Interview: Stuart Kennedy on being Fergie’s first discovery

Stuart Kennedy, who was part of Scotland's 1978 World Cup squad, now runs a B&B in Grangemouth. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Stuart Kennedy, who was part of Scotland's 1978 World Cup squad, now runs a B&B in Grangemouth. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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Down in Argentina there was no water in the swimming pool and no nets on the tennis courts. Some of the mattresses on the beds had no springs, some of the rooms no windows, and the menu offered tough horse steak, relentlessly. Holed up at the Sierras Hotel, Alta 
Gracia, Stuart Kennedy and the Scotland team had plenty of time to ponder the ongoing World Cup nightmare with very few creature comforts available to them before being due to meet the Netherlands and, it seemed, their certain doom.

“Bobby Clark was my room-mate and the thing that stopped us from going mad was writing postcards,” says the Aberdeen great, “although, to be 
honest, he was the real enthusiast so I must have been borderline insane by that stage.

“I sent them to parents, grandparents, sisters, my fiancee and a couple of mates – six at most – whereas Bobby was firing them off to everyone he’d ever met and more than one per person. He’s a very precise guy so when he remembered an old pal who’d emigrated to Australia he was able to recall the full address. Also, he kept a dictionary handy. It was always in the pocket of his Daks blazer. ‘I’d strongly advise you to invest in one of these, Stuart,’ he’d tell me. So we were always having to walk down to the wee shop to see if Pepe had ordered in new stock. But Pepe never did. There was a carousel with just the four themes: Buenos Aires, the World Cup mascot, River Plate and stadium shots.”

Eventually, though, Kennedy thinks his goalie friend and fellow Dandy Don succumbed to the madness of the Sierras. “We were back in our room after a bounce match. Ally [MacLeod, the manager] had told us that all the places against Holland were up for grabs and he’d pick the side on the strength of the performances. Gordon McQueen was still injured so Bobby had filled in at centre-half which he’d done in an emergency for Aberdeen because he was decent outfield.

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I reckon that’s me straight into the team’. ‘I don’t think so, Clarky,’ I said. ‘But Ally told us that the best players on view will be selected and did I not keep wee Joe [Harper] quiet the entire game? No, the manager has to stay true to his word otherwise he shall lose my respect.’ I told him: ‘Clarky, you’re a Corinthian, a Queen’s Park amateur. You’re Wilson of the Wizard who sleeps in a bath 
of ice and has a pulse rate of 1 and a 
fine square jaw. But you’re a bloody keeper!’”

Next year’s 40th anniversary will revive memories of Argentina ’78. They will be stirred by a gruesome witch with a rusty spoon. But if you can’t wait until then to scratch the sado-masochistic itch, then join me in Grangemouth to listen to the 64-year-old Kennedy’s yarns. Scotland meeting Holland in a friendly next week is sufficient reason to be looking him up. Clark didn’t play in that Mendoza showdown but this man did. Pittodrie’s rampaging right-back gave away the penalty which seemed to be absolute confirmation of what Rod Stewart called “Endsville”. But Kennedy also sparked the move involving the famous Kenny Dalglish miscontrol which led to Scotland’s greatest-ever goal, scored by Archie Gemmill, taking us to the gates of Dreamland.

Gemmill wasn’t one of Kennedy’s favourite people on that trip and neither was Kenny Burns. “The Peru game was my first competitive one for Scotland. I was excited but also nervous. Three times I tried to have a pee. Just before kick-off I was in the loos again. Burns appeared and said: ‘Are you playing? I thought Sandy [Jardine] was’. ‘No, you’re lumbered with me,’ I said. That was hardly a confidence-booster.” Bruce Rioch and Don Masson, he says, didn’t rate him. “To them I was a bottom-feeder. How could that be? At my club I was Spartacus! These guys tried to appoint a gofer, someone who’d fetch them drinks. I said to 
Bobby: ‘I’m not doing it, Clarky – I’m Spartacus and you’re Clarky with the Daks and the wool tie.’ Eventually the goalie from Partick Thistle did it.”

Kennedy loved Dalglish and Graeme Souness, though. “Before the Holland game there was a holding-pen. [Rob] Rensenbrink, [Johnny] Rep and [Johan] Neeskens – the superstars – were already there looking cool and they didn’t start chewing their fingernails when I showed up. Then Willie Donachie appeared, then Tam Forsyth. The Dutch guys carried on laughing and joking.

“Eventually Souness moseyed along. He didn’t look at them but they couldn’t take their eyes off him. He was shoogling those big thighs, bouncing a ball and tweaking his moustache. He came right up and shook my hand which was tremendous. I’d been all set to swap over to Holland – Stuart van de Kennedy. Then Kenny appeared. ‘Alright, wee man,’ he said. After that I was all for us playing them with just the five of us.”

