It’s highly unlikely that when Lionel Messi finally hangs up his boots, Barcelona fans will look back on his days at the Camp Nou and ponder whether the highlight was the time he showed his arse to the visiting Madridistas. Then again, no matter how good the little Argentinian might be, he’s no Chic Charnley.
You could argue that Lionel doesn’t need to show his arse to anyone as he’s too busy slaloming round bemused defenders and generally being wonderful, but for all those skills, he clearly has the personality of a wooden toilet roll holder. It’s the same with Gareth Bale who attempts to make up for being as dull as a Monday Night Football match on Sky by tying his hair into a ridiculous ponytail. Ronaldo is slightly edgier thanks to those tantrums, but for balls-out, big-time personality allied to outrageous ability, they’re not a patch on Mr James ‘Chic’ Charnley.
For just over a decade, the Maryhill Messi flitted in and out of the front door at Partick Thistle on no less than four different occasions, leaving some beautiful memories – and more than a few awful ones. Gorgeous goals, 30-yard pin-point passes with a casual flick of a toe, bad-tempered sending-offs; Chic did it all. But like most fans of the less fashionable clubs, we treasure the good and pretty much forgive the bad. We know that had Chic been flawless, Firhill would never have featured on his lengthy CV.
This is not unusual. If you follow one of the country’s smaller clubs, you’ll have your own legend like Chic. Think of Andy Ritchie strutting his way through his years at Morton; maybe Kevin McAllister at Falkirk, the pacey winger Henry Templeton at Ayr United or perhaps striker Ken Eadie in his Clydebank days. In my early years as a Jags fan, there was Denis McQuade, once described as Johan Cruyff without a compass. Denis could go on a 40-yard mazy run and trip over himself on the goal line as he tried to tap the ball home. Or he could unleash a 30-yard piledriver out of nowhere. Four decades later, he’s still revered around Firhill.
These are the unheralded heroes, the flawed geniuses who don’t win trophies, rarely get a Scotland call-up and don’t command millions in transfer fees; yet to those who saw them, they sprinkle a little stardust on the otherwise mundane task of watching the less successful clubs.
Not all of them manage the mix of good and evil that Chic embodied. I heard a story, almost surely apocryphal, that during one of his re-signing discussions with Thistle, he was offered a club car and asked if they could give him a van instead to help with his mate’s painting and decorating business.
The arse-baring incident happened at the old Douglas Park not long before it was demolished. Chic had been at Hamilton and as you would expect got the level of abuse that is reserved for returning players. After being fouled in front of the crumbling shed filled with the raucous home support, the physio asked him where it hurt. Chic kept pointing down his back until the band around the top of his shorts was pulled down, much to the chagrin of those of an Accies persuasion and the delight of the Jags fans. He just smiled and got away with it, of course. There were no video refs in the early 1990s to spoil the fun and it only further enhanced his hero status to those in red and yellow.
(By the way, Thistle didn’t win that day. Chic didn’t have a great game but that is what you would expect. His story is less Roy of the Rovers; more Chic of the Chancers.)
To my mind, there’s no doubt that the raw genius possessed by Charnley should have been on display in the dark blue of Scotland. Instead of which he is perhaps being best known for chasing off a sword-wielding ned during a training session in a Glasgow park. The latter makes a great chapter in his autobiography, but given his undoubted talent I can’t help feeling that the book should have been filled with more stories of close encounters of the footballing kind.
Why revere Chic? In my view, we’ve had too few Scottish players with the raw ingredients to make a top-flight player. We laud the likes of Roy Aitken or Scott Brown for their ‘engine’, their determination and effort. The ‘tanner ba’ players of the past are out of fashion. Gordon Strachan has made comments about the need for big, strong players in the Scotland squad while leaving the likes of James Forrest or Oliver Burke sitting idle in the stands. But ask the paying fans what makes them hand over their hard-earned cash, they’ll rarely come up with a desire to see James McArthur charging around like a headless chicken.
Chic definitely had the raw ingredients. When he was in the mood, he could take a game by the scruff of the neck. On other occasions, he seemed to be more in the mood to take his opponents by the scruff of the neck. Chic in full flow was a distinctive and wonderful sight. Socks at his ankles, with the look of an exhausted spaniel on a boiling hot day, the game would seem to be passing him by. Then in a flash he would transform the match courtesy of his trusty left boot. When he scored, he’d scamper away, arms waving, a big infectious cheesy grin on his face. And on those occasions when he was bang to rights for a nasty challenge, the look of innocence spreading across his face seem to say to the ref: “Who me? With this cheeky wee face? Surely not!”
