An alien crash-landing in Newcastle, ignorant about how life is lived in the city, might look at the holes in the jeans of the girls shuffling round the Bigg Market, study the prominent notice on the Tyne Bridge providing a helpline number for those about to jump, and conclude: “What a despairful place!”
The knee-holes may be fashion, but in Geordieland the anxiety and doubt tend to hang around. The football team are flirting with relegation once again and every time that happens, it is traditional to beat a path to the front door of their last captain to hoist silverware and wail: “Oh Bobby, what’s to be done with them?”
Bobby is Bobby Moncur, the team are Newcastle United, but I begin in nearby Gateshead by taking a different tack. The 71-year-old was also the last skipper of the last Scotland team to fail to qualify for major finals, before we started doing it more or less constantly. “The last of the losers, you’re calling me?” he says, narrowing his gaze. “Cheers for that.”
In the autumn of 1970 Scotland welcomed Denmark to Hampden, just as they’ll do on Tuesday in a friendly, but 46 years ago it was the opener in the bid to get to the European Championships. Bobby Brown was manager and this son of Perth was newly installed as his lieutenant on the pitch.
“I was lucky enough to captain all my teams, from the Boys’ Brigade right up to Scotland. I got the nod over Billy Bremner, one of a number of strong characters. Probably the first time I had to try and use my influence was down at Largs. Bobby had let us all go to the pub but we were to be back at the hotel by 10. We played dominoes and had a few pints. When the time came I stood up and tried to bring the evening to a close. Some of them jeered at me. It was like a scene from a Western where the sheriff discovers the town has turned against him. I started walking but no one was coming. I thought: ‘I’ve blown it.’ But then the great Denis Law caught me up, put an arm round my shoulder and said: ‘Well done, skipper.’ The rest of them followed.”
Maybe the game that clinched his appointment was against England in that year’s Home Internationals in front of a stupendous Hampden crowd of 137,284. “The pipes, the drums, the roar of the crowd – thunderous,” he says. “My son Paul was just a bairn and he was absolutely terrified.”
Scotland couldn’t quite win that one – it finished 0-0 – but Moncur had a fine match marshalling the defence.
They beat Denmark with this team: Jim Cruickshank, Davie Hay, John Greig, Pat Stanton, Ronnie McKinnon, Wor Bobby, Jimmy Johnstone, Willie Carr, Colin Stein, Willie Johnston and John O’Hare who scored the only goal. It was a tricky, transitional period: Kilmarnock’s Billy Dickson, Blackpool’s Tony Green and Wolves’ Hugh Curran were also capped during a campaign which would end in failure after three away defeats. In Portugal, Stanton scored an own goal; in Belgium it was the turn of McKinnon – “the worst centre-half I ever played with,” according to Moncur. “I think it was that game, lashing with rain as we were being battered, where he suddenly announced: ‘I’m going off.’ I said: ‘In the heat of battle – what do you mean?’ He said: ‘I think I might be getting cramp.’”
We’re in the sitting-room, fire blazing, Moncur dapper in black, his wife Camille making tea. They’ve been through some rocky times but are still together. “We met at the Club a’Gogo, a famous Newcastle nightspot. Alan Price was playing and he later became a good friend. Camille’s a bit older so I told a little lie, said I was 18 when I wasn’t. She asked me what I did for a living. ‘Football,’ I said. ‘But what’s your job?’ she said. ‘You surely don’t play all the time?’ She had no idea it could be a career.”
Moncur has had to endure additional rockiness, battling cancer twice, the first time in his colon when he had his old England adversary Bobby Moore to thank for early diagnosis. “I was on holiday, not feeling myself, and reading in a newspaper about Bobby’s widow who was saying that if he’d gone to the doctor when he first thought something might be wrong he’d still be alive. That seemed like Bobby, bless him, giving me a warning and an Englishman doing a Scotsman a favour. I couldn’t believe it, I thought cancer was something that happened to other people. But I took the hint and ended up having 12 inches of my colon cut out.”
