15 April, 1967: Jim Baxter puts World Cup winners England to the sword at Wembley in an imperious display that includes a cheeky keepie uppie session.
20 July, 1994: Jim Baxter is just days from death in the liver transplant unit at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary after decades of hard drinking.
The phone call was about as unexpected as Alex Ferguson ringing up to ask my views on his latest signing target. While the great man never took advantage (I could have saved him a bit of cash on Juan Sebastián Verón), I was asked to see Jim Baxter as the celebrated left half’s life was heading deep into injury time.
I was the health correspondent of the Scotsman at the time when no-longer-slim Jim’s liver was packing in. I had reported on the opening of the liver transplant unit two years earlier and had built a decent relationship with the surgeons there. The phone call came because they feared they were about to get a roasting.
They were preparing to give a precious donated liver to a man who was almost as well known for his alcoholic excess as he was for his short lived career as one of Scotland’s best ever footballer players. Jim Baxter, who Pele wished had been born Brazilian, was still headline material a quarter of a century after he last kicked a ball.
The transplant team wanted to get the news out about the impending transplant but hoped for a sympathetic hearing. Was I interested? Journalists appreciate exclusives like strikers dream of space in the box. It was an easy decision to make.
I was told of the rigorous selection process that patients have to go through to be accepted onto the transplant list including psychological tests to determine if they will look after their new organ. A clearly chastened Baxter had passed with flying colours. The system decided he deserved a liver and, given the seriousness of his condition, he was next in line.
It was a great story but it was missing a vital ingredient. I needed to speak to the man himself, to hear how he was facing this crisis point in his life. More selfishly, I was also hoping to talk a bit of football with one of the sport’s greatest characters. The doctors agreed to ask Baxter if he felt up to it and I was told to await an answer.
The interview was eventually set up for later that evening but, before we meet up with Baxter, it is useful to recall how he came to be at death’s door.
Jim Baxter was born at Hill O’Beath in Fife in 1939 just as war was breaking out across Europe. On leaving school he saw his best prospects in becoming a miner and joined many other Fifers in starting a life down the pit. He played junior football with Crossgates Primrose which brought him to the attention of Raith Rovers who signed him as a part-timer at the age of 18. Three years later Glasgow Rangers paid £17,500 to take him to Ibrox.
By 1963, Baxter was an international star and was picked to represent the Rest of the World in a match against England to celebrate the centenary of the Football Association. His team-mates included Lev Yashin, Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas, Uwe Seller and his Scotland team-mate Denis Law. Within just three years of turning professional, Baxter had risen to the very top.
A leg break in a European Cup tie against Rapid Vienna the following year marked the beginning of the descent. Despite occasional displays of genius such as Wembley 1967, it is generally accepted that Baxter was never the same player again. A jack-the-lad lifestyle characterised by boozing and betting was to blame.
“I didn’t train at all,” he recalled in a newspaper interview. “I remember a Scotland manager telling us to go through the same routines we did at our clubs. I said – if that’s the case, get me a taxi to the nearest pub or bookies.”
The signs were there from the very start. The first thing he did on signing for Rangers on a wage of £22 a week was to buy a Jaguar. Every day was a party. For a while, he managed to get away with it. In 1963 Rangers beat Celtic 3-0 in the Scottish Cup final replay. The night before Baxter won £1,700 playing roulette in a Dunfermline casino, only heading home at 9.30 on the morning of the match to get a few hours’ sleep before joining up with the rest of the team. He considers it one of the best games he played. A testament to his reputation as a big game player comes from the fact that on the 18 occasions he faced Celtic as a Rangers player, he lost only twice.
In his Rangers days, Baxter’s self-proclaimed “headquarters” was the St Enoch hotel where he and other players would congregate after training, drinking in front of the TV with a direct line to the bookies.
In 1965 Rangers offloaded him to Sunderland for £72,500. Bigger English clubs were interested but Baxter’s drinking exploits, which were well known throughout the game, kept them away. He met some familiar faces in his debut, a pre-season friendly at Roker Park against Celtic. The Scottish side won 5-0, the start of an uninspired period for Baxter in English football. Despite his lacklustre time at Sunderland, Nottingham Forest took their own gamble in 1967 when they agreed to pay £100,000 for his signature. It was an unhappy time for both club and player on the field although Baxter continued to enjoy himself elsewhere.
He found a drinking buddy in the West Indies legend Garry Sobers who was playing his cricket with Nottinghamshire. On one occasion Baxter and a few pals turned up at Trent Bridge cricket ground to see Sobers in action. The cricketer instructed the bar staff to put all the drinks on his tab while he went out to bat. Unfortunately he was at the crease for several hours and returned to find Baxter and his party had been running up a staggering bar bill quicker than he had been amassing runs.
Forest lost their six-figure investment in Baxter when they agreed to let him re-join Rangers on a free transfer in 1969. Despite promising Rangers that he was going to change his ways, he was arrested for drink driving within days of being back in Scotland. By the end of that year he had played his last game, quitting football at the age of only 30. In an era of customised diets, psychological interventions, performance tracking devices and scientific analysis, this is a tale from another time. The tragedy is that this most gifted of individuals lasted only a decade at the top with most of the highs concentrated in the first few years. That included only 34 caps for Scotland when lower league journeymen such as Graham Alexander of Preston and Burnley represented Scotland some 40 times.