For me, the crowning moment for Chic in a Thistle jersey came on a rainy May evening at Hampden, a stage rarely graced by Charnley. It was during Celtic’s ‘Hampden year’ as they played at the national stadium while Parkhead was being demolished and rebuilt. Celtic were also being rebuilt as they tried to find a way to stop Rangers romping to another league title and while the completion of that particular piece of work was still some way off, they were easily good enough to take three points off Charnley’s relegation-threatened Thistle on most days. This wasn’t going to be most days.
Celtic took the lead through Peter Grant and were cruising but after unexpectedly equalising just before half time, Thistle went on to record a rare Old Firm win. And at the heart of everything was an ebullient Chic. Scampering across the Hampden turf, he showed that he truly belonged there. The goal which gave Thistle the lead was a piece of typical Charnley genius, flicking a quick free kick over the wall for Wayne Foster to score while Tony Mowbray argued with the ref. It was so quick in fact that the TV cameras were still focusing on Mowbray pleading his innocence as Foster scored. The lead was extended at the death thanks to a sublime Charnley long pass to Foster, who scored his second. Only 18,000 people saw that performance but no-one who was there could doubt who made it all happen.
This was Chic, the lifelong Celtic fan on Scottish football’s grandest stage, conducting the orchestra and making it seem effortless. Perhaps the opposition helped to lift his game – he had much less success against the other half of the Old Firm – but in the last 50 years, how many Scots players would fit that bill? Half a dozen? Baxter, Johnstone, Dalglish, maybe Paul McStay or Charlie Nicholas at times. Unlike those, Charnley never won a Scotland cap; in fact he never came close. He never won the Premier League or a major cup. The trophy cabinet chez Charnley contains a winners medal from a Glasgow Cup final and some lower league badges but needs very little dusting. His CV boasts spells at Kirkintilloch Rob Roy, Tarff Rovers and rather bizarrely, a very brief loan spell at a then down at heel Bolton, but apart from a period with Hibs, none of them could be described as among Scotland’s bigger clubs.
How did it come to this? Well, 17 sending–offs provides a hint. Just ponder that for a second: 17 dismissals. It’s just a few behind the British record held by another brilliant but flawed flair player, Willie Johnston. Duncan Ferguson has a bad boy reputation but was only dismissed eight times. Messi’s been sent off just once and never for Barcelona.
Chic’s genius came shrink wrapped in red-hot anger. His brilliance was often displayed alongside with a petulance that infuriated managers. His departures were rarely for two yellows. A straight red was his card of choice and even he acknowledges that some – well, most – were justified.
He did contend a few, however, and one example was a League Cup game between Partick Thistle and Aberdeen in 1994. Twenty minutes in, Chic was ordered off by one of Scotland’s best-known refs at the time, Les Mottram. There had been a little kerfuffle following a corner, but nothing too obvious. Aberdeen went on to win 5-0. The next day, the highlights showed why Chic saw red. As the Aberdeen defence cleared a ball upfield, Chic appeared to have a wee kick at Duncan Shearer. Far from being the victim, Charnley, the one player in that Jags side who could have given Aberdeen something to think about, had ruined Thistle’s chances. In his autobiography, Chic says he got tangled up and Shearer agreed there was nothing in it. Given Mottram’s reputation, Chic may well be right but why afford him the opportunity? Just when you thought that you might be going somewhere with Chic, something like this happened.
When you consider the impact he had, it’s even more astonishing that his career really only began to take off when he was approaching 27 years old. John Lambie took him to Firhill at the start of Lambie’s own incredible Thistle journey and for a long time, they went together like bacon and eggs. After a couple of exciting years in the red and yellow, a big-money deal took him to St Mirren. He was then nearing 30 and having missed a couple of important years in his early 20s when he chose to work in the oil industry, surely this big chance was one he’d take with both hands? Instead, he punched Darren Jackson of Dundee United in the tunnel at half time during a game in retaliation for an incident just before the break. Chic was soon languishing in Sweden before a return to Thistle gave him another brief injection of life.
