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Interview: Sandy Clark, former Hearts footballer

Published on Saturday 12 May 2012 03:38

Book claims by the former Hearts man rekindle the flames from 26-year-old Dens Park disaster

The police are already at Cumbernauld College, taking statements about a chucked half-brick, when I arrive for my chat with the man at the centre of the week’s big football stooshie, Sandy Clark. For a brief moment I’m thinking this is related to the rumpus, related to Hearts “doing a Devon Loch”. Steady, guys, it was all of 26 years ago.

The guys in question are Clark, who was playing for Hearts when they stumbled in the closing minutes of the 1985-86 championship; John Brown, part of the Dundee side that beat them; and Tony Fitzpatrick who 80 miles away was in the St Mirren team losing by the five-goal margin Celtic required to pinch the title. Since Monday they’ve been hard at it, with Clark shouting “Penalty!” and Brown calling him a diver, and Clark suggesting Saints didn’t exactly bust a gut that day and Fitzpatrick calling his comments “disgraceful”. Then Clark came back at Brown, recommending a visit to Specsavers might be in order and I was wondering: where would it end?

Well, it hasn’t ended with a half-brick. The incident currently under investigation has nothing to do with Clark, 55, who these days helps run sports courses at the college premises at Clyde’s Broadwood Stadium (“They call me a lecturer,” he says. “A few years ago I couldnae even spell it.”). It doesn’t involve any of the other key characters either, but we shouldn’t underestimate the contrasting last-day feelings of joy and despair at Love Steet and Dens Park that afternoon, just because this campaign is petering out so inconsequentially.

That afternoon I was at Easter Road. The meaningless Hibs-Dundee Utd match was going through one of its especially tedious passages and no wonder some Hibbies were listening to their transistors. “And David Narey took a throw-in,” I tell Clark, “and you couldn’t believe that a mere shy could be greeted by such wild cheering.” “Go on,” he grimaces, “what was happening in your game when the second of Albert Kidd’s goals went in?” Can’t remember, I say, not wanting to gloat, because honestly I feel Clark’s pain. I assure him I’ve never bought Kidd a drink on one of the adopted Hibee hero’s return visits from Australia where he now lives, nor have I heard him speak as guest-of-honour at a supporters’ club function.

Clark’s smiles are tense but they’re smiles all the same. In his just-published autobiography - the reason the events of 3 May, 1986 have been revived now - he writes: “I felt like I needed to call the Samaritans.” Seriously? “No, not quite, but excluding deaths of loved ones that was definitely my darkest day.” He didn’t cry at Dens but did seven days later at Hampden when the still-in-a-dwam Jambos lost the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen. On the grim coach journey back to Edinburgh, Brian Whittaker was laughing and joking. Clark raged at this until Walter Kidd, the old hand, told him everyone dealt with adversity differently. “Brian was aye laughing and joking, that was his way, God rest his soul,” he says of his team-mate who died in a car crash in 1997.

The book is called From the Heart and thinking of Clark the footballer (red-carded only once) and Clark the TV and radio pundit (non-controversial) you would not expect him to shoot his mouth off in print. The biog’s most recurring phrase, indeed, is “To be fair” (re Justin Fashanu: “It was well known that he was homosexual, but to be fair to Justin, the ladies loved him as well”). Clark is not shy, though, about that damned afternoon or at least his version of what happened.

Accusing fellow pros of lying down to the opposition is highly unusual but our man wades right in, claiming a St Mirren player admitted to him that team-mates had “not exactly been good professionals” and were happy to see Celtic triumph. “Not for one second do I blame St Mirren for us not winning the league; it was in our hands,” adds Clark. “But I ask them: how well do they think they played? There’s trying and there’s really trying.”

Hearts, he admits, didn’t play well against Dundee. There was a virus doing the rounds, Craig Levein calling off, although John Brown joked that what Hearts were really suffering from was “bottleitis”. Says Clark: “We didn’t bottle it. We had a great season but you could say we over-achieved. We had no internationals in our team, so no postponements because guys were playing on the other side of the world [Scotland’s World Cup qualifying play-offs against Australia]. Folk hardly noticed us sneaking to the top of the league; some only woke up to us having a chance of being champions with four weeks to go. We believed we could do it and personally I wasn’t nervous about Dens. I was 29 and, I’d like to think by that stage, a good pro. The turning point for me was not getting that penalty.”

The ref was Bill Crombie, Hearts fan. “Bill was put in an intolerable position when Colin Hendry brought me down and he didn’t give it. John Brown says I dived; I didn’t. In fact, he said in the papers this week that he told me I was a ‘diving b*****d’. That article was strange - it didn’t read like him. He had a go at Craig Levein for crying off then there was a wee dig at him not winning many medals in his career. The reason Craig didn’t was because injuries forced him to quit early. Someone who was as injured as often as John Brown should appreciate that. In fact, has John got a gripe with Hearts because at one point we were going to sign him for big money only for him to fail the medical?

“No, he didn’t call me a ‘diving b*****d’ that day. First, I would have remembered. Second, I would have dealt with it, and he knows that. He’s a big hardy lad and I’m the same – it would have been interesting. I’m really looking forward to the next time I see him!”

