Feature

Feb 2007

The Firhill Flyer

He is now 81 years old and walks with a slight limp from the most recent of his three hip operations but he carries himself well. His back is straight, his handshake is firm and friendly and his eyes sparkle as he recalls a football career that is unique. 'Johnny', as he was known in his playing days, is the only Gaelic speaker to have played for the Scottish national team. This quiet man played against some of the biggest names in the world - Ferenc Puskas, Stanley Matthews, Duncan Edwards. And until Alan Rough came along twenty years later he was Thistle's most capped player.

Born in Dennistoun in 1925 to a mother from Tiree and a seafaring father from Skye, John Archie MacKenzie went back to live on the island when he was three. The little boy who would one day star for his country was a sickly child. When he was seven the family doctor diagnosed breathing problems that were made worse by the damp sea air. The GP reckoned that John Archie MacKenzie would fare better if he left the clean island air and returned to the city that in those days lay under a blanket of thick smog. Incredibly, the doctor was proved right. John Archie MacKenzie's problems disappeared.

Every summer the MacKenzies left the small flat in Glasgow and joined thousands of other island families on the long trek northwards for the school holidays. But the carefree summer days on the machair and the beaches of Tiree were coming to an end because of events in faraway Poland. When the Second World War became inevitable John Archie MacKenzie went back to school in Tiree for the second time.

It was on the island that he honed the ball skills he had picked up in the streets around his home in Dennistoun. There were only three local teams, East, West and Central. During the war, hundreds of military personnel were based on the island. Many of them played football to pass the time, which provided a greater variety of opposition.

Although he was only 14 when war broke out his schoolmates remember a fleet of foot youngster with so much skill and ball control that none of the adults could get near him.

John Archie MacKenzie smiled as he described the training regime he developed, "I cycled everywhere and used to hold my breath between telegraph poles. I used to jump fences and leap between the rocks on the beach near the house."

In 1943 he returned to Glasgow to serve his apprenticeship with an engineering company where the manager of Petershill Juniors spotted him playing for the works team. A strong, fast, skilful player, it did not take long for other bigger teams to hear about the boy from the island.

Bill Struth, the legendary manager of Rangers, spoke to John Archie MacKenzie after a game and told him not to sign for anyone else. He waited for a couple of months but nothing happened and when Partick Thistle came calling he quickly signed up. The island boy was about to become a professional footballer.

But it was to be four years before John Archie MacKenzie made his Firhill debut. He explained, "I remember signing for Partick Thistle on a Monday in 1944. On Friday of the same week I received my call up papers to go to war."

Instead of playing for Thistle he was one of the stars in the Scots Guards team. The line-up included Willie Paton of Rangers, Alan Orr of Third Lanark, Jimmy Kirk from St Mirren and Jimmy Cowan of Morton and Scotland. This was a strong line-up, even at a time when most regiments could boast several international players and John Archie MacKenzie picked up his first medals.

After leaving the army in December 1947 he was given permission by Thistle to sign for Bournemouth who were pushing for promotion from Division 3. Despite the addition of a skilful wide player, Bournemouth didn't make it and by next summer John Archie MacKenzie was back in Glasgow, working in Possilpark for an engineering company and training at Firhill.

In his first match, Thistle were thrashed 8-2 by Queen of the South. It was not an auspicious start for a great career but this was the time when the phrase 'Firhill for thrills' first appeared, for very obvious reasons. The crowds that followed Glasgow's third team never knew what to expect. A few weeks later the 'Jags' reversed that defeat by Queen of the South, scoring nine times without reply.

The Honorary Vice President of the club and unofficial historian, Robert Reid, has fond memories of 'Johnny' MacKenzie. He said, "While Thistle were extremely inconsistent 'Johnny' was the very opposite. He was either excellent or very good."

"In those days it was possible to change ends at half time. All the young kids followed 'Johnny'. They wanted to watch his repertoire of tricks and marvel at his crosses which seemed to hang in the air for an eternity."

Sitting in his cottage in Tiree, John Archie MacKenzie talks about those days with obvious pleasure. He played nearly 400 games for Thistle and scored 53 goals. However, his natural reserve and modesty will still not let him boast about past glories. We talk about a match against Celtic at Parkhead where Thistle came back from being 3-0 down to win 5-4. 'Johnny' made the killer pass for all five goals. When I suggest he must have played an excellent game he replied, "They said I was quite good. But other players played well too."

The reaction of the Celtic crowd places the credit firmly at 'Johnny's' skilled feet. From the 'Jungle' the fans screamed, "Throw him in here."

John Archie MacKenzie laughs quietly when he recalls this story, "I don't think I'd have got out of there alive if they'd got hold of me."

'Johnny's' career at Thistle coincided with the most successful period in the club's history. They played in three League Cup Finals but lost them all, they won the Glasgow Cup three times when it was still considered to be an important competition and finished third in the League twice.

With an average home crowd nowadays of a few thousand, it is hard to imagine that 30,000 people regularly turned up at Firhill and that in 1953 in the League Cup Final against East Fife, Thistle played before a Hampden crowd of nearly 90,000. In the 1950's football did not have many challengers as mass entertainment on a Saturday afternoon.

When 'Johnny' arrived back in Glasgow the impact of the war was still affecting daily life. Rationing still had several years to run. The roar of heavy pneumatic hammers could be heard for miles as Glasgow's Clydeside shipyards rebuilt the merchant fleet.

