As the trophy gets lifted on a Saturday afternoon in late May, the Scottish football season comes to a close. Twists and turns along the way, a title race has been had, shocks and surprises and, without doubt, the odd controversy is what makes Scottish football so entertaining. Yet, when the showpiece event of the Scottish Cup is over, it feels like forever until the turnstiles tick over, as expectant fans flood through to see their new signings and the fresh hope of success over the forthcoming months.
Unfortunately, due to the current Coronavirus outbreak, that gap between May and usually mid-to-late July is looking likely to be extended this season. The desperation for a football fix has lots of fans adopting the Belarusian Premier League as a way of trying to fill that void in their lives. Scottish football has become a war-zone of statements, arguments, counterarguments and potential lawsuits. But let’s remember a simpler time, when the period we had to fill was from May to July and it was at this point that Sky Sports and the rest of the football fans in the UK turned to the ex-professionals and Masters Football!
Starting in 2000, regional tournaments were held across the UK in indoor arenas on a 6-a-side basis. The pitch was laid out on an ice hockey-style pitch with curved-round edges and, in fact, most of the venues used, such as Braehead Arena and the MEN Arena in Manchester, were hosts to ice hockey teams. The matches had rolling substitutions, great for those ex-pros who had lost their fitness regimes and each squad was made up of 9 to 10 ex-players from the sides. It was almost like Sky Sports had looked at the Tennent’s Sixes and brought it back to life but under the new guise.
For the majority of the years that the competition was active, Celtic took part in the Scottish Masters series, usually against Rangers and a mixture of either Motherwell, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, St Mirren, amongst other Scottish sides.
Celtic were often the bridesmaid and very rarely the bride when it came to this competition, only securing the Scottish Masters twice in its incarnation, first in 2005 and then in 2009. Rangers were the dominant side across the competition, even going on to lift the UK title on a couple of occasions. It was broadcast on a Sunday afternoon in July, when fans would flock to Braehead Arena usually in their new kits which had just been released, looking to see a glimpse of their former heroes wearing the colours one last time. One such player who had the distinction of lifting the Scottish Masters whilst wearing the green and white of Celtic was Frank McAvennie.Listen to the latest episode of the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind with PROFESSOR PHIL SCRATON here:
Luckily, I had the chance to speak to Macca about his experience in the competition and how it compares to the now frequent ‘Legends games’ that Celtic hold for charity:
How did your involvement in Masters Football come about? I’ve read that there used to be a committee that selected the teams. Is that true and, if so, how did they reach out to yourself?
Well, I’d actually played for West Ham before in previous years. I had been asked by my ex-team mate, Bobby Barnes, who was involved in the PFA, who selected the teams, to play for Celtic. To be honest, at that point, I didn’t know any of the guys who played. It was all players who had maybe only played a handful of times for the club and, truthfully, we were getting humped every year by Rangers. So, I said to Bobby, “I’ll play if you let me pick the squad”. So that’s what happened, I phoned up the boys and asked them to play for me. Some of the boys had played for other teams before – Andy Walker played for Bolton and Derek Whyte had played for Middlesbrough – so they had some experience in the tournament before.
Looking at that 2005 squad, there are some fantastic footballers there – Tosh McKinlay, Darren Jackson, yourself, Andy Walker – what was the feeling like about the squad, did you think you would win the tournament?
To be honest, it wasn’t a case of thinking we could win the tournament. It was to be competitive and to give Rangers a game because for the first few tournaments, Celtic were really getting humped. Fans weren’t getting value for money either because the players that were playing for the sides weren’t household names, it was guys that had made a few appearances here and there. So my aim was to give the fans something to cheer about because they knew everyone. All we wanted to do was give Rangers a game for the fans and that was the aim. The squad we ended up getting was really good. ‘Knighty’ (Allen McKnight) – not a great keeper but decent for these games. But even guys like Chic (Charnley), he was my pal and, having played in the charity game in Manchester, without going into detail over how I never played, he’s my pal so he was delighted to be involved.
The tournament didn’t start as planned with a 3-2 defeat to Motherwell in the opening game. What is it like playing on that surface – I bet the 8 minutes-a-half feels like a lifetime?
I remember coming up against Boydy (Tom Boyd). I had thought he was originally in our squad but you’ve got to remember that was 15 years ago now, so he can’t have been ambassador for Celtic at that time. To be honest, it was just good to get all the boys together. I’d played with most of them with maybe the exception of Jacko (Darren Jackson). It was good to get everyone together, wee Andy (Walker) was scoring the goals and, to be honest, I was playing more of a player-coach role and they were all calling me “Jock,” so that was good fun. I could drop myself without shouting at myself. To be fair, a lot of the boys were only just turning 40 and they were pretty fit, so we were doing well. We were pretty much beat after the first few minutes because we were all still trying to work out how best to set up and play the games but we almost came right back into that game, so we knew from there we would just need to keep winning and see what happened.
We beat Rangers in the second match, 2-1. Having played in Old Firm classics, like the infamous game in November ’87 but what was it like in this tournament? Was there still the same edge? Did the players take it as seriously?
Well, to be honest, it was more like that game in ’87 than any other that I played because that was 16 minutes and I only lasted 15 minutes in ’87 before being sent-off. Listen, to be fair, we all know each other and we have pals on both sides, guys like Coisty (Ally McCoist) and that. We’d kick each other all over the park if we need to but, yeah, we want to win. It was the first time that we’d beat Rangers in the whole competition, so that was part of the aim at the beginning of the tournament… to give the fans something to cheer about… and that’s what we done.
