on his career. “Growing up I had the best Jim Leighton Reusch goalie gloves and yet my mum had holes in her slippers. You don’t forget that,” he says. His mother could never watch his professional games live – not even Seville. “She recorded it and watched it later.”
Joy passed away during the difficult but ultimately rewarding days of Dundee’s administration, when the players rallied to recover from a 25-point deduction. “They should make a film of that,” he says.
But Douglas was also battling with grief all the way down the line during a season when Dundee re-defined what playing for each other is all about. There were others too who distinguished themselves during those difficult days, including the person whose thoughtfulness Douglas has cause to remember this afternoon.
“We played Morton away, it was the first game after all the snow, and Wee Andy [Bryan], the Morton kit man whose own mother had passed just a few weeks before, gave me a black armband to wear, which I have worn ever since.
“It was his testimonial recently, so I sent him a wee message. For me, guys like that you don’t forget. Things like that you don’t forget.” Douglas will pull on that same armband this afternoon as he keeps on keeping on.