Interview: Ex Scotland star Lou Macari is devoted to helping the homeless

Lou Macari devotes much of his time to the Macari Centre, the homeless retreat he set up two years ago. Picture: Rex/Shutterstock.
Lou Macari devotes much of his time to the Macari Centre, the homeless retreat he set up two years ago. Picture: Rex/Shutterstock.
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It could be a football changing room, given the unholy racket of shouting and raucous laughter that’s taking place through the wall from where Lou Macari is sat. In truth, though, we couldn’t be further from his old life.

This is the Macari Centre which very definitely isn’t a museum dedicated to a career spent winning titles and trophies with Celtic and Manchester United and playing in the World Cup for Scotland. Rather it’s a shelter for the homeless, a refuge offering blankets, food and hope.

“They’d better not be swearing because Sister’s in today,” he says, referring to the local nun who is currently parceling up surplus donated clothes to send to an orphanage in Kenya. “I don’t swear like I normally do when I’m here. I’m not the ex-player or the ex-manager here; I’m just doing what I can to help. The other week I was at Wembley for the FA Cup final where, as usual, the buffet in hospitality was fabulous. Here there are folk who are oh so grateful for a cup of tea and a bacon roll and to be honest I’m just as grateful I’m able to see how the other half lives, or tries to.”

Macari does more than man the urn; without him the street retreat in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent wouldn’t exist. He got the idea after no greater exposure to the homelessness issue than yours or mine: he saw people sleeping rough and in doorways, quite a lot of them, only he didn’t simply exude sympathy and maybe a few coins then walk on. “I’m probably here too often,” he says, “but it’s a hectic place with new people arriving all the time.”

Macari clearly has a big heart but, having learned under one of football’s great disciplinarians, Jock Stein, he’s no soft touch. “There’s always an issue with someone. I’ll read the behaviour reports from the previous day and something will have gone wrong. So-and-so was due in court – why didn’t they go? Or, if they did go, why did they dress like a homeless person when we’ve got decent clothes they can wear? But I like the banter in this place. Some people know who I am but a few won’t. Aye, sometimes you’ve got to separate the hard-luck stories from the bullshit but one of the ways you can help is by talking to the folk, listening to them, acknowledging they exist.”

A morning spent in Macari’s company can put a lot of things in perspective and the man himself, coming from the world of football where these days the top players barely have to tie their own laces or apply their own moisturiser, is well aware of this. “When you’re younger you take everything that comes your way,” he says. “But when you get older you realise there’s a lot less fortunate people out there.”

And the difficulties faced by refuge regulars – alcohol and drugs problems, adrift from family, no fixed abode and as a result little chance of getting a job – can make the grumbles of Scotland’s 1978 World Cup squad seem really pathetic.

Those of us who lived through that disastrous campaign have heard the grumbles repeated many times. The hotel beds were too hard, the soup was inedible, the pool had no water in it and the opposition were too crafty. BBC Scotland have just reheated the complaints for a documentary, something which probably wouldn’t have saved the soup. Masochists will note that transmission is next Wednesday, 6 June, when exactly 40 years ago, Ally MacLeod’s team were reeling from Willie Johnston’s drugs bust and about to lurch to a draw with football no-marks Iran.

Macari, now 68, was one of the Argentina “bad boys” who after the tournament would never play for his country again. It’s poignant, then, that the first time we see him in the film he is inspiring one of commentator Archie Macpherson’s most famous exclamations: Kenny Dalglish knocked the ball back to him in the centre circle and as Martin Buchan galloped down the right wing, Macari hit what was surely the sweetest, most instinctive, most raking left-foot pass of his career. Cue Archie: “There’s an overlap!”

“The Wales game,” he says of the crucial qualifier for ’78, “and Kenny’s wonderful header. It was a brilliant feeling to have won that match because we would be going to the finals as the only British representatives.” That, though, would bring its own problems and pressures once the players were holed up in Cordoba.

