May 26, 2010


by Chic Charnley with Alex Gordon
201 pages, Black and White Publishing

The Wild One by Pat Black

Scottish football managers are a bit like Irish jockeys - there tends to be rather a lot of them in England, where they tend to do well.

In the Premier League, there are four of them at present, and they're all at the top of their game. This tartan contingent is headed, of course by Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. David Moyes of Everton, Birmingham City’s Alex McLeish and Owen Coyle at Bolton Wanderers (ignoring the fact that he so cruelly dumped Burnley mid-term) have all had excellent seasons. They're following on from a proud tradition, from Sir Matt Busby and Bill Shankly to Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Gordon Strachan and many others, who brought success to their clubs and made a huge impact on British football.

Why are the Scots so prominent in English dug-outs? Is it the accent, I wonder – snapping players to attention like the cruel teacher in Pink Floyd’s The Wall? Or is it a cultural stereotype which sees people associated with football north of the border as being just that wee bit harder than anyone else?

I think it’s a bit of both. And they are illusions; an accent doesn’t guarantee anything in life, while the second is simply a negative stereotype, trotted out or even lived up to with banal regularity.

But, that said, football in Scotland still has a few rough edges. At a school level it is still, even these days, played on red ash pitches. For the benefit of those who may not know what this stuff is, imagine sliding on cat litter with razor edging. Ooooh, I can smell the Savlon already! I would compare this to the somewhat surreal experience I once had of visiting a fairly working class area in South Yorkshire as a schoolboy less than two decades ago, and being gobsmacked by the sight on a school playing field of grass pitches, corner flags and – heavens above – netting attached to the goalframe. Such things were the realms of fantasy for me as a schoolboy footballer north of the border. Indeed, during a PE lesson on our desert of a school pitch, I remember one boy treading on a shard of glass from a broken bottle as he went to take a throw-in.

I don’t think the game is any more savage in Scotland than it is down in England, but there seems to be something more primitive about it, both in the way it is played and the way it is organised, across the country. Although there will surely be similar examples in England and Wales, it seems to me there’s a touch of Presbyterian grimness about Scottish football, away from the biggest stadia – you get on with things, despite playing, literally, on gravel, despite there being no money or facilities, despite it being cold and dark most of the time. You get on with it, and you get it done.

And we can add something to this unique poverty of means – the zeal that can come with it, the pride that emerges from people who have little else to be proud of apart from their game and how they play it. That little surge of madness. The “snap” that comes to us all at some point, whether on the five-a-sides court or on an actual pitch, in front of paying customers.

Which brings us to James “Chic” Charnley, the man who, according to Wikipedia, holds the British record for red cards awarded across a whole career (17!). Despite never having signed with any of Scotland’s bigger teams (barring Hibs for a very short spell), Chic is an instantly recognisable figure to any Scots football fan over the age of 25 – and to almost no-one else in Britain.

In short, by his own admission, he is a bampot, a lad from Glasgow’s Possil Park blessed with tremendous skills with a ball at his feet. Charnley is from a working class background, and despite gaining a national profile (or notoriety), he steadfastly refused to leave it. This refusal was to result in disappointment on more than one occasion for Chic.

The main thing I will remember from this book is the fights and “banjoings” the bold Chic got himself in to. There’s pure anarchy and nihilism in what he does in some of these situations. In one spat, a manager tells Chic that his side should mimic the commitment of an opposing player who put one of their colleagues in hospital during the first half of a game. “What, like this?” says Chic, before punching him.

There are more players and coaches – whether on Chic’s side or the opposition – who end up on the floor as a result of tangling with him than I should like to count. There’s something comical about these acts of violence, and the seemingly mundane reasons why they come about. It’s a bit like watching Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer repeatedly hit each other with frying pans, or seeing the guys from Jack-Ass fall off skateboards – you laugh, despite yourself.

But the most telling act of violence comes when, during a training session for the “Maryhill Magyars”, Partick Thistle, Chic is attacked by a thug wielding a samurai sword. Chic sustains a cut hand, but still manages to punch his attacker to the ground then, gallantly, refuses to pick out his attacker in a police ID parade. It’s not the Possil way to grass people up, he explains.

