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Contact Us Page Last Updated 11 March 2004
Norman Giller,
McFootball:  The Scottish heroes
of the English game

(Robson Books, London, 2003)

Reviewed by Peter Young
11 March 2004

More than half a century later, I still remember the precise moment I began to have an idea of the Scottish impact on English football.  It was in the late 1940s at a family gathering in my boyhood home in the Manchester area.  The conversation had turned to football, as it always did, and I mentioned reading that Scotland held the edge in the annual international rivalry with England.  With a small boy's unintended impertinence, I asked why that was since Scotland was a much smaller country than England.  There was an uncomfortable pause, and I could tell I’d said something best left unspoken.  My father eventually replied it was because Scotland had dominated in the early years, a long time ago. 

Obviously the matter required further investigation, and there began my interest in Scottish football and footballers.  Quickly I learnt that Scotland invented the passing game, which is one of the reasons they won a majority of the early matches against England.  Soon I became quite taken with all things Scottish, and particularly Scottish football.  It was an attraction that lasted.  Denis Law was to become my favourite player in the 1960s, followed by Kenny Dalglish in the 1970s and 1980s.  When England failed to qualify for the World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978, I cheered on Scotland because it seemed natural and right—they promptly broke my heart, of course—and I have never lost my fondness for Scottish football.  

Norman Giller, author of the book under review, was there when Alf Ramsey, greeted with a cheery “Welcome to Scotland, Sir Alf” on his arrival in Glasgow as England manager for the annual renewal of the old rivalry, responded, “You must be fucking joking!”  Sir Alf’s antipathy to Scotland and what led to it never had the slightest effect on me despite my lifelong allegiance to the England team. Of course, Alf had to play and manage against the Scots, and I didn't, which just might explain the difference in viewpoint!

Whatever one's perspective, it is undeniable that until the last two decades, Scottish football, now the subject of scorn, brimmed with talent.  Before the advent of the Premiership, it was a steady source of supply for an inordinately large percentage of the players in the Football League and especially the old First Division.  It was not only quantity that Scotland provided; a seemingly endless stream of superstars brought their footballing genius south to brighten the English game.  Apart from the F.A. Cup final, the most eagerly anticipated highlight of the season was the annual match between Scotland and England, and rarely did we have any idea which side would emerge on top.

While there is much to bemoan in today’s British game, top of the list must come the decline in Scottish football.  Surely it is the most saddening development, even to England fans, at least those old enough to remember Scotland as a footballing force to be reckoned with.

But football fans have short memories—“What have you done lately?”—and, of course, they have no memory at all of what happened before they themselves began to follow the game.  That they have to go out of their way to learn, and apparently very few do.  Manchester United fans recently chose Eric Cantona of France as the greatest footballer ever to appear for that club.  Fine player that Cantona was, those who saw Denis Law of Scotland, George Best of Northern Ireland and Bobby Charlton of England in Manchester United colours were left shaking their heads.

Giller, the long-time football journalist and author, has spent recent years recording some long-neglected aspects of the English game’s history.  One of his purposes—the most admirable, in my view—is to ensure that our game’s grand story remains accessible to younger fans.  A couple of years ago he brought us his official biography of Wolverhampton Wanderers and England legend Billy Wright.  Now he turns to a groundbreaking review of the Scottish influence on English football in McFootball:  The Scottish heroes of the English game.

Chief football writer for London’s Daily Express in the 1960s and 1970s, Giller was on close terms with most of the post-war football figures he tells us about.  He is one of the very select group of active football writers, constantly diminishing in number, who have the breadth and depth of experience to write knowledgeably about great swaths of the game’s history.  Fortunately, he is also a born raconteur, and, as always, his unique story-telling talents have produced a work that contains all the facts and figures and yet remains lively and entertaining reading.

In a revealing introduction, which includes a truly startling apology for taking part in the journalistic destruction of young Scot Peter Marinello’s football career in the early 1970s, Giller observes that Scotland manager Berti Vogts, a member of West Germany’s 1974 World Cup-winning side, “must feel like a prospector who has arrived after the Gold Rush has finished” since he “has had to scrabble around reserve team matches and tap into the ancestry of English-born players to try to discover footballers fit to wear the Scottish blue.”  Giller then sets about demonstrating how very different things were until quite recently.

