Scotland v Croatia: Pirie knows how Rhodes feels

Billy Pirie in the memorable Dundee strip. Picture: SNS
Billy Pirie in the memorable Dundee strip. Picture: SNS
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The nearest Billy Pirie ever got to a cap was when he was overlooked for a Scottish League select.

So to say he was surprised to learn about his name being mentioned by Gordon Strachan at a press conference to announce the latest Scotland international squad is an understatement.

Ears pricked up – well, this writer’s certainly did – when Strachan was asked last week about the continued international plight of Jordan Rhodes, the man who is scoring goals at a rapid rate in England but can’t seem to cement his place in the Scotland set-up. Strachan surprisingly referenced Pirie when seeking to make a point about an individual player’s prodigious goal return not guaranteeing success for the team.

“At Dundee, Billy Pirie scored 40 goals a season but didn’t get us promoted,” the Scotland manager pointed out, before adding: “It’s all about the team.” There were some quizzical looks from younger reporters, and later, some confusion: who is this Billy Currie dude? In response it seemed natural to want to find out where Billy Pirie is now.

In the eyes of Dundee supporters of a certain age, the striker is preserved forever in the stylish strip of the late Seventies, with the braces-style effect of red and white stripes emerging from the armpits and running all the way down to the hem of the shorts. Others might remember him at Aberdeen, while there are those who will have watched him at Huntly or Arbroath, earlier ports of call.

A plan to move permanently to Australia, where he finished his career, was aborted. Pirie is still living quietly in Montrose, having recently sold the pub in town that he owned for 24 years. One criticism made of Pirie as a player is that he didn’t work hard enough, despite the healthy goal return.

This complaint is made to sound lud-icrous when he tells you that his next day’s shift at the oil company where he now works begins at 7am and he doesn’t expect to be home until after 7pm. Pirie turns 65 on his next birthday. After an explanation for the call – “oh aye, a friend told me Gordon was talking about me. I got quite a shock,” he says – the subject turned quickly to goals, the way it should with Billy Pirie. He was bought by Aberdeen to replace another master goalscorer, Joe Harper.

“Although I scored one in every three games, I lost confidence,” Pirie recalls. “My workrate was perhaps not what it should have been but I was playing wide and in midfield – I even had a game at left back in a practice match and never gave Arthur Graham a kick of the ball.”

Ally MacLeod was Aberdeen manager at the time, and shortly afterwards they travelled to play Rangers. “MacLeod turned to me and said: ‘You are going on at left back’,” recalls Pirie. “I said: ‘No, I don’t mind in a practice game but I am not going on at Ibrox to make an arse of myself’.

“That didn’t help extend my time at Aberdeen,” he adds, probably accurately.

On arrival at relegated Dundee he relayed this story to manager Davie White, who had wondered why things didn’t work out for him at Pittodrie. “When I scored I was OK but if I didn’t score I was out,” recalls Pirie. “Davie White said to me: ‘The only time you will be in trouble here is if you are not in the box when the ball comes in’. So I didn’t venture very far from the box.”

This strategy suited Pirie. It also benefited Dundee in the form of goals. In the 1976-77 campaign he scored 38 league goals in just 33 appearances and 44 goals in all competitions. Somehow, as Strachan noted, Dundee still failed to secure promotion. They finished third, seven points behind runners-up Clydebank. The 19-year-old Strachan also featured in 33 league games and scored seven times.

The next season was much the same story, just more agonising. Dundee finished third again, a point adrift of Hearts. Pirie had fallen short too – only the 35 league goals this time. During the campaign Strachan left to join Aber-deen.

When did he last see Strachan? “Ach, I cannae mind,” Pirie replies. He says they socialised together at Dundee on occasion, although, according to accounts, this is hardly surprising. As Strachan has since recounted on several occasions, it was a drinkers’ club. “I had a couple of pints with him, I also had one or two fall-outs with him,” says Pirie. “Here was this little wee guy trying to hit 50-60 yard passes. He has been around. He has been everywhere. He seems to have all the answers when it comes to football. There is no way I would even attempt to try and tell him what to do.”

Strachan’s point about Rhodes is that while he might thrive in a side that manages to get 30 crosses into the box during a game, it is a different story when his team-mates can’t provide so many opportunities. Pirie has caught glimpses of Rhodes on television and likes what he sees.

“I wouldn’t say he is lazy, it just seems like he doesn’t fit into the system,” he says. “And who knows the system apart from Gordon and Mark [McGhee].

“Just get it in the box and I will put it away, that was my system,” he adds.

When Dundee struggled back in the Premier Division, Pirie struggled. He remains dismayed at the way Tommy Gemmell, who replaced White as manager at Dens, treated him – not even naming him as substitute on occasion.

There are some similarities to Rhodes’ international plight at present. The fear is that the Blackburn Rovers player is tiring of being told he needs to work harder to earn a starting slot. A hand injury ruled him out against Macedonia and now a groin complaint led to his withdrawal from the squad for Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Croatia.

Like Rhodes, Pirie fell foul of the ploy of playing with one striker, but then relations were never good between him and Gemmell. “Tommy Gemmell was Tommy Gemmell,” he says. “It was all about what he had done in his career.

“He started playing one up front – Sinky [Eric Sinclair]. I was told that it was because he worked harder than me but he wasn’t scoring. We went to Celtic Park and I wasn’t even in the team. I was not even a sub.

“I thought: ‘I can’t believe this’. I put my jacket on and went out the door and turned to my left and had a couple of beers in the first pub I came to. By the time I came back at half-time we were 2-0 down. ‘Where have you been?’ I knew then that the writing was on the wall.”

Pirie was still scoring goals for the Albert Bar’s side in his early fifties and only stopped playing just over a decade ago. So how might Strachan choose to deploy him were he available to Scotland today? “I’ve nae doubt I would be sitting there next to Jordan on the bench,” he says.