Saturday, 30 April 2016


If you're around Teesside next Friday evening I'll be at Middlesbrough Central Library with Daniel Gray, Robert Nichols and - hopefully - Richard Piers Rayner, waffling about the 1966 World Cup. Kick off is 7pm. More details about tickets and that at:

Fingers crossed for the long postponed trip to Northallerton Town.

Meantime here's a piece about Hughie Gallacher that appeared in The Northern Correspondent a while back.

‘Often times, Saturday afternoons, he’s been in The Strawberry till half-past-two, that drunk the fans have had to carry him to the players’ entrance. But fifteen minutes later he’s run out on that field right as rain and played a blinder. Hey, lad,’ my next door neighbour says, clapping his hands with glee, ‘Wee Hughie - there’s never been a one like him since. There’s never been a one like him ever.’

My next door neighbour is talking about the Newcastle United centre-forward Hughie Gallacher. My next door neighbour is 74-years-old. Gallacher left Saint James’ Park for Chelsea in 1930 and retired in 1939. My next door neighbour is too young ever to have seen him play, but that hardly matters. As Joseph Heller said ‘Some events are so memorable even those who were not there can recall them vividly.’

A pitman from Bellshill in the North Lanarkshire coalfields, Gallacher stood five feet five, had size six feet and could cover 50 yards as quick as a Powderhall sprinter. Short, skilful, explosive, Wee Hughie was an ungovernable force of nature. As a teenage prodigy he’d banged in nine goals at Queen of the South, another 91 at Airdrieonians. Turned twenty he’d lashed in five for the Scottish League against the Irish League and a fortnight later got a couple more as the full Scotland side beat England at Hampden Park in front of 110,000 roaring fans.

Maddened by his impudence, defenders kicked chunks out of Gallacher. By the time he hit is formidable peak his shins were a mass of scar tissue and bruised lumps, the relief map of a world of pain. Half-times he sat in the dressing room chain-smoking Woodbines, blood oozing up through the eyeholes of his boots. He kicked back too. He stuck his elbows in. He stamped on feet. He raked shins and calves, gouged eyes. ‘He was the greatest centre forward I ever saw,’ the England goalkeeper Frank Swift said, ‘but he had more tricks than a bucketful of monkeys’.

Gallacher appropriated his style from the gangster movies of the Roaring Twenties. He dressed like Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy. Sometimes he behaved like him too. He had an apparently unquenchable thirst for conflict. As a teenager he incensed his Ulster Orangeman father by supporting Celtic and marrying a Catholic, Anne McIlvaney. He sent team mates into fits of rage by berating them for their failures. He drank heavily, fought often. In Belfast he was shot at by a sniper. Asked who might have wanted to kill their star striker the Scottish FA committeemen shrugged – who wouldn’t?

Hughie Gallacher was a gallon of trouble in a half-pint pot, but his talent could not be ignored. Shortly before Christmas, 1925, Newcastle United signed him from Airdrie - where fans threatened to burn down the ground in protest - for a fee of £6,500, just £50 below the world record. Four days later he made his debut, scoring twice. He hit fifteen goals in his first nine games and finished the season top scorer.

Newcastle made him captain for the 1926/27 season. St James’ Park was packed for every game. The team was strong and workmanlike, Gallacher made it brilliant. He was to the Magpies what another febrile little man Diego Maradona was to Argentina in 1986. He inspired his club mates, fired up the crowd, terrorised and riled the opposition. He played in 41 games, scored 39 times. United won the League.

Adored by the fans and flush with backhanders from his signing on fees Gallacher swaggered and staggered around Tyneside dressed in broad-brimmed fedora hats, double-breasted suits and spats. Photos show a flat-featured man with crinkly hair, his chin tucked in like a boxer’s. He has narrowed eyes, a wide, vulpine grin - a smile as much of challenge as of merriment. Against Spurs we see him heading the ball goalwards, one foot planted firmly on the ground; his limbs swing one way, his body the other, giving the impression of a silent film star making a swift getaway.

He’d deserted his Scottish wife long since and took up with Hannah Anderson, teenage daughter of a Newcastle publican. It was love, but her family disapproved. Gallacher was arrested after fight with her brother in the shadow of the High Level Bridge.

And so it went on: brilliance and bother. At the start of the next season Wee Hughie was suspended for two months after shoving referee Bert Fogg into a bath after a game at Huddersfield. Without him United’s season stalled. They did not retain the title. They have not won it since.

In 1929 he was called before the FA to answer charges that he had been ‘drunk and disorderly’ during a pre-season fixture in Hungary. Gallacher’s drinking before matches might have become the stuff of Tyneside folklore, but it dulled his edge and upset his paymasters. In 1930 Newcastle manager Andy Cunningham decided the Scots’ performances no longer justified the problems he caused. Tyneside’s idol 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. Desperate to marry Hannah he begged his wife for a divorce. True to her faith, Annie refused. Gallacher pursued the matter through the courts. Legal fees and high living ate up his money (in those days of football’s maximum wage he earned around £500 a year), By the time the decree absolute came through he had been declared bankrupt. When Derby County bought him from Chelsea for £2,750 his signing-on fee was paid straight to the court.  

After that it was a slow descent through the divisions, the transfer fees and bonuses a little less fat each time. Gallacher joined Notts County in 1936, Grimsby Town in 1937 and a year later returned to Tyneside to play for Gateshead, then struggling at the bottom of Football league Division Three (North). He was happy to be back and people were glad to have him. 20,000 packed into Redheugh Park to watch his debut. He was 34-years of age by then, but he could still play. One of those who lined up against him recalled Wee Hughie, ‘leaping five feet in the air and twisting like a corkscrew to get a header in on goal’. He scored 18 times for Gateshead in 31 appearances, and then the War came and his career in football was over.

Gallacher found work as a labourer. For a time he wrote articles in the local press, but his outspoken views incensed the Newcastle board and he was banned from the St James’ Park press-box. In 1951 Hannah died of a heart attack, leaving Wee Hughie with three sons to bring up alone.

In 1957 he was living with the boys in Sheriff Hill, Gateshead, working as a cobbler. One May evening he returned home from the pub. His youngest son Matthew, aged fourteen, had inherited his father’s feisty attitude. He greeted his dad with a cheeky remark. Gallacher snapped, picked up an ashtray and threw it at him. It struck the boy on the side of the head drawing blood. Matthew ran out into the street. His father tried to follow, bumped into his eldest son and fought with him on the pavement. Neighbours called the police. Gallacher was arrested and charged with assault.

Matthew went to live with an aunt in a nearby street. Hughie returned home. His friends assured him that everything would work out, former team mates offered to vouch for his character in court. Nothing anyone said made any difference. The fire had gone out in Hughie Gallacher. Filled with dread, he wandered the streets, glassy-eyed, dishevelled, muttering and remonstrating with himself.

He was due to appear before Gateshead Magistrates on June 12th. On the morning of June 11th he wrote a letter to the court apologising for all the problems he’d caused. Then he walked up to the railway line at Belle Vue Bank. For a while he stood on a footbridge from which, looking north, he could see the floodlights of Saint James’ Park where 68,000 had turned out to cheer him when he returned with Chelsea. Then, with tears running down his face, Gallacher descended the wooden steps, vaulted a low fence, scrambled up the embankment and waited for the 12.08 northbound express.

No comments:

Post a Comment