Tens of thousands of men worked for companies that have long since disappeared: Connells, Fairfields, Stephens, Albion Motors, Drysdale Pumps, Harland and Wolfe.

Heavy industry, damp and cramped houses, allied to the demons of war memories helped to create a generation of hard drinkers. On Fridays, wives would line the pavements outside the shipyard gates to rescue pay packets from men who had only one intention; to get as drunk as possible before the 9 o'clock closing time.

Health warnings about the consequences of smoking were a long way off. Even sports stars smoked. 'Johnny' never did, but he reckons 6 or 7 of the Thistle team were regular smokers.

Most people travelled on the trams and later the trolley buses which criss-crossed the city. 'Johnny' was no different, despite his growing fame. It was on a tram that he first heard he had been selected for Scotland.

He explained, "The tram had stopped and a man in the crowd must have recognised me. He banged on the window and shouted, Hey Johnny you're in the Scotland team." There was no 24-hour news in those days. Players generally learnt about their selection from the newspapers along with everyone else.

MacKenzie was first selected for the Scotland squad in 1949 for a tour of America and Canada. The photograph is now slightly faded and the corners are yellow and curl upwards but this was a team packed with superstars; Laurie Reilly, Billy Liddell, Willie Woodburn, George Young, Sammy Cox.

A few years later 'Johnny' went to the 1954 World Cup. This should have been the highlight of his career but, sadly, the ineptitude of the Scottish Football Association turned it into a national embarrassment.

Scotland went to Switzerland with no manager and only 13 players when they were allowed 22. There were no Rangers players in the squad because the Ibrox side had arranged a tour in America and refused to release their players. Celtic were also on tour but they agreed to let Neil Mochan and Willie Fernie play for the national side. The World Cup is now one of the biggest shows on the planet and the attitude of the Old Firm would be unacceptable nowadays but, in their defence, this was only four years after the SFA had refused to take part in the World Cup.

Scotland lost 1-0 to Austria in the opening match before being thumped 7-0 by Uruguay a few days later. The heavy winter kit they brought with them was totally unsuitable for the hot conditions and they were run ragged by the South Americans.

Johnny joked, "Did I play in that game? I certainly didn't touch the ball very often. It was so hot and our kit was unbearable. I lost about half a stone in weight."

Later that year Scotland welcomed the great Hungarian side, with the legendary Puskas, to Hampden Park. Although Hungary beat the Scots 4-2 it was no disgrace to lose to a team that is still considered to be one of the best ever. MacKenzie was at his mesmerising best as he ran rings around the fullback, Mihaly Lantos. Afterwards Ferenc Puskas said he had "never seen wing play of such a high standard." When you consider the other great number 7s that were around at the time this is some tribute.

John Archie MacKenzie still has his strip from that match, framed along with a Scotland cap but it does not hang on the wall where visitors can see it.

He smiles when I remind him about the tribute from one of the all time greats but he finds it impossible to praise his own performance. This is not false modesty. It is an island thing. People are not expected to boast about their own achievements.

Robert Philip of the , a lifelong Thistle fan, recently recalled being lifted over the turnstiles by his dad to see Mackenzie play. Last year when 'Johnny' was 80 he paid this tribute in his column, "MacKenzie would have earned over 100 caps if he was still plying his trade today but he was unfortunate to play in the same era as Willie Waddell, Gordon Smith and Billy Liddell. To me, however, he was a hero like no other; he was as swift as a greyhound, a mazy dribbler and, if you think David Beckham can cross the ball, you should have seen Johnny in his pomp."

Tommy Docherty, who played with MacKenzie in the 1954 World Cup and against Hungary, paid an equally generous tribute to his quiet teammate, "Johnny would have been a megastar if he played today. He was fast, he was skilful and he had heart. Nowadays he'd be worth 15 million pounds."

John Archie MacKenzie still watches football on satellite television in his cottage in Tiree but he is as far removed from the pampered millionaires of the modern game as the islanders around him who never played. At the height of his fame he earned 15 a week for playing football and 8 a week in his day job with the engineering company. He never wanted to be a full-time footballer.

When the time came to hang up his boots at nearly forty years of age 'Johnny' had no problem adapting to his life without football. He carried on working as he had always done. He had no adjustment to make. 'Johnny' had never left his own working class community.

But during the long winter nights in Tiree, this engaging, humble man has fantastic memories he can draw on and share with his Gaelic speaking island pals. He was a wizard of the wing, who played against and impressed the very best, and entertained crowds of more than 120,000 at Hampden Park. No wonder he smiles a lot.

About John Morrison

A native Gaelic speaker from the Western Isles, John Morrison worked with the BBC for nearly twenty years in a variety of roles. Most recently he was Scotland correspondent for BBC network news, working on programmes from Breakfast, the One, Six and Ten o' Clock news, News 24 and BBC World. His previous roles included Chief Political Correspondent and Europe Correspondent for BBC Scotland. In March 2006 John became one half of a new PR and Media consultancy, McGarvie Morrison Media Ltd. He plans to continue writing for newspapers and other publications.

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Partick Thistle Football Club

Scottish Football Association

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First ever International game

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Scottish Football Museum

Scottish Football Hall of Fame