Interview: Scotland rugby hero Tony Stanger on why he loves football

If you're a football man, determinedly of that persuasion and a bit sneering with it, then you might view Tony Stanger's Hawick as the sporting equivalent of the flat earth society, a place where they believe that when leather and air conjoin the result must always be egg-shaped. Anything else '¨is sacrilege, anything else is banned. Visitors will be searched and if spheres of perfect circumference are found these must be deposited in the giant receptacles at the town gates.
Now 50, Tony Stanger owns a talent-spotting business and coaches football. Picture: Neil HannaNow 50, Tony Stanger owns a talent-spotting business and coaches football. Picture: Neil Hanna
Now 50, Tony Stanger owns a talent-spotting business and coaches football. Picture: Neil Hanna

Well, Stanger is a rugby hero for sure, a Grand Slam legend of the wing, and as a boy played the game incessantly with his four brothers, in the garden at home and also at school, from as far back as P5. This was long before mini-rugby became popular in the cities as a way of toughening them up for kids of that age for the deals they would make as fund managers. And for young Tony there was one day in particular which would make his little heart soar.

He explains: “Bill McLaren went round all the schools in Hawick coaching rugby and at Wilton Primary we absolutely lived for Wednesdays when there might be a wee chance, if you’d been brave in the tackle and got down nice and low, that he’d pat you on the head and say: ‘Well done, young man.’”

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But, rugby to his core, Stanger now finds himself standing on football touchlines while his own sons revel in the other game. The eldest, George, plays for Hamilton Accies Under 19s while for Jack, who is in Stirling Albion’s junior academy, Stanger is more than just a proud dad, he’s a coach.

“I didn’t have any exposure to football growing up in Hawick but it’s a brilliant sport, I can see that now,” he says. “The energy, the skill, the movement, great passing sequences – I love it all.

“George, who’s 18, was playing in the first team at Stirling and now he’s at a club with a great record for bringing on young players. The big excitement at the moment is the Youth Champions League. Hamilton had a thrilling win over Basle in the last round and they’ve got the home leg to come against Midtyjylland of Denmark. That’s tremendous experience for a youngster.

“George is a centre-back, taller than me, and, while I’m his dad and I would say this, he’s a great athlete. I might not know a lot about football but I know a bit about coaching and, for instance, how you need to future-proof your skills. The world’s best centre-backs these days are all good on the ball so George tries to be. He’s not played for the first team yet. I guess there’s more risk in his position at this age than trying out a forward or a midfielder because a centre-back could cost you a goal but I hope his chance will come.

“Jack, who’s 12, used to play rugby but has switched to football after seeing how much George is enjoying it and I love helping run his team. George used to play rugby, too, but I think for him there was too much expectation that he could follow his old man. And, I’m afraid, a bit of ‘Who does he think he is?’ as well. In football, though, he can be just another boy.”

Is this treachery? A man from such a fierce rugby tradition, the Slam-bam try-scorer of 1990, embracing footer? Does Stanger wish the sport was available to him when he was George’s age? He smiles. “I played rugby for two reasons: its significance to Hawick and because I had some early success. But it got to the stage I was racking up 60, maybe 70 games a year for the school, the school select, Scotland Under-18s and 19s and different clubs in the town. My mother would be quickly putting my only pair of boots under the hairdryer because they were soaking before I had to cycle up to Volunteer Park for the next match. Did I enjoy that? Absolutely not. It was only when I got into the Hawick team that the coaches put a stop to it. If I’d been a stronger personality, though, and more outspoken I would almost certainly have quit rugby.”

Aaaagghh! That’s the sound of panic spreading round this land. If Stanger had been a stranger to rugby come 1990 then who the bloody hell was going to throw up his arms at Murrayfield and grab that Gavin Hastings punt to vanquish England? Thank goodness he was there and thank goodness he’s in Dunblane to tell the story of his career in his own quiet way.

Stanger has lived here with his New Zealand-born wife Bid, short for Bridget, for ten years. Together they run Stanger Pro, helping all kinds of organisations identify and develop talent. They have daughter Rosie, getting into sports psychology, as well as their footballing sons so he’s a busy man, always looking to the next thing. There isn’t much time to dwell on the past, far less wallow in it, but that’s not his style.

