Interview: Steve Fulton on his Celtic breakthrough, winning the cup with Hearts and laughing off the ‘fat’ jibes

He was the kind of footballer who dear old Archie Macpherson would wax lyrical about, with the former schoolteacher never missing a chance to remark on his “educated” left foot. The line-up for this weekend’s cup clashes chimes loudly for this fellow, these fixtures having once provided both his sensational entrance and his greatest day. But for the last five years Steve Fulton has been earning his living as a labourer.

Steve Fulton celebrates scoring against Hibs in the 1998 New Year's Day derby at Tynecastle. Picture: Neil Hanna
Steve Fulton celebrates scoring against Hibs in the 1998 New Year's Day derby at Tynecastle. Picture: Neil Hanna

Happy doing it, too. “I was working at Rosyth Naval Yard, helping the electricians looking after the aircraft carriers,” he explains. “Quite often guys would ask: ‘What are you doing here?’ I always replied: ‘Exactly the same as you – I need a wage.’ When I hung up my boots, although I coached for a bit, I never fancied doing that full-time. It would have been too high-profile for me.

“I wanted to work and I had to work, so that the wife and I could take the boys on wee holidays. It hasn’t bothered me that it’s been labouring. For me, that’s a job just like playing football was a job, except that the football paid a bit better and each day you were finished by 12. I’ve given up at Rosyth now but hopefully I’ll get something else similar. I have to.”

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It didn’t look like “work” when Fulton, just 18, flighted those killing crosses for Celtic against this evening’s Betfred Cup opponents, Hibernian, but he’d laugh if you were to call it “art”. Thirty years ago, the competition was the Scottish Cup but the contest was over before half an hour, thanks largely to man-of-the-match Fulton.

Nine years later, again in the Scottish and this time the final, he won the first-minute penalty which sent Hearts on their way to victory against Rangers, the Jambos’ opponents tomorrow. Now 49, he’ll miss both the latest semis as he takes wife Angella on one of those wee holidays – to Spain – but in any case will be more interested in the progress of another tie. He helps coach Eastfield from Cumbernauld, where he lives, who’re playing in the Scottish Amateur Cup against another new town team, East Kilbride’s EKRR, and hopes that, with sons Dale and Tyler in the line-up, they can progress today without his touchline promptings.

Fulton posted the classiest performances of his career while wearing the Gorgie maroon but says: “I’m afraid I wouldn’t cross the road to watch Hearts now. That’s not my kind of football they play.” The current side don’t have anyone who passes the ball like Fulton did and haven’t had for a while. A few minutes later, though, he thinks he might have been a bit harsh with that assessment. Clearly Fulton has no designs on outspoken punditry either, and he proves a shy and retiring fellow during our chat.

I catch up with him in South Wales where he’s on grandad duty, looking after the daughter of his other son, Jay, who plays for Swansea City, riding high in England’s Championship. So what it’s been like for the Fulton boys to follow in a famous father’s footsteps? Not dissimilar to Steve coming after his old man, in fact.

Norrie Fulton was a legend of the Juniors scene, a barrel-chested, barnstorming centre-forward who scored a barrowload of goals – 350-plus – for Petershill and Pollok, including the Hampden winner for the latter when they lifted the Junior Cup in 1981.

Says Fulton: “I don’t think me having a career daunted my boys. In fact I think it helped them because they all wanted to play football and at four and five years old they would come to training, kick a ball about and interact with players. That was me at their age and I went to Dad’s games, home and away. Well, not all of the aways. The games could be mental down Ayrshire way and places like that. One time, when word got round I was Norrie Fulton’s laddie, my back was covered in spittle by the end of the match.” Then, seamlessly, he adds: “The Juniors were great as well. Loads of cracking teams and cracking players.”

Now he’s laughing because few were more notable in that realm than his father with even guest-starring world greats of football having to play second fiddle. “I remember Dad was playing in a charity match. The posters for it had him top of the bill. Down the bottom, in smaller print, there was: ‘… Also featuring George Best.’ Dad loved that. But on the day George didn’t turn up. It was when he was at Hibs and a bit unreliable. I’d like to think he went ‘Norrie Fulton’s playing? The Norrie Fulton? I’m staying in bed …’!”

