Interview: Jose Quitongo played with a smile and a sense of style

Hearts hero Jose Quitongo was a man of many clubs during his playing career. Picture: John Devlin
Hearts hero Jose Quitongo was a man of many clubs during his playing career. Picture: John Devlin
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The wind is howling round the giant metal box which houses the sports centre at Ravenscraig and, in a vain attempt to escape the side-on snow blasts, your correspondent is cowering against the wall. Jose Quitongo is doing the same thing, only with a megawatt smile on his face and considerably more sartorial swagger.

Surely never in the entire history of Lanarkshire white hells has a man been more inappropriately dressed. True, he’s wearing a cosy bobble-hat but the flimsy pumps on his feet (no socks) are more suitable for skipping down to the beach. Without a coat, he bravely models a jacket with different-coloured sleeves which is either a cast-off from the New Romantic era – maybe belonging to the saxophone player out of Blue Rondo a la Turk – or it was ripped, half-finished, from a tailor’s dummy. The turtleneck jumper is pure Austin “Groovy, baby!” Powers and the amazing ensemble is rounded off with a handkerchief in his breast pocket dotted with tiny hearts, which could be a good-luck charm for the Jambos in the Scottish Cup tomorrow.

Who else in oor fitba looks like this? Who else sounds like this? “Jesus Christ almighty!” shrieks Quitongo, now 43, in an accent that’s equal parts Angola, Portugal, Hamilton and Gorgie. “Ohmagod, this bloody weather!”

But he’s still smiling. He leads me and the snapper into the complex and chats up the front desk so that we might secure a hall to continue the photoshoot in more benign conditions. “Were you on The X Factor?” one of the receptionists asks. The Voice may have been a better guess, given the vague resemblance to Will. I. Am. Quitongo tells them a bit about his football career, though not the whole story otherwise we’ll be here until the New Romantics come back into fashion. Then, success – we’re in. “Thankyouverymuch… lassies,” he says.

Quitongo has been this daft and charming since 1995 when he first pitched up in Scotland. Flick over the cuttings and you’ll find craggy football men queueing up to talk about how much they loved the wingman with the natty dreads. Aged 21, Quitongo had already played in Portugal, Sweden, Ireland and England and may have arrived seeking some permanence. He hasn’t left yet, proudly calling Scotland his true home – blizzards and all. Mind you, permanence is a fluid concept for Jose. He stayed but seemed intent on completing a grand tour of every Scottish professional club, dancing like a butterfly from St Mirren to Kilmarnock, from Alloa Athletic to Albion Rovers and from Partick Thistle to Dumbarton, always with his smile, his rucksack and his zazzy dress-sense.

Earlier, I have a go at counting up his stopovers. The total never seems to be confirmed and won’t today, for when I say that Wikipedia puts it at 20 he says: “Albion Rovers, I never played for them, man. I mean, when Accies didn’t have a ground some of their games were at Cliftonhill but that was as far as it went.” The Wiki list doesn’t even mention Malmo, who turn up in other searches. Somehow I reckon he enjoys being the curator of his own mythology.

How come so many? Did he like holding up scarves for photographers or something? He giggles. “You know, every since I was put on that first plane out of Angola, I’ve loved the travel and meeting new people all the time.”

We’re at Newhouse, the highest point on the M8, a historic road crossing, but quiet today because of the snow-dump. The birthplace of Labour Party founder Keir Hardie has a deep significance for Quitongo. “It’s where I got picked up to go through to Hearts,” he says. On the car journeys he’d entertain his fellow west-based Jambos. “I was always phoning Roddy McKenzie for a lift – McKenzie Taxis he called himself. And I liked to tell Rob McKinnon that, back in Angola, I used to wrestle lions although I don’t think he ever believed me. Man, those were great days.

“All my days in football were great, I loved them. My last job was player-manager of [Ayrshire’s] Muirkirk Juniors but the problem was I wanted to pick myself always. I didn’t ever want to hang up the boots. Hearts, though, was really, really special.” And this season has deep significance for Jam Tarts fans who, while the current team strive for more shutouts, miss Quitongo’s crazy dribbles and cartwheel celebrations. Twenty seasons ago he scored his first goal in maroon, helping the club to what was their 100th victory over Hibernian. And a few weeks later against Albion Rovers who, lest we 
forget were not one of Jose’s clubs, he netted a double to set Hearts on the road to Scottish Cup glory.

Quitongo’s first Scottish club were Hamilton and, after Hearts, he returned there, signing for a third time later. So what a day it must have been when our man told his friends Rui 
Costa, Paulo Sousa and Joao Pinto, soon to be annointed members of Portugal’s Golden Generation: “That’s me away, boys. I’m off to join the Accies.” He laughs at the memory. “They’d never heard of Hamilton. I’d never heard of Hamilton! And I’ll never forget arriving into Scotland. It was November and Jesus Christ almighty it was bloody freezin’! I got to [Glasgow’s] Central 
Station, everybody running aboot. How was I going to find [Accies secretary] Scott Struthers? Then there was this boomin’ message: ‘Attention, Mr Jose Quitongo… ’”

Quitongo was one of nine children born to a newspaper press repair-man in the Angolan capital of Luanda in the midst of the country’s civil war. He says he was untroubled by the conflict and just remembers endless games of football on the beach, in which all six brothers played. “Our only toy was a ball, which we squashed together out of plastic and wire, and we put down T-shirts for goals.” Then in 1984 aged ten he was scouted by Benfica and spirited off to their academy in Lisbon.

