Gordon McQueen, the former St Mirren, Leeds United and Manchester United defender died aged 70 on Thursday.
He was beloved by his teammates for his humour and for always being quickest to the punchline. It helped him settle into new dressing rooms, but also had some unforeseen consequences.
I spoke to the late McQueen a number of times over the years, and especially for my book 'We're the famous Man United' in 2006. From those interactions emerged the story of a special footballer with many interesting tales.
Twice Leeds player of the season when they were one of the top sides in Europe in the 1970s, McQueen was enjoying a post-season break shortly after his side lost the 1975 European Cup final when he inadvertently helped stop teammate and friend Joe Jordan signing for Bayern Munich.
“We went to Marbella,” McQueen revealed back then. “The waiter came down to the pool and said: ‘Telephone call for Mr Joe Jordan from Mr Detmar Kramer in Germany'. He was Bayern Munich’s manager. Joe looked around and when he didn’t see Billy Bremner and Johnny Giles – the two main jokers of the team – he assumed that it was them ringing the reception from their rooms. Joe said: ‘Go and deal with it Gordon.’ I pretended to be Joe.
“'We want you to join Bayern Munich, we’ve been really impressed by you’, the caller declared.
‘Yes, no problem but you have to sign McQueen too.’
‘McQueen is a good central defender but we have [Franz] Beckenbauer and [Hans-Georg] Schwarzenbeck who play all the time.’
‘They couldn’t lace McQueen’s boots. They are not in the same class. You don’t know what you are talking about.‘
‘Ok, maybe we speak later but I’m not so sure.’
"The caller hung up. He phoned back. I answered it and realised that the earlier call was genuine. Joe was mortified and never ended up joining Bayern Munich.”
McQueen and Jordan would end up signing for Manchester United in controversial transfers in 1978 between the bitter rivals. Assured by Don Revie’s promise that Leeds were going to buy the best players in Britain, McQueen had signed a four-year contract in 1977. He was quoted in Shoot! magazine that he wanted to stay at Leeds forever.
“The problem was that Leeds never did sign the best players,” reminisced McQueen. “Leeds broke a lot of promises – none of them financial – but more about the direction that the club was going. My best friend was Joe Jordan, who I eventually became best man for. We joined Leeds around the same time, broke into the first team at the same time and the Scotland team too.
"They let Joe go over what amounted to £15 a week in wages. They were talking about building a new Leeds and they let Joe, one of Leeds’ best young players, go to Manchester United. That was the final nail in the coffin for me and I became very disillusioned.”
Leeds declined into mediocrity, while McQueen’s standing as a player increased.
A month after Jordan moved in January 1978, McQueen followed him to Old Trafford, moving west for £495,000. He knew that the Leeds fans wouldn’t take too well to the transfer, but he didn’t realise that the saga would go on.
“It was horrible,” he recalls. “Firstly, a lot of the articles from Shoot! came through the post, with messages like: ‘You ******, this is what you said.’ I gave up answering them because people didn’t want to know my reasons. Everyone said I went to United for money. That’s absolute rubbish. Leeds would have paid me more money and I lost my club car when I joined United.”
Manchester United’s support had made McQueen notice the club long before he moved to Old Trafford. “We played United in the 1977 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and I vividly remember walking out at Hillsborough and immediately feeling deflated. We were in Yorkshire, the ground was supposed to be split between Leeds and United, yet it was anything but.
“I just thought: ‘look at the support these lot have got'. I never thought, right, that’s it I want to join Manchester United, but it swayed my decision when United wanted me to join."
Yet McQueen had never really rated United as a team.
“I’d played against Man United many times,” he ventured. “Leeds went to Old Trafford in 1974 and beat them comfortably because they just weren’t a good side at the time. And despite the fans hating each other, the biggest game for Leeds was against Liverpool.”
The size of United staggered him though.
“Leeds were a big club, but United was on a different level. You just had to compare the away support alone. There was no restriction on travelling fans in those days and United would go to places like Norwich or Stoke and it was like carnival day. United fans would take over the whole stadium and as a player you just felt very, very comfortable.
“Everything was bigger at Old Trafford – the ground, the crowds, your mail bag, the press conference when I signed. United were big, yet other clubs could compete for players with United. It was a more level playing field than now, where Chelsea and United can pay far more than the rest of the clubs.”
McQueen enjoyed life at Old Trafford and respected his manager Dave Sexton. “He was a lovely man and we had a good side, but we never won anything. There’s a myth attached to the football Sexton played. People said that his football was negative but he didn’t have a negative thought in his head when it came to attacking. I cannot tell you how strongly I feel about that, because it was totally unfair.
“Dave’s man management was first class,” he continued. “He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He wanted to improve players, improve Manchester United and he couldn’t give a hoot about himself. Defensive? He used to say, ‘get the ball forward’ and yet he got the sack because people said he was defensive."
