Of all the tributes yesterday, and I think I might have read them all, or at least attempted to, with moistening eyes, one stood out. It was from Alan Gilzean’s grandaughter. “Fly high grandad,” wrote Amy Gilzean on Facebook.
No one flew higher than Gillie. Check out the pictures of him leaping to score the winner for Scotland v England at Hampden Park in 1964 in front of 133,000 people. It’s as if he is already half way to heaven.
There’s been talk of erecting a statue in Coupar Angus, the Perthshire town where he is from. In order to properly capture Gillie as a player it would need to be the first statue ever to hover on a plinth of air, as if preparing to meet another cross. Maybe that’s why it’s taken so long to properly honour the greatest footballer to have come from the area, and probably ever will.
But then some sympathy has to be reserved for club officials at Dundee and Spurs, likewise the Coupar Angus town fathers. However, they choose to commemorate Gillie it will feel as if they have somehow fallen short.
As Michael Marra, another local legend who lived latterly among the loamy fields on the Angus/Perthshire border, observed, Gillie strode “like a colossus over the Tullybaccart”. This is a pass through the Sidlaw hills on the road between Coupar Angus and Dundee. When not striding, the majestic striker seemed to float through the air. And now he really has ascended.
Oh Gillie, say it ain’t so.
A stand named after him won’t cut it; whether it be at Dundee or Spurs. There’s already a lounge named after him at Dens but that alone hardly befits the club’s greatest player. Dundee have plans to move to a new stadium. They should name the whole bloody place after him.
No Dundee player flew higher. No Dundee player ever will. He scored 27 goals in the Dens Park side’s title-winning season of 1961-62, including four against Rangers in a 5-1 win at Ibrox. Could he hope to emulate this haul the following season? He bettered it, scoring 41 times. He scored a winning goal over AC Milan in a European Cup semi-final second leg.
And then the following season, with defences having had every chance to get wise to his tricks and far-post runs, he scored 52 times. It’s still a club record and was only broken by anyone in Scotland as recently as 2001. That it took someone of Henrik Larsson’s quality says it all.
This puzzles me now. Usually in such circumstances there would be an attempt to get hold of Gillie for some quotes to recognise Larsson’s achievement.
I do not recall this happening. Perhaps it was already well established that Gilzean had drifted away from the game. He wasn’t to be disturbed. He could not be disturbed for few had his contact details. It was not until March 2009, prior to the Carling Cup final between Spurs and Manchester United, and, bucked into action by the oft-made comparisons between then Spurs striker Dimitar Berbatov and Gilzean, I made serious efforts to contact him.
I met one of his two sons Ian for a coffee in Perth. “I just think he needed a break from the game,” he told me. “The break has lasted 30-odd years.”
Nearly two years later, Dundee hosted Morton on Boxing Day. My dad and I were in the main stand, Gillie was introduced to the crowd at half-time (not that any introduction was necessary).
This was the chance. We waited around afterwards. I introduced my dad, with whom Gillie talked cricket, farming and almost everything else except football. He phoned me the next day, as he promised he would. We arranged to meet. Which is how Gilzean’s first interview since the 1970s – or so he said – came about. He left me in no doubt about why he’d agreed. “It’s because of your dad.”
Local ties and cricket had sealed the deal.
I nearly blew it.
Before the interview took place, I asked if he would mind if I brought along a photographer. “Typical journalist,” replied Gillie. “Give them an inch….” There would be no photographer. So it was just Gillie and myself inside the Carnoustie Golf Hotel, in the town where Ian, his youngest son, had settled. The Open golf championship heads there next week. I know even amid the teeming thousands, the stars of world golf and the goddamn hullabaloo, I will be thinking mostly of Gillie.
He was fascinating company that day. We covered a lot of ground, from practising headers against a shed at Coupar Angus primary school to London nightlife, via memories of his first car, for which he could still remember the registration number: TES 176. He told me of supporting Hibernian growing up, because he liked the colour green and also because of Gordon Smith, his hero and later, of course, a team-mate at Dens Park. The two things he most wanted to do when a child was play for Hibs and play at Wembley. He achieved the latter, winning the FA Cup against Chelsea, with his mother and father in the crowd, and the League Cup twice. Asked for the title of the autobiography he never did write, he replied: A Dream Come True.
He explained one of the reasons for walking away from it all, to the general mystification of nearly everyone else, was a realisation he wasn’t the player he once was. “And who wants to bother about old guys like me?”
It turns out many did. Few Spurs players flew higher. Check out the reaction to him when all the greats returned to White Hart Lane just over a year ago ahead of the ground’s demolition. When he was introduced the reaction nearly dispensed with the need for a wrecking ball by blowing the roof off.
It was a privilege to get to know him. More recently, we travelled together, along with Bobby Wishart, the Dundee team-mate to whom he was closest, to the funeral of Alan Cousin, his old strike partner. On the way back, Wishart noted Cousin’s death had tipped the balance “the wrong way”. There were now more of the great championship-winning team in the High Stand than alive.
His mind was still so sharp, he still seemed so active, never in a million years did I imagine Gillie would be the next of this golden gang to go. There was so much more left to say. I wanted to ask about the spelling of the nickname by which he was known by nearly everyone. He had signed off one of his last text messages as “Gilly”. That to me always seemed the Anglicised version. But then he had lived in England for over 50 years.
Just four members of the great Dundee side of ’62, one that still trots off the tongue of so many, remain: Liney, Seith, Wishart and Ure. As for Gillie, Gordon Smith’s waited a long time to find his old friend with another cross.