Rough guided back to Partick home

THE conception of Alan Rough deprived of Partick Thistle would once have been as difficult to conceive as a world without fresh air. The Maryhill team and he lived through life together for 14 years, and the marriage of a world-class keeper and an essentially part-time club was, as expected, never dull.

The surprise is that they remained together so long. One minute Rough was lauded as a hero, and the next he was being accused by his manager of playing only for himself. Bertie Auld, for it was he, also called Rough a "poof", and then dropped him for good measure. As we were saying, Alan Rough and Partick Thistle were born to be together.

They haven’t, though, been together since 1984, when Rough left Thistle to join Hibs, for what was another successful chapter in a playing career that continues to hold its charge more than ten years after it ended in, of all places, Glenafton. Earlier this month, however, Rough fielded a phone call from the one man who might rival him in the "Mr PTFC" stakes. Present manager John Lambie asked if he wished to become the goalkeeper coach at Firhill, and Rough, despite a week already creaking under the strain of commitments to Glenafton (where he is as near to a Director of Football as one gets in the junior game) and Scot FM (where he co-hosts a nightly football phone-in show) agreed to re-enter the world of Thistle, finding them more or less where he left them - in the First Division.

On two mornings a week Rough now makes his way to the Loretto pitches outside Lenzie, just a few miles from his Kirkintilloch home and where Thistle now conveniently train. There he puts the club’s three goalkeepers - David Klein, Garry Gow and Kenny Arthur - through their paces, in the shadow of the Campsie Fells, by the shore of a sea of memories that lend Rough’s career a loftiness that serves to dwarf the gentle triumphs and failures of the present hum-drum generation.

If you want stories then Roughie has them, which is perhaps why he further clogs up his week on the after-dinner speaker circuit. He once brought sandwiches back out from the dressing room after half-time in an international match, and proceeded to share them with a group of handicapped children behind the goal who looked cold and hungry. The match had since kicked off again.

During a Scottish Cup tie for Hibs against East Fife he received a knock in a challenge, but played on.

It was later discovered that he’d played on with a broken ankle. "Aye, I was out for six weeks," Rough says now with a shrug. There are few things Alan Rough says without a shrug, and he was back at it again when asked whether he himself might have reaped any benefits from specialist training, the type of which he is now giving the custodians of the sticks at Thistle.

"I suppose so, but it was never heard of when I played," he replies. "You just taught yourself, and at training joined in with the things the other players did. Obviously goalkeeping is now thought of as a more specialised position, so if I can pass anything on then so much the better.

"I would have thought it a great thing, especially being coached by somebody who had done something in the game."

Rough, being laid back to the point of laconic, is the last person to talk himself up. You don’t therefore take the last comment to be a reference to himself, yet if it was it would form an unarguable fact. There are few better qualified to teach the art of goalkeeping than a man who played 53 times for his country, including representing Scotland at three World Cup finals. He is still recognised in the street, and the features on his 50- year-old face have worn well, as so too has the hair. An argument with a set of curling tongs in the Seventies is long enough ago to be laughed off with the probably reasonable explanation that "everyone was doing it back then". More enduring than his famous perm was his relationship with Thistle. How then did it feel walking back into Firhill after so long away?

"It does still feel like home," he says. "Most of my life in football has been spent at Thistle. I joined when I was 16, and left when I was 30. I came through all the teams, from the under- 16s to the under-18s, through the reserves and then into the first team.

Obviously the people at the club have changed a wee bit, but it still seems a natural enough place for me to be. I mean, I used to stay just 300 yards from Firhill when I was growing up, and I used to hang around there and get autographs the way every other kid did."

His love affair with Thistle started early, and it was to overwhelm previous feelings for Celtic. He did play eight games for the Parkhead club at the tail end of his playing days, and he also might have joined Rangers, but cowed by the 100,000 figure quoted (those were the days) the Ibrox side pulled out of the bidding and Hibs bought him instead.

He spent a total of 20 years at Easter Road and Firhill, and such is Rough’s manner that you cannot escape the notion that he simply couldn’t be bothered to move elsewhere. Offers came in from England, he says, but the legal ties bonding players to a club were rather more strong then than now. "If not I’d have been away," says Rough.

Never having tried his luck down south remains something of a niggle, although typically Rough stops short of describing it as a regret. Neither is he mourning the apparent failure to step up into management in the senior game, despite a successful decade in charge at Glenafton.

He found a niche in Ayrshire, one that consumed any previous ambitions he once might have harboured to become the mildest-mannered manager in the senior game.

"I had just finished my career, and was looking to get into management," he says of his route to Glenafton in 1990. "You can’t just walk into it, it takes time. Glenafton seemed a good enough place to start off. When I got there the ambitions to be the manager at a bigger club just weren’t there. They are a certain breed. You have to be pretty ruthless to get on in the game.

"I had offers from clubs like Queen of the South and Albion Rovers, but they didn’t appeal. When I think about it now, I just didn’t fancy it."

Perhaps he knew Thistle would come back for him. When Rough remained aloof as a Hibs-Rangers clash erupted into a centre-circle mele one observer quipped that "Roughie, he comes aff his line for nothing!". When Thistle is the bait, however, he becomes a man hard to hold back.