The book’s first part contains a series of finely-crafted biographical sketches of the Scots who have played a dominant role in English football.  Its opening chapter focuses briefly on the two Scots who were founding fathers of the Football Association and the Football League, Lord Kinnaird and William McGregor.  Giller then turns to perhaps the most famous Scottish side of all, the Wembley Wizards who decimated England, 5-1, in 1927, resurrecting his long-ago interview of Scotland’s captain on the day, Jimmy McMullan, and following that with colourful accounts of the careers of the greatest of those wizards, Hughie Gallacher and Alex James. 

The remainder of the book’s first part is devoted to vivid portraits of Scottish players and managers who became giants in English football’s post-war years—Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Tommy Docherty, Jock Stein (only very briefly in England, but who could leave him out of a book about Scottish football legends?), Dave Mackay, Denis Law, George Graham, Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alex Ferguson.  Along the way, Giller devotes a short chapter to the lesser-known and uncapped Jimmy Leadbetter, whom he labels England’s World Cup hero for his role in Alf Ramsey’s managerial rise. 

The book’s second part is a superb—in fact, a simply invaluable—resource for those who take an interest in the game’s history.  In Giller’s words, it gathers “for the first time in one volume complete profiles and statistical facts and figures on every post-war Anglo-Scottish footballer who has been capped for his country while playing in England” as well as “many of the outstanding players who were ignored by the Scottish selectors, often almost as punishment for taking the English shilling."  Giller ranks each of the players with one to five stars according to their impact on the English game.  The profiles are deftly written and fascinating career capsules. 

Giller also includes an Anglo-Scot dream team selected by fans on the MacSoccer website he set up to promote the book.  The dream team chapter includes a list of all players who received an appreciable number of votes as well as the voting breakdown.

The book concludes with another remarkable resource, a list of Scottish-born footballers who played more than 200 post-war Football League games for a single English league club (and selected major players who made 190 or more such appearances). 

Giller originally chose “MacSoccer” as the book’s title.  His publishers told him to rename it for the sake of sales figures, apparently because many of today’s British fans regard “soccer” as an unacceptable American perversion of the name of the game.  The term soccer actually originated in 19th century England as a truncation of “association football,” the formal name of the game, and it served as an convenient shorthand way of distinguishing it from rugby football, which also was given an abbreviated name, “rugger.”  “Soccer” was in common use in Britain as a popular name for the game through at least the 1960s.  For example, Tommy Lawton’s biography, published in 1955, was entitled “My Twenty Years in Soccer.”  And when the Football Association celebrated its centenary in 1963, it published two official commemorative volumes entitled “A Century of Soccer” and “100 Years of Soccer in Pictures.”

Yielding to the delusions of today’s fans in this respect is worthwhile because there are bigger battles to be won in the war against football ignorance.  One of them centres on the myth that Giller targets and explodes:  that Henrik Larsson of Sweden and Glasgow's Celtic is the greatest “Scottish” footballer of all.  If more young fans buy and read the book because it’s called McFootball instead of MacSoccer, renaming it has served a beneficial purpose.  As Giller writes, “We need to tell the young generation of Scots of their proud past and of how English football, for at least its first hundred years, would not have been nearly as successful and as satisfying without the strong Scottish influence.”

Giller quotes Graham Leggat, an Anglo-Scot international in the 1950s and 1960s and now the voice of soccer on Canadian television:  “I just hope your book helps rekindle the old spirit in pulling on the Scottish jersey.  I just cannot believe how the standards have fallen.  It is so sad.”

Giller has done what he can, and done it admirably.  The rest is up to the Scots, and particularly young Scots.  May the Auld Enemy’s fortunes revive.  Football is the poorer without great rivalries, and the older and fiercer the rivalry, the better.  Scottish football's decline has been a blow to all who care about the game, and its return to glory would delight them.

McFootball:  The Scottish heroes of the English game is available at most booksellers and may also be purchased through a website Giller has set up to promote the book.  Fans may also choose their all-time Anglo-Scot team for publication on the site.