That was nine years ago then during a check-up in 2014 he was referred to another hospital. “I joked with the doctor: ‘So you don’t want me dying on your patch?’ He was concerned about my oesophagus. The top man in the field, Professor Mike Griffin, told me there was a big operation which would make the cancer in my colon seem like a little nick but hopefully I’d just need the small operation. I needed the big one: eight hours with Mike going in through my back, collapsing one lung and removing nine-tenths of my oesophagus.” He puts a hand level with his shoulder blades. “Now my stomach starts right up here.”
Hopefully, he says, that’s his lot. He swims and cycles and, as a sailing nut, hopes he’s got another round-Britain race in him – but then he thought he was fit before. “I drank but wasn’t wild with it. Lots of footballers in my day smoked – the ones at Newcastle would have fags lit for them at half-time by [manager] Joe Harvey if they were playing well – but I never did. Maybe the grot in the air from all the mines round here didn’t help.”
But Moncur will never criticise the place he’s called home from the age of 15. He would cross the north-east divide to play for Sunderland with his son returning home from a challenging day at school to inquire: “Mum, what’s a traitor?” He would go back to Scotland to manage Hearts – a mistake because the club were in “a right mess”. But he will always be a Magpie, the Monk, who saved virtually all his goals – three of them – for the Inter- Cities Fairs Cup triumph of 1969.
Has cancer changed his outlook? “Oh yes. You sit up and think about your life, how you shouldn’t take anything for granted, how there’s no time for hanging around. After we’re done talking Camille and I are off on holiday to Lake Como.” And the same sense of urgency was evident earlier in the day when Mr Newcastle had lunch with the new manager tasked with keeping the team in the Premier League, Rafa Benitez.
“I was trying to get him to commit to the club long-term. Everyone expects him to leave if we get relegated but I told him he was the future. He could re-build us and hopefully make us great again. I told him I was speaking on behalf of all the fans, those poor, long-suffering folk who sing Blaydon Races in all weathers. I got quite emotional as I was speaking to him and could feel myself welling up. That happens more since my cancer.”
Legends like Moncur sometimes get forgotten by their clubs. In extreme situations, the old photographs are removed from the walls and the gaze is fixed determinedly on the future. This happened at St James Park where the past and 1969 is just about all they’ve got. Moncur was eventually welcomed back and was lobbying Benitez in his capacity as a director.
“I like Rafa. He’s a football man, very sincere, and he looks you straight in the eye. I told him it would reflect well on him if he didn’t just walk away. But I couldn’t quite get the answer I was looking for, other than: ‘Bob, we won’t be relegated.’ I told him that impressed me, although had to add that I’ve seen more of this team than him and know what they can be like. Plus, I’m a dour Scotsman who tends to look on the black side.”
Moncur spent the first nine years of life in Perth where his father, then a policeman, sneaked him into Muirton Park for free. This was “Big Jock”, husband of Olive, his parents having met in Carnoustie where he caught the salmon and she gutted them. When the family moved to Kirkliston, Big Jock got a new job drawing on his previous posts, keeping the fishing legal, clamping down on poaching and cyanide being dropped in rivers to force the salmon to the surface. Young Bob used to accompany him on his missions and it was exciting having to swap cars and check into hotel under false names to keep one wader-ed step ahead of the offenders.
Recently on these pages I’ve had to report how Scotland sporting greats have been denied their fathers’ support at games, whether by untimely death, the dads being too nervous or harsh rugby rules debarring them, but Big Jock followed his laddie everywhere, right from the start.
