John Gahagan – Living the Dream and Dying for More

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Words: John Gahagan

Pictures – SNS Pix & Motherwell F.C.

Almost 20 years of my life were spent in the world of football. I was not living in the real world. I was living a dream. To countless millions, football and life go hand in hand. When Shankly said that football was more important than ‘life or death,’ was it sporting drama? Could it really be true? Surely not.

‘When the great scorer comes to mark against your name, it is not whether you won or lost, it is how you played the game.’ This quote is not about football, but how you lived your life. Now, the great scorer mentioned above is not Willie Pettigrew…….but God himself. And when I say God I do not mean Davie Cooper, although Coop is undoubtedly now sitting beside our Heavenly master watching over everyone at Ibrox Park and Fir Park.

It was Craig Brown who used this quote when he spoke at my Testimonial Dinner in March 1990, saying it was relevant to my 10 years at Motherwell. He told 500 guests at the Motherwell Civic Centre that I had played with passion and flair for the club for relatively scant reward, certainly financially, and fought back with enthusiasm against certain manager’s doubts and rejections. Testimonials were designed around careers such as John Gahagan’s.

Thinking about those comments, as I reflected on my career, I came to the conclusion that the great scorer was in generous mood the day he picked up my marking card. I spent 16 years in professional football, 11 of those years at Fir Park. What a dream! I tell people this when I speak on the after-dinner circuit and last month in Paisley someone shouted, ‘Why?’ It got a big laugh.

Tarred with the wee diddy brush because none of the clubs I represented were challenging for championships every year. Was that through choice or because I wasn’t talented enough to go to the top?

Let’s examine the evidence and you can make your own judgement. Archie Macpherson had already made up his own mind in the mid-eighties when he commented one Saturday afternoon at Celtic Park, ‘I used to praise this boy……but really!’ Ouch! The fact that the slur came from someone whose playing contribution within the game is zilch, softened the blow somewhat. Please believe me: scathing comments did come from within the game, and often.

Ally Macleod, who had signed me for Motherwell from Shettleston Juniors in 1979, told the press that he would play me on the left wing. One reporter asked, Has he got a left foot?’ Ally quipped, ‘This boy has got two left feet.’

I was often criticised for a poor percentage ratio of quality crosses into the danger area. Ally raged at Somerset Park one night: ‘John Gahagan gets to the bye-line on 12 occasions each half, and doesn’t get one ball into the penalty box. We’ve got a winger who defies the law of averages.

In fairness, Ally Macleod had an infectious enthusiasm, always so upbeat and humorous. Pre-season 1981 Ally told me to carry our goalkeeper, Hugh Sproat, to a tree 20 yards away. After that, I was to carry the full backs, centre backs, midfield and finish off with the forwards. I moaned, ‘Gaffer, you want me to carry the whole team?’ Ally responded, ‘Son, for the last 2 years they have bloody well carried you!’ Brilliant.

David Hay on the other hand never made a negative remark to me in his one season reign as boss. Never. This was a psychology I carried into my role as S.F.A. Football Development Officer in Clackmannanshire from 1996-1998. Positive psychology is powerful and productive and enhances both your mental and physical performance – always.

Little wonder that under Hay, Motherwell won promotion with a record number of points and goals. The team were undefeated in the league all season at Fir Park with Brian McLaughlin voted the S.P.F.A. Players Player of the Year 1981-82 for the First Division. I was actually one of the four nominees that year. As much as I would have liked to have won the award, McLaughlin’s contribution that season was awesome. So imagine the thrill when the Wishaw Branch of the Motherwell Supporters Association named me their player of the year, ahead of some magnificent men including McLaughlin, and a hero of mine, Joe Wark. What a Dream.

