Interview: Stuart McCall, the Leeds lad and Bradford legend with Scotland in his heart

Stuart McCall played for and managed Bradford City as well as having a successful spell at Rangers and becoming a Scotland stalwart. Picture: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Stuart McCall played for and managed Bradford City as well as having a successful spell at Rangers and becoming a Scotland stalwart. Picture: Pete Norton/Getty Images
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The footballer had just won promotion – with a club as Yorkshire as Ilkley Moor, Geoffrey Boycott and Alan Bennett in Betty’s jotting down the funny things people say on one of the tearoom’s napkins. The player, who talks like they talk in God’s own country, was so thrilled with Bradford City’s achievement that he climbed onto a parked car, can of beer in hand, to perform a little dance. Only he went and slipped right off the roof.

The malarkey has been immortalised on YouTube, re-played thousands of times, and in the comments box someone has quipped: “Look, he doesn’t spill a drop - that proves he’s Scottish!” Stuart McCall laughs when I mention this, in a West Riding accent unchanged by all those years in football north of the border and 40 caps for Scotland. He tries to tell me that after talking to a Scot his vowels become slightly Sauchiehall Street, but I don’t hear it: his ups are “oops” right the way though. He’s the bread boy in that classic TV ad, pushing his bike oop the cobbled hill.

McCall, 53, has always had to prove he’s Scottish and his story might be instructive for Scott McTominay, especially if all the new cap has to suffer is pundit Charlie Nicholas questioning why the Manchester United youngster would want to pull on the dark blue. “Growing up in Leeds, I got tormented by my English pals for supporting Scotland at every turn, for jumping up and down when Allan Wells and Jocky Wilson beat the world,” says McCall. “Then when I went up to Hamilton to visit the grandparents I’d play football in the park with local lads until one of them would stop the game and say: ‘Hey, where dae you come frae?’”

Why would McCall’s commitment ever be doubted? He even ignored Walter Smith at Rangers to play for his country. Glad to be skiving the mucking out of the stables at his home in Harrogate, he warms to his theme: “I’d heard that Graeme Souness wasn’t too keen on guys playing friendly internationals but Walter wasn’t like that, although when I got a dead leg with Rangers before a Scotland qualifier in Rome he said: ‘Play against Italy and you can forget all about a new contract.’ Well, the leg – it was a real Charlie horse – got better and I did play, only right at the end Dino Baggio stood on my ankle and I arrived back at Glasgow Airport on crutches. Walter hit the roof. He didn’t speak to me for three weeks. But I eventually got that contract.”

McTominay has a Scottish father whereas McCall’s parents grew up opposite each other in the same Hamilton street. His father Andy was in the Royal Navy and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers before his own football career took off after the war with Blackpool. “My brother we call the lucky one because he was born in Scotland. My sister was born in Blackpool when Dad, an inside-forward, was playing alongside Stan Mortensen, and after he moved to Leeds United when young Jackie Charlton was coming through, I was born a corner-kick from Elland Road. I asked Dad later if they’d thought about nipping back over the border to have me but they didn’t trust their old Mini to make the journey.

“In the middle of Yorkshire, though, we were a right Scottish household. Every springtime the curtains would be tight shut at 2 o’clock for the Home Internationals. Every summer, and every other holiday, was spent in Hamilton. I was fighting the cause down here and up there so I’d say I was more Scottish than most.”

At this point McCall suggests some editing might be required, a spot of de-tartanising: “I used to love the journey up north, and especially if the train had already been to Scotland because that meant I’d get Irn-Bru and there might have been a chance I could find a Daily Record under the seats.”

Do you think the yarn is getting too Scottish? Neither do I.

Now we arrive at the moment when the midfield scamp with hair the colour of Scotland’s other national drink cemented his allegiance, at the same time disavowing England: “I was sat in the big bath at Bradford after training when the secretary came down and said: ‘Good news, Stuart, you’ve been selected for Scotland Under-21s.’ My heart almost exploded with pride. Then a few minutes later he was back: ‘Even better news, you’ve been picked for England Under-21s.’

“I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I wanted to play for Scotland. My folks had split up by then and Dad had moved back to Hamilton but I couldn’t get hold of him to talk about it. My manager, Trevor Cherry, wanted me to choose England. My chairman wanted me to choose England because it would increase my transfer fee when I was eventually sold. ‘Don’t go with Scotland,’ I was told. ‘There’s only one Anglo in their big team - Brian McClair – and they won’t understand your accent up there.’ Was I pressurised? Well, I went against my heart.

“That night Jock Stein, who was the big team’s manager, called the house. That was what Mum said; I thought it was my Scottish mate at Bradford, John Hendrie, at the wind-up. I picked up the phone and went: ‘Oh aye Big Man, how’s it hanging?’ ‘No, it really is Jock Stein, son,’ he said. ‘That must have been a tough decision to make. All the best for your future and tell your father I was asking for him.’

“Did Dad go to school with Jock? Something like that. I found out later Dad had written him a letter telling him about me, signing off: ‘And of course Stuart’s eligible for Scotland.’ Dad was aye writing letters to someone. I found some from him recently full of wee tips for my game. But imagine a guy of Jock Stein’s stature taking the trouble to ring our wee council house? Mum told me that by the end of the conversation tears were streaming down my face.

“The Under-21s were run by Alex Ferguson. Maybe his phonecall would have been slightly different! Anyway, before too long I was in Ankara, in a white shirt, England Under-21s vs Turkey, five minutes left, and Dave Sexton said: ‘Right, get ready.’ I didn’t warm up on the touchline, I wandered down behind the goal and thought to myself: ‘Are they slinging me on at the end 
just so’s they can call me an England player?’

