Denis McQuade recalls his days at Partick Thistle

Denis McQuade recalls the mystique and adventure of his days on the wing at Firhill. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Denis McQuade recalls the mystique and adventure of his days on the wing at Firhill. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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SOME months ago, in a piece about Barcelona, I wandered off the subject to such an extent that Partick Thistle’s left winger from the 1970s earned a passing mention.

The No  11 wrote me a nice letter: “In my day I was described as ‘gangling’, ‘unorthodox’, ‘enigmatic’, ‘exhilarating’ and ‘exasperating’. Now I’ve got another adjective to add to the list – ‘esoteric’. Thanks, I think!” Yes, it was meant as a compliment and the letter was filed away with this intention: to look up one of oor fitba’s great originals at the first opportunity, no matter how contrived.

Opportunity has arrived and it couldn’t be more valid – the Jags are back in the SPL big-time. Give yourself a coconut if you guessed Denis McQuade, or better still, give yourself a pie. “Firhill for thrills” proclaimed a hoarding on McQuade’s wing when Thistle attacked the south end. “Aye,” says our man, “and the second part of the slogan was: ‘McGee’s for pies’.” I confess to usually forgetting that so, maybe, as advertising messages go, the hoarding wasn’t Don Draper at his best. For McQuade, though, it’s balance and it’s perspective. Yes, if the stars were aligned esoterically in the Maryhill sky, he could be magic. Then there were those other occasions when he was mince.

“I think I’m a better player now in people’s memories than I ever was at the time,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s lovely, but I reckon it’s less to do with me and more about the nostalgia that’s around for my time in the game and the affection that’s always been there for Partick Thistle. What is the personality of a football club? How do you define it? I don’t know, but from the moment I joined Thistle I was aware of the mystique. And the side I played for was a bit different, adventurous, worth the admission money. It would be nice if more teams were like that these days.”

McQuade is 62 and the silver hair matches the Mercedes in which he collects me from the train station at Larbert for the short journey to his golf club, Glenbervie. He was tall for a winger – 6ft 1ins – and so not one of those bauchly touchline-huggers from the production-line. He could dribble, though, and the funny, shuffly stoop which he retains must have been a help. You never knew which way Daundering Denis was headed on a football pitch but, today, in the middle of a membership drive for Glenbervie, he leads me straight to the lounge with the grandest views of the Ochils. “I’m biased but I think the current Thistle side are a bit different,” he continues. “They’re the best we’ve had for years: skilful players, quite a few of them left-sided, so there’s a balance, and they like to stroke the ball around, no panic, just some really nice football. Alan Archibald is a good young manager, quiet but steely, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the team back in the top league.” Left-based, partial to stroking, a bit different – McQuade was these things, although the scorer of the third goal for the League Cup-winning Jags in 1971’s fantasmagorical 4-1 defeat of Celtic doesn’t admire the current side out of reflected vanity. In any case, he was epicly different. “I was at the daft extreme,” he admits, “and I had quite a few nicknames. To some, because I’d trained for the priesthood, I was the Mad Monk. I also got called Crazy Horse but then so did a few other guys. My personal favourite was The Madness and I still answer to it now.”

But you cannot have The Madness on your calling card right through a successful career in business, latterly in banking, which, as McQuade’s just been telling me, was his life post-football. How did he end up in such a precise world having previously made his name with an absolute disavowal of strategy? “That’s quite perceptive of you,” he says, “and I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. I was in computers, hardware then software, Bermuda then London then Sydney, and helped create what are called reconciliation systems for international banks. But you can’t reconcile that with what I did out on that left-wing for Thistle!”

The Gorbals-born McQuade’s father worked in the delivery-room of the old Scottish Daily Express and, before that, his grandfather had ensured the first editions reached the Scottish Borders in his open-topped Morris Minor. Breaking with tradition somewhat, young Denis announced it was to be a priest’s life for him. “Football was possibly behind that,” he laughs. “A friend who’d been to the seminary at Langbank told me: ‘It’s fantastic, Denis, we play four games a week.’ My absolute contemporary was a lad called Philip Tartaglia. At our next seminary in Aberdeen, Philip was the decano – head boy – and I was sub-decano. We were all set for Rome and degrees in theology, but, at 18, I realised I’d drifted into this life, it wasn’t really for me.” So had he discovered women or something? “Not right away, but shortly after enrolling at Glasgow Uni, at a rag ball, I met Linda who became my first girlfriend. Next month we’ll have been married 40 years.” And his pal? Tartaglia stuck in and he’s now Archbishop of Glasgow.

The story of how McQuade came to sign for the Jags from the Junior ranks is one of those which remind you how much luck plays a part in a footballer’s life. “Davie McParland, my manager, only told me it a few months ago. The scout shouldn’t even have been at the game to spot me. With no mobile phones, Davie couldn’t get hold of him to stand him down because the Larkhall winger Thistle had been tracking had just signed for St Mirren. The scout reported back: ‘You’ve got to sign the winger.’ Davie said: ‘We’re too late.’ ‘No,’ said the scout, ‘the St Roch’s lad. He’s definitely worth a try, although he’ll probably cause you to tear your hair out’!”

He’d always liked the Jags. “I knew about the eras of ‘Ma Baw’ McKenna and McParland himself as a player. Thistle were a quirky team, in which you were to expect the unexpected. The fans had personality as well: a mix you couldn’t find anywhere else of university professors, shipyard workers, Maryhill locals, hippies and punters who liked football but didn’t want to go with the Old Firm. For the rest of Scotland, we were a club with pleasant associations. A music-hall joke, maybe, but we didn’t mind that and played up to it.” McQuade, with his academic air, fitted right in. He’d devised his own degree – “I don’t think maths and French had ever been paired together before” – and would turn up at Firhill straight from the campus. “And the Monday after we won the cup, I was back there for a maths lecture. The whole class stood up and cheered.” As a part-timer, he started on £17 a week. The cup-winning bonus was £300. “And the Celtic guys got 500 quid for losing.”