Which Scotland squad contained the bonnier talents, ’74 or ’78? Somewhere in the land, between games in a World Cup not involving us, this will be debated. Bill Shankly is quoted in the documentary as saying that the Argentina-bound Scots, if they were to compete in England’s old First Division, would have wrapped up the league by Christmas. Macari’s party was plenty strong and he worried about not being on the plane. “Although I played at Anfield I was thinking: ‘Am I even going to make the big pool of 60?’ I was like a kid with a sticker album, only I seemed to have too many midfield players: ‘[Don] Masson and [Bruce] Rioch are certainties. [Archie] Gemmill and [Asa] Hartford and [Graeme] Souness are bound to get in. Bloody hell’.”

Too many midfielders, too much hullabaloo. The World Cup came along at a vulnerable moment for the country. The old industries were dying and we were seeking a new, different and vivid expression of ourselves. The tournament, especially with no England present, provided it. Butchers sold their shops so they could follow the team across the ocean. Bedecked in tartan, some fans embarked on the great adventure by bicycle. The film shows residents of a hamlet digging a hole in the ground. Were they attempting to tunnel their way to South America? No, simply laying four miles of cabling so Knoydart could follow the games on TV.

What did Macari think of the pre-World Cup lap of honour around Hampden? “I wasn’t very comfortable with it, but looking back it allowed wee kids to see the players along with all the other fans who weren’t able to make the big journey.” As with much of Argentina ’78 the parade has been over-analysed, and at least that bus didn’t break down, unlike the transfer from Buenos Aires to the squad’s base. “We all had to get out and push,” laughs Macari. “Can you imagine Gareth Southgate and his boys doing that in Russia this summer?”

Scotland’s impresario – PT McBarnum – was of course MacLeod. What did Macari think of him before Argentina and then afterwards? “Oh, the same. My view didn’t waver. Ally was a character like Tommy Doc [Docherty]. He was entertaining and a genuine football man who wanted to win games and for Scotland to give of their best.

“Now you’re going to ask me about preparations and whether we should have had Peru watched [the South Americans stunned Scotland in the opening match, winning 3-1 with flying wingers and outside-of-the-foot deftness by Teofilo Cubillas]. The younger generation might be wondering: ‘Where were your tactical geniuses back then?’ They don’t exist now, by the way, but we did have these great managers, guys like Jock, Shanks and [Matt] Busby. Football’s big into analysis and stats and everything now but the greats managed players and that was Ally, too.”

The second time we encounter Macari in the documentary is at the squad’s Alta Gracia retreat where he’s asking Masson and Joe Harper what would be reasonable for a World Cup bonus payment. This is followed by Macari being asked by a reporter how much he expected to make from the tournament. “Buttons,” he replies. He says now: “Sure we talked about money. Any footballer who says he doesn’t is a liar. You got paid a wage and if you won, there would be a bonus but in ’78, players were earning £200 a week. Was representing the country not sufficient reward? I don’t know, is it enough nowadays? The subject of money was bound to crop up. Of course it should have cropped up before we travelled and been sorted out then.”

If you thought you knew all you ever needed to know about Argentina ’78 you might be shocked by the film when Derek Johnstone reveals the full horror of camp boredom. Stuck by the empty pool, the players would turn their frustrations on a colony of ants, flicking gravel at them to dislodge the leaves being borne on tiny backs. Maybe the squad placed bets on the outcomes; perhaps they also backed themselves to win their second group game.

First capped by Docherty, Macari had been a member of the Scotland team which ripped up Wembley in 1977, got involved in the scruffy winner that day, just as he was for the similarly ugly Twin Towers goal which brought Man U the FA Cup two weeks before, and was drafted into the national side for what would be the dire 1-1 with Iran, his 24th and final dark blue appearance.