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“We tell our kids: ‘Give what you’re doing your all, give 100 per cent. If it works out, great.’ But I don’t want them to be defined by what they do. I’ve never wanted to be. I played rugby and I scored a try that everyone remembers but it’s not who I am.”

Nevertheless, he’s going to have to indulge this 1990 geek for a bit and being a decent sort – 50 now but looking just the same, a few flecks of grey in his hair, though still cut in the funny pudding-bowl style – he does.

Stanger pulled on the dark blue jersey 52 times and plunged over the line on 23 occasions for an all-time try-bagging record he still shares with Ian Smith from Scotland’s first Slammers in 1925, although the likes of Tommy Seymour and Stuart Hogg are real and present threats to his haul. Stanger would like to be overtaken, and he would love Scotland to win another Slam, so consigning his achievement even further into history.

“I was a quiet, shy lad from the Borders,” he says, “and happy enough being in the background.” The Monday after the great triumph, though, there wasn’t much chance of that when Stanger, in common with his fellow immortals, returned to the day job. “I was working for the Royal Bank in Galashiels at the time. The manager wanted me front-of-house on the tills. I wasn’t very comfortable there. I was young, not long into the team, and the attention was a bit bewildering. Every customer wanted a natter. They were all nice and kind but I was just glad selfies weren’t a thing back then!”

So does he think Scotland could win another Slam? “It will be tough. It was tough in 1990 but now they’d have to win an extra game. We worked harder than other countries to do it. We hassled and we harried, caused surprise and a bit of mayhem. Professionalism has really helped Ireland and Wales. We were slower to adapt but we’re going great guns now. You know, three wins in a championship is a fine achievement for a small country like ours but I don’t think a Slam is massively unrealistic. And that would dwarf 1990 for sure.”

Talent-spotter Stanger had his abilities pinpointed by McLaren but also by one of the regular teachers at Wilton Primary. “May Sinclair was unusual, being a woman, but she put fantastic time and effort into coaching us. Rugby was her calling as it was for so many in Hawick, all the parents, volunteers and helpers. Hawick was a fantastic place to learn about the game. Because it involved just about the whole town, a young person could build a positive reputation for himself. And Hawick kept you working hard and it kept you humble.”

At 17 Stanger was “big, strong and fast”. And humble. Playing for Scotland seemed too fantastical, far beyond his reach. “I wasn’t thinking about that at all.” He watched Jim Renwick and Colin Deans bowling along Hawick’s High Street and reckoned them to be gods – humble ones, naturally. “I thought that getting into an Under-18s team somewhere would be a really tough mission.

“But my first trial went ridiculously well. I came from nowhere, got given the ball, scored a few tries. The reaction was: ‘Who’s this laddie?’” Four years later in October 1989, still only 21, he was running out at Murrayfield for his first cap against Fiji and that went ridiculously well, too, the new boy touching down twice. Mind you, not as ridiculously well as his second appearance against Romania a few weeks later when he bagged a hat-trick. By then everyone knew the laddie.

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McLaren obviously has prior knowledge. At the beginning of the charge to Slam glory – which would of course conclude with a slow march – the commentator said of his protege: “And Tony Stanger lost that one in the strong sun.” The fumble in Dublin didn’t lead to any damage. “That was Bill being kind, typical of the man,” says Stanger. It was a gentler age, and a more innocent one – where a rag-tag-and-bobtail team, Finlay Calder with his sockslapping round his ankles, John Jeffery battering anything that moved and anyone who pranced – could shock rugger aristocracy.

A few months after the Slam Scotland almost beat New Zealand for the first-ever time. Stanger on the burst kept his personal try count ticking over nicely in Auckland but the tourists were just edged out. His next encounter with a Kiwi came two years later and was much more pleasant. “My brother Peter and I had gone to Australia for the summer, life experience and a bit rugby, guesting for the Warringah Rats when you could do that sort of thing, and that’s when I met Bid.”