Not every football player or supporter is a thug, of course, but there was something about this violence, and the code of nobility that follows it, that reminded me of gangs and “ned” culture north of the border. How people with little education and no hobbies or interests outside football choose to express themselves and gain respect through violence. I am not advocating this course of action or supporting it – my experience of being hit with a bottle in a public park by some youths who simply had nothing to do was not conducive to eliciting any sympathy for them – but it provides a kind of understanding about how and why footballers explode on the pitch. The neds with the swords – who had been berating the players, before taking umbrage at being slagged off in return - were simply on a different side of the fence to the Partick Thistle personnel; they have nothing, and that’s before we even look at their social background. Everyone has a score to settle somewhere.

This fury is replicated in Chic’s drinking; tales of the sauce are legion in this book, and we can see the mania of an addictive personality trait coming out there. Always they’ve got a fire in them, whether their endeavours are athletic or sybaritic, and there’s lots of stories of high jinks, missed training sessions, fines from managers and the inevitable blow-outs and attendant police action that comes from Chic’s lifestyle.

The front cover of this book features a snarling Chic in his distinctive red, yellow and black Partick Thistle strip. The Glasgow side have a certain cult appeal thanks to their bigger city cousins, the gruesome twosome, Celtic and Rangers; and Chic has the distinction of having played for what should be his local side, being from nearby Possil. The fact that he is not most readily associated with the Jags is explained by the back cover – the height of cheek on the part of the publishers.

Chic is pictured, a ball at his feet, drifting past Manchester United legend Eric Cantona, a massive grin on his face. He is wearing the green and white of Celtic, his team, as the book makes clear again and again - and the one he is most associated with despite having only played for them once. Being a Celtic or a Rangers fan in Scotland marks you out, it seems, despite the fact you might never have got to play for them. This was sixteen years ago, when Chic appeared in a testimonial match at Old Trafford for his beloved club as a “trial” ahead of a possible move to Celtic Park. He was 31 years old at the time, and this appearance was the realisation of a dream for him. You get the feeling Chic would have played for Celtic for nothing, like most of their fans. And so, after a man-of-the-match performance and a warm reception from the travelling fans, Celtic’s then-manager, Lou Macari, invited Chic to join the club on a pre-season tour in what would have been a precursor to being offered a contract and a chance to live the dream.

Chic said no – he’d already organised a jolly to Portugal with his team-mates at Partick Thistle. Off he went with them; with that, his chance had gone.

Even more jaw-droppingly, Chic states that he didn’t realise that the pre-season tour amounted to his big chance. You can only wonder at the thought processes, there. Does it burn him sometimes at night, to think of this? I’m not sure I’d ever get over it, being a Celtic man myself. Surely it was worth taking a chance, Chic? Dear lord.

You find yourself scratching your head at some of his other statements, too. He says that he didn’t have any time for football agents, and never dealt with them in his career. While he rightly questions the character of many agents, you have to say that this is an astonishing admission for a professional footballer to make. How much more money – and he does talk at great length in one chapter about fees and wages he was paid – would he have earned in his 20-year journey through the professional ranks if he was on someone’s books? To Chic’s great credit, this question does occur to him, too, but it doesn’t appear to bother him.

As a book in its own right, Seeing Red isn’t an international prospect. It’s a tad too short, and I’m not sure we really needed the chapter detailing Chic’s favourite films and actors, to be honest. But it’s a well-put-together tale of an honest professional and a loveable rogue in the professional game. It gives us an insight into what makes footballers tick below the fantasy levels of today’s branded multi-millionaire superstars, and I think that’s important to know as we head towards the ever-more corporate spectacle of the World Cup this summer. Once you remove the money, you are left with men like Chic – who, on his day, was as good as anyone, were it not for that terrible fire burning away inside him.

As for explanation as to why Scots players – some not particularly great, either, in the case of guys like Sir Alex Ferguson – become brilliant managers, this just might give us a little insight. Chic shows solidarity with his fellow man, never forgets where he came from, shows a disdain, if not a mistrust for the financial side of football and has not a little helping of good working class rage. Although he doesn’t talk up his merits as a possible coach, I can’t help but feel that Chic has something to offer to someone, somewhere.

Or maybe it’s the accent after all?

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