Having made it through to the final against Motherwell, what toll did that take on the body? I know a lot of ex-pros still play 5-a-side but, with the conditions inside that arena and the surface, how hard is it as the tournament progresses?
I could do like 5-10 minutes no bother. A lot of the guys just contributed what they could. Wee Joe (Miller) could pretty much play the whole game, wee Chic (Charnley) was pretty fit as well, so we did really well. To be honest, it was just good fun for us and it was just important for us to give the fans something to cheer about and having them on your side really drove you towards winning it. I think the tournament had been going for like 3 or 4 years before and the Celtic sides had been getting humped so, as I said, our aim was to give the fans something to enjoy. Playing in the arenas, even though they were ice hockey arenas, they never ever felt as cool as that, but it was just a case of just getting your pals together and playing. We’d already played in some of the previous tournaments down south for other teams – I’d won the tournament for West Ham at Wembley Arena – so the surface and that wasn’t a big deal for us.
You guys made it to the UK finals held in Manchester against sides like Spurs, Chelsea and Liverpool. What was it like to come up against some of these players? What was your thoughts ahead of the tournament, did you think you had a chance to win it?
We travelled down the day before the tournament and had what can only be described as a really good night out… so that was a bit of a bad move. After the first four minutes, we were 4 down to Spurs, so that sort of summed up how we were getting on.
What really bugged us was there was that idiot referee (Jeff Winter) who comes up to Rangers supporters’ clubs up here to do talks and I was shouting and balling at him and he was deliberately missing fouls for us, handballs, just your typical one of them. But we had a great night the night before, so it was a good experience for us all.
Unfortunately, you guys lost in the quarter final to Spurs. Was that the end of the Masters experience for you or did you go on to play in more tournaments?
To be honest, I can’t really remember. I reckon I went out at the top as “Big Jock” and that was good enough for me. As I said, it was good fun to get the boys together and, from then on in, it seemed like we were getting some good teams together, making a few finals.
Always the bridesmaid but rarely the bride. Making so many finals but only winning it once more again?
Aye, pretty much, but we gave the fans something to enjoy and these guys turned out in their thousands, so they deserved it.
Do you reckon Sky should be showing these tournaments during this lockdown?
Definitely. Sky should be doing a lot more for Scottish football, especially ahead of the new contract next season because it’s the same old English rubbish they keep showing. On a side note, it’s a great opportunity for younger fans to take a look at the footage and maybe Celtic could help with that by showcasing guys like Jimmy Johnstone and younger fans can really take a look back at the guys who gave us all this history and encouraged guys like me to take up the game and dream of pulling on the hoops.
Rolling forward quite a few years, you played in the Maestro game at Celtic Park against the Manchester United Legends, scoring an absolute peach of a goal it has to be said. How does that experience compare to the 6-a-sides, what did you prefer?
(Macca chuckles) Well, thank you! To be honest, playing 6-a-side with your pals, but any footballer will tell you just to play in front of a crowd is something really special. I know Rio (Ferdinand) from my West Ham days and I got to know guys like Keano (Roy Keane). I ran on to the park and Roy goes, “Alright Macca, how are you?” I said, “Aye, good Keano how’s yourself?” and he replied, “Aye, I was good until all these fucking actors starting punching
me”. All the celebs were running about trying to kick Keane off the park.
I remember there were some amount of celebrities playing in that game. In fact, James McAvoy roofed a penalty into the net, if I remember correctly. Aye, he thought he’d won the European Cup, the way he celebrated. I was sitting on the bench with Martin (Compston) and Gerard Butler, who, by the way, great actor but hopeless at football. Wee Compston was asking how I was doing and then goes, “Have you been to the new St Mirren Park yet? I hear it’s
called the Methodrome.” So, aye, it was just a good laugh with all the guys. I remember the ball running down the line and Martin can’t control it so we’re shouting from the bench, “There’s no take twos in this fucking game!”
So, is that the boots hung up now for good or do you still take part in 5-a-side/charity games?
Sometimes we still play 6-a-sides up Rouken Park with the likes of wee Alex (Rae), Coisty, James McFadden and the likes. Wee Alex actually does well to organise these things for charity and, to be fair, I’ve not played in a while but usually its Celtic v Rangers for charity and we’ve no been beaten yet so that’s something!
Finally, on ACSOM we carried out a number of polls last year to pull together the Cult Hero XI and you were voted into the team alongside Georgios Samaras. Apart from how good the nights out would be, how do you think that partnership would have worked?
Oh aye, I’d have made him a better player than what he was! Nah, to be fair though, good players can play with everyone. Sammy was one of those players that you could tell in the first 10 minutes whether he was up for the game. Yeah, he was either World Class or a man down depending on his mood that day. Yeah, that was exactly it but as you say on his day a great, great player.
Finally Macca, what do you make of the ACSOM Cult XI?
Aye, there are some really good players there. I reckon we’d have the league won by Christmas and I’m sure a few of the boys would be down for a cracking night out. If Georgie (Samaras) was the same then he’s a man after my own heart.
Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me today Macca. I hope you and your family are doing well throughout this tough period and hopefully we’ll be able to meet up soon for a beer. Hail! Hail!
Colin WattWatch Sophie Millar’s stunning rendition of ‘Come Back Paddy Reilly’: