"The Oldie is an incredible magazine - perhaps the best magazine in the world right now" Graydon Carter, founder of Air Mail and former Editor of Vanity Fair

Subscribe to the Oldie and get a free cartoon book


I Once Met... Tommy Docherty - John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Nov 11, 2022

Glasgow smile: the Doc

John McEwen remembers an interview with Tommy Docherty, ‘the Doc’, who died on New Year’s Eve 2020, at 92

It wasn’t because of his illustrious career as a player (Scotland captain, Celtic, Preston, Arsenal, Chelsea) and manager (Scotland, Chelsea, Aston Villa, Oporto, Manchester United etc).

I was after his banter: ‘Some of my players are so stupid they think “manual labour” is the Spanish president.’

When we met at his house in the Peak District, his career was after-dinner speaking. He’d agreed to be interviewed with great affability, and cracked a bottle of champagne. His second wife Mary’s art collection adorned the sitting room; evidence of his career was absent.

Before the jokes, there was his Catholic Glaswegian childhood, making him a lifelong Celtic fan. ‘There was no money – so if you wanted a pair of shoes, you nicked them at the public baths.’

His father died young and his mother kept things together until National Service ‘made a man of him’. He was posted to Palestine – but did not mention being on guard when the King David Hotel, British Armed Forces HQ, was blown up by the Zionist Irgun group; nor that he was offered officer training.

Having played for the British Army, he was signed by Celtic, but soon transferred to Preston North End, where Tom Finney was left wing: ‘The best player I’ve seen, as good with his right as with his left foot.’

I later read that Finney praised the Doc’s fierce tackling and pinpoint-accurate passing from right half. The Doc said, ‘Lionel Messi is an immature Tom Finney.’

The Doc played for Scotland in two World Cups. In 1954, Scotland were thrashed 7-0 by Uruguay, on a scorching day: ‘Our shirts might as well have been Crombie overcoats. We were knackered before the end of their national anthem!’ His Scotland career was over by the 1961 9-3 disaster at Wembley, when keeper Frank Haffey couldn’t handle crosses: ‘He was like a crocus. He only came out once a year!’

With his managerial career, the jokes speeded up: ‘Some of the strikers I had couldn’t have scored in a brothel.’ On Jimmy Hill: ‘He said, “I’m good in the air.” I said, “So was Douglas Bader.” Of George Best: ‘He was always going missing: Miss America, Miss Canada, Miss Great Britain.’

As back-up, I went to hear the Doc at a Park Lane hotel charity dinner. ‘I was lying in bed this morning with the wife – I was lying to her, she was lying to me,’ he opened, proceeding to recite the names of his all-blue (his innovation) ‘swinging London’ Chelsea team, his favourite managing job. Each name (Charlie Cooke, ‘Chopper’ Harris et al) was cheered to the rafters by the nostalgic fans present.

The Doc laid the foundations of the best World Cup Scotland team (1974), giving Kenny Dalglish the first of his record 102 caps, and did the same for post-Charlton, -Law, -Best Manchester United. The first duty was to entertain the crowd; if that meant scoring three goals to two, so much the better.