For a “Celtic daft lad from Castlemilk”, the triumph that his goalscoring contribution underpinned for a youthful, and then erratically performing, side fielded by Jimmy Bonthrone would be sweet. Yet, his love of the big stage ultimately meant his quicksilver forays down the flank inflicted more damage on his boyhood club than their ancient adversaries.
Graham spent seven years with Aberdeen, coaxed to join them by the offer to increase his steel mill wage more than 10-fold – and then have a £500 signing on fee thrown in – the day before the then 17-year-old Cambuslang Rangers forward was scheduled to meet Jock Stein for Celtic signing talks.
The “twist” thereafter was that all three of the trophies Graham won with Aberdeen came against Celtic: the 1970 Scottish Cup, the 1971 Dryborough Cup and the 1976 League Cup, just as did a scoring debut for his new club...at Parkhead in March 1970.
Goals against Celtic came along with relative frequency for Graham. What made the cup win in front of a 52,000 Ibrox crowd also notable for the winger was that it brought his first strike against Rangers. The lead-up to the second minute opener would also have appealed to Graham. Tom Forsyth lost the ball to him, allowing for a typically balletic turn inside at pace to pass Colin Jackson before he fired past Stuart Kennedy.
“Tam was a bit of a hammer thrower, but that is how it was then,” said Graham, who earned 11 Scotland caps. “Rangers had some great players – Sandy Jardine was a wonderful ball player and a smashing guy – but we could hold our own with them and Celtic when things clicked.”
In the absence of the injured John Greig – “what a fella he was on the park” – the choice challenges were not shirked by either side, Derek Johnstone lost to a head injury in a tie described by The Scotsman football writer John Rafferty as being “as coarse as heather and as colourful as that plant in full bloom”.
For all that the nation now seems in a frenzy over isolated instances of crowd disturbance and a creeping on-field physicality, in 1975 such was the norm...inside and outside football arenas. “There would be kicking and fighting between players in the tunnel before you went on to the pitch,” Graham recalled. “And the ref’s reaction would be ‘lads, leave all that for on the pitch’. Honestly. You would get it from crowds too. I got a bit from Rangers supporters because they knew my background, but I got plenty from Celtic supporters too because they felt I shouldn’t have been turning it on against them.”
This week’s cup tie will follow on from the replay in the last round when Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke was moved to denounce a Scottish society living in the dark ages after he was subjected to sectarian abuse with chants of “sad Fenian bastard” directed against him. Yet, Graham knew of much darker times during his upbringing, in a crammed household with his six brothers and three sisters, whose lives he changed by becoming a breadwinner, sending half his wage down to their mother every week.
“Supporters of Rangers, and Celtic, may shout things now, but worse came from that sort of stuff when I was a boy in Castlemilk,” he said. “It was divided, and it was terrible, awful. Rangers meant Protestant, Celtic meant Catholic, and there were places you could go or you’d get seriously beaten up. It was so harsh, and thankfully, it isn’t like that now. All my siblings still live there, all my uncles, and cousins too. And though I don’t get up as much as a I should, the family golf days are good trips, and it’s still home. And maybe one day I’ll go back.”
He cringes when asked to think back how little Aberdeen’s momentous 1975 Ibrox Scottish Cup success meant in the final analysis. Following a 30th minute equaliser from Bobby McKean, it was earned for them within seven minute of a replay at Hampden two days later being required when Kennedy knocked Graham’s cross on to the bar and Duncan Davidson was on hand to drive in the ball as it dropped. “He was a good guy Duncan, all the Aberdeen lads were,” said the 66-year-old. “A group you’d be happy to go for a beer with after a game.”
There was to be no champagne for that group, however, when, after edging out Dundee United in the next round, Aberdeen lost at home to Motherwell in the quarter-finals. The season represented a changing of the guard in the Scottish game. Aberdeen, in Graham’s early years the main challengers to Stein’s title-monopolising Celtic, finish fifth in a campaign that the winger top-scored for his club and that seared its way into the game’s annals owing to Rangers landing the league crown, knocking it from the head of their bitter rivals attempting to claim it for the 10th straight season. “We lost a bit when Joe [Harper] left, and there were a few other guys we missed,” said Graham.
The Pittodrie men would disturb the Glasgow psyches again before he left for Leed United in 1977, though, with the 5-1 semi-final defeat of Rangers in the League Cup that was then clinched against Celtic some of his favourite memories.
Graham was two decades in the coaching set-up at Leeds, his club now in living in Wetherby. And his appetite for playing with style and panache a game which also brought him a spell with Manchester United, didn’t end when he was kitted out in a tracksuit.
“Right up to I retired a couple of years ago, I would join in with the young boys,” he said, a fall that “opened up his knee” more recently leaving him in “not such great nick”. “I would go on there and do nutmegs, flicks, tricks, show them how to take me on. I was sometimes told ‘you shouldn’t be doing that’ but surely the best way to be taught is to be shown.”
Graham isn’t one of those that pines for the time when football was truly ‘a man’s game’. “I love watching Man City, that’s my kind of football. It’s basically five-a-side stuff, and that was always my favourite because it is all about control and ball skills. Modern day players wouldn’t have lasted two minutes with some of the kicking that we had to put up with, but it’s great that they don’t.”
Memories of his playing days are still provide by current moments though. “It always amazes me that folk have so many posters and things from the old days,” said Graham, who had the classic 1970s look in many a Panini sticker. “I still sign all sort of picture stuff regularly like my Leeds hat-tricks - there were a few - or Aberdeen cup wins.” Some images deserve to be preserved.