Willie Morgan: From Old Trafford to the World Cup

Willie Morgan, in an all-white Scotland kit, attempts to prevent Yugoslavia skipper Dragan Dzajic. Picture: Getty
Willie Morgan, in an all-white Scotland kit, attempts to prevent Yugoslavia skipper Dragan Dzajic. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

‘THE lad who showed us round has just sold ‘Chubby’ Chandler’s house for him,” reports Willie Morgan, who has just returned from a house-hunting expedition.

While this might impress some, it is not a patch on Morgan’s own celebrity endorsement. Who did he have standing by his side in the role of best man when he was married in Las Vegas six years ago? None other than Johnny Mathis.

This perhaps surprising friendship is the happy consequence of a chance meeting at a golf club in Manchester in the early 1980s. They did not get off to the best of starts. “I told him I was more of an Elvis man,” recalls Morgan. Nevertheless, the relationship has survived intact. Indeed, the holidaying Mathis has only just left the home which Morgan has recently put up for sale. News of Morgan’s houseguest prompted a phone call from Bill Martin, the songwriter known, among other things, for co-writing the Scotland World Cup song from 1974, Easy, Easy.

“Bill wanted me to give a song he had written to Johnny,” explains Morgan. On the eve of another World Cup, Martin was moved to offer something else; his view that there has never been a better Scotland team than the one sent out to West Germany 40 years ago.

“He just came out with it. We were talking away, and he said that, in his opinion, it is still the greatest Scotland team ever, but then it has been said many times,” adds Morgan (while keeping schtum on Mathis’s thoughts on the merits, or otherwise, of Willie Ormond’s side).

The reason why Morgan believes Scotland were prevented from going all the way to the final, perhaps even winning the trophy itself, might surprise those with knowledge of the former Manchester United winger’s story. His time at Old Trafford came to an end in stormy circumstances under Tommy Docherty, who claimed Morgan had asked for a transfer when he hadn’t. While this broke Morgan’s heart, things became more serious when Docherty sued him for libel after the player dubbed him the “worst manager there had ever been” on a live television show. On the third day of the court trial, Docherty’s barrister announced that his client was dropping the case, so damaging had been the manager’s inconsistencies while in the dock. Morgan was awarded all costs. “Still, it was one of the worst times of my life,” says Morgan.

Nevertheless, had Docherty still been in charge, Morgan thinks Scotland could have lifted the World Cup, as preposterous as this might now seem to those used to failure to even qualify for a tournament that kicks off again on Thursday, in Sao Paulo.

In 1974, anything seemed possible; perhaps more so, even, than four years later, when Scotland really did conspire to trash people’s expectations.

Morgan made the goal that took Scotland to West Germany, sending in a cross against Czechoslovakia with the outside of his boot that Joe Jordan flew to meet with a header. Morgan also took the corner kick from which Billy Bremner screwed a stubbed effort agonisingly past a post in the 0-0 draw with Brazil in Frankfurt. Although he did not play in the opening game against Zaire, Morgan contributed a major part in most of the adventures. “But I wasn’t in Jimmy’s Boat,” he quickly points out.

Ah, Jimmy’s Boat. Jimmy Johnstone’s solo trip out into the sea off Largs after becoming adrift is thought by some to have cost him his World Cup place. Although he was included in the squad, he did not kick a ball in West Germany. In truth, Morgan had already displaced him. “I was around at a time when Rangers had little Willie Henderson, and of course (we had) wee Jimmy, Eddie Gray, there were loads of contenders.

“For me to be the No 1 choice, which I was, was nice, because it was not easy to break the cycle of Rangers and Celtic players.”

Morgan was also on something of a downer when he joined up with the squad, considering he had just captained the Manchester United side relegated on the final day of the league season, when Denis Law’s backheel goal earned Manchester City a win.

“I spent half the season playing with all sorts of injuries,” recalls Morgan. “They kept sending me out. And by the time I got to the World Cup I was in a bad way with a groin strain. When I joined up it took me two or three weeks to get some fitness back and missed the first game because of it.”

But, he adds: “I would not have changed anything.” He enjoyed the trip, adored his team-mates, and even allowed Billy Connolly and Rod Stewart to sleep on his and room-mate John Blackley’s floor after a wild night to mark the end of the World Cup adventure. “Jimmy and the boat, and all else that went with it, it was a crazy time,” says Morgan. “But nevertheless they were a good crowd, a great team. All of them. We got on, there were no cliques, it was not like that. It was a happy squad. We possibly drank too much, although I was not a drinker then. I used to go out with them but I was not a drinker. I was not in the boat with Jimmy, I was in the pub beforehand.”

Perhaps helping ensure he is so firmly associated with the era is that he never played for Scotland again following the 1-1 draw with Yugoslavia, at the end of a campaign in which Ormond’s side exited the competition without losing a game. Three games, two draws and a win. It’s not a bad record. However, Morgan thinks Scotland could have achieved far more had Docherty been the one calling the shots.

“He was the one that pretty much got us there, even though he was not there on the final day,” he says of Docherty, who resigned to take over at Manchester United after two wins over Denmark at the start of the campaign. Morgan, indeed, was one of those Scots at the club which was petitioning for him to be given the task of succeeding Frank O’Farrell.

“He was great as manager of Scotland. Even though we were not beaten in that World Cup, if he was still manager I think we would have gone very close to winning it that year, because everyone was scared of us.

“Willie [Ormond] was a nice man but he did not command respect, whereas Docherty could command respect. Everyone wanted to play for him. Sadly he did not take that into his life, he was not straight with people.

“I have not spoken to Tom since the court case. I would be doing jail time if I had spoken to him since then! But, it’s so long ago, I don’t hold grudges any more.

