Saturday, 10 January 2015

LITTLE BIG MAN

I'm writing a long piece about Hughie Gallacher for the next issue of The Northern Correspondent. In the mean time, here's a short piece about him I wrote a while ago.



Oliver Armstrong was the sort of old school Northumbrian famer who only put his false teeth in when he went to town. He'd farmed near Greenhead. He said 'I was raised out by near Tow Law and I only went to one football match in all my life. And that was when my father took me to see Newcastle in 1929. He'd had a windfall. fellow from Scottish and Newcastle come and certified the top field barley brewery grade - an extra five pound an acre that was. We thought we were millionaires. I'm not tall now and I was half the size then. Stood in the Leazes End. I'd say it was packed to the rafters, 'cept there was no roof. Nine-year-old and no taller than the brewers' barley. The only time I seen the ball was when they hoofed it in the air. We come out after, my father says, 'And now you can tell the world you saw the great Hughie Gallacher.' Well, I cannot, but I was there when he was playing, that's for sure. And there never was another like Hughie Gallacher, my word there wasn't.'

Five feet two, brilliantly talented with a passion for drink and mayhem that would ultimately lead to tragedy, Hughie Gallacher established the blueprint of the diminutive, wayward Gaelic football genius. Born in Lanarkshire in 1903, as a teenager he incensed his Ulster Orangeman father by supporting Celtic and marrying a Catholic. Swerving dribbles, incisive passes, thunderous shooting and utter fearlessness soon established Gallacher as a formidable force in the Scottish game (he hit 22 goals for the national team in only 19 appearances), but it was when Newcastle signed him from Airdrie for £5,500 in 1925 that Wee Hughie fully emerged in all his considerable glory. Worshipped by the Toon fans Gallacher swaggered around Tyneside dressed like a Hollywood gangster in broad-brimmed hat, double-breasted suits and spats.

His football prowess was extraordinary (he captained the club to their last league title, hitting 143 goals in less than 200 matches), his drinking - often in the pub before the match - legendary, his temper volcanic. During his time on Tyneside he was arrested for fighting with his brother-in-law, kicked a referee into the St James' Park bath and was accused of being drunk and disorderly on the field of play during a pre-season game in Hungary (Gallacher claimed that he had simply "rinsed his mouth out with whisky" to rid it of the taste of foreign food).

Eventually Newcastle tired of the fuss and bother and Gallacher was sold to Chelsea for £10,000. In London the Scot carried on much as before, scoring twice in his first match, getting arrested for fighting with Fulham fans, enraging the board of directors by threatening strike action over wages and being pulled drunk from the gutter the night before a match with Derby County. By now Gallacher's life had started to unravel. Debts created by high living and a messy divorce from his second wife ended in bankruptcy. When he left Chelsea for Derby his signing-on fee was paid straight to the court. After that it was a slow descent through the divisions - Notts County, Grimsby Town, Gateshead. When his career in football finished Wee Hughie settled on Tyneside, working as a labourer and writing articles for the local press. He was struggling with alcoholism. His third wife, Hannah, had died of a heart attack and after a fight at his home in 1957, his son, Matthew, was taken into care. Alone and in despair Hughie Gallacher walked down to the railway track in Gateshead and threw himself in front of a train. He was 54.

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