“So I broke my ties for my socks. I threw away a shin pad and pretended I couldn’t find it. There’s a photo of Dave with his arm around me and I look like I’ve won the Lottery but lost my ticket. I didn’t want to go on and in the end didn’t have to. The ref blew the final whistle.

“On the plane home the champagne was flowing. The big team – Bryan Robson, Peter Shilton, Terry Butcher – had won 8-0. These guys were probably thinking: ‘Poor kid, he didn’t play, he must be gutted.’ But I wasn’t. I told myself that even if I never got another call-up for Scotland, that would be okay because I’d been true to my heart.”

But he did and this time he found his ticket. What was his father’s reaction? “Dad didn’t say much when I went with England, other than ‘It’s your choice son, go and play well,’ but he and Mum were as proud as could be when I pulled on a dark blue shirt.”

McCall made his debut in March 1990 under Andy Roxburgh in a friendly against World Cup holders Argentina – “I nodded the ball onto Stewart McKimmie for the winner ”– and three months later he was playing at Italia 90. By that stage he’d moved to Everton, marking his first departure from Bradford City’s Valley Parade. The fourth and most recent exit came with his sacking as boss last month. He was upset at his dismissal, as were the fans who chanted his name at the next game, but after his difficult relationship with the League One club’s German owners, I suggest to our man, who’s managed Motherwell, been in interim charge of Rangers and assisted Gordon Strachan at Scotland, that this must be him finished with the Bantams at last. “Never say never,” he says. “I’ve been back there as a player and a boss already and in football you never know what’s going to happen next. What I do know is that I’ve not been put off management. I’m really looking forward to my next job, wherever it may be.”

McCall was a skinny 16-year-old when he made his Bradford debut, causing much mirth among the crowd at a testimonial match. “I could only find myself a pair of size 40 shorts. Gigantic, they were. It was a windy night and I got blown down the wing.” But the first time he left Valley Parade, in 1988, was undoubtedly the most poignant. Three years previously, nine members of his family were in the stand for what should have been a joyous occasion – Bradford has just become third-tier champions. But the day turned to tragedy when the stand burned down and 56 people lost their lives.

Slowly and quietly he says: “When the police asked me to go on to the pitch to help clear it of fans the fire didn’t look too bad. I didn’t realise what was happening out of sight. The players were gathered in a local pub and I was still in my kit and boots as folk came to tell me they’d seen my mum and she was OK and they’d seen my sister. Where was Dad? I went out to my car – it was burning hot – and asked a policeman: ‘Did everyone get out?’ He was ashen-faced. ‘Them that could, did,’ he said. My brother and I raced round the hospitals in Bradford and eventually found out that Dad had been transferred to the one in Wakefield. ‘How come?’ ‘That’s for people with serious burns,’ we were told. Wakefield was half an hour away and my brother and I didn’t speak a word the whole journey.

“We flew into the hospital and a nurse standing between two beds said: ‘Here’s your father.’ I looked at the guy on the left whose face was all bubbled up and I sank to my knees and screamed. From the other bed I heard: ‘I’m over here, son.’ I felt embarrassed that my father had got off lightly. I went back to visit the poor guy next to him a few times. But he needed an operation and didn’t survive it. Dad had 30 per cent burns and probably he was the least affected at Wakefield, but the fire hit him mentally and he couldn’t really go back to Valley Parade after it was rebuilt. It was only when I came up to Rangers that he was able to watch me play again.”

Which school did you go to? – 
McCall chuckles as he recalls the question asked of him by a Scottish journalist checking his credentials for a move to Rangers. “‘Er, Wormley, Thornhill then Harrington High,’ I said. I didn’t understand what he was on about.” At the end of his first week Rangers travelled to Hearts and lost. “In seven years I only ever saw Walter [Smith] lose it a couple of times and that night was one of them. He ripped into Goughie [Richard Gough]: ‘What was all that effing tippy-tappy stuff at the back?’ I actually thought we’d played quite well but that defeat told me about the demands of playing for Rangers, how they were expected to win every time.” There was more pressure to come. “Hibs knocked us out of the Skol Cup, Sparta Prague knocked us out of the Champions League and, if Celtic had beaten us in the Scottish Cup semi-final after David Robertson was sent off in the sixth minute, things might have panned out differently for Walter as some folk had questioned his appointment. But that was the night his team were born.”

Unsurprisingly, McCall can’t understand why there should be any fuss over McTominay’s Scottish credentials and wishes the lad well in his dark blue career. He’s got a hard act to follow, though, with McCall having appeared in three tournaments for Scotland, playing every game. Mind you, he didn’t think it would last. Not after the dismal defeat to Costa Rica at Italy’s World Cup.

“Walking off at the end the fans were throwing their scarves away and I just felt so embarrassed. But we had the chance to make it up to them a few days later against Sweden. All told, I was lucky to play two short of 1,000 games. Only twice do I think a match was won in the tunnel and that was one such occasion. The Swedes were standing there, great bodies on them, but then Jim Leighton appeared with no teeth. Then Flecky [Robert Fleck] with no teeth. Then Roy Aitken who looked massive. Then Big Eck [Alex McLeish] with that red hair and those freckles. We were completely pumped up and the Swedes just seemed to wilt.”

And of course McCall would send us on the way to victory with the opening goal. “I think even you could have scored that one, Aidan,” he laughs. “My kids still tease me about it: ‘You played 40 times for Scotland, Dad - how come you only managed one goal?’ I tell them that once you’ve scored at the finals of a World Cup you don’t need to worry about getting any more. They just makes your stats look untidy!”