It was probably inevitable that someone who had spent so much in bars would end up buying one and the simply named Jim Baxter’s was dutifully opened in Glasgow’s Paisley Road West. It proved a great success due, in most part, to the popularity of the owner who was partying away in his own pub. By the early 80s he admitted to drinking three bottles of spirits a day and gambling the profits away. Baxter estimated he lost up to £500,000 to the bookies over the course of his life.
This was the road that led directly to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary liver transplant unit in the summer of 1994 where I was waiting for him, pen at the ready. The jaundiced figure in dressing gown and slippers who shuffled slowly into the room was unrecognisable from the swaggering star who lit up stadiums in his hey-day. He was also incredibly uncomfortable. He agreed to meet to help the medical team but he was reluctant to be quoted in the story.
He found it difficult to talk about an illness he had brought upon himself and there was a clear element of embarrassment that skilled surgeons and nurses were having to fix what he had broken. It must have been hard for someone who lived his life on his own terms to have to be dependent on others but there was no mistaking his deep sense of gratitude. He wanted to live. If that meant giving up drink, he would do it, and I have no doubt at that point he believed that he would.
It was probably one of the lowest points of his life but he brightened noticeably on being asked about his playing days. I’d been told a story years previously about the famous Wembley victory in 1967. According to this tale, Denis Law was on the treatment table in the bowels of the stadium reading the English press on how Scotland had no chance against the world champions. Angered at the casual dismissal of the Scots, he crunched the papers up into a ball, threw it to Baxter and said: “Let’s get the bastards.”
It’s a great story but complete fiction according to Baxter. He then told me what really happened. As the teams met each other in the Wembley tunnel prior to the start of the match, Baxter found himself next to Alan Ball. Baxter had been told by Billy Bremner that Ball was sensitive about his squeaky voice which many likened to that of the diminutive comedian Jimmy Clitheroe who spent a lifetime playing an 11-year-old schoolboy. Baxter couldn’t resist.
He congratulated Ball on winning the World Cup – a gracious comment from a fellow professional – and as Ball smiled in thanks, the rapier came out. “Is it true though that Jimmy Clitheroe’s your dad?”
Baxter said Ball was livid and the taunting from Bremner and himself continued throughout the game. It’s available to watch on You Tube and clearly shows Ball scurrying around trying to inflict himself on the Scots tormentors.
As Baxter told the story, I couldn’t take my eyes off his slipper-clad left foot that tapped away as he spoke. There it was – one of the greatest precision tools in Scottish football history – a magic foot in M&S baffies.
The manner of the victory on that Saturday afternoon at Wembley was as important to Baxter as the size of it. He was less interested in putting four or five past England than in making the World Cup winners feel humiliated by the Scots’ superior skills. Backheels and keepie ups were all part of the package. Baxter was the matador in the centre of the ring, taunting the English bull.
There was no feeling of inferiority in the Scots side that day. Four of the team came from a Celtic side that, in a few weeks’ time would go on to claim the European Cup. Their two Rangers’ colleagues had also qualified for the final of the European Cup Winners’ Cup while Billy Bremner and Denis Law were playing for two of the top sides in England. On another day they would also have been able to call on the services of the injured Jimmy Johnstone and Bobby Murdoch.
There is a good case to be made for 1967 being the greatest ever year in Scottish football history. Dundee United, in their first foray into Europe, beat the Fairs Cup holders Barcelona both home and away before going out of the tournament at the hands of Juventus. Kilmarnock made it all the way to the semis before losing to Billy Bremner’s Leeds. Celtic and Rangers both competed in European finals and then we took on and beat the world champions. Wha’s like us, indeed.
For Jim Baxter, however, 1967 at Wembley was the high point and it was all downhill from there. He would represent Scotland on only two further occasions before playing his last game at Pittodrie in December 1969 in a 3-2 Rangers victory.
As we parted after this brief meeting, I watched him make his way slowly back to the ward not knowing if a liver would become available in time. Happily it did although the first transplant failed and he needed a second only days later to save his life.
In the following years there were reports that Baxter was drinking again but he remained grateful for the second chance given to him by the transplant unit. He thanked them by raising vital funds for their work. He finally died in 2001 from pancreatic cancer, a common scourge of heavy drinkers. Baxter credited his partner Norma with providing stability in his later years and it is fascinating to speculate what might have happened had he found her earlier.
His life may then have turned out very differently. Could a focused and fit Jim Baxter have inspired Glasgow Rangers to a European Cup triumph in 1970, having seen off the English champions Leeds in the semi-final? The Dutch champions Feyenoord would have been no match for the men from Ibrox in the final. Four years later a Scottish team inspired by the 35-year-old playmaker – vying with Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cruyff to be named player of the tournament – would make it to their first World Cup final. The victory over hosts West Germany in the semi-final however would come at a cost. A leg knock picked up by Baxter would not fully recover by the day of the final. He would take his usual place in the starting line up and after 20 minutes thread a superb pass in behind the Dutch defence to lay on the opening goal for Peter Lorimer. A bad tackle by Wim Jansen just five minutes later would however end Baxter’s participation in the final. Cruyff would say later that Baxter’s injury was a major factor in the Dutch victory.
Well, we can all dream . . .