Interview: Gordon Marshall on signing for Rangers and Celtic and his early years at East Fife

Gordon Marshall is now Aberdeen's goalkeeping coach. Picture: SNS
Gordon Marshall is now Aberdeen's goalkeeping coach. Picture: SNS
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A tweet from Richard Osman recently caused a stir by pointing out that Dexys Midnight Runners’ Come On Eileen came out nearer to the end of the Second World War than to today. There’s a mind-blowing football equivalent involving Gordon Marshall, whose career – as it happens – also began nearer to the Second World War than now.

When he played his first game, for Rangers reserves, his opposite man was England 1970 World Cup fall-guy Peter Bonetti, who was winding down his career at Dundee United. Marshall’s last game for Celtic was Henrik Larsson’s league debut against Hibernian. But he still had eight years to run and clocked up another couple of hundred games at Kilmarnock and Motherwell. The final game of his career, a barmy 4-4 draw between Motherwell and Celtic, was the opening match of the 2005-06 season, which seems remarkably recent for someone who played with Tommy McLean, Willie Johnston and Alex Forsyth for Rangers reserves.

It was 1980 when he made his debut for the Ibrox stiffs as a nervous 16-year-old recruited from Tynecastle Boys’ Club. “Bonetti was in the other goal for Dundee United, my dad was at the game,” recalls Marshall. “Here is a 16-year-old, just starting his career. I think Bonetti might have been in his 40s. My dad had obviously played against Bonetti and was watching two different eras collide. We got beat 4-0 but he loved it.”

Marshall walked in the long shadow cast by Gordon senior. Both played in an era before goalkeeper coaches became the norm but Gordon junior had the ultimate teacher, a father who also played in goal to a high level. Marshall senior once mused that while he might have been the more natural goalkeeper, Gordon, his son, worked harder at it after a false start at Rangers, where he was released by John Greig after being de-railed by a broken leg.

“He does say things like that to me which I find quite hard because he was so successful. Everyone who says you were never as good as your dad and, well, I do believe that – I wasn’t as good as my dad. To play in the Hearts team at 17 years old with Willie Bauld and guys like that is incredible. And you are not talking about Tynecastle the way it is now, there was 50-odd thousand in the place. He ends up winning the league twice – he has some winners’ medals!”

This self-deprecating comment references the only real absence on Marshall’s CV. It’s something he might be more conscious of on League Cup weekend since he was on the losing side in three finals – for Celtic, Kilmarnock and Motherwell. Now goalkeeper coach with Aberdeen, he is preparing for tomorrow’s clash with Dundee. But he has links with seven of the clubs in action this weekend, eight if we include his father, who played for Hibs and Hearts among other sides, including Newcastle and Arbroath.

“It does not matter where I go, all the old guys are like: ‘how’s your dad?’ They never ask for me! It was the same at Celtic, players like Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers, it was always how is your dad? It was always the same first question.”

And in a sad year for football, when we’ve said farewell to both McNeill and Chalmers, how is the old man? “He is OK,” says Marshall. “He is a wee bit frail now. He had his 80th and we had a big party for him at the Norton House Hotel. He was in good form. He still has his seat at Tynecastle and goes along to watch. He will still moan about them but he still goes!

“Whenever Craig [Levein] is there, he is all over him. He still calls him “Mr Marshall”. For all the doom and gloom he sometimes has, he walks into Tynecastle and he is suddenly ten foot tall.”

Marshall has clearly always looked up to his father, who in terms of the League Cup is the ying to his son’s yang: he won three winners’ medals at Hearts. But there’s something Marshall junior does have over him in this particular competition. His old da’ never scored against a team who were, at the time, the most expensive ever assembled in Scottish football history, and neither has he saved a penalty from Ally McCoist. It was six games into the Graeme Souness revolution and things were not quite unfolding as planned on the pitch.

After a loss on the opening day to Hibs, it’s tempting to wonder what might have happened had East Fife, where Marshall reignited his senior career, then knocked Rangers out of the League Cup, which they came close to doing.