“My debut for Scotland Schoolboys was away to Northern Ireland, Distillery Park by boat – dead exciting. When I got back Dad asked me how I played. ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘What about that miskick?’ he said. ‘And the time you let their centre-forward go?’ He’d sneaked on to the ferry without me knowing. He became weel-kent at St James because of his bunnet. After the home leg of the Fairs Cup final [against Ujpest Dozsa] he was asked by some pals if he got excited when I scored. ‘I don’t get excited,’ Dad said. ‘My son was simply doing his job.’ Then the pals said: ‘But did you get your hat back when you threw it high into the air?’”
Moncur fell in love with Newcastle, the city, at first sight. “It was the friendliness of the people which swung it for me.” United let him sign at 15 while staying in Scotland would have meant a wait for two years and there was no trace of homesickness in this determined fellow when he took up residence with his landlady at the notable address of 188 Two Ball Lonnen and was taxied to training by Ronnie Simpson.
There were plenty more Scots in the team by 1969: “Jim Scott who came from the Hibs was a proper old winger and grumpy with it. Jackie Sinclair on the other wing was quiet and quick and sadly he was the first of us to pass away. As for Tommy Gibb, he might not have been the best player in the world – we all got the cry ‘Heap o’ shit!’ and maybe him more than most – but he did the running and was an unsung hero.”
One of the biggest characters was another ex-Hibee, John McNamee: “We were together in the middle of the defence. He’d go and win the ball and I was supposed to do the clever stuff alongside him. But you had to watch out for his great, muckle, scything left boot. He caught me with it more times than I was kicked by any opposition centre-forward. Once, against Queen’s Park Rangers, he hit the ball so hard off my backside it cannoned into our net for an own goal.
“I can still see him swinging on the crossbar like a fish, roaring at the Sunderland fans after scoring against them. I remember him chasing [Leeds’ United’s] Gary Sprake who was running for his life. Big Mac was hard as nails but a gentle giant who lost his wife very early. He’s not been very well lately and in the bad weather was flooded out of his house in the Lake District three times. Our heroes’ association managed to send him a few quid.”
United made money from the Euro triumph. “Rather than pay the tax we went out and bought Jimmy Smith from Aberdeen.”
The record £100,000 signing, who’d made his Scotland debut on the same night as Moncur, came off the same production-line as all our other wayward wingmen.
“Jinky was brilliant but infuriating. The defence would win the ball and give it to him, then he’d wander back and try to nutmeg the opposition in our box.
“He liked a drink and a bet; I tried to tell him to leave that stuff until after he’d stopped playing but he wouldn’t listen. He had a girlfriend who was a banker’s daughter and going to pick her up, pissed, he drove right across the old man’s lawn.
“Later when I had a taxi business I gave him a job but he quit just before Christmas to flog turkeys. ‘I’m making more money doing this, Bob,’ he said. ‘Yeah, but what happens in January?’ That was Jinky.”
Moncur has lots of stories. Joe Harvey wasn’t the most scientific of managers, although before playing Sporting Lisbon in the Fairs Cup the players were surprised to not be handed specific instructions, given the manager had twice been to Portugal to spy on them.
“Didn’t you bother going to their games, Boss?” they asked. Harvey retorted: “Just bloody get into them. A taxi driver told me their centre- forward’s a bit quick and a waitress said there goalie’s dodgy on crosses.”
Then there was the semi-final, a tie which has gone down in infamy with the Rangers fans running riot on the St James pitch and in the city. “Something flew through the air near a corner flag. I thought: ‘Was that a bottle?’ It smashed into a fan’s face. Then our goalie Willie McFaul picked up his cap and sprinted straight past me. I turned round: there were thousands on the park. The game was stopped, Rangers conceded, but we had to go back out and finish it.
“Usually after European matches players exchanged gifts outside the dressing-rooms. I had to go to the boardroom – my first time up there – to collect ours from the Rangers chairman John Lawrence, who was so embarrassed about what had happened that I thought he was going to be sick.”
As he knows only too well, though, all his tales concern 1969. It’s high time there were some new ones about Magpies on the rise again. “Yes, and they’d better get a move on,” he says, waving me off. “I want to be around to see that.”