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Interview: Ronnie McKinnon, Rangers legend

How difficult do you suppose it might be to find an Ibrox legend willing to talk about that unforgettable day when Big Rangers were humiliated by Wee Rangers?

Sammy Reid (far left) scores the goal to knock Rangers out of the 1967 Scottish Cup, creating shockwaves around the country in the process on a day Ronnie McKinnon has tried hard to forget. More memorable was his Scotland debut in the 1965 victory over Italy (centre). His proudest achievement remains the trophy to mark his induction into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, a recognition he was also awarded by the Ibrox club. Main picture: Ron Huckbody/2day UK

More difficult than locating a Daniel Prodan "best bits" DVD in the club shop, that's what. More difficult than wrestling the dressing-room mirror from Lorenzo Amoruso in his tousled, love-god pomp. More difficult than staying upright in the penalty-box if your name's John McDonald.

But admittedly not quite as difficult as trying to count grains of sand after you'd been ordered to run up some formidable dunes by the growling ex-Commando who'd been the architect of your Scottish Cup downfall at Berwick. And while we're at it, surely discovering that Jock Wallace had suddenly been put in charge of your training was having insult added to injury.

The trail in search of the Shielfield Vanquished had taken me to Broxburn, West Lothian and to Spain, and to hotels and pubs once owned by ex-Rangers, but the wee right winger didn't want to talk and the silky left-half couldn't be found. Then: a breakthrough. Hello, is that Ronnie McKinnon's twin brother and is he with you? Yes, says Donnie, ex-Partick Thistle, but he's having his tea. A short while later, the best Gers centre-half post-Big George Young calls back. He'll talk, but not today, the day of the 40th anniversary memorial service for the 66 who died at Ibrox watching the football - he wants to wait until he gets home. Well, there's perspective on the "disaster" of Berwick Rangers 1, Glasgow Rangers 0 right away.

Home for McKinnon, now 70, is the Outer Hebrides, a croft in Point, near Stornoway. "I don't just like it here, I love it," he says. "The view out my window is Broad Bay, which is magical, and not far away is Carloway where my mother brought Donny and I during the war when bombs were dropped on Govan." It was ten years ago that Lewis, his mum's birthplace, provided sanctuary for McKinnon for a second time. He mostly enjoyed the three decades he spent in South Africa selling cars but had witnessed more than his share of violence and death on the streets. "And I was lucky enough to be able to persuade Elizabeth who's my third wife, making a hat-trick, to come back with me on the promise that Lewis was full of handsome fellows." Pride of place on a sideboard goes to the award confirming his membership of Scotland's Hall of Fame, having won 28 caps and been a hero of Wembley '67.

Each January, he and Elizabeth try to commit to a joint New Year resolution. "This time it's going for long walks. I give that another three days." He still follows football but, typical of one from his generation, with a somewhat heavy heart and occasionally disbelieving eye. He didn't know his old rivals Celtic had been drawn against Berwick in this season's Cup. And on learning that this tie, too, is at Shielfield he says he might tune in, "to see if they could get done just like us".

I'd been keen to interview McKinnon for a while; ever since being provided with this priceless dressing-room anecdote by Colin Stein: "Everyone at Rangers had their own wee routine before a game. Willie Henderson was the joker, Alex MacDonald was aye chirpy, Davie Provan would be throwing up, Willie Johnston would be having a fag in the bogs, a right bag of nerves - and Ronnie would be combing his hair in the mirror, all suave, and saying: ‘Who are we playing today? Do you think they'll turn up?'"

He chuckles when I recount this, downplaying the suaveness, stressing: "When you played for Rangers, you had to be smart at all times." Yes, but if it was suits-must-be-worn, did he customise? "A wee touch of the Beatles, a bit of mohair - I loved my gear but in Glasgow in the 1960s who didn't?" Oh, and he's also anxious to downplay suggestions of arrogance or complacency, that he uttered these words before every game, or even once actually meant them.

Okay, then, were Rangers in any way arrogant or complacent as the team-bus swung in to Shielfield on 28 January, 1967? "Ha ha, well, now you're asking. We were supposed to wallop them. Everyone was saying we'd win ten to nil or even more. The players weren't running a book on what the score would be if that's what you mean but, yes, some of us were probably a wee bitty casual that day. Fatal."

The records show that a crowd of 13,365 squeezed into the ground - it's never been topped - that J. Wallace, the player-manager in the Berwick goal had a stormer (this is the actual word used, look it up) and that the part-timers from the old Second Division won with a strike from Sammy Reid. I'm after the full atmospheric picture but McKinnon apologises and says he must have erased a lot of the detail from his mind. "I'll tell you this, though: what little I can remember about the game is still in the back of my head and it'll stay there for ever.

