I’VE always loved the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen is standing in a movie queue behind a man who’s trying to impress his date with how much he knows about the theories of media guru Marshall McLuhan, only he’s getting them all wrong. Irritated by this, Woody starts an argument with the buffoon which he wins in the most brilliant way: by producing McLuhan from behind a cinema hoarding.
Something similar happens in an Edinburgh hotel when Dave McPherson waxes lyrical about ball-playing centre-backs. It’s a long and at times rambling justification for the centre-back’s right to be creative, which in Big Slim’s case could involve a gallop out of defence, itself long and at times rambling. Now I’m not being Woody here and disagreeing with McPherson. All 6ft 5ins of him thundering upfield, 1980s mullet thwacking off the back of his neck, was truly one of Scottish football’s most thrilling sights. You never knew what was going to happen and sometimes it could be hilarious. Some traditionalists were firmly opposed to his methods, though, and reckoned that a centre-back, especially such a big one, should always just hoof it. But here in the capital’s Stockbridge, from the neighbouring booth in the oak-panelled bar, a voice pipes up: “Tell him about that goal for the Jambos, Davie, when you horsed out of defence, played a one-two on halfway, carried on horsing and set up the winner.”
McPherson laughs. He’s always been a confident fellow and so doesn’t require this dramatic testimony. Nevertheless he says: “Have you met my ‘plant’?”
Big Slim is pretty sure the fellow – who of course he doesn’t know from Adam or indeed fellow ex-Tynecastle team-mate Stephane Adam – is referring to a Scottish Cup tie between Hearts and Rangers, the two clubs from which he could never escape, the two clubs who meet today in Scotland’s game of the season, never mind that it comes in the Championship. He loves them equally and wants to see both fly again.
We’ll return to that table-topping clash but first let’s find out about the origins of the McPherson style which garnered him a 21-year career, 27 Scotland caps and 57 occasions when he didn’t bother to set up and scored himself – a terrific goals record for a defender. He was born in Glasgow, the middle of three sons for parents James and Letitia. James, who died earlier this year and shortly after McPherson turned 50 following a long battle with cancer, was an engineer but played junior football and so understood how the game was gripping young Dave.
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McPherson says: “My brothers and I all did okay at school. James is now an IT engineer and Andrew a psychiatric nurse. But when I signed schoolboy forms with Rangers I stopped bothering about my studies. I was pretty pig-headed, I seem to remember.”
His father took him to Ibrox to see Jock Wallace’s Treble-winners. “John Greig, Sandy Jardine, Alex MacDonald, Derek Johnstone, Derek Parlane. But I didn’t want to be any of them. I wanted to be Ruud Krol.”
Every Scottish boy who’s dreamed of being a footballer grows up with an idol but many would ply their trade closer to home and few would be this cerebral. But McPherson has always thought deeply about football and his place in it. For instance, he says of the modern player: “He lacks the hunger. The academy system has made everything too easy for him. Very quickly he thinks he’s a top footballer. I see this at Rangers and other clubs. I think they lack the desire that I had, that others like Ian Durrant had. Boys now don’t seem determined to have a long career. Me, I wanted to play for ever.”
This boy was in thrall to the player who was perhaps the personification of Holland’s total football, in that Krol was billed as a defender but was as flamboyant as any of those in the sexier forward positions. “The Dutch master”, McPherson calls him. Four times in as many minutes he mentions defenders who “just kicked it”. This was the Scottish way during his formative years. “These big hammer-throwers would just boot it up the park.” He wasn’t about to do that. Sounds like he wanted to revolutionise our game, I say. “I did!”
The revolution began at Pollok United with chums Billy Davies and Tommy Sheridan. “Tommy thought he was a better footballer than he was. We had a good laugh in that team.” Access to footage of Krol and McPherson’s other great hero, Franz Beckenbauer, was limited. Now, when visual evidence is in short supply you have to use your imagination and the end result can be over-flowery. But, aged 16, McPherson seemed to have got the hang of the total fitba lark, at least as far as the Dutch were concerned. “I played in an under-age tournament in France and found out later from [ex-Ranger, by then working with the youths] Willie Thornton that Ajax had wanted to sign me. He said: ‘We told them you weren’t going anywhere’.” A regret? “Oh yes. I’d love to have played abroad.” Later in his career there was interest from Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla. “I think I was a more European-style player so it would have suited me but I’m disappointed when Scots get the chance to play somewhere else and don’t take it. They’d learn more about the game and almost certainly improve.”
So it was back to Ibrox where the first time a howitzer clearance was aimed for him and he didn’t automatically send it straight back, Ibrox had never seen the like. “Maybe I took the ball down on my chest. I think it was the reserves and Colin Jackson was playing alongside me. I can still hear him sigh. Actually I think Colin said: ‘Oh for f**k’s sake, you can’t do that!’ But I had good touch for a big guy. I knew what I was doing. ‘Of course you can’, I said, at least to myself. I was pretty single-minded.”
Sighs he did hear. And gasps and groans. The Ibrox legions had witnessed the Treble team being broken up and the Big Hoose having its stands replaced. The stadium was half-empty during redevelopment and not much fuller when the work was done. With so few souls about the place, retrieving the ball from a Bobby Williamson balloon over the bar could take some time. Presumably single-minded Slim was still trying to keep it within the confines of the park, but did the faithful approve?
