Interview: Derek Parlane, from skinny Rangers boy to Maine man at Man City

Now 66, former Rangers, Leeds United and Manchester City player Derek Parlane lives in Lytham St Annes. Picture: John Devlin
Now 66, former Rangers, Leeds United and Manchester City player Derek Parlane lives in Lytham St Annes. Picture: John Devlin
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Somewhere in the roll-call of the strike demons who’ve finished top of the Manchester City scoring charts at the end of the season – somewhere between Fifer Alec Herd who helped the club to their very first championship in 1937 and Sergio Aguero – sits the man I’m meeting today.

Derek Parlane arrived at old Maine Road in 1983 on a free transfer from Leeds United where he’d endured much abuse from the fans over his lack of goals. City had just been relegated for the first time in 17 years and he strongly suspected he would be swapping one exceedingly grumpy rabble for another, going from a Yorkshire frying pan into a Lancashire hotpot. Plus, he wasn’t entirely sure of enjoying a winning relationship with the manager, Billy McNeill, given that the two of them had been fierce Old Firm rivals in the previous decade. But Parlane netted on his debut and there was nothing the lumpen centre-halves of Grimsby Town, Carlisle United and Barnsley could do to stop him scoring.

It was, for sure, a different era for Manchester City who continue their bid for world domination in today’s FA Cup final by attempting to complete an historic domestic treble – a different era for football altogether.

“Here’s something to prove that,” says Parlane when we meet for lemonades on a scorching afternoon. “One time playing for Rangers at Hibs I broke my collarbone. This was the sort of thing which tended to happen if you collided with Erich Schaedler, a real tough guy. Strangely I wasn’t taken to hospital in Edinburgh but driven back through to Ibrox. I was in agony. This nurse was about to take a pair of scissors to my strip so she could have a proper look at the damage but our old physio, Tommy Craig, stopped her. ‘No no, hen, this shirt is one of a set – you can’t cut it,’ he said. So the strip had to be carefully unpicked at the seam, which took for ever. What a contrast with now. Rangers couldn’t let one top get ruined and yet how many will the City players be given at Wembley, four or five? Changed days!”

Football may have undergone huge transformation but Parlane’s hair is still the impressively lustrous sight it was right through the 1970s when the Sky Blue was a Light Blue. Waiting to meet him at Manchester’s Piccadilly Station, checking on Amazon to see if he ever wrote a book about his goal exploits, I’m offered an edition of teens’ magazine Look-In from ’74. Parlane is featured along with glam-rockers Marc Bolan and Sweet and the sitcom On the Buses. Back then Parlane didn’t go for Reg Varney’s Brylcreemed short, back and sides, preferring the bouffant style of the era’s pop stars and he’s still sporting it at the age of 66 while everyone else in the mag is no longer with us. “My son Ross is a barber here in Manchester – he’ll do your beard and even your nose hairs for you but I’ve just been in for a wee tidy-up. I got the usual abuse: ‘Still thinking the mullet’s going to be coming back into vogue, eh Dad?’ Ross wanted to hack it all off. ‘No thanks,’ I said. ‘While I’ve still got hair I’ll keep hold of it.’”

We’ll return to Parlane as a City slicker but first, his time as Rangers royalty, a £30-a-week idol. In 308 games he plundered 112 goals, winning two trebles and three other trophies. A classy, thinking, deadly frontman, quite modern in his way and similar to Allan “Sniffer” Clarke, as that header on the run against Celtic in the 1973 Scottish Cup final illustrated. All of this got him his own song, sung to the tune of The First Noel: “Parlane, Parlane, Parlane, Parlane/Born is the King of Ibrox Park.” And really, it was always going to be Rangers for him.

Parlane, who’s nipped up on the train from the home in Lytham St Annes he shares with second wife Jules, grew up on the banks of the Firth of Clyde in Rhu, Argyll and Bute. Rhu is the birthplace of three of the club’s four founding fathers: Peter McNeil and his brother Moses and Peter Campbell. It’s also the birthplace of a Rangers inside-forward from the 1930s – Jimmy Parlane, Derek’s father.

After that ’73 final Jimmy slept with Derek’s winners’ medal under his pillow. “I’m not sure how many fathers and sons have ever played for Rangers but we’re the only ones who scored against Celtic. Dad did it just before the Second World War interrupted his career and I managed a few goals in Old Firm games.” He can say that again: seven seasons in a row a Celts goalie was fishing the ball out of the back of the net following one of his finishes.

