McAvennie falls further from grace

By common consent Frank McAvennie is a generous man. "The hardest thing for a footballer to say is ‘No’," reckons Ally McCoist. "Frank probably said no twice in his life."

By way of proof, McAvennie couldn’t say no to the makers of How to Score, tonight’s Football Stories documentary, which goes out on Channel 4. But unlike McCoist, who has been re-invented as a cheery media personality, Milton’s most famous son emerges from the twilight world of sporting has-beens as a sad, deluded little man, whose efforts at explaining away his involvement in drugs provoke amused derision even from his friends.

One infamous incident in the mid Nineties led customs officers to a car in Dover which contained 100,000 of McAvennie’s money wrapped like a wedding present, alongside cannabis and methadone. The cash was to fund a hunt for "sunken treasure" said McAvennie, but nobody believed him, least of all the magistrates who sequestrated his cash. Within days the former footballer had been declared bankrupt.

Sad you might think, but then "there’s not many people made a career out of treasure-hunting," says McCoist subsiding into laughter. McAvennie, on the dole and living these days in Gateshead (albeit in a certain amount of comfort) could surely do with the money now.

But then this is a tale of rags to riches and back again. Here is the former road mender, who only signed for St Mirren in his early 20s. There, though he was the first player in Scotland to get sent off for giving a V-sign to opposition fans - the worthies of Heart of Midlothian - he also proved to have bags of skill and scored goals by the bucketload.

That was talent enough to earn a lucrative move to West Ham, where he hit 28 goals in his first season, trailing only Everton’s Gary Lineker.

In one of the club’s most successful seasons, he formed a partnership with Tony Cottee, so fecund it surpassed the exploits of Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush at Liverpool. Looking back, Cottee rates McAvennie as the best he played with, and among the Scot’s fellow professionals there remains a warm loyalty.

"Frank was a football man," recalls Ray Stewart, now manager of Stirling Albion. "Everybody loved him. He was in it for his team-mates, and he gave 150 per cent every week. He’d make a bad pass a good pass. He lived life to the full, and yes, he liked a drink. But Frank never let you down, on or off the pitch."

Another from that era is Tony Gale, who reveals in Channel 4’s programme that McAvennie’s big smile, fronted up by false teeth, earned him the nicknames "Trigger" and "Mr Ed", after the talking horse.

A stable home life served him well for the first few months in London. Those close to him attribute McAvennie’s footballing success in part to Anita Blue, the girlfriend who went with him from Paisley to Gidea Park. "She didn’t put up with any pissing about," his former agent Bill McMurdo told The Scotsman last year.

Ms Blue herself retains fond memories of the man, and in those early days it’s hard to credit McAvennie with the cynical manipulation of the tabloids which he attempted in later life. "On Saturday nights after the matches he would come home, then he would go to the off licence and buy champagne," she recalls.

"We used to change into our tracksuits and sit in front of the fire, watching television."

There’s a point at which one inevitably asks what went wrong. Some folk close to the player see 1986 as a defining year, when all the publicity began to take its toll.

McAvennie’s goal against Australia had helped Scotland to the World Cup finals in Mexico, and by that summer he was writing a regular column for Daily Star. He even appeared on Wogan.

His move back to Celtic in 1987 hardly took him out of the public eye. Again his form was outstanding, but after an Old Firm fracas with the Rangers goalkeeper, McAvennie and Chris Woods joined Terry Butcher and Graham Roberts in court for breach of the peace.

By then, if he had long been good for the back pages, Macca was often front page news and by this stage of his career he had taken up with Page 3 Jenny Blythe.

"We really hit it off," Blythe has said. "The more champagne I drank the better I understood his strong Scottish accent. I’d barely finished my prawn cocktail before I realised I could fall for him."

But commuting between Glasgow and London is an expensive business. McMurdo remembers warning McAvennie that he was "spending four grand a week, when you’re only earning three."

A move back to West Ham brought little relief. McAvennie quickly fell out with Lou Macari, the new manager at Upton Park, and the expensive house he shared with Blythe in Essex was repossessed within a year of purchase after the bottom fell out of the property market.

After that he went through clubs at almost the same alarming rate as girlfriends. To Celtic again (where Macari fatefully turned up a few months later) to Hong Kong, to Northern Ireland, to Falkirk; he split with Jenny, married Laura, got divorced. And then there were those times when he was caught in possession of cocaine.

"I asked Frank once what he would be doing if he wasn’t a footballer," recalls Blythe. "He said: ‘Probably stealing cars, selling drugs or in prison with most of my mates’."

In a self-fulfilling prophecy, last September McAvennie was staring at a nine-year sentence for conspiracy to supply class A and B drugs after he had been found in a car with 5,000 ecstasy tablets and five kilos of amphetamines. However, despite his accomplice, Arthur Burke, pleading guilty and receiving a five-year prison term, McAvennie, to his vast relief, left court a free man.

Once, when he sought to ban the BBC Scotland comedy I, Macca, which features Jonathan Watson as a McAvennie-like "Where’s the burdz?" character, the footballer said: "I’m gutted by it. It makes me look like a dishonest idiot."

The miracle of TV allows you to judge for yourself tonight.

Football Stories: How To Score (With Page 3 Girls: Tonight, Channel 4, 9pm