Kevin Gallacher: 'My heart was bursting out of my chest. I'd raced through our anthem before the rest of the team had started the second verse'
It seems so long ago now that you’d be forgiven for thinking the achievement must have been announced by a town crier reading from unfurled parchment and celebrated with mead swishing about in pewter tankards.
In fact, when Scotland last won through to the finals of a major international tournament, Kevin Gallacher confirms there was no party. “For one thing, the crucial match was an afternoon kick-off,” says the man who set us on our World Cup way against Latvia in 1997, one of six goals he scored in qualifying. “Afterwards we just went back to the team hotel. There was a game in another group being played that night which we needed to go in our favour, Spain vs the Faroes. We waited for that result together and then the next morning our clubs would have wanted us back.”
Twenty-three years ago, the club vs country power struggle may have been beginning to shift in the direction of the former, but Scotland back then were in their purple patch. ’90, ’92, ’96 and France ’98. Embossed invites to all these football festivals; official sticker albums finding room for our peely-wally heroes. We’ve never been so popular.
Says Gallacher: “I know it had almost become routine for Scotland [to qualify for finals] but for the boys I played with, getting over the line was a huge thrill. And I’m sure if you’d gone round the group no one would have predicted that was going to be our last time.”
So we try again next Thursday in the Euros playoff decider against Serbia. Does the 53-year-old - and 53-cap striker - think we can do it? “Yes I do. Our manager Craig Brown instilled a club spirit in us and I think Steve Clarke is achieving something similar. I would love it to happen. There’s no way I’m smug about being part of the last team to qualify for anything. As a boy on the streets of Clydebank, in my head, it was always a fantastic Scotland goal I was scoring. I was lucky enough to then represent my country at these wonderful tournaments and later, commentate on them for TV. Now I want Scotland back at finals so I can follow them as a fan.”
Gallacher, when I catch up with him in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley, his home since a Premier League-winning stint at Blackburn Rovers, retains all the bottle-of-pop fizz he displayed as a speedy attacker and his most-used word is “Wow!”
You can easily understand how, when he realised football was finally over for him, in the car park at Huddersfield Town in 2002, this effervescent personality struggled with the withdrawal symptoms. “I wasn’t going to hear the roar of the crowd anymore and I couldn’t cope. For a couple of months I was terrible to live with. All the aggression a footballer burns off every day had nowhere to go. My wife Aileen and our two girls had to tell me I was turning into a grumpy, horrible old man. Thankfully I got it sorted out.”
One outlet was writing a book. Interestingly, not his memoirs but an investigation entitled Tartan Turmoil: the Fall and Rise of Scottish Football. “Aileen sat me down in the back of the house with a blank screen.” For this proud Scot, the words tumbled out. At the time he was worried that working-class kids were being shut out of the game and he still is today. “Pitches where I played as a boy have been turned into five-a-side complexes. Has-beens can afford the prices but juvenile teams - the next generation - can’t.”
Gallacher is just back from a session at his soccer school, teaching kids as best he can some of the sharp moves which to him were completely intuitive. Remember his goal against Latvia, the nifty header after a John Collins drive had bounced back off the goalkeeper? Or that other demonstration of the poacher’s craft earlier in the campaign against Austria which he followed up with a glorious strike, both goals having been inadvertently set up by opposition players?
Then there’s Gallacher’s most famous goal, the did-he-really-mean-it? volley for Dundee United which stunned Barcelona in 1987 en route to his first club’s charge to the Uefa Cup final when once again the ball came to him at a funny angle.
“That one has followed me round the world. I was in Rio covering the Copa America when some of the TV guys from other countries found it on the internet. They were crowded round a screen going ‘Wow!’ I think that’s been the most appreciative audience for the goal - apart from the Shed at Tannadice on the night, of course. In Brazil no one would question whether I meant it.”
United’s great manager Jim McLean was so craftily comprehensive that innocent-seeming throw-ins could go off like penny bangers. “This one went to Paul Sturrock, brilliant at holding up the ball. All of Luggy’s lay-offs were to die for - apart from that night. I opened up my right foot and the ball sailed into the net. Wow!
“In the post-match interviews I said I intended it as a shot but maybe that was just the exuberance of the moment. I’ve re-assessed the goal. Maybe I didn’t mean it. Some United fans were disappointed by that. ‘But you said you did!’ Sorry, guys. It was always in the plan, honest.”
Instinctive goals from a fellow whose first instincts were to become a footballer. The kids he tutors are not monomaniacs; they have other interests. “Their lives are not completely wrapped up in the game so I have to give them homework, passing drills against a wall, stuff me and my pals did naturally.
“In Clydebank, in the Linnvale scheme, we played ‘kerby’ - chipping the ball so it hit the edge of the pavement and came back to you - and there was a street football league. It was well-organised and each team - we were Kirkwood Avenue - had their own patch of grass for home games. The oldest boys would be the player-managers who’d sort out the fixtures: ‘Right, everyone: it’s Strauss Avenue on Wednesday then a tough one against Greenwood Quad next Tuesday.’”
From there, having glimpsed the teenaged Davie Cooper develop his craft at Kilbowie Park, Gallacher seemed destined for Celtic. His grandfather was Patsy Gallacher, the Mighty Atom and Parkhead legend of before and after the First World War, and there’s also a family link to John Divers, Snr and Jr, both of them Celts. But aged 13, a remark by manager Billy McNeill caused him to turn his back on the club.
Accompanied by his father, Bernard, Gallacher was about to sign schoolboy forms. Uncle Tommy, who’d played for Dundee, had come along to offer the ex-pro’s verdict on the offer. The men were impressed and so was the young prospect up until that moment. “But then Billy said: ‘There’s just one thing: we’re a little bit worried about your size. We’re going to have to put you on Guinness to build you up.’ I’m sure my mouth must have hit the floor.
