Frosty winds made warm - Gary McAllister
As we near the end of a tumultuous year, of which bards Rabbie and Wullie would struggle to put words, we can thank God, literally for some of us, that Christmas remains a shining light. Wherever this finds you, and whoever might be thankit, or not, we wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for 2021.
On Christmas Day, 1964, a couple in Newarthill were giving thanks for the birth of another baby. If Gabriel made an appearance or not I don't know, but if he did grace the Lanarkshire village, he might’ve said, 'And lo; he will be called Gary, for he will save his people from midfield mediocrity'.
This is a short festive piece on a footballer who I consider to be one of the finest Scotland has ever produced, and one who, for reasons that shall become clear, is fast-bound as a personal hero of mine; Gary McAllister.
Initially, I took register of this unicorn-tufted marvel (for more of this now extinct and most-90s of footballing haircuts, see also Gordon Durie and Colin Calderwood) due to his birthdate. As a young boy, I always took great comfort from the fact that there was someone with a day worse than my own Christmas Eve for commemorating entry to the world.
Whilst I didn't yet know what schadenfreude was, being comforted by another's misfortune was exactly what it was. More than that, however, it grew into something of a Jiminy Cricket if ever I felt sorry for myself in the days approaching my newest football top's unveiling; 'Gary's birthday is even worse and you don't see him moaning about it', came the voice from my shoulder. This was indeed a balm to the troubled ten-year-old breast.
In the years that followed, I kept, ahem, abreast of the man's career, such was our forging of bitter destinies - we few who always blow out our candles when frosty winds made moan. Yet, to my immense enjoyment, I found that Gary McAllister fast became my favourite player for his footballing ability alone, and as I basked in his talents, frosty winds were made warm, if you will. All this is to say, rather incongruently, McAllister became my idol.
So here’s to you, Big Shyness.
Whit a kit this is! *chef's kiss*
McAllister made 59 appearances for Motherwell before he was twenty. This is quite the achievement considering a seemingly ever-present David Turnbull managed 39 before departing the Steelmen at an identical age. Similarly classy on the ball and unique in style, we can only hope the young Celtic man has but half the career of his senior, for there was something about McAllister not easily worded; a quiet quality (earning the nickname ‘Big Shyness’ from Ally McCoist) communicated as softly as he is spoken and as deftly as his magnetic touch.
Like Neil Lennon with Turnbull, perhaps some had to work harder than others to see it, but this tall, lanky, local lad possessed such effortless poise on the ball that it would become a signature style, attracting many admirers along the way. Yet, it was also something the uninitiated mistakenly, and unforgivably, interpreted as lack of passion, meaning McAllister’s best years, those of his twilight, were not seen in a Scotland jersey. A sore point for all of us who loved him so and dreamt of Euro 2000 qualification.
One of the great Scottish performances
In sinking a penalty to round off a superbly bittersweet 3-0 win over the CIS (Russia) in Euro ‘92, McAllister, wearing my beloved number 11, overtook Pat Nevin (who won the penalty) as my favourite Scotland player. This became so imprinted upon my eight-year-old mind during Euro 1992 that you could only imagine my feelings when, as a young Rangers fan, a few months later I watched him hit the sweetest, and I really do mean the sweetest, of volleys into Andy Goram’s top corner in the epic ‘Battle of Britain’ between Rangers and Leeds Utd.
You have already watched this more than once, don't worry, you're not alone, it's perfection.
At this time, the now-Rangers assistant manager was merely the latest of a long list of Scottish players to win the English league title, spearheading a fantastic midfield that comprised Gordon Strachan, David Batty, and the late Gary Speed. My goodness, in listing them, it’s no wonder they won the league title, that’s a United Kingdom best of with well over a thousand top-flight appearances between them.
Celebrating in style circa 1992 was somewhat different to parties at Jamie Vardy’s, it seems. On the day the newly-promoted Yorkshire club were crowned champions, a sensibly dressed McAllister, alongside teammates Batty and Eric Cantona were filmed, bizarrely, sitting on Lee Chapman’s settee with a pattern much louder than any of them could vocalise. The last of the old First Division titles was won in such legendarily subdued fashion, that it could be argued it perfectly represents not only the passing vestige of football culture pre money-laden Premier League, but also encapsulates McAllister’s subsequent career. One of the finest quality, tempered by steely self-effacement, but with an incredibly ornate pattern lurking behind the facia.
How ornate do you want your coffee table, Lee? 'Yes'.
In other words, there was an intricate beauty to the way McAllister played the game if you looked hard enough, something which a typically artistic teammate never failed to recognise.
‘Who is the greatest player you have ever played with?’ [The crowd yell their suggestions, ‘Scholes!’, ‘Giggs!’, ‘Hughes!’, ‘Papin!’. Eric Cantona considers his words carefully but you can tell he could have said them immediately.] ‘Gary McAllister.’
