Interview: St Mirren and Hearts veteran Jimmy Bone

WHEN Hearts and St Mirren do battle today, Jimmy Bone will be 2000 miles away.

Jimmy Bone is now a development officer for the SFA. Picture: Julie Bull

You might think this typical of a much-travelled player who lined up against George Best in five different countries and who when he turned to management, didn’t hang about.

This time it’s a holiday on Cyprus which is detaining him, booked long before anyone started calling this game the earliest relegation showdown in football history. Somewhere between pool and bar, though, the old centre-forward will try to catch radio commentary from Tynecastle – and he’ll be torn.

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“It saddens me that two of my former clubs are having such a tough time,” he says. Bone had three rumbustious spells at St Mirren and life as a Paisley Buddy was never dull. “I loved the years I spent there, but I also grew up a Hearts fan and made my mum proud when I got the chance to sign for them as an old-timer.”

We meet at Stirling Uni, where Bone works as an SFA development officer, coaching disadvantaged kids. Life seems to be treating him all right at 64: he looks tanned enough to have just returned from somewhere hot. This is at odds with the peely-wally complexion he sported on early-1970s collect-the-set cards, but then the entire Scottish First Division, as was, wore one of them. The wild hair from one of Peter McDougall’s hard-man dramas has gone – and, minor tragedy, so’s one of oor fitba’s most evocative moustaches.

“Ach, I got rid of it a while back. I like to be clean-shaven now – it’s a good discipline. You get up in the morning, have a proper shave and you’re ready to start the day. I tell the young coaches this at Largs where I work as an educator. ‘Guys,’ I say, ‘you want to be setting a good example to your players.’”

He chuckles, possibly at the very notion of the SFA having an anti-whiskers crusader and it being him. “I loved my moustache once. Who was it modelled on? Cannae remember. But I had it before Celtic and after, just not during. I knew Jock Stein didn’t like facial hair. The day I signed he said: ‘You’ve got a moustache. Well, you just keep it, son.’ Next day at training all the boys were staring at me. I didn’t like that so at night I took it off. An example of Jock’s reverse psychology. He was clever like that.”

There’s a lot of ground to cover – we’ve got to get to Zambia at some point – so let’s begin in Fallin in Stirlingshire, where Bone, the eldest of six, was born. “My dad was a Rangers fan, my mum’s side were all Hearts and I had a right soft spot for them, but I didn’t think I could let on to Dad. The only games I got to see were Rangers ones weekabout with my wee brother Alex, and I was worried that if he found out I’d get left at home 

The man who would later be immortalised on a Partick Thistle keyring for scoring the last of the Jags’ four goals against Celtic in that amazing 1971 League Cup triumph – “Bone walks the ball into the net!” is the legend, courtesy of Arthur Montford – would first make an impression as a rugby full-back. Stirling High didn’t play football and Bone was in line for the Scottish Schools XV. “But Jim Ryan came to my rescue. He became the understudy to George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton at Man U but started out playing in a BB team in Stirling. So I joined the Boy’s Brigade. I was that desperate to become a footballer.”

Before then he went down the pits. “My dad left my mum and as the eldest I had to quit school early and become the breadwinner. I was an electrician at Polmaise and it was the making of me. You learned about teamwork in the mines because you were dependent on the other guys for your life. I think I got the natural aggression I had as a player from down there, which made me the determined bugger I was, trying to find myself a club.”

Eleven trials, 11 knockbacks. As “A. N. Other” he scored for Liverpool but they said no. He banged in five for Stirling Albion. At Hibs, where he also scored, the young John Blackley told him he was “too wee”. “The pit helped again. Going up and down the braes, I filled out and got stronger.” At Partick he had three trials, scoring in each one. “And in 1967 I came home from work to find that [manager] Willie Thornton had done a deal with my mum.”

Let’s jump forward to his first spell at the old Love Street. Bone doesn’t believe St Mirren are in a relegation fight, not yet, but back at the climax of 1977-78 – manager: Alex Ferguson – they definitely were. “It was between us and Ayr United, who we had to play at Somerset Park. At half-time with the score 0-0 Fergie said: ‘Win and I’ll double the bonus.’ We did win and stayed up and I don’t think Ayr have ever been back in the top league. But Fergie was sacked. The board said he didn’t have authority for the bonuses. I had to speak in his defence at an 
industrial tribunal.

“Back then we saw some of the things which stood Fergie in such great stead, his relationships with people and man-management. We witnessed the hair-dryer. He trusted his experienced pros like Jackie Copland, Iain Munro and myself, but younger ones like Billy Stark got a hard time because he was so desperate for them to become good players. It didn’t do Billy any harm. Fergie was super-competitive and tried to make us the same. But we had a laugh with him. He was demanding, but always fun.”

A man of many clubs, Bone might be best remembered for that Hampden saunter past Evan Williams for Thistle but he played most often for Saints. “I was an aggressive player at the start of my career and aggressive at the end with Hearts but in between times that St Mirren team played some nice football.” Bone rattles off some personal stats, lest we forget. “I captained the club to their highest-ever finish – third in ’79-’80. We had Dougie Somner and Frank McDougall up front, Starky and Frank McAvennie out wide and myself in the hole. We won the Anglo-Scottish Cup that season and the 25 minutes against Bolton when we went 4-0 up was the greatest display I was ever part of, even better than what Thistle did to Celtic. Then the following year I got Goal of the Season. I had to run with the ball against Aberdeen for 70 yards so reckon I deserved it.”