What was his influence on young Steve? “You know, he could be harsh. Playing youth football, if my game wasn’t up to scratch, I’d hear about it the whole car journey home. But the times he praised me I knew I’d earned it. I liked that. I was ‘Norrie Fulton’s boy’ for long enough, even after I got to Celtic. [Manager] Billy McNeill knew me as that at first. It was a while before anyone referred to me as ‘Steve Fulton’.”

They surely did after that blazing semi-final in 1989. Not quite the Greenock youngster’s debut in Hoops; definitely though the game which announced him. The Scotsman’s Glenn Gibbons reported that Fulton looked like “a teenager of real promise” and raved about his “wicked” left foot. He wasn’t nervous before the match and, he hopes, didn’t get too carried away after it. “Being a footballer – on the park, I mean – there were times when you had to be arrogant. But down the street I never thought I was better than anybody else. I just wanted to be treated as a normal guy. I wouldn’t have appreciated folk fawning over me because I was a footballer. I wouldn’t have wanted to talk to anyone who did that.”

Inevitably for a youngster who dazzles for the Old Firm, there was hullabaloo and hype. “I didn’t appreciate there would be and I didn’t really like it. One minute I was a reserve player, the next I was on telly. One minute no one knew me, then everyone did. I hated doing interviews; I was too self-conscious. Nowadays, young players have media training. They’re confident enough to get out there and talk about depression and stuff. I wasn’t.”

The buzz about young Fulton included a semi-notorious comparison with Roberto Baggio. Not a direct one, but it came from McNeill who, at the time the Italian World Cup star was going stratospheric, wondered what his hot prospect might be worth one day. Fulton always likes to point out the artistic licence of journalists who took the remark literally. “Did it bother me? No, not really. Anyone who actually thought I was as good as Baggio would have needed their head examined. But folk still call me Baggio. It happened at Rosyth; it happens most days. And let’s be honest, footballers get called a whole lot worse.” A short while later, Fulton would be.

He can, though, look back and see the funny side of his awkwardness. “My first time staying at Seamill before a game – and it must have been that semi – I was asked what I wanted for my pre-match [meal]. I didn’t know what to say but reckoned what I’d have had at home would be okay. My order came though. ‘Who wanted the two bacon rolls?’ the waiter asked. They never reached my table; Billy intercepted them. The waiter got told: ‘Give the wee shite toast and jam’!”

For the ’89 cup final, Fulton was back on the bench and, self-consciousness perhaps getting the better of him again, he shunned the party to celebrate victory over Rangers. Walking up to the family home in Greenock, close to Morton’s Cappielow, he was congratulated by some of the town’s gentlemen of leisure. “They were ‘alkies’ I’d known for years. I let them all have a shot of wearing my cup final shirt. Some were Rangers supporters but they were possibly too inebriated to care.” Or maybe, regardless of which was their side of the fence, they just wanted to share in the local lad’s success.

Now might be a good moment to talk about physique. Once, representing Celtic in the Tennent’s Sixes, he over-indulged on the sponsors’ complimentary between-games hotdogs and suffered tummy-ache. By the time Fulton arrived at Hearts in 1995 he sported a burly frame. This was no impediment to his clever midfield promptings but, over the course of seven years and 239 games, he suffered more than a few jibes about his weight. “I was one of those guys who, when the rest were given days off, would be told to come in and train. I could very quickly get out of shape but playing all the time and training every day, that was when I was at my best.

“Don’t get me wrong, after six or seven weeks off in the close season, which was what we got back then, I would pile on the pounds and have to hit the treadmill, big-style. But fat? Billy McNeill and Jim Jefferies [Fulton’s manager at Falkirk and Kilmarnock as well as Tynecastle] would never have played me if I was. The abuse I got never bothered me. It just made me laugh when I got called ‘Fatso’ by a bloke with a pie in one hand and a pizza in the other who was so big he took up two seats. I just told myself: ‘I’m down here on the pitch playing football and you’re very definitely not.’”

