Thursday, April 5, 2012
Jim Baxter: Great Scot
'Slim' Jim Baxter is best remembered for his performance at Wembley in 1967 when, as Scotland defeated world champions England 3-2, he engaged in a bout of keepie-uppies for the amusement of the Tartan Army. It was the perfect encapsulation of an arrogant, self-destructive player who, for many, remains the most gifted Scotland has seen.
Born in Fife in September 1939, the young Baxter had worked as a cabinet maker and a miner before, after a spell with local junior team Crossgates Primrose, he signed up with Raith Rovers in 1957 at the age of 18. The wing half's cultured approach quickly set him apart from the rest. ''Treat the ball like a woman," he once said. "Give it a cuddle, caress it a wee bit, take your time and you'll get the required response.''
In June 1960, Rangers paid a Scottish record fee of £17,500 to take him to Glasgow, and he was an instant hero. On October 29, he won his first medal as Rangers beat Kilmarnock in the Scottish League Cup final. A week later, he opened his Rangers account with a league goal against Clyde, and a few days after that made his Scotland debut, while he was also on the scoresheet in an 8-0 Cup Winners' Cup victory over Borussia Monchengladbach at the end of November. He was establishing himself as a star and, though he was on a basic wage of only £22 a week, he had already developed a taste for the lifestyle. "One day, I was a Raith Rovers player who couldnae pull the birds at the Cowdenbeath Palais," Baxter recalled. "The next day I was in Glasgow and the girls were throwing themselves at me. I wasn't letting it go by."
Rangers won the title that season, as well as finishing runners-up in the Cup Winners' Cup. By the end of the 1961-62 season, he had added another League Cup winners' medal as well as the Scottish Cup. By his third season, though, things were starting to sour.
While Rangers spent almost the entirety of the 1962-63 campaign at the top of the table, Baxter had been poor in the early months of the season and was eventually dropped in December. A few days later, unhappy with his paltry wages, he submitted a transfer request, which was accepted a week later. "I only wanted a few quid more than the less gifted," he later said. "We were all paid equally, which was like paying Frank Sinatra the same as the Alexander Brothers." He was determined to move to one of the better-paying clubs south of the border and, in April 1963, he gave a perfect illustration of his worth when scoring twice in a 2-1 win over England at Wembley. "What more must I do to get an English club to come for me?" he asked afterwards.
A group of Arsenal fans organised a petition begging their club to make a move for him in the wake of that performance, but nothing came to fruition and so in May, after five months on the list, Baxter attempted to give himself a PR boost. "It's not true that Glasgow Rangers have to bail me out before every match. Some of the stories about me are fantastic," he told one Daily Express reporter as he sunk a tomato juice followed by a glass of milk. "I sink a few bevvies on Saturday nights, and maybe one night early midweek. The rest of the week I stay home with my parents and watch television. Any time I have a bad spell, and I have one every season, they say it's because I'm steamed. It got so that even the club began believing the gossip. I was called before the manager and told to get a grip on myself, but I hadn't been doing anything out of line except starting the season in poor form."
However, the gossips' stories were a lot closer to the truth and, while he was proactive in the media, he may not have managed his image so effectively behind the scenes. He once recalled a time Leeds United boss Don Revie held tentative discussions over a potential deal. "I'm told," Revie said, "you drink everything brewed and distilled around here, there aren't enough women for you to chase, and you're not averse to the odd brawl." Baxter replied: "Aye, you're very well informed." Precisely when - or even if - this actually took place is unclear, but that the top English clubs were unwilling to take a risk is simple enough to understand.
His deal at Rangers was up that summer, but out-of-contract players were unable to move freely at the time and, with no serious bids forthcoming, he was forced to begin talks over an extension. "I don't really want to leave Rangers," he said. "It's just I could earn so much more money down South. If Rangers will only meet me halfway, I'll be glad to stay." In August, after two months without pay, he committed to a new deal, but insisted on staying on the transfer list. Stoke made a bid that month, but it was rejected.
He suffered another dip in form in the 1963-64 season, and was subsequently dropped from the Scotland squad for a British Home Championship game with Northern Ireland in October, but his standing remained sufficient to ensure his inclusion alongside the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio, Ferenc Puskas and Lev Yashin in a Rest of the World squad to face England later that month. Even then he - along with fellow Scot Denis Law - was obsessing over wages. "We looked at all those great players and we wondered what they were getting," Baxter later said. "I was on £35 at Rangers, Denis maybe £50 at Manchester United. We knew it was chickenfeed." Nottingham Forest, Tottenham Hotspur and Inter Milan all made approaches over the coming months, but no move came to fruition, and Baxter remained a Rangers player for the 1964-65 season.
In December, he put in one of the finest performances of his career as the Gers won 2-0 at Rapid Vienna in the European Cup second round to seal a 3-0 aggregate victory, and Rapid coach Franz Binder said afterwards: "We were not just beaten by a very fine team but, also, by a truly world-class player in Jim Baxter." However, the match had not ended well for the wing-half: having repeatedly nutmegged Walter Skocik during the game, the Austrian reacted by fracturing Baxter's shinbone. "I couldn't blame the Austrian defender for the tackle," he said. "I was taking the mickey something terrible."
Baxter was to spend four months on the sidelines, and during that time his drinking problem worsened; upon his return, he was not the same player. Rangers boss Scot Symon realised as much, and when Sunderland made a £72,500 bid in May 1965, his two-and-a-half-year stint on the transfer list finally culminated in a transfer. "I wanted to stay in really big football and Sunderland, like Rangers, have always thought big," Baxter said upon completion of the deal, though he was later more honest: "I left Rangers and went to a bad side. I would never have left if I hadn't gambled all my money away."
