31 August 2003

Malcolm Macdonald succumbed to a crippling knee injury after a glorious career but now he is smiling again

Where is the winning post? At what stage of Shakespeare’s seven ages should we judge a man? With a sportsman it should be easy, a measurement of him at his peak. But what about a former and an after-life? Especially when, as with Malcolm Macdonald’s famed Newcastle No 9 shirt, the shades are so dramatically black and white?

At St James’ Park on Wednesday night, the press centre still boasted the framed newspaper report of Macdonald’s legendary three goals, four teeth and a knockout debut against Liverpool on Aug 21, 1971. Back then the crowd had sung “Supermac, Superstar, how many goals have you scored so far?” It was the start of the most fearsomely direct of striking years at Newcastle and then Arsenal before the left knee collapsed on him at the early age of 29.

Heady times, but on Wednesday Macdonald had waxed just as eloquently about a much darker moment back in 1963 – the day his Dad had a heart attack in the outside loo.

“He was just slumped in the toilet and I had to break down the door,” said Macdonald, whose tousled features are still recognisable beneath the spectacles and grey-trim haircut. The words reflected almost exactly those used in the absorbing autobiography he has just completed with this paper’s football guru Colin Malam. “Dad was in hospital for months and months, his painting and decorating business collapsed, the youngest of my three brothers was just a baby, and although I was only 12, I had to go to work to help my mother out.”

This meant getting to WH Smith in Putney High Street at 4.30am, sorting out newspapers and doing the rounds before going to lessons at Sloane Grammar in Chelsea. Mix that routine with an already well-developed obsession with football, and classwork was always going to be a problem. This soon produced the first of the black-hearted villains who seem to have alternated with inspiring heroes, the headmaster who banned him from the school team.

No dessicated calculating machine was going to stem the enormous flood of energy gushing from the self-assured, set-faced youth from Finlay Street next to the Fulham ground. Macdonald left school, somehow mixed playing for Barnet with his multitudinous other jobs, before switching to Tonbridge when he and his mother set up a shop in Forest Row, Sussex, after his father died. It was at Tonbridge that the first fully fledged non-family hero emerges, smiling Harry Haslam, whose belief subsequently took the young Macdonald first to Fulham and then to Luton, where Newcastle were later to call.

It was Haslam, chief scout first to the young Bobby Robson at Fulham and then to Alec Stock at Luton, who emphasised the direct “get it, turn and shoot” philosophy which brought Macdonald his success. “Alec Stock [another hero] told me to get 30 goals in my first season at Luton,” says Macdonald. “I got 29 but he forgave me. When I arrived at Newcastle [in a borrowed Rolls Royce] I told them I was there to score 30 goals. Manager Joe Harvey asked if I was putting pressure on myself. I said `no, that is what I am here for’.”

Any assessment of Macdonald in those Newcastle and Arsenal years would have been of an achiever who had cracked it. His basic earnings would still be less in a year than today’s stars get in a week, his £400 a week column for The Sun was almost double his Newcastle wage, but life was good enough for a decent home for his first wife and what were to be five daughters. Ferraris and Alfa Romeos came and went. “If it was today,” says Macdonald with deep and practised emphasis, “I wouldn’t kick a ball for less than £3 million.”

But then it was all over at 29. No fault of any villains of the piece among whom Gordon Lee, Terry Neill and England manager Don Revie – “you do realise I don’t want you here” – take pride of place. The famous left leg was rotten at the knee. A successful promotion-winning start as Fulham manager got stymied by the joint tribulations of chairman Ernie Clay (villain) and the collapse of his first marriage. Another spell with Huddersfield failed, so too did adventures in Switzerland and Italy and, most spectacularly, a hotel and restaurant business in the North with one Alan Bowes (super villain). By the time Malcolm came back to Newcastle for radio and after-dinner speaking work in 1996 with by now two failed marriages, a cripplingly painful knee and a bottle-a-day drinking habit, you could say that his whole life was rotten to the core.

Even more so when he failed a breathalyser test (still over the limit 12 hours after the last whisky) and made all the headlines as another old player unable to cope “when the tumult and the shouting dies”. But out of the darkness came the light. Amid all the well-meaning calls offering counselling, one came from the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Micky Burns (super hero). “I know exactly what the problem is,” said Micky, a former Newcastle team-mate, “it’s the knee isn’t it.”

“The surgeon said `I will fix the knee, you fix yourself’,” Malcolm remembers, sipping his now customary lime and soda. “It really had been so bad that I was falling over, not just from the whisky which was the only thing that eased the pain. Now I can walk everywhere with hardly any trouble and I literally haven’t had a drink since. I have met and married Carol. I have plenty of work. Life is very good.”

On Wednesday afternoon he went through his Monday to Friday Three Legends routine with Eric Gates and Bernie Slavin on Century FM and then got into the 18-year-old Mercedes sportscar – “best car I have ever had” – to whisk round the back routes and up the multi-storey within St James’ Park. His newly constructed walk has lost much of its trademark bandiness but the corporate fans still hang on every well-practised tale. Macdonald and Bobby Moncur greet each other as only old team-mates can. We go out into the fabulous stadium to see Sir Bobby Robson (super hero) witness his team go out to Partizan Belgrade with a display which screamed out for the finishing and penalty-kick assurance of Supermac of yesteryear.

“I taught myself to put them into the top corner,” growls Malcolm as we reflected on Shearer and company afterwards, “hit them so hard that the goalie could not do anything about it. We never lost on penalties.” The old stories don’t overload on modesty but you suspect they are used as self-motivation. Like the one about the Burnley defender who said to the other: “Give him a kicking and when you have finished throw him over here and I will give him some more.”

The eyes seem to shrink and harden behind the glasses in the old lupine face. “However much it was hurting,” said Macdonald, “I made it a rule to always get up, trot away without a limp, and then smile at them. Nothing infuriates a defender more.”

Now, every day brings another smile, another winning post. Judgment can be passed.

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