“On the way back to the car my dad and uncle were like: ‘That was great.’ I said: ‘But he wanted me to start drinking Guinness - at 13.’ They tried to explain that it might have been a bit of a joke but I’d made up my mind I wasn’t going to sign.
“The thing is, I grew up in a pub. Dad ran the Clyde Vaults in [Glasgow’s] Bridgeton. As the youngest of six, if none of my brothers and sisters could babysit me, I had to go to the pub and stay in the cellar.
“By 13 I’d seen everything: guys come crashing in, spurting blood, drunks passed out on the floor. There was a code word - can’t remember it - if trouble was about to start and that was my cue to make sure the cellar door was locked.”
Gallacher had been overexposed to the negative side of booze and at the same time had too idealised a view of footballers and how they behaved. “I worshipped them and thought they were completely pure. When I went to Dundee United at 16 I soon found out they weren’t. If I’d known that three years before I’d probably have joined Celtic.
“Saying that, it might have been tough trying to live up to the Gallacher name. I never knew my grandfather but was very aware of the legend. His memorabilia, all the books about him - wow! He told his sons - my father, Tommy, Justin, Jack and William that if they wanted to be footballers not to go to Celtic. William did and couldn’t handle the pressure of following my grandad.”
Gallacher arrived at United in the wake of that stunning title triumph masterminded by Jim McLean. “Ohmygod, what a fantastic team they were,” he beams. So fantastic indeed that the new recruit, who only ever grew to 5ft 4ins, struggled to get a game. “United were also worried about my size, which was a disappointment as I’d been told it wouldn’t matter.” He was staying in digs in the city where it was so cold in winter that he had to sleep in his tracksuit. McLean moved him in with his Auntie Cathy who fed him up. Then, a few days after his 19th birthday, Wee Jim told Wee Kev he’d be making his debut away to Neuchatel Xamax. There was a frantic call to his mum, Anna, to organise an emergency passport and his senior career was up and running.
He continues: “I’d wanted to impress Jim from the start. He was brilliant but he loved to rant and rave. So I told myself: ‘Never drink here because this guy is mental.’” That didn’t stop others, though. “On Fridays Jim used to join in the training, run round the track, and I didn’t know why. Then I learned that some of the guys used to nip out for a few pints on Thursday night. Jim was hoping to smell the bevvy on their breath. He never missed much.”
How would he describe his relationship with the fiery genius? “Pretty good,” he says, “but you’ve asked me for the nicest thing he ever said about me and I can’t think of any! Maybe it would be that I always got up for the big games, the Old Firm and Aberdeen, but I reckon what he really meant was that these were the only matches where I tried. Once I scored a hat-trick at Dunfermline. It was a lovely sunny afternoon and I was so pleased with myself that I forgot to collect the match ball at the end. Jim stormed into the dressing-room and pinned me to the wall. ‘Ya greedy wee git,’ he said. ‘If you’d bothered to pass the ball we’d have scored more!’”
There were a lot of near things for Gallacher in tangerine - the Uefa Cup final and two in the Scottish Cup. “As Macca [Celtic's Frank McAvennie] tells it, I scored one of the all-time great cup final goals  which no one remembers because he banged in two." United had another tilt at the cup the following season and came away from Ibrox with a battling 2-2 draw. But McLean blamed Gallacher for Rangers equaliser, prompting a fall-out between the two. “It lasted the rest of the season. In the summer I got married, bought a house, went back for training looking forward to a fresh start - only for Jim to bring up that game again. It was a rotten time and then one day he said: ‘Coventry City have made an offer, we’ve accepted it, go and talk to them.’”
South of the border Gallacher was a rover, moving between six clubs, but no stop was more sensational than his spell as a Blackburn Rover, or more bittersweet. He was signed by Kenny Dalglish - “my absolute idol” - but the first piece of advice the boss proffered was unnerving. “Kenny said: ‘When you drive up there close your eyes - it’s a shitheap.’ Aileen and I thought: ‘What have we done?’ But I decided Kenny was talking about the stadium which at the time was a bit of a tip because it was being redeveloped.”
Gallacher and Alan Shearer were a deadly strike partnership until our man broke his leg in three places against Arsenal. “That was devastating and, I only found out later, could have been career-ending. Chris Sutton was bought for a record fee and had formed SAS with Alan. These two were scoring for fun and I was desperate to break them up, play with them, anything. I got back at Crystal Palace, scored a goal, then broke my leg again.
“When we won the [1994-95] title at Liverpool I was jumping about in my support boot, trying not to cause any more damage to my leg. Blackburn weren’t quite ready for the championship. No open-top bus had been booked in case that jinxed everything and we weren’t allowed on the balcony of the town hall because it was unsafe. Kenny told me I’d get a medal. I felt guilty about that and he said: ‘No need to be. You helped us get three points, no less important than any other three points when we’ve only finished top by one.’”
That was another “Wow!” moment for Gallacher but no more of one than the first of those 53 caps. “It was the Sunday after that cup final against Celtic and I was sitting in Auntie Cathy’s garden feeling sorry for myself when the phone rang. It was [Scotland manager] Andy Roxburgh, calling me for a friendly against Colombia.
“Ohmygod, I was shitting myself. There were all these guys who used to kick me for their clubs - Willie Miller, Alex McLeish and the rest - and suddenly I was talking with them like we were best mates. There was Carlos Valderrama with his ginormous hair stand next to me in the tunnel. And there was the team lined up for the anthem and me racing through it before the rest had even started the second verse because my heart was bursting out of my chest.”
Some of Kevin Gallacher’s passion would be most welcome come Thursday.
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