Parlane talks warmly of his boyhood in Rhu. He’s one of three brothers who fished on the Gair Loch when they weren’t kicking a ball about, with the youngest, Nigel, briefly on Rangers’ books. After the war – and after he’d played for Man City and Airdrie, forging a path that Derek would follow – Jimmy became a market gardener. Derek continued living with his folks all through his Ibrox pomp and would often return to the village after training to help the old man tend the roses.

He smiles as he remembers the day manager Willie Waddell and Willie Thornton – old team-mates of his father – knocked on the front door. “Dad didn’t tell me they were coming; I very nearly fell off the sofa.” But after just one training session at Ibrox he wanted to quit.

“I walked into the first-team dressing room and was immediately overawed. There was John Greig. There was Willie Johnston. There was Colin Stein. I got stripped, this skinny boy, 16 and a half, and felt embarrassed. Then after training I found my shoes nailed to the floor, talc in my pockets and my shirt in the bath. I’d never heard swearing before. I’d never touched alcohol before. I’d come from a wee village and these guys – all legends, by the way – just took the piss. I told Dad: ‘I don’t think I like Rangers, I don’t want to do this.’ He said: ‘Son, you’ve got to grow up.’ And I did.”

Parlane’s debut was on New Year’s Day, 1971, a 3-1 defeat at Falkirk’s Brockville, 24 hours before the Ibrox Disaster. “I wasn’t involved that day so was at home but my brother Ian was at the game, Copland Road End, and I’ve never forgotten how worried we were, and how upset my mother was, until he finally walked through the door.”

It was the following year when Parlane properly introduced himself to the Rangers denizens in the most spectacular fashion. This was the return leg of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final against Bayern Munich, 80,000 packed into Ibrox but captain John Greig was injured. “Dad said: ‘Do you think you might get on the bench, son?’ I said: ‘That would be a dream come true.’ In the dressing room Jock Wallace read out the team: ‘1 Peter McCloy, 2 Sandy Jardine, 3 Willie Mathieson, 4 Derek Parlane … ’ I thought he’d made a mistake. Then he called me into the boot-room: ‘We’ve watched you in the reserves and you’re doing great. We’ve got a specific role for you tonight: their playmaker is Franz Roth and we want you to mark him out of the game. Early on if you get the chance, do the big German bastard.’ The tunnel was just a parade of superstars: Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Sepp Maier, Paul Breitner … and Roth, nicknamed the Bull, who’d scored the winner when Bayern beat Rangers in the ’67 Cup-Winners’ Cup final and looked a whole lot bigger than his 6ft 2ins. Then came the roar of the crowd. I’m getting goosebumps remembering it.”

What must Parlane have been like when Jardine scored right away? And what must he have been like come the 22nd minute? “Bud Johnston floated over a corner, Maier punched and I met the ball on the half-volley with my left foot. It could have gone anywhere but it went in the top corner.” Parlane was back on the bench for the final and glory of Barcelona, as he expected to be. But that goal – “the noise, the feeling, it changed my life.”

We talk about the quaint Ibrox rules, such as the dress code: “On a sweltering hot day like today you couldn’t even leave pre-season training with the top button of your shirt undone and your tie slightly askew without someone shopping you to the boss.” When the boss changed from 
Waddell to Wallace, Parlane was pleased, having not really hit it off with “the Deedle”, being irritated by his office’s traffic-light entry-system. “You could be waiting outside on amber for as long as 15 minutes.” Wallace, he says, treated players like his own children. There would be a cuddle or a boot up the backside, whatever was required. Cuddles, really? “Okay maybe a playful dunt, as if to say: ‘Aye, you’re doing all right, son.’”

Wallace was certainly protective, such as the occasion he managed to keep Parlane’s name out of the papers. “A journalist from the News of the World turned up at the stadium to tell me they were about to publish a story about me and a go-go dancer. Apparently her ex had been someone big in the Glasgow underworld. This was obviously not great publicity for a 20-year-old footballer and I got Jock down to have a word with the reporter. Well, he took this fellow into the boot-room, lifted him up, popped him on a peg and told him that if the story was printed the paper would be banned from the ground. That wasn’t quite the end of my worries. I didn’t know the story wasn’t going to appear so I had to ’fess up to my mother, although she got a very watered-down 
version.”