Bone was back at Love Street for the ’87 Scottish Cup triumph, as assistant to Alex Smith, but five months after it he was sacked. “A faction on the board wanted to bring in Tony Fitzpatrick and Frank McGarvey as the management team. Here’s a daft story: we’d just played Hibs at Easter Road and all the directors were having a drink. Their lot say to ours: ‘We’d give anything to have that cup in our boardroom.’ One of our guys goes: ‘Sometimes I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to the club. Now the management are going aff their heids.’

“We got accused of trying to buy washed-up foreigners. Ian Ferguson [the cup final goalscorer] was wanted by lots of clubs. Spurs were prepared to give us Ossie Ardiles, Nico Claesen and money for him. Claesen wasn’t so washed-up: he’d go on to score a hat-trick for Belgium against Scotland. And anyway, after Alex and I were gone, Stevie Archibald came and he brought a pal from Barcelona.”

Bone says the reason given for his 
dismissal was he’d got “too close” with the players, but that couldn’t be said about his relationship with McGarvey. “We didn’t get on. Great player, but sometimes he didn’t pull his weight. I was a hard taskmaster and would call him a lazy sod. Against Tromso in the Cup Winners’ Cup, he got hauled off. As he ran down the tunnel he gave me some unbelievable verbal abuse. I went after him and there was a scuffle, which shouldn’t have happened.” That word again: “I was too aggressive.”

Bone’s third spell at Saints, completing a ten-year association, was as manager. No cups this time; just some serious accountancy during a rocky juncture for the club. He takes the credit for steadying things. “I brought in £1.7 million in transfer fees.”

So, let’s talk about the Jambos, his first love. He was signed by Alex MacDonald in 1983, just in time for Hearts’ promotion back to the Premier, and the first derby in a while for Edinburgh’s yo-yoing clubs. “Hibs actually wanted me as Pat Stanton’s assistant but they wouldn’t let me keep playing. I thought I still had some goals in me.” He did. “We won that derby at Easter Road 3-2, Robbo [John Robertson] scored his first two goals against Hibs and I got the winner. But there’s a sad story to that game. Afterwards, Bud [Willie Johnston] and I were enjoying a wee drink in the Barnton Hotel and my brother Alex was with us. Two days later Alex, who worked on the roads, keeled over and died of a heart attack. He was only 32. His funeral was on the Thursday and the gaffer said I should take as much time as I needed. Rangers were coming to Tynecastle on the Saturday and I told him I wanted to play. ‘Get rid of your sadness, Jimmy,’ he said. We won 3-1 and I scored again.

“Alex [MacDonald] was a great boss with Sandy [Jardine] alongside him. That team [also featuring Roddie MacDonald and Stewart McLaren] were known as Dad’s Army, but we did pretty well. Wallace Mercer, a lovely guy, had to pay out more than expected in bonuses. Kids like Robbo and Gary Mackay were breaking through. Myself and Bud had this wee routine. We commandeered the cleaner’s cupboard and called it our tea-room. The young ones would stop by, ask if they could come in, but we’d make them wait outside and listen to us discussing their form. ‘You let us down on Saturday,’ we’d sometimes say. ‘You’re only getting a cuppa if you promise to do better.’

“Regarding Robbo, I thought I’d be the brains of that striking partnership and he’d do all the running, but he only ever wanted to be in the penalty box so I’d end up having to knacker myself. But the wee man did okay, didn’t he? To this day he still calls me Da.”

Bone, who would score Hearts’ 6000th league goal, gave way to Sandy Clark for the thrills and heartache of the 
’85-’86 double-chasing season. “I was sorry to miss that but I’d had a fantastic time finally getting to wear a Hearts jersey and it was the right moment to step down.” Scanning his career as a whole it can look a bit chaotic, peppered with premature endings and surely the odd disappointment. For instance, Celtic: only seven games. “I had a bust-up at training with Sean Fallon, though I think it was stage-managed by Big Jock. If you displeased him or weren’t needed anymore you tended to be sent far away – I went to Arbroath! But to be fair to him, when he was Scotland manager I was playing for the Under-23s and he told me: ‘I was wrong about you.’”

Only two full caps. “Aye, that was disappointing. I think I was in all of Tommy Docherty’s squads and then Willie Ormond never picked me. But there were a lot of great players around at that time – and some who didn’t get any caps.” He scored Norwich City’s first-ever top-flight goal only to be sacrificed later in the season for a midfield purchase as the team fought relegation. “And I missed the League Cup final against Spurs by four days. Whenever I see my old striking partner David Cross he tells me we’d have won the cup if I’d stayed, but I’m in the club’s hall of fame.”

The blizzard of names on his playing CV includes Toronto Blizzard and Hong Kong Rangers and his managerial postings were occasionally exotic (East Fife, South Africa, Stenhousemuir and Kitwe in Zambia, home of Power Dynamos). Has he always had itchy feet? “I guess so,” says our man, married for a second time, to Shona. “I’m not looking forward to my retirement. I always like to be doing something and don’t want that to be bowling. In football, my view was that if you were invited some place, it was good manners to accept. Some moves didn’t work out; I was too hasty. And as a manager I maybe could have been more mellow.” Schooled by Stein and Ferguson, though, he was probably always going to be a disciplinarian.

There maybe won’t be too much mellowness at Tynecastle today. “I know,” he winces, “but whatever the result I really do think that both my old clubs can stay up.” Bone masterminded victory in the African Cup Winners’ Cup – is there anything from that experience that might prove useful in the match? “What, like black magic, you mean? There was a lot of it. Animals sacrificed and secret potions sprinkled in your socks for good luck, but if you found chicken-shit in your goalmouth that was bad luck. Before the final I told my players: ‘Dinnae bother about any of that. Today you’re Scottish.’ I was the only white guy in the stadium, but I made them sing Flower of Scotland with me. It did the trick.”