Let’s get back to negative feedback for a moment. There were times that team- mates, managers, coaches, media men and even the fans would attempt to turn the football dream into a nightmare – but they never succeeded. Negative feedback is demoralising, confusing and humiliating. It is how the political world manipulate the masses. Yet, on reflection, in the world of football it is often hilarious. Positively fearsome is how I would describe Jock Wallace, who succeeded Davie Hay in July 1982.

Jock’s assistant was a fiercely passionate gem of a man called Frank Connor. Like David Hay, and an assistant coach called Cammy Murray, Frank was forever uplifting.

Jock Wallace was a man who was painted blue and white. His opening speech at Fir Park was to declare that in no shape or form was he using Motherwell as a stepping stone back to Ibrox Park. Within a year and a half he was indeed back at his beloved Glasgow Rangers.

Wallace was a man motivator unrivalled. I called him positively fearsome because just as you thought your bowels were giving way during one of Jock’s rants, the big man would change tact and try to leave you feeling good.

Even while putting you down, he could still make you feel ten feet tall. ‘Boss, why have you been playing me in the second team?’ I asked. Jock boomed back, ‘You’re too bloody good for the third team son.’

He once bellowed pre-match. ‘They are waiting next door, let them know who we are. Hit them hard, hit them high. Take your bayonets out, and pin your opponents to the floor. If they try to get back up……. pin them back to the floor.’ Then he added ruefully. ‘Now I am not talking about injuring people.’ Of course not Jock!

After one disastrous game in 1983 against Dundee Utd, Jock hauled me out of the bath and told me, ‘You give me a performance like that again son and I will hang you up by your balls on that peg in the dressing room.’ As he left the room he turned and added, ‘……and I say that with the greatest of respect.’ Positively fearsome.

The worst form of my life coincided with the arrival of Bobby Watson as boss in late 1983. Little wonder. Bobby and I never did see eye to eye, although to be fair, better players than me thought he was brilliant. At the end of Bobby’s reign he told Stuart Rafferty and I that if we ever managed to play in the Premier League again, he would personally kiss our backsides. Raff and I have never chased Bobby up on that unusual promise.

The Rangers connection continued when Tommy McLean and Tom Forsyth took the reins in 1984. To say that the two Tam’s were limited in their positive psychology practices would be the understatement of the century. My own opinion was that McLean was a first class football coach, theorist and perfectionist. All very well if you are the manager of Brazil. Sometimes in life you have to look at your strengths and weaknesses and build the jigsaw from there. Ah, but this is not life, it is football.

I felt at times that Tommy McLean tried to force the pieces of his jigsaw into places they were not meant to be. He did actually say that if we did not want to, or couldn’t play his way, then he would gladly offload us.

We must remember that McLean and Forsyth were both stepping gingerly up the managerial ladder. The success of taking Greenock Morton into the Premier League the season before was strong indication of their potential.

Tommy Mclean did some sterling work at Motherwell culminating in 3rd place in the Premier League for season 1993-94. Never forget of course, the magnificent cup winning season of 1990-91.

Unfortunately for me, he had sold me to Morton at the beginning of that very season. This was the Morton team who very nearly put paid to Motherwell’s cup run in the quarter-finals. After two drawn games and extra time Motherwell squeezed through 5- 4 in a penalty shoot-out at Cappielow. If you ever get the chance to see that shoot out again on television, be amazed at the quality of the spot kicks in such a tense situation.

When I saw who was lining up for ‘Well’s spot kicks that night, I couldn’t see a failure. Cooper, Ferguson, Russell, Kirk and O’Neill. The rest is history.

As Motherwell lifted the Scottish Cup at Hampden the words of Tommy McLean echoed in my head. ‘Gahagan, you’ve been here 11 years. 11 years of bullshit. If we had to take all the bullshit you have given this club, we would need all the chimneys at Ravenscraig to put it all in..…but..…you are still in my plans!’ Of course I was Tommy.