Marshall kept them in it shortly after half-time of this third-round tie, flinging himself to his right to save McCoist’s kick after East Fife were penalised when the ball struck Paul Hunter’s hand. No goals all night meant the tie went to penalties. East Fife manager Dave Clarke had an uncomplicated way of selecting takers: who, he asked, could give the ball the greatest welly? “I remember gesturing towards Chris Woods when I scored and he had a scowl on his face,” says Marshall. “When he made the save that put them on the brink of going through I remember him turning round to me and giving it me back. I thought: ‘Aye OK, fair enough’.”

Poor Hugh Hill was the only player, including a goalkeeper, out of the ten who missed. Penalty specialist Davie Cooper soothed a fretting Rangers bench, including Souness, who’d already seen Colin West carried off early in the game with a serious knee injury. Marshall had more than done his bit. “Dave had said, whoever hits the ball hardest, they are taking the penalty. It was just head down and hit it.”

Marshall bumped into Clarke on the bus earlier this summer on the way into Edinburgh to watch the Champions League final with friends and ended up missing his stop due to all the reminiscing on the top deck. Even the mode of transport sparked memories of exhaust fumes mixing with the scent of cheap aftershave in the back of a mini-bus driven by Clarke’s father-in-law. This is how East Fife rounded up players when time was tight on week nights. The evening they faced Souness’ millionaires was no exception. Part-time players still had to work.

“It was all very harum scarum,” recalls Marshall. “Suddenly there we were playing this team with guys we had seen on the telly and who we never thought we’d ever face.”

Not only would Marshall, who joined Falkirk towards the end of that same season, go on to play against Rangers on several other occasions, including in Old Firm derbies, he actually played with Souness not long afterwards, in Brockville teammate Andy Nicol’s testimonial against Hearts.

Clarke by this time was Falkirk manager and Nicol, or at least his testimonial committee, had somehow snared Souness, Kenny Dalglish and Tommy Burns to turn out for an all-star version of the Bairns.

“Souness is probably the most intimidating player I have ever played in the same team with. He turned up about quarter to three, and wee Davie Clarke tried to be funny. He said: ‘Souness, where have you been? You’re no’ starting, you’re late!’ Souness replied: ‘f*** off, where’s my gear?’

“Even during the game Souness was like, ‘give me the ball’. I threw it to someone else. He growled: ‘what did I say to you!’ So every time I got the ball I just threw it to him.”

Souness had just left by the time Marshall nearly re-signed for Rangers. Ibrox doctor Donald Cruickshank approached him in the toilets during an end-of-season function and asked: would you come back? Of course he would.

There was a complication. Liam Brady’s Celtic were also interested. Marshall met Walter Smith in the car park at Haggs Castle Golf Club and asked if he got into the team and played well, would he keep his place? Smith was admirably frank. No. He’d signed Andy Goram to be No 1, and that’s what he would be whatever happened.

“That was great. I knew exactly where I stood. I asked the same question of Celtic. And they said: ‘No, you will stay in’.” He signed for Celtic and got ready to dislodge Pat Bonner.

Gordon George Banks Marshall: there was only ever one occupation for someone with this name but Marshall seemed set to pursue an alternative career, albeit one where hands were still the tools of his trade. Now 55, things have come full circle. No, he isn’t joining East Fife again – though a goalkeeper he did sign while Motherwell goalie coach, Brett Long, will likely be on the bench today for the Fifers, who host Rangers again in a last-16 tie. What he is doing is going back to hairdresser school.

“It is only since I have come up here to Aberdeen that I thought: ‘you know what, I wouldn’t mind getting back into it.
[Graeme] Shinnie and Scotty Wright went to a place called Mr Dun here. He has a [hairdressing] school down the stairs in the basement.”

Like football, the crimping game has changed in the time since Marshall ran a salon – also in a basement, underneath his father’s newsagent shop – in the Haymarket area of Edinburgh. Goalkeepers could not simply take up where they left off had they taken a break around 1991: “what do you mean I can’t pick the ball up from a back-pass?”

Marshall has found it’s the same with hairdressing, which has evolved since the days in the 1980s when celebrities such as Wendy Craig would walk into his Mane Attraction salon asking for a cut and blow-dry and footballers like Dave Bowman and Kenny Black would walk in and ask for a… cut and blow-dry.