In Scotland’s leagues, Kennedy possessed one of the top moustaches of the era but out in Argentina he’d been in awe of Souness’ mouser and the latter’s highly intricate grooming regime. “It was almost like he was using a micrometer. I was an engineer to trade but was like: ‘This is precision work.’ I made up my mind I was going to copy his routine when I got back to Aberdeen. That lasted ten seconds before I was removed from the mirror. ‘You’re not Souness,’ I was told. But I tell you this: when I eventually got rid of my ’tache, that Tam Selleck followed suit.”

Today it’s Kennedy’s stories which bristle. He packs them with unflinching opinion, classic movie references and comic impersonations. We’ve already had Clark; here’s Gordon Strachan who roomed with him on Dons trips: “There was a clampdown on phonecalls home and we had to start paying for our own. I was always dead quick: ‘Aye, not much of a winger, just guard duty for me, bye.’ But Gordon would be like: ‘What have you been doing? A birthday party? An eighth birthday party? Who was there? Did you have a clown? I like clowns…’ The bill would be £7.20 – I was the 20p – but Gordon would say: ‘Can you get this? I’ll pick it up next time.’ Next time the bill would be £11.14. I’d managed to reduce my call even further but he was like: ‘The dog cut its paw? Up the park? Two stitches? And you got a filling at the dentist? Toffees – what kind? The ones with the wee bits of coconut? I like them… ’ Aagh!”

Strachan is one of his closest friends along with John McMaster and Alex McLeish. These were the men round his hospital bed when the dread 
bulletin was issued: Kennedy’s right knee couldn’t be repaired and his career was over at 30. We’ll come to that – and possibly the only time Sir Alex Ferguson allowed sentiment to intrude into his decision-making – 
later. First Kennedy wants to tell me about being woken recently by a dramatic late-night missive.

“This text read: ‘Vengeance is mine.’ You’d probably find that a bit scary, but I knew what was going down. I replied: ‘Big fluffy shaggy dog.’ Then I got ‘Hot as a firecracker on the 4th of July’ and sent back ‘You’re nothing but a hillbilly piece of white trash.’ These are lines from Cape Fear – big McLeish likes that one, too.”

Kennedy’s film fanaticism reached its zenith on 22 May 1982 – a date most Aberdeen fans and the rest of the team probably rate as the ultimate expression of Fergie’s Dons, namely the 4-1 Scottish Cup final thumping of Rangers. While the goals were being re-lived over champagne at Gleneagles, the teetotal defender was enjoying an 
audience with silver screen hero Burt Lancaster.

“I loved Burt in The Birdman of Alcatraz, loved him in Elmer Gantry. But the question I wanted to ask him related to Valdez is Coming. Have you seen it? He’s this humble sheriff of a Mexican town who gets terrorised. I told him I’d always wondered if at the end of the film he got the woman, this dark-haired looker who’d previously been with the guy laying siege. Burt put his arm round my wife Anne and said: “Stoo-urt, I always get the woman’.”

Keeping the film analogies coming, Kennedy says he was “Norman Bates-style psychopathic” about training – “I used to carry a stopwatch around me so I could always check my pulse.” And when I ask him to elaborate on his Spartacus routine in the Dons dressing-room he leaps to his feet and into another movie entirely. “Have you seen Moby Dick? Orson Welles has this great cameo as the preacher in the whaleman’s chapel. He rants about Joe the bigamist and Harry the adulterer and Jack the thief. That was me before games: ‘Remember their centre-forward and that goal he scored last year? That smug look of his as he ran back to halfway. Do you want to see that look again? No!’”

Grangemouth is Kennedy’s town. He and Anne live in a cottage next to what was his wife’s home while growing up, now their bed-and-breakfast. When he was forced to hang up his boots, he was too proud to be kept on the Pittodrie payroll any longer and too proud to accept a testimonial. And it soon becomes apparent today that one vital question needs answering – who loved him more, Ally or Fergie?

The latter definitely admired him first while winding down his playing career at Falkirk where Kennedy, son of a docker, was a disillusioned reserve. “Norman Bates here was running to Brockville for training, my usual thing even though it was lashing down, when this car stopped. It was Fergie: ‘Get in son, this rain’s terrible.’ ‘No, you’re alright,’ I said, ‘and I work in a shipyard. I know about wetness.’ At the ground he was waiting for me: ‘Shipyard, son – what do you do there?’”