This big hardy lad – a rumbustious striker whose role models as a young Airdrie fan were Billy McPheat and Davie Marshall, the “absolute beasts” of the Broomfield forward line – had a great time as a footballer in sometimes less than glorious surroundings. He got to play for his boyhood heroes but when he scored hat-tricks Airdrie were too hard-up to let him keep the match ball. He got to play for his big team, Rangers – “Everyone in Lanarkshire has a big team except maybe my BBC Scotland pal Tam Cowan although I’m not completely convinced about that!” – but this was the Gers when struggling manager John Greig was confronted by a player mutiny, when Clark battled the likes of Bobby Williamson and Colin McAdam for the X-large No 9 shirt, when the team regularly finished fourth in front of spanking new stands, embarrassingly empty.

When he moved to Tynecastle – there was also a spell at West Ham where they like blowing bubbles on the way to ending up at double-blowing Hearts – he was required to squeeze into skimpy shorts, the fashion of the day, and the Clark mullet was quite special, too. The day the new signing was introduced to the media, with typical Wallace Mercer bluster, he couldn’t help noticing a man in a suit acting shiftily in the background. “He was a debt collector, putting a value on everything in the boardroom,” laughs Clark. “I found out the club were being threatened with closure over unpaid debts. Wallace was probably the only other guy there who was aware of this but he simply carried on being Wallace. What a guy.”

For the striker, there would be a weird symmetry to this incident a few years later when he became a valuer for the bold Mercer. “I was coaching the Hearts youth team at a tournament in France when I got a late-night phone call from him. ‘Sandy, get a piece a paper, put every Hibs first-team player down one side and what they’re worth down the other. I’m going to buy the club.’ My first thoughts were that he’d just been for a very long and especially enjoyable lunch. It smelled like one of Wallace’s amazing PR stunts and to this day I’m still not sure if it was for real.”

So come on, then – what prices did he put on those Hibee heads? “Maybe £120,000 would have been the top one and £20,000 the lowest. No-one got a high valuation because, quite frankly, I didn’t rate many of them. When I played they couldn’t beat us. They had a few managers but Alex MacDonald was better than all of them. We had superior team spirit, a greater hunger and few teams were fitter. Hibs just weren’t in our class.

“But the way we played, you know, it wasn’t rocket science. Sandy Jardine, who had a right foot like a golf club, would knock the ball up to me and I’d lay it off to those wee buzz-bombs, Robbo [John Robertson] or John Colquhoun. I remember Jimmy Nicholl when he was at Rangers telling me that every club playing Hearts knew what was going to happen but couldn’t stop this routine chain of events. Dead simple game, football.”

Directly opposite him in the capital clashes were Jackie McNamara, Gordon Rae, Ally Brazil, Gordon Hunter, Tommy McIntyre, William Jamieson, Mark Fulton and Dave Beaumont – not all at the same time, of course, although maybe that wouldn’t have made much difference to the outcome. Hearts in the 1980s went 17 derbies without losing and Clark was important to their success. “I’d rough up their defenders and take all the knocks and wee Robbo would nip in for the goals and all the glory.” Clark also roughed up Alan Rough – “a great goalie but not the bravest.” He played in the Hibs win that finally ended the dismal sequence but that was his only defeat. “The Hibs manager I did feel sorry for was Alex Miller because I think the derby drove him demented. He tried everything to get Hibs a win. He changed players, tactics, preparations and even the strip but nothing worked. That became a standing joke in our dressing-room. We’d laugh and take bets on what poor Alex was going to change next.”

Clark scored in two New Year’s Day victories in succession, including the winner in his first Easter Road derby. But in between there was a game where he admits Hibs had him to thank for getting away with a 0-0 draw. “I have to hold my hands up and say I should have won us that match but I missed a sitter.” That was in November 1985, by which point Hearts were already six weeks into their incredible unbeaten run in all competitions which would stretch right the way to Dens. “I think every Hearts player could come up with one moment in that season where if they’d done something different we might have won the league and that bloody miss is mine.

“But football’s a magnificent game, isn’t it? Little things that happened 26 years ago can get put in a daft book like mine and end up being earnestly debated all over again.”

Any day now Clark will become a grandfather for the first time. He hopes to make a return to management imminently – “it’s nothing sensational” – and isn’t put off the gig by having been dismissed by four clubs. Oh, and he’s also really looking forward to a certain Scottish Cup final, hoping that Hearts can complete a hat-trick of triumphs since the boys of ’86 didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“Hearts have got more players who can get goals but in Garry O’Connor and Leigh Griffiths Hibs definitely possess match-winners. Man-for-man Hearts are the better team but by sheer law of averages Hibs have to win the cup sometime. I think it looks like a fantastic final.”

Clark won one League Cup medal with Rangers and was never capped. But don’t try telling him that he failed, that Hearts failed, 26 years ago. “Even if we’d done the double, or half of it, I couldn’t have any more affection for the club than I do today and that’s down to the guys: Alex and Sandy running the show, wee Robbo, absolute Jambos like Gary Mackay and Neil Berry, poor old Brian and the rest.

“It’s funny me being a lecturer in football and sports science being so important now because every day after training Hearts’ ‘M8 Crew’ – all the guys who lived through in the west like Brian, Roddy MacDonald, Stuart McLaren and myself – would hit the burger vans for the car journey home. And when I say ‘training’ we probably only did six hours a week. But look at what we almost achieved ... “

• From The Heart is published by Black & White, price £14.99

Taken from the Scotsman

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