“Well, I remember my first-team debut. It was a League Cup tie at home to Brechin, 1981. John Greig, who’d signed me and was having a difficult time, said: ‘I think I’m going to have to play you’. I said: ‘What, sorry, say that again?’ We won and I thought I did okay. I was still getting the bus home. I didn’t yet have the club blazer and so was in my Slater’s suit, 40 quid. No one recognised me at the bus stop. Right, I thought, I’m not a star yet. I sat behind two supporters chatting about the game. First guy: ‘What did you think of the new boy?’ Second guy: ‘He likes to play football. Could be one for the future’. First guy: ‘Nae chance. I like my centre-haufs to bang it up the park’!”
This risk-taking – a chest-trap here, a mazy dribble there – maybe suggests a whole life lived dangerously. True? “No, not at all. I didn’t regard what I did on the pitch as risky; I wanted to play football. Bobby Russell was someone you could give the ball and then make an angle for the return.” Ah, but a centre-back passing it along the ground is one thing; making an angle takes him into a whole other realm. “Well, it’s true I knew plenty who’d pass then hide behind the striker so they wouldn’t get the ball back. But, no, I’m not someone who takes risks generally. I’m a quiet guy. My friends would say boring!”
If not quite danger, Graeme Souness certainly brought melodrama into McPherson’s life. And moustaches. “A few of us copied his mouser to wind him up.” So who inspired the McPherson barnet – Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon or elevator-music king Kenny G? “ ‘Inspired’ suggests I thought about my hair; I didn’t. I’d take the field before I realised I couldn’t see through my fringe and would have to cut it at half-time.” The hair made him seem taller than he was, he thinks, though 6ft 5ins is obviously considerable. “My parents weren’t especially tall and I hadn’t been head and shoulders above everyone at school. I just seemed to grow at Rangers, as if they’d struck me on a rack for a year and stretched me.”
A Premier title was won and there should have been another League Cup for McPherson, too. “There was an almighty rammy at Hibs [after Souness’s attempted skin-graft on George McCluskey] and the whole Rangers team got booked. That was always the booking I blamed on me being suspended for the final so it was the manager’s fault.” They had a strained relationship – “Souness wasn’t that great with any of the guys he inherited” – but having played almost the entire campaign he was stunned to be told Rangers had accepted a £400,000 offer from Hearts. “I was gutted but got over that. Then I was determined to prove Souness wrong.”
McPherson became a Jambo in chairman Wallace Mercer’s grand home in Edinburgh’s Barnton. “Even his house had a boardroom. I signed at this big, long table, him at one end and me at the other.” The big, long centre-back took to Tynecastle right away. “I loved my time there – both times. Hearts were a great club and, apart from what happened in the [Vladimir] Romanov era, they still are.” He endeared himself to his new fans by helping Hearts dominate the Edinburgh derby. “We had a better atmosphere about our place than there was at Hibs. We weren’t ten times better as a football team and in a lot of those game Hibs should probably have won but we always had the belief.” McPherson broke into the Scotland team as a Jambo and played all of Italia 90. “That defeat by Costa Rica still annoys me because we got it wrong. We should have played more football instead of hitting it high to big Alan McInally. We thought their goalie was weak – he wasn’t.” And at the end of his first season in maroon when Rangers were without leg-break victim Terry Butcher, their ex-centre back scored in a Hearts win at Ibrox. Point proved, he reckoned.
McPherson made a habit of coming back to haunt ex-employers, especially in the Scottish Cup. “Fans actually think: ‘You used to play for that lot, you’re not going to try.’” He scored in Rangers’ Scottish Cup semi-final victory over Hearts in 1993 and in the game which so enraptured our friend in the bar, a fourth-round win for the Jambos over the Gers in ’95. Then three years later he nullified the threat of Brian Laudrup to help Hearts lift the trophy.
None of the moves he sought. “This was pre-Bosman so players pretty much went where they were told.” Rangers bought him back for three times the selling price with Walter Smith, who’d been Souness’s No 2, admitting he shouldn’t have been allowed to leave. Davie Dodds was a new addition to the coaching staff. “I was only ever sent off twice, once after a dust-up with Davie. First day back he said; ‘I’ve never forgotten that elbow in the face.’ I said: ‘Improved your looks, didn’t it?’ ”
Shifted to right-back, McPherson won five more trophies and played in all 12 Champions League ties in the thrilling ride to the ’93 semi-finals. Nevertheless, there remains a sense of him not being altogether clasped to the Ibrox bosom, possibly because those hard-to-please fans were wary of how he would deal with the next howitzer. He smiles. “It doesn’t matter where you play in Scotland; you have to earn respect. That’s the mentality of the Scottish fan but I don’t think anyone is ever fully appreciated.”
McPherson had a hankering to travel far and wide in football but only ever journeyed along the M8. No regrets, he had a great time in both Govan and Gorgie. “I’m a Glasgow boy and it’s a friendlier city. In Edinburgh they might not hold the door open for you. In Glasgow they will and then the other guy will say: ‘I’ll buy you a coffee for that’. But I love Edinburgh and it’s where I live now.
“I was brought up a Rangers supporter and loved the discipline you were taught as a Rangers player but I’ve such an affiliation to Hearts who’re a real community club and if anyone criticises them I’ll be the first to speak up. What’s happened to both recently has been horrendous.” McPherson will be at Tynecastle today and doesn’t think it’s a must-win game for Rangers, currently trailing by six points, but agrees it’s one they won’t want to lose. He admires Robbie Neilson’s work thus far, sympathises with Ally McCoist for having to manage under such duress and believes it’s a difficult game to predict the outcome.
McPherson doesn’t say as much, but the fortunes of both would be enhanced if they could call on the player they once shared. Last question: did he ever meet Ruud Krol? “Sadly not.” It would be nice if I could stage-manage the peerless Dutchman’s stroll-on appearance in this bar today but my expenses allowance will only stretch to me buying the coffees. I do, however, hold the door for Big Slim when he leaves.
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