Kennedy laughs. “He loved that about me. Fergie’s philosophy was ‘Work, amen, then mair work.’ Mind you, I reckon I could have topped shipbuilding if I’d said I was a miner. Then he might have adopted me! He watched me train: ‘Good sprinting, son.’ Then a longer run: ‘That’s great, son.’ Then a game where this guy didn’t read my through ball. I could hear the trainers mutter: ‘Another bad pass from him.’ But Fergie said: ‘It was the right one, son, don’t you worry.’

“What was going on? No one had said anything encouraging to me the nine months I’d been there and I was about to leave for Stenhousemuir.” Ferguson, while still jabbing centre-halves with sharpened elbows, was tentatively trying on a manager’s coat for size and recommended Kennedy to boss Willie
Cunningham for a big team debut, at Pittodrie as it turned out. “He said before the game: ‘Don’t let me down, son.’ But I heard the seagulls – Grangemouth has gulls – and felt good.” Maybe, I suggest, we could say this was the first move of the future dugout legend. “I hadn’t thought of that before,” he says. “That’s what we’ll call it!”

It was MacLeod who signed Kennedy for the Dons after a phonecall to the Carron yard. “I thought it was a wind-up. Aberdeen Football Club calling through to a dry dock in the Central Belt sounded beyond the GPO’s capabilities. ‘No, it’s really Ally MacLeod, son,’ he said. ‘Sorry,’ I said when we met, ‘I think I called you an arsehole a couple of times.’ ‘Three times, actually – and a wanker’.”

Kennedy would win a complete set of domestic honours at Pittodrie. “The morning I left Grangemouth in my VW Beetle I looked in on my grandfather. He was my hero, bought me my first boots and came to all my juvenile games even though he was blind and I dedicated my career to him. ‘Keep listening to the radio, Grandad,’ I said, ‘because you’ll hear all about me’.”

No one at his new club missed Kennedy, not even on that first day. The Spartacus persona was adopted later. “I also got called Petrocelli after the TV programme because I was the barrack-room lawyer who negotiated the bonuses.” But his first role, as he saw it, was to challenge the hegemony of the dressing-room for MacLeod, a “mafioso” featuring Davie Robb, Jocky Scott, Eddie Thomson and others who liked things fairly nine-to-five. The sprints were “playschool stuff for a guy with a running bible which I’d copied from Roger Bannister. I was a 10.8 for the 100, I was a machine”. When the runs lengthened Billy Williamson told him: “The way we do things here is each of us takes turns as the pacesetter.” Kennedy replied: “Here’s the deal with me: I don’t do ladies’ egg-and-spoon races.” During full cross-country he threw George Campbell to the ground for blocking him and thought the manager would boot him out. MacLeod was thrilled.

He repays the loyalty by being reluctant to criticise MacLeod over Argentina. “Ally was a showman but Fergie was on a different planet when it came to tactics and being a cunning fox, as he was from everyone of course. I sat next to Ally on the plane back from the World Cup. He really thought he’d be able to move on to top-flight job in England. ‘And I’ll make you my first signing,’ he said. I wasn’t sure that was going to 
happen for him.”

When Ferguson got to Pittodrie he was delighted to find his protege firmly installed and influential. The players quickly tired of sentences beginning “When I was at St Mirren we did this… ”, so Kennedy advised him to ease up on the nostalgic reminiscing over a side the Dons had beaten four times the previous season. Only he could have done this. Maybe only Kennedy would have dared.

Hewn from the same rock, manager and player understood each other. On the road to European Cup Winners’ Cup glory, Kennedy was substituted against Bayern Munich, the one and only time this happened to him. He was raging and refused to come off. The next day he was summoned to Ferguson’s office and told the switch had been tactical. Top managers had witnessed Kennedy’s histrionics – was he mentally unstable? “I said: ‘I’m a proud guy – was I meant to look delighted?’ Fergie said: ‘You’re right, but I’m still going to have to drop you on Saturday’.”

Kennedy’s career lasted one more round, the injury coming in the semi-final against Waterschei. With the final against Real Madrid looming, Ferguson entered the treatment room. “How’s the knee?” he asked, trying not to look at the grapefruit-sized swelling. “‘Great, boss,’ I said, ‘I’ll be back up to 10.8 next week.’ He got me on to the pitch. He was looking for symmetry in my running, like he was checking a racehorse. I was just hoping he wasn’t going to ask me to zigzag because I could only move in a straight line.”

There’s time for one more allusion to the movies. It’s the scene in The Great Escape where near-blind POW Donald Pleasance tries to fool the escape committee into thinking he’s fit for the big break-out by picking up a pin from the floor having paced out its position beforehand. “It was a bit like that. Finally Fergie said: ‘You can stop the charade. I’m putting you on the bench for Gothenburg’.”

He wouldn’t have done that for anyone. But then Stuart Kennedy was Spartacus.