St Mirren legend Tony Fitzpatrick on tough upbringing, scrape with law, Fergie, overcoming tragedy and helping others | #ukscams | #datingscams | #european

It was, says Tony Fitzpatrick, the classic Scottish working-class two-option choice for escaping a tough housing scheme – “fighting or fitba.” He wasn’t going to become a boxer but a trial with Aston Villa offered him some hope.

Fitzpatrick pictured in St Mirren colours during the 1981/82 season.
Fitzpatrick pictured in St Mirren colours during the 1981/82 season.

There was, though, another route open to the young boys of Glasgow’s Possil estate – the opposite of a noble art and often resulting in the opposite of escape. “A few went into crime. There was a factory, McBeans, and just about every lad nicked sweets and crisps and sold them to the ice cream vans, including me.

“Then, just before my trial, I was with my best pal Billy Cleghorn. He told me he’d been threatened by this gang and to this day I don’t know why but I grabbed a knife from his kitchen. We found the boys by The Widows pub. I waved the knife telling them to leave my mate alone.

“There was a blue van full of police in plain clothes which patrolled the estate and we called them ‘The Invincibles’. Everyone scattered, I tried to hide the knife in a scaffolding pole but was nabbed and chucked in the van.

St Mirren's Fitzpatrick celebrates with the Scottish Cup in 1987.St Mirren's Fitzpatrick celebrates with the Scottish Cup in 1987.
St Mirren’s Fitzpatrick celebrates with the Scottish Cup in 1987.

“I was never going to use the knife, just scare the boys. I told the cops this. I told them I had a trial to become a footballer and they just shrugged. It was a bank holiday weekend so I was stuck in a cell in the police station opposite my school from Friday night until the following Tuesday. The court is now a pub called Citation, which is a good joke, and the fact I had some prospects saved me. I was very lucky … ”

Fitzpatrick was 15. He missed his chance with Villa from being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure but just two years later a bright young manager in a tearing hurry called Alex Ferguson appointed him captain of St Mirren and he was on his way to Paisley legendhood.

His first duties at Love Street were cutting the grass and painting the stand. He wore the black and white stripes 351 times, tussling on the old park with elite class Ruud Gullit, Kazimierz Deyna and Johan Cruyff, and when the latter lost a contact lens in the mud he organised the search. He lifted the Scottish Cup, rising from his sick bed for a cameo appearance in the final. Two spells as manager followed, then among other posts, director and chief executive. These days the love affair stretching back more than half a century is expressed as club ambassador and he’s thrilled by the current generation.

A few seasons ago Fitzpatrick, 67, declared that top-six football was a realistic ambition for St Mirren. He smiles: “We were bottom of the Championship at the time and had just lost three-nil to our local rivals Morton.” There was some scoffing but his prediction has come to pass and Stephen Robinson’s men begin their quest for Europe away to Hibernian today.

Fitzpatrick back at Love Street, St Mirren's former home, in 2008.Fitzpatrick back at Love Street, St Mirren's former home, in 2008.
Fitzpatrick back at Love Street, St Mirren’s former home, in 2008.

The progress of his club had been the excuse for this chat in a Paisley hotel but Fitzpatrick will take it hither and yon and from joy to tragedy as he acknowledges the May month’s tradition of throwing up many anniversaries. Some are football-related, others so deeply personal that, when he describes the death of a son I feel like I’m intruding.

The Hampden triumph was May 16, 1987. More notorious – at least among Hearts fans – is the date of our meeting as it remains a sore point in Gorgie that in ’86 St Mirren were thumped 5-0 by Celtic who snatched the Premier League crown. “I was playing that day. We didn’t lay down to Celtic and we didn’t lose Hearts the title – they did that by themselves. They only needed a draw against Dundee, and what happened at Love Street wouldn’t have mattered, but they bottled it.”

It was on May 31, 1978 that Ferguson left St Mirren and Fitzpatrick still rues the day. Next Thursday is another anniversary: 40 years since Aberdeen’s Euro glory in Gothenburg. Could Fergie if he’d stayed have taken the Buddies to such dizzy heights? His old skipper likes to think so.

“That thing he said to the Aberdeen players – stand up to the Old Firm, beat them in their own backyard – we heard it. He told us we could master Celtic and Rangers and dominate Scottish football. On the way back from a pre-season friendly at Maybole Juniors he stopped the bus at Gleniffer Braes where there are stunning views right across Paisley. He said: ‘Look at that. This is what you’re representing. Are you telling me we can’t have success?’

Fitzpatrick as the club's chief executive in 2017.Fitzpatrick as the club's chief executive in 2017.
Fitzpatrick as the club’s chief executive in 2017.

“He galvanised the town and Renfrewshire over what the club might achieve with help. He went round pubs and bingo halls, took to the streets with a van and a megaphone. The players accompanied him to Ferguslie Park, Foxbar and Gallowhill where some locals would say ‘We’re Rangers’ or ‘We’re Celtic’ but old ladies and wee boys loved Fergie’s patter. I had a flat close to the ground. Walking there on matchdays and the grannies shouting ‘Good luck, son’, I felt like a million dollars – all because of Sir Alex’s passion and ambition.”

My first experience of Love Street, St Mirren and Fergie’s ambition came in 1977 as a buccaneering young side in their Premier initiation beat my team Hibs 3-0 with goals from Frank McGarvey, Billy Stark and centre-back Bobby Reid. Although he didn’t score, Fitzpatrick stood out with his clever promptings from the midfield – also with his moustache, a Seventies Scottish classic. As a Buddies-supporting chum puts it, “think Prince before Prince had been heard of”. Fitzpatrick no longer has it but 15 fans who golf together in Portugal every year stick on fake mousers and send him the photos.

