BERT McCann's funeral was held this afternoon. Bert Who? Some might say. The former Motherwell and Scotland left-half's death was scandalously ignored by the mainstream media, indeed, today, nine days after his passing and on the day of his funeral, Motherwell, the team he served so well, the club he captained, the club in whose Hall of Fame he is placed, and, who named him at left-half in their Greatest All-Time Motherwell team has still to acknowledge his demise in its website.
Bert McCann,Andy Weir and Ian St John at Hampden in May 1959
A club which does not recognise its history, is in a bad way in my view. McCann deserves to be recognised, because, he was different, and, the trouble with Scottish football is – we don't pay enough attention to the guys who are different. For a start, to paraphrase the great Willie Shankly – the trouble with Bert McCann was, his brains were in his heid. Bert went to a rugby-playing school, Harris Academy in Dundee, where he played hockey and golf as well as football. He was also a highly-promising young wicket-keeper on the cricket pitch.
He left school and went into banking, prior to National Service in the Royal Air Force. He went through the normal football apprenticeship of these times, the early 1950s, by playing for junior side Dundee North End, from where he went to Dundee United – playing as an amateur.
He won an Amateur Scotland cap while with United, where he mainly played inside-right. This saw him join Queen's Park – urged to go there by Jock Crichton, a colleague as a teacher at George Heriot's School. McCann, of course, was not the first practising teacher to play senior football – one thinks of Rangers' George Brown, the great Rangers and Scotland captain of the 1930s, or McCann's near-contemporary Jim McFadzean of Hearts and Kilmarnock, or Andy Roxburgh and Craig Brown. But, such players are unusual.
He graduated MA in Geography and Spanish from Edinburgh University, while his teaching experience took him from Heriot's into teacher training at Jordanhill College, then, for many years to Moray House College of Education – but, that's for the future.
Willie Hunter - another capped "Ancell Babe"
In 1956, McCann turned professional, joining Motherwell. The attraction was perhaps the fact, Motherwell manager Bobby Ancell had coached the young McCann in Dundee. He – McCann - saw the Queen's Parker as a key element in the new young team he wanted to build at Fir Park. And build it Ancell did. Today, more than 50-years on the “Ancell Babes” represent a golden post-war age for the club. The names ring down the years – John Martis, McCann, Willie Hunter, Pat Quinn, Ian St John and Andy Weir all won full Scotland caps as, in 1958-59, Motherwell finished third in the old First Division, their highest finish since the title-winning glory days of the 1930s, 25-years before. When, long after he had retired, the Motherwell fans named McCann at number 6 in their all-time Motherwell team, it reflected the effect that group of players had on the supporters. The six named above all played for Scotland, Charlie Aitken, who formed a terrific half-back line with Martis and McCann was very unfortunate not to also be capped.
Charlie Aitken - unlucky not to be capped
When Scotland faced West Germany, at Hampden, in May, 1959, McCann, St John and Weir, along with John White, were the new caps in a side which won 3-2. It was the first of five full caps for Bert, who also represented the Scottish League five times. And, in those ten internationals, he was only twice on the losing side – a reflection of the strength of Scottish football at the time.
One of these losses was for the Scottish League, against the English League, the other – we will come to later.
In March 1961, Motherwell held Rangers to a 2-2 draw at Fir Park in a Scottish Cup tie. The replay at Ibrox was supposed to be a formality for Rangers, who didn't lose cup replays back then. Only, in one of the great results in Motherwell history, the Steelmen, driven-on by Aitken's and McCann's and midfield dominance,won 5-2. The press lauded the close-passing of the Motherwell midfielders in that game; years later, McCann said: “Aye, we were playing tiki-taki 50-years before Barcelona”.
Performances like that got McCann into the Scottish league XI, which beat the English League 3-2, with the Motherwell man scoring. More-significantly, he did a thorough man-marking job on Jimmy Greaves and, in spite of competition from Hearts'John Cumming and Jim Baxter, he was named at left-half for the bi-annual trip to Wembley, on 15 April, 1961. And here, we come to the dismal bit. On the Friday night, McCann suffered a terrible nose bleed, there was blood everywhere and he had to be hospitalised. It took all night to staunch the flow properly.
The SFA put a news black-out on the incident – they had already had to make a last-minute change to the goalkeeper, Frank Haffey replacing Lawrie Leslie. The selectors and manager Ian McColl considered withdrawing McCann, but, McColl felt “A 70% Bert McCann is better than the alternatives”, so, not having slept all night, and weakened by blood loss – he played. At least, Bert McCann had a legitimate excuse for his part in the debacle of 9-3. He had to wear gloves – an apparent breach of protocol at the time – to shake hands with HM the Queen, to counteract possible cross-contamination, and because, his hands were still blood-stained. He swapped shirts with Bobby Robson at the end, but, his Scotland career was over.
Fall-guys McCann and Haffey fail to stop Jimmy Greaves in the 9-3 game
The selectors' reaction to such a defeat was typical – they dropped the goalkeeper, the unfortunate and much-maligned Haffey; they dropped the Anglo-Scots – Dave Mackay, Ian St John and Denis Law, and, they dropped the guy from the provincial club – McCann. The others served their sentences and were reinstated in time – but, for McCann, there was no way back. However, as he could point out, Jim Baxter, the man who replaced him, wasn't a bad choice.
Jim Baxter - not a bad replacement for McCann in the national team
He played on for Motherwell. There were no medals, a Scottish Cup semi-final in 1962 the closest he came. He gave Motherwell a decade of service, over 300 games, then played out his career with Hamilton Academical.
But, he never forgot Motherwell. He was a member of the club's Former Players Association – and a member of the Well Foundation, which aims to facilitate fan ownership of the club. He always liked reunions with his old team mates, and had many hilarious tales from the dressing room, training field and pitch.
McCann was ahead of his time. He believed the Scottish clubs were “amateurish” in their preparations. He advocated a gym culture, better nutrition for players and greater consideration for life after football for players – today, some Scottish clubs are still not on-board on these issues.
In retirement, he became a pioneer in the use of television for educational purposes and, for many years, he ran the Television Education Department at Moray House.
He had sporting interests beyond football – he golfed well, he played a mean game of snooker and he was a keen fan of baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, making an annual trip to Canada to watch them play.
His later years, following his retirement from lecturing in 1995 were beset by health problems. When, in 2001, he received a kidney transplant, he was, at 69, the oldest person ever to have the operation. He managed his failing health well, but, earlier this month, his heart finally gave out. He is survived by wife Viv, whom he married in 1959, son Simon, a GP in the Borders and daughter Julie, a teacher in Edinburgh.
Bert McCann is best-remembered perhaps, for his part in 9-3, but, there was much-more to this footballing gentleman than that, We should honour his memory.