Interview: Willie Pettigrew, ex-Motherwell striker

I’M A stranger in this town, name of Hamilton. It’s difficult to avoid cowboy allusions when the man I’m meeting is Willie Pettigrew, the great goal desperado from the 1970s with the moustache to match, but maybe comedy allusions would be more appropriate.

Motherwell and Dundee United legend Willie Pettigrew at his home in Hamilton. Picture: Robert Perry
Motherwell and Dundee United legend Willie Pettigrew at his home in Hamilton. Picture: Robert Perry

I already know him as one half of a terrific strike partnership. Now I’m wondering if he and Bobby Graham were also a double-act in laughs. Maybe not Morecambe & Wise class, but Pettigrew solo is definitely funnier than Cannon and Ball put together.

Sans mouser and not much hair either, he picks me up from the train station and, knowing it’s my first time, takes me on a tour of the most prominent roadworks before quipping: “That’ll be the place off your bucket list then.” At his front door he cautions: “There’s a dog. He doesn’t bite but he will lick you to death.” In the front room there are also cockatiels and, remembering my old weekly newspaper editor’s instruction to always get pets’ names, I ask what they’re called. “No idea,” he says, fetching coffees. “Poor man’s parrots, I don’t get familiar with them. They were dumped on us by my son when he went off to Canada to become a snowboarding instructor. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said, ‘they’ll drop off their perch soon enough.’ Four years later they’re still bloody here.”

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From the Not-Dead Cockatiel Sketch, Pettigrew, 60, moves on to funny stories about Ally MacLeod, John Greig, Kenny Dalglish, Wallace Mercer, the proverbial man-and-his-dog at Brechin City and those famous slapstick brothers, the McLeans Jim, Willie and Tommy. The yarns do not have the whiff of the after-dinner circuit about them. Then he takes out his wallet and produces a snap in faded Kodachrome of baby Craig, the future exotic-bird depositor, plonked in the Scottish League Cup while his mum Audrey looks on. “Every time after that when Celtic and Rangers players have drunk champagne from the trophy I’ve had a wee chuckle because that was a very dirty nappy!”

Pettigrew twice won the League Cup with Dundee United but is best-remembered for his goal-grabbing on gluepot pitches for Motherwell, although he might have been a Hibee. I think I knew this. Wouldn’t Hibernian pay his bus fare as an S-form or something, or was that Gordon Strachan? Anyway, both these guys have places in the All-Time Great Lost Mythical Hibs XI. “I’ll tell you the story,” he says. “I was playing for a wee team in Bonkle which had just sent Billy McEwan to Hibs when Dave Ewing was the manager. At that time, aged 15, it was said of me by Falkirk and a few other clubs: ‘All he can do is score goals.’ My view was: ‘Well, is that no’ the point of the game?’ Anyway I signed my S-form with Hibs but they played me at centre-half, even right-back. It took me a year to get out of Easter Road.”

Ally MacLeod at least knew Pettigrew’s best position and, although the two would fall out later when the former took over at Motherwell, he tried his best to get the youngster to sign for Ayr United. “Ally was in my parents’ house for six hours. Eventually my folks, by that point in their jammies, went off to bed. I told him I’d made a gentleman’s agreement to join Motherwell and I was sticking to it.”

At Fir Park, when he landed in ’72, his pal from back in primary school had been Willie Leishman. “He’s dead now, but when we were both part-time and he got made up to full-time, I was miffed and marched in to see the manager. This was Ian St John. ‘So you want to be full-time, too?’ he said. ‘All right then, you are.’ And that was to be his last act as Motherwell boss; the following day he left for Portsmouth.”