Even though Firhill was his ‘home’, where he played his best football, the good times didn’t last and he was freed again, bobbing around with the likes of Cork City and Dumbarton before another opportunity emerged to mend his ways away from Firhill. He thrived sporadically during this spell, most notably at Hibs where one moment perhaps encapsulates everything about the Charnley enigma. Early in the 1997-98 season, Celtic came to Easter Road and lost 2-1. What’s most remembered is their new signing, someone called Henrik Larsson, losing possession just outside the penalty box to Charnley who then scores a 25-yard cracker. Chic played so well that the next day there were demands for him to be called up to the Scotland squad while others pondered whether Celtic had signed another duffer in Larsson.
Had Chic made it into that Scotland squad, he could have been part of the team that made it to the 1998 World Cup and played Brazil in the opening game at the Stade de France. Chic v Brazil: that would have been something. Instead, by the end of that season, Larsson was on his way to legendary status driving Celtic on to win the league and prevent Rangers winning ten titles in a row while Chic was loaned back to Thistle for a third spell as they struggled to avoid relegation from the First Division. He was one booking from a ban when he joined, with a few games to go. It wasn’t long before he picked up the yellow card which meant he was a mere spectator as Thistle ignominiously dropped to the third tier.
In his book, he talks of how manager Jim Duffy would allow him the occasional Monday off when he was at Hibs. This was one of the best periods of his career, yet at 34 far from thinking that taking a more disciplined approach might prolong his career, Chic seemed to revel in his bad boy ways. A few years ago he said he was glad he wasn’t around during the big-money era as he couldn’t have handled it.
But despite his moments of madness, we always forgave him. I will always forgive him. The moments of brilliance punctuated the general misery of watching my team battle through grey afternoons struggling to stay in the top league. Chic seemed to be playing in colour while the others were in black and white.
If you learned that he wasn’t on the team sheet, you knew it wasn’t going to be as much fun. I remember the first game of the season not long after he left Thistle for the first time. We’d signed David Byrne from St Johnstone – a perfectly decent player – but after 90 miserable minutes, you knew that it was going to be a long, dull season ahead.
Chic was an entertainer; the odd one out. He often looked like he was only there because the team was a man down and someone had asked the guy standing by the pitch if he fancied making up the numbers. His free kicks or cross-field passes seemed to require little effort, the ball sailing to its destination thanks simply to the power of his mind. He clearly didn’t look like the fittest player on the park but wouldn’t be posted missing if a shift was required. Teammates attest to his dedication in training, especially after a boozy weekend, though there were more than a few times when the genius was back in the bottle and Chic’s impact on the game was non-existent.
The misfiring football genius seems to be a Scottish trait. There is something about the Scottish football psyche that loves a gallus player and is prepared to accept that they often come with more baggage than Kim Kardashian after a day at the shopping mall.
It is testament to Chic’s ability as a footballer that Thistle felt the gamble was worth taking with a player who would return to Maryhill for a fourth time and play a final Premier League game in the red and yellow when he was fast approaching his 40th birthday. He only played two games in this stint but his final one, fittingly perhaps at Easter Road, ended in a 3-2 victory over Hibs with Chic coming on as a sub. In his mid-40s, he even scored a 30-yard screamer against Celtic to rescue a draw in the testimonial for Thistle keeper Kenny Arthur just as time was running out. Watch it on You Tube and enjoy the sight of the mad Chic dash to take the deserved applause of a grateful and loving Firhill faithful.
It’s said he came close to signing for Celtic after running the show at Mark Hughes’ testimonial at Old Trafford but decided a holiday with his Thistle teammates was more important. By the time the holiday was over. Lou Macari had been sacked and another opportunity for Chic to grace the big stage had gone. But I bet that was some holiday.
I still feel astonishment that in an era when the Scottish international team was full of journeymen players with little flair, that brief moment after the Larsson game is the only time when it was suggested in all seriousness that he could make the Scotland side. When you consider the nonentities who gained caps during this era, forgoing the talents of Chic seems more reckless than careless.
But he was clearly never on their radar. When Andy Roxburgh was the Scotland boss, Chic saw him at a Clydebank game and said: “Come on, give us a cap.” Chic said that Roxburgh replied: “Why? Is the sun in your fucking eyes?” That says everything about the charmless, featureless Scotland team under the headmaster Roxburgh and his successor Craig Brown. They achieved more than the Scotland side has managed in the past 20 years but it was at the expense of flair. There wasn’t much room for something a little different, and while you could never tell which Charnley would have turned up, I for one would have loved to have seen him in the dark blue of Scotland, even just once.