While his marriage that summer may have been interpreted as a sign that he was ready to settle down, there were fewer positive indications on the pitch. He was badly out of shape when making his first Sunderland appearance at the start of August - a 5-0 defeat to Celtic in a pre-season friendly - and his drinking did not abate. When he was in the mood, though, he could still turn it on. In November, when Scotland hosted Italy in a World Cup qualifier, Baxter is said to have told team-mate Billy Bremner that, if he did not repeatedly nutmeg the great Gianni Rivera, he would not have had a "decent game". Baxter did nutmeg Rivera that day, and apparently shouted to Bremner: "Hey, wee man - one down, nine to go!" Scotland won the game 1-0.
His drinking continued to attract negative attention. In the summer of 1966, while on international duty, he was forced to do press-ups until he vomited after returning to the team's hotel drunk at 4am ahead of a friendly with Portugal, and he would regularly booze the night before games ("Friday night was always Saturday night to me," he once said). In March 1967, ahead of the derby with Newcastle, Baxter had apparently gone for a big night out - according to Barry Robson, a bouncer writing in Ken Gambles' Black Catalogue, a "comatose" Baxter was carried out of a nightclub at 2.30am on the night before the game. "Twelve hours later, from 3pm that afternoon," Robson continued, "I was privileged to witness the destruction of Newcastle United, aided and abetted by the revived corpse ... It was nearly a one-man show, with Baxter mesmerising the Newcastle players." Sunderland won the game 3-0.
The following month, April 1967, was the scene of Baxter's most memorable performance. England, having lifted the World Cup at Wembley the previous summer, welcomed a Scotland side to London for a British Home Championship clash with every expectation that they would inflict a sound beating. In the minutes prior to the game, according to legend, Baxter was sitting down reading a copy of the Racing Post and, when new manager Bobby Brown suggested he might want to warm up, he stretched out one leg and then the other and replied: "That's me warmed up." In a high tempo match in which hearts were ruling heads and violent tackles were legion, Baxter maintained his laidback approach, and at one stage slowed the game to walking pace as he juggled the ball on his instep while Nobby Stiles looked on bewildered. Sir Alex Ferguson said his performance in Scotland's 3-2 victory "could have been set to music", though opinion was divided as to whether he took things too far. "When we were beating England at Wembley and I sat on the ball, I hadn't planned that," Baxter told the Daily Express in 1996. "It wasn't something I thought might get a big headline - no, it seemed a natural thing to do to please the lads up on the terraces."
Journalist Hugh McIlvanney, writing in The Observer, suggested after the match that Scotland boss Brown was the man to get the best out of him - "He understands that Baxter's arrogant determination to establish his superiority over anyone against him is inseparable from his greatness as a player" - but, as ever, the glory was fleeting. The following month, Scotland were abject in a 2-0 home defeat to USSR, and Baxter and his team-mates were jeered.
In August 1967, he was given a 21-day ban after picking up the second red card of his Sunderland career, and in December he was allowed to move on. Nottingham Forest, earlier thwarted in their attempts to sign Baxter, surprisingly offered close to £100,000 for the 28-year-old as they looked to build on their second-place finish in the 1966-67 season. "I regard him as one of the best footballers in the world," chairman Tony Wood said on completion of the deal.
Baxter, though, always looked a shadow of his former self, and his arrival did nothing to boost Forest's form in the second half of the campaign. For the start of the 1968-69 season, he was redeployed as a striker, but Forest's early form was abysmal. Baxter was dropped in October, transfer listed for £60,000 in November and then given a two-week ban for, as the club put it, "a breach of training rules and players' instructions". Manager John Carey was then sacked after five years in charge.
Baxter was rested for several weeks and, while new boss Matt Gillies eventually gave him another chance, he was allowed to leave on a free transfer at the end of the season. "While I'm one of those who love to watch and sometimes purr over a player of Baxter's ability, I have to be realistic," Gillies said. "The days of a ball-juggling inside forward have gone. Ball artistry does not matter if it doesn't fit in with modern conditions."
A week later, he returned to Rangers on a free transfer, but the second coming was doomed to failure. He made his return in a pre-season friendly with Spurs in August, with 50,000 fans arriving to welcome him and, while he received rapturous applause when coming on as a second-half substitute and another bout when he first got onto the ball, it was clear he was well past his best. The Express described the man known as 'Slim' as "pathetically bulky".
In October, he was in court following a drink-driving charge, and he made his final Rangers appearance in December. He was a club legend - a man who had been on the losing side only twice in 18 Old Firm derbies - but in April he was given a free transfer; he then decided to call time on his career at the age of 30.
In his retirement, he made the ill-advised decision to buy a pub, and in 1994 underwent two liver transplants in the space of four days. In 2001, he died of pancreatic cancer. His ashes were buried at Ibrox and, among the many tributes, Sir Alex Ferguson labelled him "arguably the best player to play in Scottish football", while Kenny Dalglish said he was "one of the greatest ever footballers, and he had a swagger and an arrogance about him on the pitch that only truly great players have".
A more disciplined lifestyle would almost certainly have led to a longer and more successful career, but Baxter was proud to be an individual: "Everything I did on the pitch was off-the-cuff. Sheer instinct. If I'd been a good boy, maybe the swashbuckling stuff would have got stifled." He always maintained that he drank so much "because I liked it", and said: "Perhaps I did enjoy myself too much, but what's too much? Moderation, as far as I'm concerned, is for moderate people."