“They even describe your scissors and combs differently, they use different words! I am like: ‘surely that’s a pair of thinning scissors?’ No, they are blending scissors now!”

Marshall was sometimes cutting hair up until midday on a Saturday before racing to Brockville to play in a top-flight fixture with Falkirk. It was unusual to say the least and even caused master-behind-the-mic Archie Macpherson to miss a beat while commentating on a Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road when Marshall was still with East Fife.

Macpherson thought he would provide some additional background information during a pause in play while the young goalkeeper was digging his toe into the turf to make a divot before taking a bye-kick on a windy afternoon. “I still remember this because I have a recording of the game somewhere. He started saying, ‘there’s Gordon Marshall, who is playing in goal today and he’s a…’ and there was a pause, as if he was checking his notes, ‘…a hairdresser’.”

Team-mates loved it, of course, since it meant not having to bother making appointments when they could get a “Charlie Nicholas” for nothing in the dressing room. “You would stick in three sections of perm rods at the back of the head and you would cut it short at the side and the top,” explains Marshall, with reference to the in-vogue style of the time.

“We all had it.” All except Crawford Baptie, who Marshall remembers only had to run his hand through his hair for it to fall into place “like James Bond’s”. Marshall, for his part, took it to extremes – he went full-on Kajagoogoo for a spell.

But that’s not the most difficult subject to bring up. When he signed for Celtic the scissors were put away and the knife, to a certain extent, came out.

He was never allowed to forget a mistake in the 1994 League Cup final against Raith Rovers which allowed his old Rangers team-mate Gordon Dalziel to score a late equaliser. Nevertheless, he kept a clean sheet in nearly half his Celtic appearances, including his debut, a 3-0 win over Airdrie at Broomfield on an afternoon perhaps better remembered for Tony Cascarino bundling over a policewoman after scoring one of the goals.

“You can argue all you want about whether I was good enough, that’s fine,” says Marshall. “I played how I could. When I watch it back now as a coach yes, I would certainly have changed how I played.

“It was an era of trial and error. You were in change of your work. Packie [Bonner] was a brilliant teacher on the game but if I had a specialised coach I think my game would have changed.

“I am not making that as an excuse,” he adds. “Believe me. Some folk will like you, some folk will think: ‘for what we paid [£270,000], it’s what we got – value for money. Others will say, ‘he cost us the bloody League Cup final’!”

He must have done something right as he stayed nearly seven years. He suspected his time at Celtic was finally drawing to a close after Wim Jansen, his fourth manager at the club, took over. “When you turn up for pre-season and there’s one or two folk saying, ‘are you still here’? Well, you know it’s going to be hard to win them over now.”

He made one more league appearance when Chic Charnley scored a winner for Hibs v Celtic with a shot Marshall still feels he should have stopped. Jansen agreed: Jonathan Gould replaced him the following week.

While he did not win a trophy at Celtic, Marshall was the last line of defence in the 1995-96 season when they lost only one game and still finished second behind Rangers. It’s slightly surprising to hear who he regards as the best centre-half he played behind – John Hughes.

“We had a good understanding. If I did not come for it, he would head it away,” he says.

“I played with Alan Stubbs – quality player, but I could not play behind him. He played a way that used to distract me. He was one of the centre-halves who backed off quite far, whereas I would want him to meet with the player, so I had more time to react to the shot. Stubbsie would want to usher the player away to a less dangerous area, which is what the game is about now. I am not saying he was a bad player, of course he was not, but he was someone I could not play behind.”

After nearly two hours of conversation containing such fascinating snippets, he’s got to go – a night out with Stuart Burgess, an old East Fife and Falkirk team-mate who once sported a ‘Charlie Nicholas’, beckons. That’s the thing. There isn’t a medal issued for playing nearly 700 matches but there’s something more precious collected: a lot of team-mates, many of whom are still firm friends after all the free haircuts.

Marshall also has an urgent matter to take care of as he prepares to get behind a styling chair again: rustling up some clients. “All my old ones are bald now,” he says. “I need to get out there again and look for some new customers!”