At Celtic there was regime change, Liam Brady replacing McNeill. Fulton hit it off with the Irishman in the beginning but then he didn’t. “A lot of that was my fault. I didn’t kick on as a player as I should have done. I was still running around Greenock with my mates because I thought: ‘That’s who I am.’ But I needed to grow up.”

He moved to Bolton Wanderers, managed by Bruce Rioch, a sergeant-major’s son who’d been a tough-tackling midfielder as a player, and wasn’t going to be tolerating those he viewed as slackers. “After just one month and a game against Tranmere Rovers he told me I’d never play for the club again. I was rubbish that day, but there had been ten other guys who were just as bad.”

Fulton returned to Scotland and the Bairns. He hadn’t known Jefferies previously but that was the start of a winning relationship. “We had a cracking team at Falkirk with guys like Davie Weir, Brian Rice and, for a while, Mo Johnston. And of course John Hughes – Yogi – who tried a stepover in my first game against Celtic, stood on the ball and broke his ankle. What a character, and what fantastic team spirit we had.

“Jim was brilliant for me. His instruction to the rest of the guys was ‘Give the ball to Steve’ which made me feel 100ft tall. That reminded me of my father. You worked for the praise you got. Equally, if you weren’t pulling your weight, Jim wouldn’t miss you.”

Speaking of weight, Fulton came to time his climb on to the Brockville scales as adroitly as he would the playmaker’s surge into the opposition box. “For the big weigh-in I always made sure I went after John Clark because that was one guy I knew made the needle work a bit harder!”

Jefferies’ switch to Hearts briefly left Fulton under the charge of John Lambie but this was another short and sour relationship. “I spent most of the time falling out with him. I hated his training, running up the side of the park with a tyre tied to my waist.” Reuniting with the manager who understood him best, he first had to win round some Gorgie sceptics. “When I was at Celtic, Hearts were seen as the ‘wee Rangers’. If I had a bad game, the supporters at Tynecastle would call me a ‘Fenian’ this and a ‘Fenian’ that. But I don’t think I’m kidding myself when I say that I won them round in the end.” Indeed he did. Fansites polls of the club’s best signings of modern times place him high up the list.

“It’s funny, though, because Neil Pointon and I joined on the same day and right away we lost to Falkirk. Then the next week Gilles Rousett and a few other guys arrived and everyone sees that as the beginning of Jim’s revolution. It’s like Neil and I were part of the old team!”

But Fulton could see something good was happening under Jefferies, even though Hearts would be thrashed 5-1 by a Brian Laudrup-inspired Rangers in the 1996 Scottish Cup final. “Right after that a few more guys joined, including Neil McCann. I’d been at school in Port Glasgow with Neil and I thought when he came: ‘Ya beauty’.”

Just as significantly, the midfield started to click: Stefano Salvatori would enforce, Fulton would run the creative department and Colin Cameron would latch on to one of our man’s clever passes and, more often than not, score. Fulton has fond memories of the Italian, who died from cancer two years ago aged 49: “That was terrible. He had two wee bits of weans. He was a great guy even though he spoke hardly any English. Although when it was time for bonuses to be decided he usually found his tongue!”

A quick rematch in the League Cup final of ’96 was much closer, Fulton netting in a 4-3 defeat. Then the following season Hearts pushed the Old Firm hard in the league only to fade at the end. “That was a big regret because I thought we could have won it. I had to laugh watching a TV programme recently. It told the story of that title as a battle between Celtic and Rangers, flashing up the table week by week with us usually ahead of one of them, and yet we were never once mentioned.”

Still, consolation would come on 16 May, 1998, the Jambos’ first trophy for 36 years. Fulton, the skipper in the absence of injured club captain Gary Locke who insisted the pair collect the trophy together, hadn’t watched a rerun of the final until last year’s reunion: “I always thought I played no’ bad but oh deary me: Rangers battered us! Our spirit got us through the game.”

Then beer got Fulton through the routine drugs test. “At first I was given water but couldn’t pee. After a few cans I was birlin’. Because I was away so long the rest of the guys were half-scoofed and, by the time we got back to Edinburgh, everyone was tonto. As we passed through Gorgie somebody opened the hatch in the top of the bus and we all climbed on to the roof. I still wonder how nobody fell off!”