Second-hand bookshops don’t get the praise they deserve. These are places of small treasures and large pleasures and in one a few weeks ago – Barter Books in Northumberland, which has been called ‘the British Library of second-hand bookshops’ – a thin, forgotten publication from 1969 stared out.
The title down the bright red spine read: You Get Nowt For Being Second.
The 'Nowt' gave a clue to a Yorkshire influence. The author was Billy Bremner.
As a train set buzzed around the top of the shelves – this is Alnwick, where Harry Potter learning to play Quidditch on a broomstick was filmed – a very different kind of little wizard emerged from You Get Nowt . .'.
This one feels able to begin a chapter thus: “There was one occasion, and one occasion only, when I played a game of football with murder in my heart.”
Ah, the good old days.
Nostalgia never goes out of fashion and some 18 years after his death, Billy Bremner has been back on our sports pages this week. The reason was the death of another small Scottish giant of the game, Dave Mackay, and one of the most famous, brilliant sports photographs of all time.
Taken at White Hart Lane in August 1966, the formidable Mackay is pictured stiff with anger as he holds up Bremner, who is pleading some kind of innocence. Mackay doesn’t look convinced by his compatriot.
Mackay apparently did not like the photograph. He felt it portrayed him as “a bully” and in addition, it helped form a portrait of him that focused too much on strength over skill. Mackay was not voted Footballer of Year in 1969 because he was a bully.
When it came to Mackay’s autobiography
wrote in the foreword: “Dave’s rage is that of a person having been inexplicably kicked by a brother or best friend; Billy’s look is one of the brother or best friend having made a stupid mistake and regretted it.”
So Mackay’s concern about the picture was only one of several interpretations. The image was actually cartoon-ish – Mackay holds Bremner the way Popeye used to strong-arm foes.
Certainly Bremner thought so. The caption he uses in You Get Nowt says: "Honest, Dave, he fell over my leg."
Bremner goes on: “I’ll leave you to guess what Dave replied, but we’re the best of pals now.”
Bremner – once described as “10 stone of barbed wire” – acknowledges his spikiness elsewhere in the book.
“I was brought up in a place called Raploch, a tough district in my native Stirling,” he says.
"There's only one word, really, to describe Raploch and that's hard."
Funnily enough, he rails against those who spoke to him then about how football had gone soft, so dear knows what those types would have made of the past week in the unending hype of the Premier League. If they thought Billy Bremner was soft, what would they have made of Papiss Cisse or Gus Poyet? Theirs is an altogether different kind of hardness – showy and melodramatic like the league they play in.
Bremner would shudder; he goes on at length about the true meaning of hardness.
Bremner’s Leeds United room-mate, and future Republic of Ireland manager,
, is highly thought of in this context - “there was a time when Jackie was ready to feud with anyone” – and there is some hat-tipping for the Leeds manager
for a verbal assault on Charlton when both were players. And he doesn’t call Dave Mackay a bully.
But Bremner is less impressed by foreigners; he singles out Portugal’s famous striker Eusebio for criticism.
Then he writes: “There is only one foreign player whom I rate as being capable of standing up to the fierce competition of a 42-match slog in English First Division football. The foreign player is . . . Pele.”
Bremner adds “of Brazil” after naming Pele, presumably in case of mistaken identity, and then recalls a Scotland-Brazil friendly before the 1966 World Cup finals in England.
Bremner’s job that day was to man-mark Pele, but as he recounts with admiration, it was Pele who marked him.
Having hit Pele “hard. Very hard,” in their first challenge, Bremner says he thought he had sent the greatest a defiant message.
Then, as Bremner says: “The next thing I knew was that I was lying on the ground and one of my eyes was already beginning to swell.
“From that moment I knew that I was facing an opponent who had courage and pure guts, two commodities which, in my book, are as much part of greatness as fantastic ability. Pele had such ability . . . and the essential ingredients to go with such ability are courage and determination.”
Physical courage remains among the most underrated attributes of professional footballers. Dave Mackay should not have worried about people casting judgment on him as a football player. He leaves us as a legend of the game. So did Billy Bremner, at 54 much too young.
He became accustomed to coming first – Bremner was Footballer of the Year in 1970 – and although his book’s title says otherwise, he was able to say that once he did get something for being second. And it was another small treasure, a black eye from Pele.