Scouts Honour: When Scottish Scouts Ruled England

The years when every top English side had a nucleus of world-class Scottish players is due in no small part to two ‘super scouts’. At Leeds and Man United, John Barr and Jimmy Dickie were rivals competing for talent north of the border but their friendship and integrity prevailed.

Now that Britain’s biggest clubs scour the world for stars, the prospects can seem limited for Scottish talent. On the wider stage Scots players have taken on the cast of poor relations. But it wasn’t always the case. In 1966, the year England won the World Cup, Scots contributed a remarkable 20 per cent of players within the squads of what was then the English First Division.

And throughout the 1970s and 1980s few top-tier dressing rooms did not have a Scottish contingent at its heart. In no small part that record is a legacy of the work begun in the 1960s by two unheralded Scottish scouts, John Barr at Elland Road and Jimmy Dickie at Old Trafford. As a young manager at St Mirren, Sir Alex Ferguson benefited greatly from their advice. He maintains that the one attribute that he wishes he’d been born with was John Barr’s ability to evaluate young prospects with such consistent accuracy.

He says: “I learned about scouting by watching games with them. “John used to visit me at Love Street and when I came to Manchester, Jimmy became my main Scottish scout.”

As a young manager at St Mirren, Sir Alex Ferguson benefited greatly from the advice of John Barr and Jimmy Dickie. Image: © Caters News Agency

Ferguson says the two professional rivals “were of the old school. They always treated people with respect. Even though they were competing for the same boys’ signatures, they went about their jobs with an integrity that didn’t harm their friendship.” Though Barr and Dickie are associated with the Scottish stars from a golden age, Sir Alex says that he felt their professional legacy just as keenly in the Premiership years.

“I remember when David Beckham was just a young boy his parents came to see me and asked if I’d consider releasing David. He was still quite small and their concern was that it would break his heart not to make it at United and that it might be better to release him early. I assured them, though, that David Beckham could have a career at United and also that he would grow to be able to compete at the top level. I’d like to think that view was in some part shaped by the experience of watching young players with John when I was at St Mirren. I learned from them and I would always respect their judgement and opinions.”

John Barr’s career began at Third Lanark, where he played as a centre-half, and, like his contemporaries Bill Shankly and Matt Busby, his playing career was interrupted by war.

After spending four years as a prisoner in Germany, he resumed his career with QPR, eventually graduating to a scouting position with the club.

As Barr’s daughter Joan McGillivray explains: “After the war, during which my Dad had been a prisoner, he continued to play for Queens Park Rangers for a short time. However he never felt that he got his fitness level back. Over six feet tall and less than nine stone when he was released from prison in 1945, you can understand why. He continued to scout for QPR on a part-time basis under the management of Jack Taylor. Jack left QPR in 1959 to go to Leeds and asked my Dad to go with him and scout for Leeds. He did so, again on a part-time basis, from Scotland, until the glory years of Leeds when he took on a full-time role.”

Under Don Revie’s stewardship and inspired by Barr’s signings, Leeds United became the dominant force in English football between 1967 and 1974. Scottish prospects like Bremner, Lorimer, McQueen, Jordan and the Gray brothers constituted the backbone of the side, becoming world-class talents.

By 1973, there were 17 Scots on the books at Leeds. Most of them were just as important to the national side. Leeds United’s Tartan army included Joe Jordan, David Stewart, Gordon McQueen, Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer, Billy Bremner and Frank Gray (pictured above). Image: © Mirror-Pics

Barr maintained his association with Leeds until his death in 1997, aged 80. The statistical record of that period — two League Championships, the FA Cup, one League Cup and two European Fairs Cups — barely does them justice. If Leeds weren’t winning titles and cups, they were usually a close second.

As Tony Collins, Leeds’ chief scout under Revie, recalls: “We were so strong that we could have put the milkman in goal and it wouldn’t have affected the result in many games.” This superiority meant that youngsters could be introduced into the first team, giving Barr a platform to attract the cream of Scottish talent.

As Chief Scout at both Leeds and Manchester United Tony Collins came to rely on both John Barr and Jimmy Dickie © As Chief Scout at both Leeds and Manchester United Tony Collins came to rely on both John Barr and Jimmy Dickie. Image: ©

According to Peter Lorimer: “Barr convinced players that Leeds would be the club of the future, even while they were still in the Second Division in the early 1960s.”

By 1973, there were 17 Scots on the books at Leeds. Most of them were just as important to the national side as they were to Leeds. While Barr’s ‘Scottish brigade’ gained Leeds a profile for a brand of football that was physical, skilful and occasionally ruthless, Jimmy Dickie’s job at United in the 1970s and 1980s was more difficult.

Players like Holton, Buchan, Forsyth and Albiston gained international recognition while at United, but Dickie’s protégés were given fewer opportunities as successive managers sought to buy a team to recapture the glory of the Busby era.

Eddie Gray remembers Barr as a terrific man. “I first met him at 13 when he watched me playing for Glasgow Schools. I think he was chief scout then. I was training with Celtic, but as soon as I came down to Leeds, at 14, I was really impressed — that was it for me.”

For Peter Lorimer, John Barr’s skill lay in judging potential. “It is a great achievement to take a youngster from a public park in Bonnyrigg or wherever and see them develop to the point where they run out at Hampden as a full international. Mr Barr did that again and again. Don Revie thought the world of him.”

Joe Jordan adds: “He must have seen something in me that others didn’t. There was hardly a queue of scouts at the door waiting to sign me.”

Gordon McQueen retained a warm friendship with Barr until his death. He remembers “a quiet, unassuming man whose life revolved around the simple pleasures of football, family and caravanning, which he tried to combine with watching games.”