Macari insists he didn’t quit Scotland, rather they quit him. He’d prompted seething at the SFA over a newspaper article criticising their organisation of the campaign. “I didn’t go running to the press; I had a regular column in The Sun and when the tournament was over for Scotland was asked to reflect on it. The SFA took the hump. [Secretary] Ernie Walker’s response was something like: ‘We’re not going to punish Mr Macari by making him play for Scotland again’. I was disappointed that was my last-ever game but in the column I’d simply told it like it was.”

Macari has had a tempestuous life. To end up at Man U he said “no” to Jock Stein and then “no” to Bill Shankly at Liverpool; not many do that. As Celtic boss he took Fergus McCann to court after his sacking but lost his savings in the action. “Fergus wanted me out from day one. His method of communication was to write me a note and yet our offices were only 50 yards apart. I knew it was the wrong time to be there but anyone who’d been brought up by the club, as I had been, would have jumped at the chance to manage them.” Then as boss of Swindon Town he was fined for breaching FA rules on betting.

But events good and bad paled into insignificance for Macari following the tragedy which was to hit his family in 1999 when youngest son Jonathan, who’d been with Nottingham Forest, took his own life. The language of football, its would-be triumphs and supposed disasters, won’t have sounded more over-inflated than at that moment. Nothing comes close to losing a child.

It’s ten years since Macari wrote about Jonathan’s death in his autobiography. He said then that he blamed himself. He could have done more to help the lad. As a manager he’d been careful to spot the signs when young players might have been experiencing difficulties – why hadn’t he done this with his own son?

Does he still feel guilt? “One of the things people say is: ‘Time heals’. It doesn’t; nothing changes. You get older, the event gets older, but it doesn’t go away. You question yourself. Every time you have a mad moment, which you try to keep to as few as possible, you’ll do that. I think that must happen in all families who’ve been through something similar. There would be something wrong with you if you didn’t reflect on a loss, especially of a child, and have regrets.”

The Macari Centre opened two years ago. He would love to be able to close it tomorrow and for homelessness not to exist but in the time the refuge has been in operation its reach and services have had to be expanded. It now caters for 30, three times the original figure, and provides three meals a day. I wonder if Macari was moved to act by his feelings over Jonathan’s death. “Maybe that had something to do with it,” he says. “As a parent when you lose a child, a billion things run through your mind. The one thing that’s not going to happen, of course, is them coming back to you. So you think about what you could have done [to help] and then you might think: ‘Who helped me in life?’ At Man U and Celtic I had brilliant mentors and in Big Jock I had the greatest of them all.”

Macari thinks back to his Parkhead youth as a Quality Street kid and how he couldn’t be even a minute late for training on Tuesday and Thursday nights because Stein was always standing at the door, counting in the striplings. He’s laughing having remembered the night he tried to sneak a bottle of Coca-Cola past the boss and of course he was rumbled. “Jock was teetotal but he didn’t even approve of fizzy drinks. He poured it down the sink then uttered the immortal words: ‘I’ll Coca-Cola ye’. Like Stein, Macari has never touched alcohol.

“I couldn’t have achieved what I did in football without guys like Jock and one day, seeing so many people sleeping rough, I thought to myself: ‘Who’s helping them? What are they ever going to be able to achieve in their lives?’ I had a friend on the local council. He used to be a journalist who, when I was playing, was always pestering me for stories. I said to him: ‘It’s payback time. You must have an empty building which could be used as a shelter’. I thought setting it up would be my only involvement but here I am. I’m trying to help the folk get their lives back on track. I don’t preach to them. I want them to 
know they can rely on me and 
trust me.”

Such commitment takes time. Macari won’t leave the refuge and head for home until after 10pm. Then he’ll stay up for telly coverage of Scotland’s return to South America, the national team’s first visit to the continent since that ill-fated excursion 40 years ago. “They need to get back on track, too,” he says, “but I always watch their games, waiting for things to change. I want a magician to come along and restore us to what we used to be, producing unbelievable footballers.”

l Scotland ’78: A Love Story is on BBC1 Scotland on 6 June at 9pm.