Fitzpatrick reels off the rest of the old gang, pausing at those who’re just about hanging on: “Frank has sadly passed but Aber [Billy Abercromby], my great pal from school, has tumours everywhere and been near death three times. It’s better for Torr [Bobby Torrance] who’s just found out his cancer’s in remission.” Then, returning to the subject of their mentor: “Fergie’s will-to-win was fierce but something else he had was love. That’s not so fashionable but we all need care and we all need love, don’t we?

“Of course, he was brilliant at the old psychology like when he buttered up refs. Their room was next to our team. He’d leave the door open so he could be heard saying: ‘Aye, this team we’re playing today are dirty but don’t worry, boys, we’ve got the best referee in the country in charge of the game.’”

Fitzpatrick, though, was no slouch at scams of which Fergie would be proud, even if it was the boss who was duped when the player’s father James pretended to be the family doctor phoning in a condition check. “Sir Alex had just arrived, a whirlwind, some guys were going to be for the off and I was desperate to play in his first game in charge even though I’d just had a bout of pleurisy. Sir Alex wanted a medical opinion. We didn’t have a phone and so borrowed the only one in our street. My mum, kidding on she was the surgery receptionist, was a bag of nerves but Dad’s impersonation was brilliant.”

Then later, in his first stint as manager, the club in severe danger of being relegated, Fitzpatrick faked a Stirling Albion dossier on his ailing team which he left lying around the changing-room. He hoped the damning assessments – “Can’t run … Terrible on his left … Hit hard and he crumbles” – would rile the players to a vital victory and was proved right.

Fergie was sacked for alleged contract breaches. Fitzpatrick gave evidence on his behalf at an industrial tribunal but, disillusioned by his departure, moved to Bristol City, then in England’s top flight and managed, 20-odd postings earlier in a long career, by Roy Hodgson. Two years later, though, he was back in Paisley.

But none of this had seemed remotely possible earlier in his young life, and even before his scrape with the law. “From ages eight to 11 I was out of the house. Because I was dyslexic and didn’t know it – who did back then? – I thought I was stupid and so did my school-teachers. When I couldn’t do my homework Dad would shout at me and I’d get a slap. Mum would shout at him and they’d have terrible rows. I was sent to a residential school in Ayr. It wasn’t so bad; I felt safe there.

“Dad did time in Barlinnie. It was violence. My older brothers were hard boys but they were scared of him. When he got out of prison, though, and folk in our street who saw me playing football told him I showed promise, he asked me: ‘Are you serious about this?’ I said he was so he took me down to Paddy’s Market and bought me a pair of big muckle boots. Willie Johnston of Rangers wore them at training to improve his strength and stamina. Dad had me running in mine up to Stobhill Hospital and back before school and then afterwards over the hills.

“And later,” Fitzpatrick continues, “Dad would change. He became the most beautiful human being. My brother Paul had a terrible disease [dermatomyositis], died of it at 32, with Dad having nursed him day and night. It’s Paul’s birthday today and in two days’ time it’s Tony Jr’s birthday. My little boy. Dad just adored him.”

Fitzpatrick’s son lost a two-year battle against acute myeloid leukemia, an uncommon cancer among children, in 1983. He was six years old. His dad and mum, Elizabeth, took it in turn to stay with him in Yorkhill Hospital. Every Monday and Wednesday Fitzpatrick had to donate plasma. “St Mirren were phenomenal. I was just about done in by tiredness and worry and was hardly training, so was showing up for games just hoping to do my best.”

Fitzpatrick would later write a children’s book. The Promise – Together Again tells of a sad bear being reunited with his dead son behind a magical rainbow. “There was one in the sky the morning Elizabeth and I left Yorkhill for the last time,” he says. “Tony wanted to be a footballer like his old man. On one of his rare spells out of hospital he was the St Mirren mascot against Hearts. We were losing one-nil and I really didn’t want a defeat that day. Thankfully supersub Alan Logan came off the bench and equalised near the end with a diving header. Tony was football-daft but I’m afraid that after he passed the game wasn’t the same for me. Before, it had been everything and I felt sorry for Elizabeth and our eldest, Lorraine, that I was so obsessed. But when Tony died I lost a lot of my desire.”

Though the family grew again, he and his wife are no longer together. Now with Maureen, he has a new role as the frontman in a big-hearted organisation, Legacy Comps. He’s calling in favours from old footballers – Gordon Smith and ex-Buddie Frank McAvennie have teamed up for a fund-raising night of knockabout reminisce. Donations range from £12,000 to a local hospice to helping a hard-up family with the weekly shop. “I’m trying to give something back,” he says.

But Fitzpatrick, who might have learned about community spirit from Fergie’s rabble-rousing for St Mirren, has done something like this before. Never forgetting his good fortune in avoiding falling into crime, he tried to steer others along a surer path. For nine years, Kan-Do Training and Development worked with street-gangs. Their mentor, who ’fessed up to his own near-miss, deployed the shock tactics of morgue visits and meetings with convicted murderers. “Nine out of ten of these kids wanted to be saved; they just needed a wee bit of help. I loved being a footballer but that’s the thing of which I’m most proud.”

From seeming to have so little going for him back in Possil, Fitzpatrick has ended up doing a helluva lot. “Thanks for listening,” he says. “For me this is healing … ”

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