Pettigrew was never shy about voicing his opinions. “I had attitude as a footballer and sometimes it came off the park with me. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, basically.” But some of the opinions sounded perfectly valid. “I wanted to be coached. Ian St John took me aside and taught me stuff, which was great. That never happened before, or after really. Later at Hearts, when I was struggling a bit, I asked Walter Borthwick if I could come back in the afternoons for some shooting practice. He said: ‘Sorry Willie but I’m going shopping with the wife.’ ”

At ’Well under Willie McLean the transition to full-time was tricky. How did he spend his downtime? “Playing snooker and other things I wouldn’t like quoted!” Agitating for a first-team opportunity, he got his chance to deputise for the injured Bobby Graham one Christmas in what would be a venomous derby at Airdrie’s Broomfield (was there any other kind back then?). “The ball hardly touched the ground, the pitch was like a war zone and I got hauled off at half-time.” But with Graham back next game he was allowed to budge up next to the ex-Liverpool man; ’Well beat Ayr 5-1 and Pettigrew bagged four.

I love these old footballers who scored for fun wherever they went, like it was their trade, which it was. The modern version can sometimes be a baffled, and baffling, striker-hybrid who’ll have the media trying to explain away his goal drought, insisting that full acclimatisation to a club takes time, although his designer labels indicate he’s had no trouble finding the swankiest local stores. Pettigrew smiles as the likes of Joe McBride and Alan Gordon flit through the conversation. “The ethos in the game now doesn’t seem to be about what you’ve won but how much you’ve earned. If you’re a millionaire you must be a good footballer. Well, not always. In my day I looked up to Celtic and Rangers guys who didn’t wear their medals on their chests but were definitely winners. That’s what I wanted to be, and maybe to play for my country as well. Those were special things you could hold dear.”

Now he’s laughing again because he’s remembered the night he enraged Kenny Dalglish. “It was a World Cup qualifier against Wales [’76] and, with Scotland winning 1-0, I got on for the last ten minutes and right away chased a lost-cause ball, cut inside and shot. Kenny went mental; he wanted me to waste time. But from first minute to last my view was always the same: ‘There’s a goal for me in this game.’ If someone chucked a ball in here just now you’d be in trouble. I’d be right over that table!”

Pettigrew, who won five caps, scoring an absolute cracker on his dark blue debut against Switzerland, now coaches Motherwell under-14s. “I look around the car park at our training complex at Braidhurst and there must be a couple of million pounds worth of motors there. You know, I didn’t get free sweeties as a kid; I had to work for them. If I was to ask these Motherwell lads to do what I did at that age, travel three hours by bus, two trains and on foot to training, I’m not sure many would. I did it on my own, mind, and for good reasons that wouldn’t be allowed now. Not to Edinburgh, anyway!” (A joke at the capital’s expense from a Lanarkshire vantage-point, rather than the other way round? Surely a first).

The Pettigrew-Graham double-act wasn’t created in a science lab or even, very much, on the training pitch. “We didn’t work at it; we just seemed to know where the other one would be.” This is remarkable when you dig out old clips of their interplay, with muddy or rutted fields no impediment to back-heeled one-twos, before the customary dead-eyed finish by Pettigrew. “Bobby could score too, and I made some goals for him. He’s 69 now and still one of my good pals, though two weeks ago, according to him, he was faster than me. I’m no’ having that!”

If he didn’t have to work at the partnership, did he work at his hair? After all, the Pettigrew barnet was one of the 70s’ most emblematic. “Naw,” he laughs. “Were there even hair-dryers in those days?” He fetches the scrapbooks and what a trichological tapesty they offer up: mad hair, crazy hair, hair from a Peter McDougall gangland drama, hair from the court of Louis XIV. Best of all are the shots where, perversely, the photographer has insisted our man stand side-on to a Lanarkshire gale, so one side flaps upwards like half of a hopelessly-assembled tent.

