By Chris Dunlavy
STUART McCall never won a goal of the season contest. Nobody ever posted a YouTube compilation of his tricks and skills.
Besides the incongruous mane of ginger hair, the former Rangers and Bradford midfielder was the antithesis of flamboyance. His value was measured in sweat and skidmarks.
Tackles, interceptions, covering runs – the 52-year-old had perfected the Makelele role before the French great was even out of school uniform.
“We used to call him slider,” said Andy Goram, a team-mate in the legendary Rangers side that won nine titles in a row during the mid-90s.
“He loved a slide tackle. Absolutely lived for them. He was the only player I ever knew who needed a change of shorts at half-time. I used to think he should have studs inserted in his backside.”
Ibrox hero Ally McCoist put it more memorably. “Stuart’s epitaph will read ‘Here lies Stuart McCall, groundsman’s nightmare’. He even made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the longest slide tackle. He dispossessed a guy playing on another park!”
In the era of Laudrup and Gascoigne, McCall was undoubtedly the ugly sister. Yet, alongside the equally workmanlike Ian Ferguson, he formed a destructive bedrock that team-mates cherished.
“Stuart was one of the most committed, honest and hard-working players it was ever my privilege to play alongside,” added Goram. “His drive, determination and desire to win was incredible. He was a machine. I’ve never known anyone to get up and down the park like Stu.
“You could give him the ball and he would keep it. If we didn’t have the ball, he would win it. What he did for us was invaluable. Believe me, that Gers team would have won nothing had it not been for McCall.”
That surname. That hair. The affinity with Rangers, the 40 caps for Scotland. As Goram once said: “If you didn’t know Stuart, you’d have sworn he grew up in Govan.”
In fact, McCall was born in Leeds to Scottish parents and grew up dreaming of emulating his dad, Andy, who played 62 times for the Whites.
“I loved the fact that Leeds had so many Scots,” said McCall, who followed the club home and away and once won a newspaper prize for being ‘the most sports-mad kid in Yorkshire’.
“Billy Bremner, Peter Lorimer, Gordon McQueen – I idolised those guys. I had a Yorkshire accent, but if Scotland were on TV, even if Jocky Wilson was on, I’d feel emotionally involved.”
Those feelings erupted when, in 1984, McCall was called up by the Under-21 sides of England and Scotland on the exact same day.
Having chosen England, McCall instantly regretted his decision and spent the entire match warming up as far from the dugout as possible, even pretending to lose his shinpads in a desperate bid to stay off the pitch.
“Before the game, (Scotland manager) Jock Stein rang to wish me well,” he said. “I had tears running down my face. All I’d ever wanted to do was play for Scotland. I was thinking ‘What have I done?’ When the full-time whistle went, it was such a relief.”
Yet if Scotland captured McCall’s heart, the city of Bradford was his spiritual home. Signed as a ‘puny’ 16-year-old in 1980, he scored 43 goals in 285 games for the Bantams, winning the Division Three title and becoming captain aged just 21.
There, on the day a fire killed 56 fans at Valley Parade, he comforted City fans in the hospital as he paid visits to his badly-burned father.
Though he departed in 1988 for a glittering career at Everton and Rangers, he returned a decade later to help Paul Jewell end Bradford’s 77-year absence from the top-flight. Little wonder, then, that McCall was recently voted the greatest player in Bradford’s history.
“He was a great player, but it was more than that,” said former team-mate John Hendrie. “He’s like your next-door neighbour, no airs and graces. That’s why the fans loved him.”
Sadly, the romance would not continue into management. Appointed in 2007, after two years working under Neil Warnock at Sheffield United, McCall’s arrival prompted a wave of euphoria.
“It was almost as if he was the club’s saviour who was going to lead Bradford City all the way back to the Premier League,” said Hendrie. “Everyone was convinced that Stuart could not fail.”
But deep-seated financial problems and the expectation of supporters proved too much for the managerial rookie, who quit 133 games later with City still lodged in League Two. Six years on, the Bantams are getting a far more experienced campaigner. Four years in charge of Scottish Premiership side Motherwell brought successive second-place finishes behind Celtic, record points tallies and European football, despite an ever-decreasing budget and an annual sale of the club’s best players.
And, while an interim spell in charge of Rangers failed to yield a permanent appointment, McCall has been backed to succeed on his return to Valley Parade.
“The players will get behind Stuart,” said Warnock. “But, at the same time, he won’t suffer fools gladly. “I went to see him a couple of times at Motherwell and that was obvious to me. He worked miracles, instilled a real passion and belief. They played in the image of their manager and I’m sure his attitude will rub off on the players. It’s a great appointment.”