Saturday, 14 February 2015


In the Fulwell End one Boxing Day the air was blue with bad language and the polyester static of a thousand Yuletide novelty jumpers. Most of the bad language was directed at Alec Chamberlain in the Sunderland goal. The former-Luton keeper was a decent shot-stopper and an all-round good fellow, but he came out for crosses with the trepidation of a man entering shark-infested waters on a leaky li-lo. Ironic cheers went up whenever he caught a centre. “Two in a row. Must be a record,” wags crowed as he gathered a corner. Late in the first half an opposition forward toe-ended the ball goalwards. Chamberlain went down to collect it so slowly he appeared to be defying the laws of gravity, the shot trickled under him and, almost apologetically, into the net. 

“Jesus bloody Christ,” A big man standing near me bellowed in a voice that would have chipped paint off pillar box, “This get’s not worth half what we paid for him.”

“I thought we got him on a free” somebody ventured.

“Aye,” the big man growled, “That’s what I’m saying, isn't it?”

A free transfer used to be the final ignominy for a player, a sign that times wing’ed chariot had finally caught up with him and run over his foot. “They’ve let him go on a free” fans would say scornfully. It was the football equivalent of being sent to the glue factory. “Any new signings?” you’d ask your friends when you got back from your summer holidays and they’d shake their heads bitterly, “Nowt but free transfers”.

Not that it always worked out badly. One of the best players I ever saw arrived at Middlesbrough on a free from Celtic in September 1973. By that stage of his career Bobby Murdoch was on the downward slope, his body and face so lacking definition every photo of him in a Boro shirt appears to be slightly out of focus.

Jack Charlton had just taken over as Boro boss, a new boy in football management. He believed Jock Stein had done him a favour by gifting him a European Cup winner. In truth, Stein had done the deal not for Big Jack's benefit, but for Murdoch's. The midfielder's ankle was so bollocksed his boss believed he'd never play again. The signing on fee and the contract at Boro would be a nice little pay-off for a loyal servant, one that wouldn't cost Celtic a penny. Stein's avuncularity hid a steely shrewdness, just as Charlton's brash belligerence masked a sentimental heart. Informed of Stein's intent two decades later Charlton winced, 'Are you sure? I wish you hadn't told me that. Jock was such a lovely fella...'

Stein had fooled the Englishman, but he'd misjudged Murdoch's resolve as well. Instead of picking up a wage while idling on the treatment table, the midfielder played on. His ankle puffed up so badly he'd sit with it in a bucket of ice for twenty minutes before kick-off, allegedly fighting off the effects of the cold by swigging gin. The primitive treatment was repeated at half-time.

Despite the agony and the alcohol, Murdoch retained a precise grasp of that singular relationship between space and time that lies at the heart of all ballgames. He still had the talent to exploit it,too. His passing was unspectacular, but always thoughtful, accurate, probing. It called to mind AJ Liebling’s description of light heavyweight Archie Moore’s punching: “sharp tangential prods at the blocky thorax and abdomen, like a sculptor seeking the grain of a rock or a physician asking where it hurts”.

That first season Middlesbrough easily won the Division Two title, beating Millwall 1-0 at Ayresome Park along the way. Eamon Dunphy was playing for the visitors, recording his thoughts in a diary that became Only A Game?:

'Bobby Murdoch in midfield gives them an aura of calm, presenting an illusion that they are impregnable. That is his great ability - to be composed on the ball. He isn’t fast, he isn’t strong in the tackle, he doesn’t hit a great long ball, he can't beat a man. But what he is great at, when everyone else in this division is going at ninety-miles-an-hour, hitting impossible balls, trying to squeeze things into spaces when it just isn’t on, is being composed, and slowing it down. Knocking the fifteen or twenty yard ball, getting it back and knocking it again. For half an hour I ran myself ragged jockeying Murdoch, who would push it to Souness or Foggon at the moment I lunged, committed to yet another fruitless tackle.'

The great US gridiron coach Vince Lombardi believed that all success stemmed from the faultless execution of simple schemes. That is true of sport, of art, of life. There was nothing extravagant about the talent of Bobby Murdoch, no eye-catching flourishes, or YouTube friendly tricks, yet in the flawless precision of his craft there lay a quiet and unfathomable genius.

Nobody at Ayresome Park ever complained about the free signing of Bobby Murdoch. Well, not more than a dozen times a game at any rate, which pretty much amounted to an Oscar on Teesside in those days.





  1. A really lovely piece Harry.

    If you speak with Celtic fans in the know, they will tell you that Murdoch was the greatest player in that legendary side, not Jimmy Johnstone. He's certainly in with a shout for the greatest player from the north of the border. It's difficult to believe Murdoch won only 12 caps for Scotland over a four year period, scoring a goal every second game. I suppose when you look at the embarrassment of midfield riches Scotland had during that period, you can begin to make more sense of it but still a strange one.

    I hadn't realised that Murdoch and Souness were in the same midfield at Middlesbrough. No wonder then that they won the second division at a canter in 1973-74.

    1. Thanks. I know my erstwhile Guardian colleague Kevin McCarra rated Murdoch very highly and felt that he was always under appreciated - perhaps because he wasn't an obvious crowd pleaser in the style of Johnstone. He once said that he 'taught Souness everything he knows' before adding . and when I look at what he did at Rangers I wish I hadn't bothered'.