I was on page one, of the surplus to requirement plans. To his credit, McLean certainly did have plans. He was so meticulous. The signing of Davie Cooper was his finest moment, the greatest thing that happened to everyone at Motherwell. What an education. What a player. What a memory. Cooper was for Motherwell in the Premier League of the 90s what Brian McLaughlin had been in the First Division in the 80s.

Both were positive psychologists, personalities, artists and winners. To think I played alongside both these men. Was I lucky, or what?

McLaughlin, of course was ex Celtic. Cooper was an Ibrox Park enigma, evoking tales of sulking, mood swings and trainer hating tantrums.

Cooper never missed training, was never late and never left early. Not a day went by that he didn’t have us all in stitches with a sharp sense of fun. Hardly a game played where we didn’t gasp in astonishment at his artistry. The Fir Park faithful forever filled with triumphant expectancy. Even the most ardent fan could not have envisaged the most magnificent of triumphs, such was Hampden, 1991. What a dream. If this was Davie Cooper at the end of his career, what on earth was he like at his peak?

Motherwell’s comic legend Tam Cowan said that he felt the Cooper phenomenon really began at Fir Park. I totally agree. I think we all did. The board, staff, players and fans, who immortalised the master craftsman’s contribution with the Davie Cooper Stand and the Davie Cooper Suite.

Cooper, and Brian McLaughlin of course, were not the only decent players to come across from the Old Firm. The Celtic/Rangers connection had always been very prevalent throughout my Fir Park career.

It was essential for a club like Motherwell to sell to survive, and I do not think that scenario will ever change. The young stars sold off in my day, McLair, McAllister, Mauchline, Walker etc. were often replaced by players very much in the twilight of their career.

In truth, some of the old firm signings turned out to be huge influences, both on and off the park. Let’s have a look at a pool of players who went through the books at Motherwell F.C. during my time as a player, 1979-1990. These players either did play, or have since played, for the Old Firm.

Let’s turn full circle, back to the great scorer, testimonials and life and death. When Davie Cooper played for Motherwell, money was not on the agenda. He wanted to play and he wanted to entertain and he wanted to win, every time. There will be those who say that perhaps his financial incentives had been slightly eased by a career at Ibrox culminating in a magnificent Testimonial Season and glamour match, were thousands were locked outside. Such was the desire for Rangers fans to acknowledge his contribution to their club.

He cast it all aside and came to Motherwell at a fee of £50,000. The greatest piece of business in the history of Motherwell Football Club! Glasgow Rangers had just given away one of the greatest talents of any generation. Motherwell Football Club and their supporters set about resurrecting Cooper and his International career.

This footballing Phoenix arose from the Ibrox ashes and became a Fir Park emblem of immortality.

It was one our most celebrated stories, with the very saddest of endings. My own career seems to pale into insignificance by comparison. Signed from Shettleston Juniors for buttons. One signing on fee of £750, in 11 years. £80 per week wage in 1979, rising to £250 per week in 1990. Everything I ever made in football was lost in divorce proceedings shortly after I retired from the game…….MEN!

I wouldn’t have changed any of it…….maybe just tweaked it here and there. When Tommy McLean forced me out the door in 1990, making way for Joe McLeod (you’ve got to laugh), it was not the end of the world.

I was offered money to continue to play football at Greenock Morton. I have been grateful to Chairman Douglas Rae and manager Alan McGraw ever since. Money talks, so they say. And boy oh boy, sometimes it talks out it’s backside. The best comment ever came from Morton legend, Alan McGraw, at Cappielow Park in 1994. A man whom I adored, managing a club needing every penny they could lay their hands on just to stay in existence.

‘Gahagan, you’ve been here 4 indifferent years. We are thinking about offering you one more year. What kind of terms are you looking for son?’ I told him that since I hadn’t done the club justice, to keep the terms as they had been for the 4 years I had been there, £120 per week. Since I had been injured, as a wee incentive to myself, pay me an extra £10 every time I play for the first team. He sighed. ‘Aye son, it is characters like you that are draining the game dry!’ I laughed out loud, McGraw laughed out loud and we shook hands. I retired, and we have remained friends ever since.