He talks some more about the attitude he wore under Motherwell’s claret slash. “My mother used to say she couldn’t talk after I’d hit 12. From then I always knew what I was doing.” Mind you, attitude came as standard in 70s footballers. “Tackling from behind was allowed back then; as was tackling from above. In the first ten minutes of a match you’d always get a slap. Against the Old Firm, and Motherwell used to cause them problems, you’d get up straight away and their guys would think: ‘Well, there’s a game on today.’ John Greig would kick three shades of sh**e out of you and at the end he’d want to shake your hand. ‘Good game, Wullie.’ ‘Aye, maybe from where you’re standing. I’ll be getting a wheelchair to the pub!’ ”

Pettigrew reels off the ’Well team which threatened to win something but didn’t quite, including Joe Wark (“You don’t get one-club men like him anymore”), Bobby Watson (“The lay preacher”), Vic Davidson (“He’s in America now”) and Stewart MacLaren (“A nice guy who if you broke his leg wouldn’t react, though ten minutes later he might hit you over the head with the stump”). Then there were the real tough nuts, Willie McVie and Gregor Stevens. “We’d just carry on training round about them whenever they started fighting. On cold days Willie would wear green gloves at Ibrox and blue ones at Parkead to wind up their fans. Gregor was a nice guy off the park but in games he just used to turn into a psycho. Christ, I hope I don’t bump into him this afternoon!”

Pettigrew twice topped Scotland’s scoring charts. As reward he was made, he believes, Scotland’s highest-paid player. “I think that was Motherwell’s downfall, and probably mine as well. There was some jealousy, and more pressure on me. I became a marked man, or more of one. I fell out with Willie McLean. Bobby moved on to Hamilton and I was always a better player alongside him.”

Willie McLean he rates the quietest of the brotherly triumvirate. “The most knowledgable, some reckoned, but he could be devious, slapping you on the back one day and trying to sell you the next. I got Tommy at a good time, his first manager’s job at Morton with Tam Forsyth as his assistant. I called them ‘Haud it and daud it.’ ” And in between, for the £100,000 which took him to Dundee Utd in ’79, there was Jim. “I’ll be eternally grateful to Jim for signing me and for the medals I would never have won at Motherwell.” There’s a “but”, of course. “He could be a nutcase. He demanded absolute perfection, which isn’t possible, and thought I was too one-dimensional. We thrashed Fergie’s Aberdeen 4-1 and I scored with a great volley. Afterwards, all he wanted to talk about was a 90-yard run I’d made. ‘Do that more often,’ he said. ‘Aye Boss but what about my goal?’ Another time against Morton I disobeyed his orders at a corner and, instead of going to the near post, hung around the penalty spot. The ball came straight to me – goal. He went mad. It was as if he’d rather have seen me make the perfect decoy run. In fairness to Jim, though, when I’d fallen out of the team before the [1980] League Cup semi, he put me back in for that tie and the final because I’d played in all the earlier rounds. He was superstitious like that.”

Another move, to Hearts, produced more goals for a gunslinger who’d finish with 140 to his name – and another bust-up. “Wallace Mercer never spoke to me after a party at his big house in [Edinburgh’s] Barnton when we won the old First Division and I got too drunk. I embarrassed myself by dancing on his billiards table.” His final strikes came for Morton, including one at Brechin that rates among the most satisfying of his career. “All game I had to take dog’s abuse from this lone punter. ‘Yer nuthin’ without Graham,’ he’d shout. After I’d nutmegged the centre-half, walked round the ’keeper and stuck it away I ran over to the old moan and said: ‘That okay for you?’ He marched straight out of the ground!”

The cockatiels haven’t let up all afternoon but Pettigrew has been even chirpier. After retiring he had his own grocery business, got into money trouble, was advised by the bank to sell his house, but in the same self-taught, self-determined way he went about football, salvaged the situation. He took a nightshift job so he could care for his parents in their final days. Last October, he and Audrey went to Las Vegas to celebrate his 60th.

“I’ve no regrets,” he says finally. “I tell the kids I coach that they must work harder because I now know what they should be doing. When I was playing nobody told me. Saying that, today’s techniques might have made me a better player but I’d probably have scored fewer goals.”

Oh, and next month Pettigrew will be inducted into Dundee Utd’s Hall of Fame. He wonders if Jim McLean will be there and would like to see him again. “Even though he’ll probably expect me to walk in a different door for that wee element of surprise!”