As a winger himself, McParland had a soft spot for this strange breed and, in McQuade’s case, it was much needed.

“I was a skinnymalink, 10st 7lbs, and even the Guinness diet could do nothing for me. I had a couple of standard moves but really it was all on the fly. I operated on the basis that if I didn’t know what I was going to do with the ball, the opposition would have had no bloody idea.” McQuade was also the first at the club to cultivate an outre moustache, irking McParland, although he refused to shave it off. “I said: ‘We all have our idiosyncrasies, boss.’ He said: ‘I’ll gie you effing idio-whatever-they’re-called’.”

With no method in this Madness out on the pitch, things could go wrong and did. “I’d be hanging about on my wing and the ball would be sent out to me and it would roll under my foot and out of play. In front of goal, the easier a chance looked, the more likely I was to screw up. I’d balloon the ball over the bar, miss absolute sitters, trip up. Yes, I scored in the cup final but I probably should have had a hat-trick. I walked round [Celtic goalie] Evan Williams only to fall over my feet. It could be frustrating for the rest of the guys. Quite often they had to wait a long time for a trick to come off – some of them are probably still waiting!”

Then, from out of the slapstick, something Brazilian would emerge. There’s scant footage of McQuade on YouTube, alas, but fansites have flowery descriptions of his most what-just-happened? moments, such as the dithery dribble round half the Clyde team before his piledriver to win a Glasgow Cup-tie. Moved to centre-forward against Dundee United, he netted a first-half hat-trick of headers. No-one could remember him ever using his head before. Then there was the time, when Thistle conceded a zany own-goal against Montrose, that he scored direct from the re-start. “No one could remember Denis ever being angry before,” writes the eyewitness. “Fifty yards from his boot in a straight line to the top right-hand corner of the net. There were two wee men in front of me in the Shed. Flat caps, heavy overcoats, shoes with a shine that would blind you – our staid football fans of yesteryear. They grabbed each other, danced up and down, lost their balance and rolled over and over to the bottom of the terracing.”

McQuade chuckles as I read these accounts, correcting venues and yardage, pointing out that the cup win was quickly followed by a 7-2 defeat and an 8-3 win. He attempts to tell me how his shot from virtually the byline against Brechin found the net with the help of the Coriolis Effect concerning the deflection of moving objects but I admit to being a dunderheid at physics and ask for a story about Alan Hansen. “He was 16 but not keen on signing for us even though we already had his big brother John. Davie McParland went to see his parents. ‘What makes him tick?’ he asked. ‘I’ll tell you what doesn’t – his paper round,’ said his mum. So Davie told him how he’d never have to get up at 5.30 any more and that was the clincher. We all knew Alan was destined for a great career.”

So was John until injury hit. Alex Forsyth made it to Manchester United and Ronnie Glavin got to Celtic. Bobby Lawrie on the other flank was “the fastest winger I ever saw,” according to McQuade. Alan Rough won 53 Scotland caps, one of five from Firhill to earn representative honours in a season The Madness calls “a magnificent blur”.

After Hampden in the October, when legend has it that Thistle’s 4-0 half-time lead caused Rangers fans to desert Ibrox for the national stadium and their manager Willie Waddell was compelled to turn up at the cup-winning party (“He was already half-cut”) – and after a McQuade donkey-kick goal against Kilmarnock was witnessed by Scotland manager Tommy Docherty – our man made his debut for the Under-23s against Wales, scoring direct from a corner, and followed it with a strike for the Scottish League against their English counterparts, past Ray Clemence.

An end-of-season Thistle tour to the Far East was clashing with a maths exam – “in logic” – but the tutors decided his course work had been so good that it was logical he go on it. The promoter offered to pay for first-class travel or the club could take a percentage of the tour’s gates. Not thinking they would be much of a draw in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta, they chose the former, only for 70,000 to witness the games. “And on the journey back, the promoter got stopped at customs with a suitcase full of money – his booty from the trip.”

He got off one plane and straight onto another – to Brazil with the full Scotland squad for the Independence Cup. Dwam-filled Denis didn’t quite grace the Maracana but was happy making up the numbers. From Rio, the SFA flew him to Italy where he met up with Linda for a holiday, McQuade gifting a fellow Scots traveller his dark blue shirt for her son after she’d driven him to the resort. Twenty-five years later, by then working at Celtic, she gave it back. “You must have a boy of your own now,” she said, and he was able to pass it on to his laddie Dean.

From Italy, his incredible year and amazing summer continued with another Thistle tour, this time to Sweden, where he caught the eye of Manchester City boss Malcolm Allison. Nothing came of that, and his Jags career ended with new manager Bertie Auld being less willing to indulge Maryhill’s Emeritus Professor of Deedle-Dawdle. “After we lost 7-0 and 8-0, Bertie organised a practice game – against invisible opponents. ‘This’ll build up your confidence,’ he said. But it’s harder to play against nobody than you’d think. John Kennedy, from left-back, hoofed the ball on to the terraces four times in succession and after ten minutes I was told: ‘McQuade, you’re dropped.’” He moved on to Hearts and finished at Hamilton. Did he wish there had been less of the Madness, more consistency? “No, I had a rare old time and I think I got as much out of football as I possibly could.” He did, along with some things – strange, unclassifiable, miraculous – you never knew were in football in the first place.