Obituary: Tom Forsyth, uncompromising defender who captained Scotland

Tom Forsyth, footballer. Born: 23 January, 1949 in Glasgow. Died: 14 August, 2020 in Strathaven, aged 71.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
Tom Forsyth during a training session at Dunblane in May 1978 ahead of the World Cup in Argentina

THE best-known quote about Tom Forsyth, who has died from complications from pancreatic cancer, is Tommy Docherty’s rather unkind description of him as “a Clydesdale”, in comparison to Docherty’s then club captain, Martin Buchan – “a thoroughbred,” according to the Doc.

That description tickled Forsyth. As he explained to The Scotsman’s Aidan Smith in a 2017 interview, was the son of a “stallion walker,” whose job was to take Clydesdale stallions around farms to service mares. It was in the course of his work that Forsyth’s father met his mother, that and the fact he was raised in that part of Lanarkshire known as Clydesdale, rather tickled the footballer.

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He may have been born in Glasgow, but, Forsyth, one half of a set of twins with brother Robert, was raised in Stonehouse, where he learned his football with Glenaven Amateurs, before a brief spell in the juniors with Stonehouse Violet, from whom he went upstairs to Motherwell in 1967.

Tom Forsyth celebrates at time after Rangers beat Celtic in the 1973 Scottish Cup Final (Picture: SNS)

Nineteen seventy-one was Forsyth’s breakthrough year. In February he made his Scotland Under-23 debut in a 2-2 Hampden draw with England. In March, he was in the Scottish League XI which played the English League and, in June, he made his full Scotland debut, in a 0-1 loss to Denmark, in Copenhagen.

Legend has it, so few players wanted to play for Scotland back then, on offering Motherwell captain Bobby Watson the chance to go on the end of season trip to Denmark and Russia, manager Bobby Brown asked him if any other Motherwell players might be able to go. Watson suggested Forsyth and the youngster duly made his debut against Denmark.

Brown was sacked as Scotland boss after those two games and replaced by Tommy Docherty. So, it is hardly surprising that Forsyth dropped out of Scotland contention until, after 150 games for Motherwell, he was transferred to Rangers in October, 1972, for a reported £40,000 fee.

At Ibrox he was transformed from the thrusting midfielder he had been at Motherwell, to a second centre half, forming a formidable unit for club and country with Colin Jackson. His club form won him a recall to the Scotland team from Willie Ormond, for the “dead” rubber final qualifying game for the 1974 World Cup, against Czechoslovakia, in Bratislava, which the Czechs won 1-0.

He then dropped out of Scotland contention until Ormond brought him back for a Hampden friendly against Switzerland, in April, 1976, when an experimental Scotland team – seven players, including Alan Rough, made their debut that night – won 1-0. Not only was Forsyth back, his form that season in a Rangers’ team which won a domestic Treble, saw him handed the captaincy.

After that, under Ormond, then Ally MacLeod, Forsyth was a regular pick in the national side. He had become a Tartan Army legend, in only his sixth cap, with his match-saving tackle on Mick Channon, which ensured a 2-1 win over England, at Hampden.

He was not initially an automatic pick for Scotland. Gordon McQueen was seen as the main man in central defence, with either Forsyth, Buchan, Hibs’ John Blackley of Kenny Burns as the second centre-half. However, while his first three caps were spread over 44 internationals, his last 20 came over 24 games and, with MacLeod as manager, he was definitely Scotland’s first-choice central defender.

He was paired with Jackson in three games – their club understanding helping Scotland win all three. He linked-up thrice also with Blackley and Burns, while he played five internationals as a pairing with Buchan and five in tandem with McQueen. In his 22 internationals, Scotland only lost five times, which is a good return by any standards.

He was a major figure in the ultimately-disappointing 1978 World Cup campaign, where, in the final game against the Netherlands, he fired a header straight at goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed. As he admitted years later, had that gone in, it would have been 4-1 to Scotland and the tragedy of Argentina might have been so different.

That was his final cap, but, he soldiered on with Rangers until 1982, when injury forced him to retire, having won three Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups and three League Cups. The most-famous of those wins was in the 1973 Centenary Scottish Cup Final, where his legendary “long-range rocket” -– estimates of how far he hit the ball vary from five to seven inches – clinched a 3-2 win for his club over Celtic. It was his first goal for the club.

After Rangers he had a brief spell as manager at Dunfermline Athletic, before deciding he preferred being a number two to a manager and spent over a decade as assistant to former Rangers’ teammate Tommy McLean at Morton, Motherwell, where he helped his old club win promotion back to the Premier League in 1985 and the Scottish Cup in 1991, then Hearts.

But, as if to prove the old saying: “Once a Ranger, always a Ranger,” Forsyth’s longest spell in the game after playing was as a popular matchday host back at his old club. As a player, his uncompromising style and ferocious tackling earned him the nickname “Jaws,” but, in the corporate suites he avuncular manner and ready smile made him a hugely popular host.

He continued to live in Lanarkshire, he and wife Linda, who sadly pre-deceased him last year, also from cancer, settling in Strathaven, where he grew begonias and chrysanthemums in his garden and got rid of his lasting sporting frustrations on the bowling green and golf course.

There, he passed away quietly, surrounded by his family, son David, daughters Karen and Julie and his grand-children.

Thoroughbreds may be the flashy, stars of the equine world. However, it is the heavy horses such as the Clydesdales, who get the job done, and for club and country – Tom Forsyth did the job of defending better than most.

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