David Turnbull, everyone agrees, needs support right now. Good people around him. Family, friends, team-mates. Motherwell and, you would like to think, the wider football community. And of course the surgeons who will hopefully enable him to resume a career of high promise, relegating this on-off-on-off transfer saga to the status of odd interregnum.
They will all be there for him, as well they should, because this must have been a shattering blow for the lad: to have Celtic’s pursuit of his award-winning skills end so dramatically; to have the knee problem he never knew he suffered splashed across back pages.
But if it’s any consolation and if it could offer comfort may I present the story of Asa Hartford. Here was another Scottish footballer who was on the brink of joining the biggest club in the land only for the deal to collapse after the results of the routine medical became apparent. If Turnbull right now is wondering where his next game might be coming from then 48 years ago that was Hartford. If Turnbull, in his gloomiest moments, is thinking this is his golden chance gone and with it trophies and caps, then he should know that these things came to Hartford eventually and this man is fondly remembered as a Scotland great.
Of course, no two players are the same. No two injuries either and no two footballing landscapes. But Turnbull, pictured inset, is 19 going on 20 and a midfielder. Hartford, also a midfielder, had just turned 21 when he was left stunned by the verdict of medical men. Two talented young players who’d been delivering eye-catching performances in spite of issues unknown, unclassified and, it seemed, unthreatening. This is where their tales converge.
In November, 1971, when Hartford’s transfer from West Bromwich Albion to Leeds United fell through, the whole world was stunned because here suddenly was the “hole-in-the-heart footballer”, a tabloid epithet which might have made some think the Clydebank-born player was some kind of zombie, defying medical science every time he took the field.
We all know something about medical science now. We know what a metatarsal is – back in ’71 they hadn’t been invented. “Groin strain” used to cover a multitude of sins regarding football injuries, and the magic sponge was the only known remedy. It didn’t seem like this would work for poor Asa.
Leeds had been knocked off their perch. Dissatisfied with two runners-up finishes in England’s old First Division, manager Don Revie splashed £177,000 on rejuvenating his midfield. Three days later, though, the deal was dead, as Hartford explained when we met a couple of years ago:
“I signed on the Wednesday and Don told me I’d go straight into the team to play Leicester City. I trained with the players on the Friday, the day before the game, and Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles handed me the yellow jersey for being the crappest player. I even got my hair cut to club specifications –it was too long for Don’s liking. And then he said: ‘Just one more thing –the medical.’
“I remember having my barium meal and two docs looking at the X-ray and one saying to the other: ‘There it is –look.’ But it was the day of the game in my hotel, just as Leicester players were arriving for their pre-match meal with Tom Jones of all people wandering around the foyer, that Don told me about the hole in my heart. He was in tears. He asked if I wanted someone from Leeds to drive me back to West Brom but I had my own car. I turned on the radio and the story was all over the news. I thought I’d better speak to my family, stopped at a payphone, couldn’t reach anyone. By the time I got to West Brom there were reporters waiting for me. By the time I spoke to my mum and dad back in Clydebank they’d been told I had cancer.
“The next week was crazy. My girlfriend and I were moved into a hotel to try and escape all the fuss. The Midlands’ top heart specialist was saying the hole would have no detrimental effect on my career, effectively contradicting the Leeds doctors.
“My old team-mates were full of the wisecracks you’d expect of bloody footballers, things like ‘That’s you here for ever now.’ And when I resumed playing for the Albion at Notts Forest a posse of photographers followed my every move. Probably they were expecting me to drop down dead!”
Bloody footballers continue to be adept at black humour. Turnbull, back at Fir Park, can expect similar banter.
Some things have changed. Now there’s social media which has been ablaze with rumour and insinuation about this saga. Hartford may have escaped that but was obviously viewed as an object of curiosity. He didn’t have access to the psychological help which will be available to Turnbull, should he need it, but got over the disappointment.
“It’s a long time ago now but I didn’t think it was the end of the world,” he said. “I mean, it was confusing and a worry for everyone around me, but footballers are pragmatic and I knew I was fit. Leeds said I’d need an operation but that I should lead a normal life. Well, I’m still here and the op hasn’t been required.”
Hartford didn’t have to stay at West Brom for ever, later moving to Manchester City. Before then, indeed, just five months after being turned down by Leeds, Scotland awarded him his first cap. He was selected by Tommy Docherty, Willie Ormond, Ally MacLeod and Jock Stein and appeared 50 times as the pocket-battleship of the Dark Blue midfield. He played in two World Cups, two Wembley wins over England, survived Argentina, even survived getting a perm.
He’s a top bloke, a rounded man for the round-ball game, a Private Eye subscriber with a lively interest in politics who counts union officials and current affairs journos among his friends. It was a thrill to meet him and I hope young David Turnbull will be able to get over this setback and one day be able to look back on his career with its promise fulfilled.