“If I passed him in the street now? If I passed him in the street I would say hello. It’s gone, it is done. It’s sad. He had the chance to be a great manager at Man United. He had the chance to do all of that. He blew it because of what he did to people. He did not have to do it. He could have been honest and said I don’t need you here anymore, it’s time to move on. But how he did it was not nice. It’s sad.

“He’s funny, good company. But he is a bastard. I had a part in him getting the job at Manchester United. I thought the world of him. It was just what he did to players, and how he did it. I didn’t believe it for a long time but sadly it turned out to be true. Nevertheless I do believe that had he stayed Scotland manager he would have been the best Scotland manager of all time. And the team would have gone very close.”

Morgan clearly loved playing for Scotland, and the 69-year-old sounds crestfallen when conversation turns to those from the squad who have since passed away, including, most recently, Sandy Jardine. Remarkably, he is surprised to hear of the death of Erich Schaedler, who was the first to die in tragic circumstances in 1985: “I didn’t know Erich Schaedler died, you are kidding me,” he says. Perhaps one reason for falling out of touch is his globetrotting; he spent several consecutive summers playing in the States, for Chicago Sting and Minnesota Kicks. However, he remains perceptive enough to have given his compatriot David Moyes at best 18 months in the manager’s chair at Old Trafford on his appointment last summer, a prediction that is well documented in interviews he gave at the time.

“He was the wrong man,” says Morgan. “And Alex [Ferguson] is responsible for David Moyes. Not Manchester United. Alex appointed him, for all the wrong reasons. You have to ask Alex about that. He was not the right man, never was.”

Morgan’s jersey from the famous game against Czechoslovakia when Scotland qualified for 1974 still hangs in his study, and will be carefully packed away in a few weeks’ time, when the new owners move into his current house. He has fewer ties with Scotland now, save for return trips to play golf. He plays every day he can, “which is pretty much every day”.

Considering some of what occurred in his past, Morgan is remarkably free of any bitterness. His story is a remarkable one, and this is even before you get to the football. He never met his real father, an Italian prisoner of war. His mother, Annie Morgan, conceived him out of wedlock, while engaged to Bertie Hutchinson, who, like most other men at the time, had left to fight in the war. Due to the shame, his mother was encouraged to hand Willie over to nuns for adoption, but she couldn’t; her parents, Willie’s grandparents, took control of the situation. While Annie married Bertie on his return from the front and started another family, Willie grew up believing his grandparents were his mother and father, and his real mother was his “auntie”. “I don’t feel deprived of any kind of loving, as those were different days,” he writes in On the Wing, his well-received autobiography that was published at the end of last year.

However, he considers Docherty’s treatment of him towards the end of his Manchester United career to be a betrayal. Nevertheless, he now genuinely seems to wish the 86-year-old Docherty well, despite his contention that he set out to ruin him.

Perhaps he has learned that nothing is gained from storing resentment. He knows how life can be cruel. Morgan’s first wife, Pat, with whom he had two children, passed away in the mid-1990s following a short, traumatic battle with cancer. But, “out of nowhere”, he found love again with Kay, whom he married in Las Vegas. As well as Mathis, Tom Jones and Don Felder from the Eagles were in attendance, other friends Morgan has made along the star-studded way. There are some mild regrets in terms of his career, including joining “the right club at the wrong time”, which is how he refers to his Manchester United chapter. Despite staying for seven years, he did not win a major trophy.

He also wishes he had not given away the shirt he swapped with Pele in the States, while he would also liked to have played for Celtic. “I do regret not playing for Celtic, especially for my dad [which is how he still refers to his grandfather]. Because that is what he would have liked me to have done.”

In fact, he did not play a league match in Scotland, signing for Burnley when aged only 15. It was a lifeline for someone from an area where, he recalls, the choice for any boy was “to enter the priesthood or go down the mines”. Morgan did not much fancy becoming a priest so it was the mines where he was destined to end up. Then came the call from Burnley. He now reflects that Burnley felt like Las Vegas compared to Sauchie, the Clackmannanshire village where he was raised.

“I came down to England and they had televisions and phones, things like that,” he says. Within a few years he had his own fan club, had become Matt Busby’s last signing at Manchester United, where his good looks and wing trickery led to him being hailed as another George Best. It was a world away from where he had come.

Money had been tight at home. As a boy growing up, he only ever watched Celtic, the team he supported, once, and can still recall the thrill of seeing Willie Fernie, his idol, in the flesh. His only other experience of watching live senior football was when he climbed the walls at nearby Recreation Park to watch Alloa Athletic.

Despite the golf, the trips to an apartment he owns in Tenerife, and what some would consider is his celebrity lifestyle, he thinks of home a lot: No 29 Sprotwell Terrace, Sauchie, part of a block of four houses. “Half-semis, if you know what I mean, and we lived upstairs,” he writes in On the Wing. Although he claims he had never wanted to bring out a book, he is glad he was tempted to change his mind. Even his dentist, from where he had just returned when we speak, has read it. She was particularly touched by one story.

“She told me that she thought I have kept myself very grounded,” he says. “There was one particular story she really liked. It was Christmas and I was back home in Sauchie for a couple of days from Manchester United. We were all sat round the coal fire and it was getting very low, and, of course, it was freezing.

“The coal was kept outside,” he continues. “Through the day, everyone did their bit collecting the coal. And my sister says, ‘I will go and get more coal’. My dad said to her: ‘you sit where you are’. He points to me: ‘Oi, you, get off your arse, go and get the coal’. I went out and got it, and came back. He took me outside and said: ‘Enjoy the publicity, just don’t believe it. And when it’s your turn to get the coal, go and get the coal.’

“That stayed with me forever. I do enjoy the publicity, when I need it. But I don’t believe it either.”