My own Testimonial Match was against a Premier League select at the end of the 1989-90 season. Kenny Dalglish and Graeme Souness were the figureheads to bring in Old Firm supporters, but, on the run up to the game, Dalglish was invited to Buckingham Palace to receive an award and Souness pulled a hamstring. Any old excuses, eh? Half an hour before kick-off there was not one person in the ground. Ally McCoist said that Tommy McLean had planned to put me on the bench. I believed him. Imagine being relieved that you were actually getting a game in your own testimonial match. 2000 punters crowded in. I loved every one of them, especially my mother who, for the first time in her life, got to see me play football. My father choosing to stay in a boozer back in Glasgow, such was his influence.

At the end of the game I ran a lap of honour and shook as many hands as I could. Motherwell’s average home gate that season had been 8,500. One in four regulars had come to say thanks. What a dream.

Ian McLeod had been a magnificent servant to us for nine years and was then sold on, because he refused to go full-time. What a loss. Tom McAdam was suddenly shown the door at Celtic just as his testimonial season beckoned. So cruel a fate for such loyal servants, and there have been many more. Was I lucky, or what?

I have thanked the supporters and the great scorer many times in my prayers. I have re-lived my career in my sleep, and listened again to all the praise and criticism in my dreams. My dreams…….. and nightmares. To play professional football in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. To spend 11-years with Motherwell F.C. To have 5 managers (Bill Munro, Jock Wallace, Bobby Watson, Tommy McLean and Alan McGraw) place me on the transfer list. To see every professional team I played for (Clydebank, Motherwell and Morton) relegated. To be sent off six times in my career (three for handbags and three for throwing the dummy out of the pram). To score over 50 goals in my career. To be ‘Well’s top scorer in 1983-84. To be in Motherwell’s top ten post war league appearances (counting 93 substitute appearances). To win two First Division Championship medals in 1982 and 1985. To spend over 100 games on the bench in all games for Motherwell. To be honoured with a testimonial season by Motherwell F.C. To compete with some of the greatest players of those decades. And Shankly’s quote? More important than life and death? A hospital visit in the early 1980s saw a squad of ‘Well players meet a young boy suffering from leukaemia. I showed him my First Division championship medal from 1981-82. He was so excited, I told him to keep it. We were both so happy. At my own Testimonial game in May 1990, one of the wee mascots was a boy of three or four, suffering from leukaemia. That wee boy and his parents had such a happy day. He died a short while later.

A couple of years ago I spoke at a dinner in Motherwell Civic Centre to raise funds for families who had been the victims of a hit and run accident in Bellshill. Shankly’s quote had by now faded into insignificance. I decided to put my 1984-85 First Division medal up for auction. It fetched £250. It was one of many small contributions which on the night seemed to add up to so much. The very fact that communities were rallying together in tragic circumstances was overwhelming. The response of the families involved, and their gratitude, was emotionally humbling. A bottle of Buckfast signed by two councillors fetched £500. People are funny and God works in mysterious ways

All I have left is my B&Q Cup runners-up medal. Does that sum it all up? Should I really have been tarred with the wee diddy brush? Was the Great Scorer too generous when he marked against my name? Are testimonials made for squad players like John Gahagan, still here to tell this story, or legends such as Davie Cooper, so tragically taken away from us together with brilliant boys like Phil O’Donnell, Brian McLaughlin, Paul McGrillen, Ian MacLeod, Joe Wark and Tommy O’Hara.

Let’s ask ourselves again. Is football really a matter of life and death? I’ll let you decide. At the end of it all, please tell me this: did the Motherwell fans really sing ‘We’ve got Johnny Johnny Johnny Johnny Gahagan on the wing’? Was I truly voted into the greatest Motherwell Football Club Team of All Time? What a Dream


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