When someone is described as having “risen without trace” it’s not really flattering and the remark is usually delivered with a sneer and some amount of suspicion. So you’ll never hear it said of Scotland legend Joe Jordan, especially not by those still thrilled by his performances in dark blue.
Nevertheless, when he climbed from the bench 44 years ago – on one of those special Hampden nights, and results, which Gordon Strachan’s men hope to evoke this evening – virtually no one in the 95,786 crowd could speak with authority about the player they were about to see.
Even the most diehard Morton fan could only claim to have glimpsed him on six occasions, Jordan’s entire Cappielow oeuvre – and one of those was away to West Bromwich Albion playing centre-half.
Jordan never appeared underage for his country before that momentous World Cup qualifier against Czechoslovakia. He’d broken through at Leeds United the previous season but Mick Jones and Allan Clarke were still grabbing most of the goals and indeed he’d yet to score in 1973-74 when in the 63rd minute and with the tie deadlocked manager Willie Ormond, pictured, told the 22-year-old to replace Kenny Dalglish.
“Willie didn’t say much to me before I went on – he was a pretty humble guy,” says Jordan who uses the word a lot, describing his father, Francis, as humble but stopping short of using it on himself – that would be unhumble – although humble is definitely what he is. He’ll talk more about the fervour of the crowd and the desperation among older team-mates like Denis Law and Billy Bremner to get to the World Cup than he will any of his own marks on history.
Jordan has just got home to Bristol after a holiday in Rome with his wife, Judith. Was the former Serie A striker recognised? “No, those days are long gone,” he insists. Well, we’re recognising his achievements at Hampden, down at the Rangers End, in three successive World Cup campaigns: three crucial games as the leaves started to fall, three crucial headers. Little wonder that a Scottish poet, Alan Bold, was moved to write of Jordan’s tousled locks that they were readymade for a crown to sit on top. But I don’t quote the line at our man; it would just cause embarrassment.
“Without being big-headed I thought I was ready that night,” he says. “I’d left Scotland quietly to go and play in England but I’d come on at Leeds. Bobby Collins, who played for Leeds, of course, had been with me at Morton and I think he said something nice to Don Revie.”
Collins’ recommendation went like this: “There’s a boy called Joe Jordan and he’s got a real chance – he’s only a kid but plays like a man.” Those half-dozen first-team games for the Ton had been action-packed and included Celtic and Rangers away. “We actually won 2-0 at Ibrox and Bobby got one of the goals. For the game against West Brom [Texaco Cup] Stan Rankin was injured. I’d never played centre-half before or since but when you’re a kid you’re oblivious. Whatever’s put in front of you, you take it on.
“I was up against Jeff Astle who’d just been at the [Mexico] World Cup with England but I must have done OK because he didn’t score and we won.” Maybe Revie, who was at the Hawthorns, could see glimpses of the wild warrior centre-forward Jordan would become, even as a backline rookie.
Let’s get back to Hampden. We know we’re getting old when we notice that Jordan is now 65. The flowing hair has gone but memories of ’73 – and Czechoslovakia again four years later and Sweden in 1981 – will never fade. “The Czechs were a strong side. Between our games with them they became European champions. In the first one we fell behind but, watching from the bench, that didn’t seem to be setting us back. At some grounds the crowd can dip or even turn against the team but in all my time playing international football that was never true of a Scottish audience. Oh aye, the Hampden Roar. It was awesome that night. The people were fantastic.
“Just before my goal we’d hit the post. Willie Morgan got the ball on the right and I thought there might me a wee opportunity. I tried to imagine what he might do with the ball. I tried to time my run. I tried to get into space.” Jordan tried and succeeded wonderfully, soaring like a superhero with a suitably mysterious back-story.
We all know what happened to Scotland at the finals of ’74, ’78 and ’82. Jordan, who scored at all three, has talked about them before and doubtless will again. Let’s concentrate on how we got there, in the hope it might inspire tonight. By the latter two tournaments, of course, Jordan was no longer rising without trace, being our toothless talisman for thunderous Mount Florida occasions.
For the rematch against the Czechs Jordan seemed to clamber onto an invisible rostrum to power home a Willie Johnston corner. Asking such a modest footballer about the secret of his heading prowess is futile, however. “There was no secret. I was six-foot-one and a bit and 12 stone two every season I played so not a giant, not a powerhouse. I had to rely on my timing and my determination.”
There was no doubting the latter for Cleland-born Jordan. “I came from a small place and set out in my life and my career to go the furthest I could. For me that was playing for my country in World Cups.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, this great internationalist refuses to accept that country is losing out to club in the modern footballer’s ambition. “I’ve been fortunate to work in management and see guys like [Croatia’s] Luka Modric and some of the South Americans really demonstrate their passion to play for their countries. In that they were no less passionate than Denis or Billy or wee Jimmy Johnstone but they definitely saw the World Cup as the ultimate.”
Jordan won 52 caps. Under Ally MacLeod and then Jock Stein he stresses that his place in the team was never a given. There would be injuries, loss of form, fierce competition from others. “I never took Scotland for granted but when the games were coming round I tried to make sure I was ready and at my best.” Under Stein’s reign he moved to AC Milan. “I remember phoning Jock to tell him. ‘Watch yourself with these Italian defenders,’ he said. Really I was hoping that, out of sight, I wouldn’t become out of mind for my country.” He wasn’t, and another crashing header, diving and twisting to connect with a John Robertson free-kick against the Swedes was maybe the pick of the three.
Joe Jordan was our September Man in these qualifiers. Okay, this is October but we can still hope to exploit his legacy against Slovakia. This is Scotland, we’ll try anything. “I really hope we can qualify again,” he says. “I won’t make it to the game but I’ll be watching.” And somewhere up near the Rangers End, waiting on the ball to be hoisted, his spirit will be hovering.