"I do remember it was a gie raw day. The park was tight, the crowd was right on top of the players, like they could have barged you off the ball. And we should have known that, down at their place, Berwick would have a chance. I repeat: none of us were joking about and thinking it'd be a skoosh, but there wasn't the usual tenseness before kick-off, I remember that too. But Berwick, to be fair, were immense. Not meaning this in a bad way, but I'm sure they never played that well, ran that fast, tackled that hard ever again. It was as if just the sight of Glasgow Rangers across the pitch made them burst out of their shirts like superheroes." Was McKinnon - who'd come out on top against Sandro Mazzola in his Scotland debut in the famous 1-0 win against Italy in 1965 and who four months after Berwick would be shackling England World Cup hat-trick hero Geoff Hurst - in any way culpable for Reid's winner on the half-hour mark? "Ha ha, I'd like to think I was far enough away when he hit it. A great shot, mind, but one in a million. How many times in football do you see a team get battered then score with one breakaway?" McKinnon's memory of the game, as he admits, is failing him. Berwick could have netted a second through Geordie Christie or Alan Ainslie, who forced a fine save from Norrie Martin and also hit the post. Shielfield mythology has it that Rangers captain John Greig, only too aware that time-added-on in those days was at the referee's discretion, pleaded with the official for two more minutes and was told: "I've already given you four."

So what was the reaction of manager Scot Symon, who'd signed McKinnon, when the final whistle did sound? "I think his feelings, like ours, were of sheer and utter disbelief. He wasn't a shouter or a tea-cup thrower but I'd better not repeat what he said that day. I think we all knew there would be hell to pay. With Rangers' reputation at the time, there had to be repercussions and there had to be scapegoats."

Just as the axe would fall on Alex Ferguson two years later for failing to stop Billy McNeill scoring in the cup final - "Fergie actually blamed me for that recently - the cheek of it!" - so Jim Forrest and George McLean carried the can for Berwick and neither kicked another ball in the Light Blue. "Poor guys, they didn't set out to have bad games. Of course these days it would be the manager who'd go." Forrest had been averaging a goal every other game and McLean two in every three, so to outsiders who don't understand the Rangers mentality this must have seemed like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Different times, of course. The Old Firm weren't bored with the domestic scene and there was huge respect for the "Scottish". In 1964 when McKinnon helped Rangers complete the treble with a 3-1 triumph over Dundee, a crowd of 120,982 packed onto Hampden's slopes.

The "meat paste in the sandwich" of what many regard as Rangers' greatest-ever half-back line alongside Greig and Jim Baxter, McKinnon won two League Championships, two League Cups and four Scottish Cups in ten years at Ibrox - all this after being given a "free" in the Junior ranks and told he'd never make it.

"I was born at 72 Greenfield Street in what they call ‘Sunny Go-van' - a goal-kick from Ibrox, though the house is gone now - and after we came back from Carloway me and Donnie played morning, noon and night with a wee rubber ball and my only ambition was to turn out for Benburb Juniors, who we regarded as the local team. Playing for Rangers seemed an impossible dream. Anyway I made it to ‘the Bens' who, when Rangers were away, got crowds of 15,000 but I had no physique back then and was put on the left-wing where I'd try to run past these hard, hard guys on the way down from the pro game and they'd kick me up in the air."

Perhaps because of events at Berwick, McKinnon is philosophical when looking back over his career. He doesn't blame the guys who kicked him and he doesn't blame Benburb for letting him go. "But I was scunnered with football and wanted nothing more to do with it. Then one dark and stormy night - thunder, lightning, the lot - there was a knock at the door. I remember saying to my dad: ‘Whoever that is, they must be keen.' Dunipace Juniors wanted to sign me and because these two guys had made such an effort, I gave it another go. Not long after, I was walking up the marble staircase at Ibrox to meet Mr Symon.

"To me, he was a father-figure - strict but kind. I was in awe of the likes of Ian McColl. George Young was on his last legs and I eventually got my big chance." He had to learn the Rangers code. "It was a much stricter place than other clubs, right down to being well turned-out, which you felt gave you a wee advantage. And it worked. We were prone to winning football matches. Most of them, anyway."

In McKinnon's era Rangers had plenty of pantomime villains which opposing fans loved to hate, but he wasn't one of them. "I was sent off just the once - stood on a fellow's face in a stramash at Aberdeen but didn't mean it." After Berwick, the team rediscovered their iron will to reach that season's Cup Winners' Cup final, only to lose to Bayern Munich.

Five years later, in Barcelona, Rangers would achieve Euro glory but his career was over, having broken his right leg in two places in an earlier round away to Sporting Lisbon. While club officials were arguing for their right to progress - a penalty shootout which they'd lost had been superflous - a Portuguese surgeon admitted he didn't have the experience to operate. Back home, the Rangers doctor was too tired after a day in theatre to put him under the knife. "So there was a delay, which was crucial." He must have been angry. "No, I didn't blame the Rangers doc, a lovely fellow who'd twice fixed my broken nose. That was just how things were mapped out for me." So the Juniors cast-off was left to reflect on a great pro career. "A good career, yes."

In light of Colin Stein's reminisce, I'd been looking forward to meeting a cocksure player, a typical Ibrox supremacist if you like. Ronnie McKinnon isn't one but I'm not disappointed. The "absolute pinnacle" of that good career was England 2, Scotland 3. "I could talk about that game until my dying day. We were the nae-chancers, but you're never that when you can call on Billy Bremner, Denis Law and the great Baxter." Now I'm sorry for not letting him natter about it some more. "Maybe next time," he says. "Berwick Rangers 1, Glasgow Rangers 0 is a great story, too. These ridiculous scorelines have to happen sometimes. I've been a big guy toppled but I've also been a wee guy doing the toppling. That's healthy, I think."

 
 
 

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