- An evening with Eric Cantona, 2017
McAllister shifts awkwardly in his chair when reminded of the ‘King’s’ words towards him. In avoiding the limelight and beginning to talk of the genius of the Frenchman we glimpse something of the man who could’ve played at a similarly high level for much longer. Instead, following Cantona’s regal coronation at Manchester United, McAllister headed to Coventry City to take more of a pauper’s role, captaining a side at the other end of the table. He was on the decline, if popular voices North and South of the border were to be believed, represented poetically by his penalty miss against England. He was spent.
I broke my heart alongside him on that Wembley day, and again when he missed World Cup ‘98 through a knee injury before finally, for the first time as a Scotland fan, I felt shame. I could not believe what I was hearing. My own fans booing their own player, their own captain... and my hero.
‘I am extremely disappointed because I know I am still good enough to play at international level and contribute something to the Scotland side. But there comes a point when that type of pressure from a certain section who are looking for me not to do well, whether that be the fans or the media, becomes too much.’
- Gary McAllister, following his last Scotland game against Czech Rep., 1999.
This is why what happened next cements Gary McAllister as my favourite ever Scottish player, and a role model for all. It is why I have shivers up my spine before I type it. It is why it should make you giddy with optimism in the same way Rocky did the first time it froze frame at the zenith of ‘Adrian, I did it!’, or why we all cheered when a derided Ben Affleck deservedly won an Oscar for Argo, or when Roberto Benigni climbed over the seats en route to picking up the Best Picture award for ‘La Vie est Belle’, the first foreign-language film to do so.
That I cite movies here is no coincidence, for this part of his story, Act 3, deserves to be immortalised on the silver screen; that of McAllister the treble-winning, European champion.
Steven Gerrard might well be Liverpool’s second-best player ever (Eric wasn’t the only King) and one of the greatest midfielders to ever play the game, but who was his hero and mentor when he broke through into the Merseysiders’ midfield?
"I knew there was a player there that I could learn off both on and off the pitch. He took a shine to me and helped me a lot to progress as a footballer on the pitch but also how to be humble and be a decent person off it. I owe Gary Mac an awful lot... Everything he touched sort of turned to gold in the short time that he was here. But that was a credit to how well he looked after himself, how hard he trained and the sacrifices he made while he was here – I thought he was fantastic."
- Steven Gerrard, speaking to LFC.com, 2015.
‘Kenny Dalglish has gone on record saying that he should’ve signed him when he had the chance, and if he had, I’m sure that we wouldn’t have waited as long for a league title. He won it with Leeds, and he should’ve been in the Liverpool team at that time.’
- Chris Bascombe, Liverpool Echo
Gary McAllister’s time at Liverpool reads like something from the script of a fairytale. Signed to give the youngsters a hand, playing his way into the team, scoring a last minute derby winner from a 45 yard free-kick, scoring the only goal of the tie against Barcelona in the UEFA cup semi-final before receiving Man of the Match in the Final itself, achieving a Cup-treble along the way. It is the most marvelous renaissance and fitting send off for one of the most talented players of his generation.
Most powerfully, was what McAllister did in the days following the final in Dortmund. His wife, Denise, had been fighting cancer throughout his inaugural season at Liverpool, and had refused treatment due to the effect it might have upon their unborn son. After the baby had been delivered safely, she did receive treatment, however, and attended the Final whilst in remission. For her husband to not only shoulder this, but also play to such a high level throughout the season, was incredible, but what he did in the Final was beyond words. Scoring one and assisting three, McAllister donated all his prize money to two of the cancer charities that helped to support them as a family. For his conduct throughout the year, as both a footballer, role model, and above all, a husband and father, he received an MBE on the New Years’ Honours List in 2001. If you didn't know that, you're not alone, he received it in much the same way as he played his football, with humility and meekness.
He’s a hero worth cheering is ‘Gary Macca’, as the Liverpudlians affectionately dubbed him.
And that’s where we’ll leave this little foray into my hero, a man who thinks of others above himself, and a player of peerless quality who, if you’re a Man Utd or Liverpool fan, is probably your favourite players’ favourite player. Hopefully, this has left you sharing a little of that certain 'warmth' I referenced earlier, and if it has, I hope whatever colour you might wear, you might raise a glass to Gary Mac tomorrow alongside me. A class act.
On yersel’, big Shyness. This article is dedicated to Denise McAllister, the charities that supported her, Christie's Hospital in Manchester and the MacMillan Trust, and others who are facing loss, memories of loved ones or otherwise difficult times at this peculiar Christmas time.
God bless you, and God bless us, everyone.