McQueen also got on well with Sexton’s successor, Ron Atkinson.
“I liked Ron and got on fine with him. He was quite hard on me at times because there was a wee bit of indiscipline in my game and I maybe wandered a bit out of position. Or maybe I took too many touches of the ball when I should have been more positive. Ron was good for Manchester United though. Maybe if there had been more funds available he might have been even better. But he signed Bryan Robson and he was one of the greatest players in the club’s history.
"When United signed Bryan, I was a Glenn Hoddle fanatic and I thought that Bryan had nowhere near the technical ability and the touch that Hoddle had. I sat in the stand with Robbo on the day he signed when Sammy McIlroy, the player he was bought to replace, scored a hat-trick. Robbo never flinched - he knew, he just knew, that he was a lot, lot better.
"Three games down the line I realised that Robbo was a bit different. He could tackle and score goals with his right and left foot. He protected the back four so much that I felt I could play and have a cigar – nothing got past Bryan. I started realising that Bryan was right up there with the best players I’d been with – Bremner and Giles at Leeds, Kenny Dalglish at Scotland.”
McQueen and Robson would become best friends for life.
McQueen’s best was good enough for United fans who used to chant: ‘Gordon McQueen, Gordon McQueen, Gordon! Gordon!’, especially when he made one his runs forward.
“I love bombing forward and the crowd loved it too,” he said. “I kept charging up until I ran out of grass or hit an advertising hoarding. I’d run five yards with the ball and could sense that they wanted me to run a bit more. They’d really get me at it so I’d move forward even more.
"Managers hated it and some of the players hated it. Frank Stapleton, who was pretty serious, used to look at me and could tell he was thinking: ‘What is he up to?’ I did it because I used to fancy myself as a bit of a left winger. I was always very quick too, despite being 6’ 4” with gangly legs. I was the quickest player at Leeds and I was the quickest player at Old Trafford when I arrived at the club.”
McQueen, meanwhile, could look back on a fine career at the top level. Aside from club football, he was capped 30 times for Scotland. “It should have been a lot more but playing for my country meant everything to me, more than playing for United or Leeds."
The proudest of proud Scots, McQueen was from the town of Kilbirnie in North Ayrshire - 20 miles south-west of Glasgow, a hard-bitten former steel town.
“It’s a tough place,” McQueen agreed. “And I’m proud to be from there.”
McQueen’s father Tommy was a professional footballer who grafted in the steel works when he retired. Before that, he played in goal for Hibernian, Motherwell, Berwick Rangers and Accrington Stanley in the 1950s, when Accrington sometimes took the field with an all-Scots team.
His son made history of his own. “I scored against England at Wembley in ’77, the first time we had beaten them in a long, long while. It was in front of reputedly the largest away following in Britain.”
McQueen, who also captained his country aged 22, reckoned it was his biggest achievement in football and remembered fondly how proud his father was of him that day.
Apart from a spell living in Accrington, the family stayed in Kilbirnie where his father was a well known figure in the town of 8,000 because he played in a Junior Cup final the first time Kilbirnie ever won it in 1952.
Despite being desperate to play for Rangers and being loaned boots by the club when he went there for a trial and also trying out at Liverpool where homesickness scuppered matters, McQueen finally ended up at St Mirren.
Before then he’d been labouring at Glengarnock Steel Works, emptying steel ingots out of railway carriages. “It was heavy physical work and I used to get a bad back. I’d wear a towel around my neck to avoid the heat of the furnaces.”
Don Revie beat off a host of other top managers to take him to Leeds but McQueen’s short fuse meant he missed that 1975 European Cup final because he was sent off in the second leg of the semi-final in Camp Nou.
“There was 15 minutes to go when the forward Clares spat in my face. I counted to ten and then knocked him out, for which I was sent off. I sat in the dressing room and as I cooled down it dawned on me – ‘Oh wait a minute; I’m going to miss the European Cup final here'.“
If some Leeds fans never forgave him for his move across the Pennines, Manchester United fans have nothing but good memories. He was characteristically modest about the regard in which he was held.
“I had a good relationship with the fans. I don’t think I’m remembered as a legend, but I think I was quite popular. I had a lot of injuries which meant I was never as fit as I should have been and I wasn’t the most disciplined defender. There was a bit of inconsistency about my football as well. But I still loved playing for Manchester United, my days were easily the most memorable of my career and they are my team, without a doubt.
"I have a soft spot for Middlesbrough because I worked there for seven years, live near there, know a lot of the people behind the scenes and my son is a season ticket holder, but Manchester United is my team. They get in your blood. I’m glad that I’ve kept a lovely relationship with a lot of the Leeds lads, more so than the United lads, but I am always treated really well when I go to Old Trafford.”