Sadly ’92 was also the year Stanger lost his father George. “He was 72, older than my mum but a brilliant dad, who ran a laundry and carried on working past retirement to provide for his family then suffered a massive heart attack. You think everyone’s got a vivid memory of my try in the Slam game? Well, when Gavin kicked ahead everyone sitting in front of my dad in the main stand stood up. ‘Sorry, son,’ he said afterwards, ‘but I couldn’t see a bloomin’ thing.’ He loved rugby but golf was his big passion. I miss that we can’t play a round together now.”

If the All Blacks had been a near thing, Stanger’s two games against South Africa, today’s visitors at Murrayfield, weren’t close at all. He gets them mixed up, thinking the one in which he grabbed another try was also when a flying elbow left him needing stitches to his forehead. Maybe this isn’t surprising. The game which he part-watched from the treatment table was the 1997 thrashing, 68-10 to the Springboks. It had been back in ’94 that he’d scored, but in vain, South Africa taking that one 34-10 as Joost van der Westhuizen & Co warmed up for their World Cup triumph the following year.

The first meeting between the countries for 25 years because of the apartheid boycott, the earlier game was also the first at the re-built Murrayfield as it looks today. Stanger notched a number of firsts in his career: first international when Flower of Scotland was sung, first when the stadium changed to all-seated, first Sunday game. Admittedly this is an anorak’s list and it’s met with a bemused look from our man. “It’s not that I lack sentiment, but … ” The sentence trails off and he returns to a familiar refrain: rugby is not who he is.

There is nothing in his house to indicate he ever played the game. In a cubbyhole the other day he found the match programmes from that previous life. “I’m a chucker-outer and was about to get rid of them but my wife stopped me.” One thing he must stress, though: he loved playing rugby, representing his country and contributing to the overall joy. “I played at the best time and with the best guys who were all at Murrayfield that day in 1990 because they wanted to be there, not because they were being paid. Rugby was their hobby and also their passion. It’s nice to be part of people’s memories.”

The power of the press. Stanger first found out he was a Scotland player not from the SRU but in a phonecall from Bill Lothian of Edinburgh’s Evening News. He couldn’t quite believe it. He didn’t tell his car-sharing colleagues at the bank in case it was a wind-up. Then his delighted mum Elizabeth, who still lives in Hawick along with two of his brothers, phoned to say the official letter had arrived.

Before the England showdown, the intervention of another rugby scribe caused him even more anxiety. “Norman Mair was the most-quoted guy back then and he wrote after the penultimate game that he expected the team to be unchanged, with the possible exception of yours truly. I’d missed a tackle in that match against Wales so obviously I was worried. Would my letter ever come? On the way to work one morning I saw the postie. Should I stop him? I did and he had the letter. But because it never reached the house my poor mum was subjected to a few more hours of worry.”

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That flunked tackle bothered Stanger and he decided against missing a Hawick game so he could keep sharp, only to be flattened by Stewart’s Mellville’s Alex Brewster. “My shoulder bone popped out so I had a new worry about missing the biggest game ever. I’m not the man to ask about Maggie Thatcher, the poll tax and the rest of the backdrop to the match because I was only thinking about my injury. I had to train with the forwards to see if I could stand up to being hit again and poor Roger Baird was summoned to be my stooge for tackle after tackle. Finally I was passed fit. Only if I extended my arms upwards would I feel any pain.”

The rest is history, if you care to dwell on it. So where’s the most unlikely place he’s been congratulated for that awkward, beautiful clutch of which some Scotland goalkeepers we could name would have been right mightily proud? He laughs: “One time a fellow reached across the urinals to shake my hand. And now I’m embarrassing my kids because I’ll challenge people. ‘I was there that day and I’d like to shake your hand,’ they’ll say. I’ll go: ‘Are you sure? There were 62,500 in the crowd and I’ve shook more hands than that already. Is this you coming back for another one?’

“Then there was the time George and I were watching a Glasgow game. ‘Dad,’ George said midway through the first half, ‘that man over there keeps looking at you.’ I thought this was a good opportunity to teach the boy about modesty so I said: ‘I don’t think so, son.’ ‘He definitely is,’ said George, and sure enough at half-time the guy shuffled up to us. ‘Do I know you?’ he asked, which I’ve always thought is a funny line of inquiry. ‘I don’t think so,’ I said. ‘Are you sure?’ he said, and kept this up for a bit. Then he tried one last time: ‘Did you used to work in the docks?’”