There were so many successes to celebrate from the 1960s all the way through Revie’s golden era to the 1990s signings of David Hopkin(1992) and Derek Lilley (1997), John Barr’s final capture, both from his local club Greenock Morton.

Gordon McQueen adds: “While I was at Leeds I was a bit blasé about playing with such a strong contingent of fellow Scots and so many great players. I assumed it was the same at every club. The enormity of it only dawned on me once the team had broken up.”

And amazingly, though cries of “Scotland, Scotland” would regularly emanate from the stands at Elland Road as Revie’s side dominated the early 1970s, John Barr’s pivotal role at the club went largely unnoticed by both fans and subsequent Leeds United managers for whom Barr continued to supply his immaculately hand-written reports.

I have personal cause to be thankful to John Barr, as an inspiration in my own scouting career. A rainy Glasgow afternoon spent poring over the triplicate notebook reports on the players John Barr watched towards the end of his career in Scotland will always stay with me. They inspire my own thoughts on the game, and the insights contained in pen portraits of players like St Mirren’s Martin Baker, John Robertson of Hearts and Tony Rougier as he tried to orchestrate a move away from Raith Rovers in 1997, were an education in themselves.

As Jimmy Dickie told me back in 2001: “You look at the long list of great players John Barr signed, the mind can barely take them in now.” Dickie may have been beaten to a few signings by Barr, but his greatest loss was on a personal level when John Barr died in 1997.

The likes of Celtic’s Sean Fallon and Ally MacLeod were amongst Dickie’s circle, yet Barr was Dickie’s closest friend for more than 50 years.

Dickie said: “Nobody in the game would have a bad word to say about John Barr. He was impeccable as a man and as a scout. Our clubs employed us, but they didn’t own us. Our friendship was always more important than any player.”

Jimmy Dickie is synonymous with Manchester United and the eras of Ron Atkinson and Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford, but he first came to prominence far closer to home.

Jimmy Dickie oversaw Man United’s scouting operation in Scotland, producing talent of the calibre of Scotland captain Darren Fletcher,up until the time of his death in 1997. Image: © Sky Sports

Billy Walker, Manchester United’s scout in Ayrshire for more than a decade, first encountered Jimmy Dickie when he was a trialist at Partick Thistle in 1966. Walker says: “Jimmy took a keen interest in me and made sure I was given every opportunity at Thistle. When we were reacquainted at the Ayr International youth tournament some 20 years later, I was amazed he remembered me, when you consider the amount of players he’d have known in his career. Later, he asked me to keep an eye on local players for him.”

Walker says that looking back, you could see Dickie was putting together the building blocks that would become Davie McParland’s 1971 Scottish League Cup-winning side that stunned Celtic 4–1 at Hampden.
The signing of Alan Rough was an example both of Dickie’s obsessional approach to his craft and a reminder of the fact that stars could and can emerge from the most unprepossessing of circumstances.

For more than five years, Jimmy Dickie was putting together the building blocks that would become Davie McParland’s 1971 Scottish League Cup-winning side that stunned Celtic 4–1 at Hampden. The cornerstone was future Scotland keeper Alan Rough, plucked from Glasgow men’s amateur football at just 13 years of age. Image: © PTFC

A native of Bearsden, Jimmy Dickie was a committed non-driver, a fact that played to his advantage in the signing of Rough.

Making his way home from a game in 1964, Dickie spotted the then 13-year-old future Scotland keeper playing in an under-18s fixture as he waited to change buses at Anniesland Cross, in Glasgow’s west end. It is unclear whether or not the scout missed his connection but Partick Thistle now had a goalkeeper who would make 409 appearances for the Jags in a 13-year spell.

Alan Rough also represented Scotland 53 times, featuring in the 1978 and 1982 World Cup finals.

Like his friend John Barr, Jimmy Dickie had played at Third Lanark, as a winger, a role that presumably informed his preference for mentally tough, skilful players who wouldn’t shrink in a first-team environment at a club such as Manchester United.

Jim Leighton, the goalkeeper who ultimately replaced Alan Rough as Scotland’s number one, encountered Dickie with Sir Alex at Manchester United and was aware of Barr by reputation.

Leighton says: “You think about some of those players now and the money the scouts would have saved and made their clubs, it is incredible. But the other thing to consider is that there were some great scouts, men who had that great eye, at many clubs and competition really was fierce.”

Jim Leighton was signed for Aberdeen by Billy McNeill’s Greenock-based scouts Bobby Calder and John McNab. “Bobby Calder carried on a conversation with my dad, telling him that he couldn’t make eye contact for fear of alerting the other scouts at my game that he was interested in me.”

And there is a similar tale of scouting derring-do concerning Tony Collins, the so-called ‘Football Master Spy’ who employed Barr under Revie at Leeds and took Dickie to Manchester United for Ron Atkinson.

On John Barr’s recommendation, Leeds chief scout Collins was moved to spirit Gordon McQueen away from a game at Love Street to sign for Leeds and he smuggled the future Scotland central defender away in a taxi beneath a tartan travel rug, having laid a false trail for the other scouts in attendance that he was watching another player. Now 90 years old, Collins says: “So many people are just concerned with themselves in the game now. John Barr and Jimmy Dickie weren’t like that and from that point of view they made my job easy. You’d always trust their judgement. “When you work with such good people you can’t help but shine.”

by Greg Gordon

This feature appeared in Issue 8 of Nutmeg, the Scottish football periodical. You can buy it here: Nutmeg Magazine Issue 8

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Greg Gordon is a Next Opponent analyst and journalist whose work has appeared in The FT, The Observer, The Sunday Times and leading international publications.

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