This experience, even though he didn’t play a first-team game for Sven-Goran Eriksson, was the making of him. It was where he met Rui Costa and the rest and learned good habits. “We trained together, ate together, watched the 1986 World Cup on TV when Maradona went on that wee run [Diego’s second goal against England], and at 9 o’clock it was lights out. The electricity was turned right off.

“I try to teach the same habits to my kids,” he adds. By kids he means the boys he coaches and also his own sons, Morton’s Jai and Rico, who’s currently with Hearts. Mind you, in his day Quitongo didn’t always practise what he now preaches…

Homeless Hamilton may have been extra-disorientating but his new team-mates were welcoming. “The older guys like Gary Clark and Allan Ferguson were great with me. They all were at Accies. My first game – man, it was cold. Lesser Hampden was just an ice rink. Ohmagod!

“The manager, Iain Munro, he just let me go out and play. He didn’t coach me very much and maybe he couldn’t have done. Sometimes I didn’t know what my legs were gonna do. But I was staying in a hotel and he wasn’t very happy when he got the bill for my phonecalls to Angola. I hadn’t spoken to my family for three years, you see. After that I was put in digs.”

Fellow Accies would help him with the lingo. “They taught me Scotch words – they taught me swear words!” On Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan were keen to find out how the integration process was going. “I said ‘c***’ twice. The producer went mad!”

In Jose’s book, Wishaw is, as they say round these parts, “Wishy”. Parkhead is “Parkheid” and his greatest-ever game was straight off a transatlantic flight for Hamilton against Partick having guested for Tampa Bay Mutiny alongside Carlos Valderrama, although afterwards he was “deid”.

In old reports you’ll find team-mates describe how Quitongo would “run about like a wee lassie”. You probably couldn’t get away with that terminology like that these days. Being fleet of foot, he says, was a basic survival tactic. “I remember playing for Alloa at Ayr when I did some keepy-uppy. Ohmagod these four big guys wanted to break my leg!” But that’s football, or rather it’s “Scotch football”. He wonders how Cristiano Ronaldo would fare in our leagues; maybe he’d struggle. “You have to adapt. You have to be ready for contact and I must admit I never liked it. I was a wee yin and some of these guys, man, they were animals. Sandy Stewart and Jimmy Boyle at Airdrie told me they used to have bets before games: who was going to kick the little bugger first.” Quitongo earned a reputation for diving. “Sometimes I rolled around on the floor. Sometimes I would make like I was deid. You know, I was just trying to make the game more interesting! Scotch football, it’s unique.”

In the summer of 1997 Hearts paid £80,000 for this rucksack of flickering trickery. His attire caused predictable bemusement in the dressing-room. “I came in from training and my clothes had been glued to the ceiling.” But a group of fans named their away-match bus after him and his cult status was confirmed with that derby clincher. After the victory, The Scotsman’s Mike Aitken reported more squeals from Quitongo “than you’d hear at a Backstreet Boys” concert, with the player being “so high he could have flown back to Angola without boarding an aircraft”. His goal came at the Hibs end of Tynecastle. “I got pies thrown at me. Jim Hamilton said: ‘You’d better come this way.’ But I liked it when fans went mad.”

A substitute that day, Quitongo made another dramatic intervention from the bench to score a 94th-minute equaliser against Celtic. “Tynecastle went mental. Maybe the supporters were doing cartwheels! Rangers played the next day and their fans were singing ‘Jose! Jose!’”

The goal tied Jim Jefferies’ Jambos with the Old Firm at the top of the Premier League going into the last two months of the campaign. “Hearts had a great team – Neil McCann, Davie Weir, Colin Cameron, Stevie Fulton, Stephane Adam and of course wee Robbo [John Robertson] – and we thought we could be champions.” In the end they fell short but consolation would come with the club’s first Scottish Cup success for 42 years.

Quitongo played in every round en route to the final but wasn’t selected for the showdown with Rangers. “Sure I was disappointed but that match wasn’t difficult to watch. How could I be sad when my pals were trying to win the cup? And they did. Man, I’ll never forget the parade. We got the open-top ride later but on the normal bus there was a sunroof and I opened it up and climbed on to the roof. Thankfully there were so many fans in Gorgie Road that it was a slow journey and I didn’t fall off.

“I don’t blame the manager for not picking me. Jim could be Angry Man sometimes but he was always fair with me. I really blame myself for not being at my best all the time. I never drank or smoke or took drugs in my life, ever, but as a footballer I liked to go out to the nightclubs a bit too much. That was stupid. How can you train properly when you’ve got home at five or six in the morning and had no sleep? I wish I’d been more sensible, more serious about my football.”

Eldest son Jai was born during Hearts’ glory year, Rico arriving two years later. Quitongo is no longer with their Scottish mother, Sharon, but the pair have stayed friends. He has a two-year-old daughter, Kiki, by a former Polish girlfriend, and a new Scottish partner in Clare.

Jai and Rico listen to their father sometimes when he tells them where he went wrong in his career. “And other times they moan: ‘Dad, you talk too much!’

“Jai and Rico are good kids. Rico is a full-back and Jai is on the wing like I was, although he’s much stronger. But I say to all boys: do more, work harder. Some play two games for their first teams and they want the BMWs and the tattoos. They love the money but they want to go home early. Football’s a beautiful life, man – don’t waste it.”

Rucksack packed, Quitongo said goodbye to Gorgie and, carefully avoiding Coatbridge, ventured to Dubai and Italy’s sixth tier where, with Pro Lissone, he could admire conscientious young men living like pure athletes. “They would have pizzas and orange juice and then they would go home.

“That would be just as Scottish players were heading out for the night. Eleven guys buying a round, that’s a lotta beer. Soon they would be steaming and singing and eating the fishes and the chips. Ohmagod, it’s bloody crazy but I love Scotland, you know?”