Mum Margaret was strict and perhaps Parlane feared her wrath more than that of Wallace or Waddell. “If I was home late – bear in mind I was established in the first team with my own car, a yellow Ford Escort – I could be as quiet as a mouse creeping into the house but she’d always go ‘Is that you, Derek?’ You know, though, I had a great upbringing. There were younger boys at Ibrox who were probably better players than me but temptation could have lured them into Glasgow and things they shouldn’t have been doing. I turned right and got back down the road to Rhu where Dad might have needed some help with the tomatoes.” There was that dalliance with the dancer, of course, although where was the written proof?

Parlane certainly knew the road to goal and was leading marksman most seasons. Punishing sessions on the sand dunes of Gullane enabled Rangers to outrun the opposition. “We’d look at some teams in the tunnel and they seemed already beaten.” But there was some science involved: “An ex-Powderhall sprinter, Tom Paterson, got me copying a high-jumper’s arced run when going up for headers.”

So did this enable him to outjump Billy McNeill? “Sometimes. I was at the beginning of my career while big Billy was nearing the end of his. But what a colossus.” Parlane loved the tussles with Celtic. “We’d be calling their guys all the names under the sun and they’d be doing the same to us. Then a few weeks later two of us would be opening a sports shop together.” He played in an era when it was 11 Scots against 11 and, despite “all the other stuff that went on around the Old Firm” believes there was mutual respect. “I was back in Glasgow a few months ago and this bloke ran towards me. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He said: ‘It’s Derek Parlane, int’it? I’m a Celtic supporter by the way but it’s f****n’ great to see you.’”

Parlane scored on his Old Firm debut, surprising Greig by volunteering for a penalty, staying cool to net the rebound after his effort was saved. He’s got total recall of goals, games and dates, such as: “23 December, 1972, East Fife at Bayview, that was where my song was first sung, after I’d scored the fourth goal. Until that moment I wasn’t sure I’d been fully accepted by the support but then … wow. I loved the adulation.”

He was devastated, therefore, when his time at Ibrox came to an end. By then Greig was the manager. “The likes of Martin Henderson, Ally Scott and Billy Urquhart, signed from the Highland League on the strength of a good performance against us on a pre-season tour, were getting a game ahead of me. I’m afraid I didn’t understand that.” Parlane went to Leeds United, perhaps not in the best frame of mind for a new challenge. And a tough one: on his debut there were banners demanding that Jimmy Adamson, the manager who’d signed him, be sacked. He was soon gone. “The fans were still living in the Don Revie era. We were an average team and if we didn’t score in the first 15 minutes they got right on top of us.” The best period of his Leeds tenure occurred 6,000 miles away when he went on loan to Bulova in Hong Kong. “Eddie Gray [the new manager] suggested it. ‘No chance,’ I said. ‘You’ll double your salary and it’s tax-free,’ he said. ‘When does the plane leave?’

“I loved it out there. I scored lots of goals because the local guys only came up to here,” he laughs, placing a hand to his chest. “The food could be tricky, though. There was a banquet to welcome me, the head of a chicken in the middle of this big feast, and I was told I should eat it. That made me nostalgic for the initiation ceremony at Ibrox, nails in my good shoes. And imagine this: the day before a cup final there was me, the ex-Ranger, leading his team-mates in prayer while this pig about to have its throat cut for the barbecue ran around squealing. I had to place three joss sticks somewhere on the pitch to bring me good luck. I put them behind the goal and the next day scored a hat-trick.”

The call from Man City and McNeill surprised him. “Billy said he knew I’d had a bad time at Leeds but thought I could do a job for him.” And Parlane did, striking up a productive partnership with Jim Tolmie, ex-Morton, while Neil McNab completed a tartan triumvirate. Despite his goals City just missed out on a quick return to the top flight. “I loved it there, though. The club have changed out of all recognition – we used to train in a public park – but I loved Maine Road, the fans and the friendliness of the place. And the boss was great. He’d jump into the big bath and tell stories about Lisbon and Jimmy Johnstone. I’d say: ‘It’s nice to be talking to you, Billy, because in those Old Firm games you could never catch me for a chat!’”