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Wandering eyes, from Benfica all the way to Muirkirk . . .

OF all the likely managers for Muirkirk, the village team nestling amid the scented pastures of Ayrshire junior football, would anyone have come up with Jose Quitongo?

Jose Quitongo admits to being bemused by the fact that he can drive through Muirkirk and not see anyone. 'It's like something out of the movies,' he says, bewildered. Picture: Nick Ponty
Jose Quitongo admits to being bemused by the fact that he can drive through Muirkirk and not see anyone. 'It's like something out of the movies,' he says, bewildered. Picture: Nick Ponty

The little Angolan, now into his 40th year and still playing as Muirkirk's player-manager, greets me like a cackling bantam cock when we meet up for a blether. Scarcely have we got going before Quitongo lays his strange mix of puritanism and human weakness on the line for me.

"I've never smoked and I've never drunk alcohol . . . never in my life," he says. Jose then draws closer for a more solemn confession.

"But listen to me, Graham," he hisses. "Women . . . this has been my weakness! Oh yes. But now I have a new partner and I feel very happy. Maybe it's time to settle down."

It is almost 20 years since Quitongo first arrived in Scottish football at Hamilton Academical, a likeable waif from Africa who always talked a good game, despite being a bit more erratic about it on the field. At least 19 clubs later - Quitongo and I, in trying to tot them up, failed to agree on a final figure - he is a confirmed Ayrshire junior, picking himself most weeks for Muirkirk as they scrap for survival near the fetid foot of the Ayrshire District League.

How in heaven's name, I asked him, did he end up as manager of Muirkirk?

"One of my friends said to me, 'look, this club, Muirkirk, is looking for a manager.' So I applied, I went for an interview, and I got it.

"The funny thing is, I don't want to be a manager. I still don't. I'm too nice a guy. Managers need to be hard, tough. Well, this isn't Jose.

"I'm still playing on the right wing. I'm nearly 40 and I feel as fit now as I ever was. My body shape is better now than before. I swear, I can give the kids a run for the money."

Though he appears to be in two minds about the appeal of Muirkirk itself. "Oh, it's a nice wee place," says Quitongo. "But sometimes you don't see anybody there. Nobody. You can drive through it and never see anyone. It's like something from the movies. No-one is there.

"I just love football. I'm nearly 40 and I am still playing football. Okay, in the juniors, sometimes it isn't football, but I still love it."

Quitongo has always been highly likeable, although from the moment he arrived in Scotland his back-story always seemed a bit vague. His early days at the Benfica academy in Portugal gave his reputation a bit of a sheen, though his rambling career from Hamilton onwards never quite bore out any suggestion of early promise.

I tried one more time with Jose to clarify his early football career.

"I was 10 when I left Angola," he says. "Just me - not my family. I left to go to Portugal, to Benfica. This guy - a scout - saw me playing in the street in Luanda and went to see my parents and said, 'I want to send your kid to Portugal - he is very, very good.' My parents agreed to it, so I went to the Benfica academy.

"I played youth games with Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa. This is why I never drink or smoke. I learned to be very disciplined at Benfica.

"The Benfica manager then was Sven Goran Eriksson and he played me in the first team - yes, yes - in friendlies and in some cup games. Then I went to Estoril on loan and . . . disaster. Not good."

In the archives it is hard to pin down Quitongo's Benfica career, though he remains adamant that, but for a terrible injury while on loan at Estoril in 1993, he might have played at the top of football.

"When I was 17 Benfica sent me on loan to Estoril, then in the Portuguese Premier League, and I broke my leg. I still have metal and seven screws in my left leg."

At this, Quitongo hoists up a trouser-leg to show me quite a map of surgical scars.

"I'd played seven games for Estoril before my injury. Many people said to me, 'Jose, you will play at a high level.' But then I broke my leg. It happened in training, two of us just challenged, and my leg went like this [Quitongo makes a snapping motion, like a twig]. They said: 'Jose, you are never going to play again.'

"I think I could have made it. When I was growing up I got a lot of attention, with many coaches saying, 'look at that wee guy, he is very good.' I knew I had a great chance, but not after my injury."

In Scotland, Quitongo will forever be associated with Hamilton, where he did three separate tours of duty since first setting foot there in 1994. I asked him to reel off his entire list of clubs, but he very quickly got lost.

"Eh, eh, okay, let's see …Darlington, Hamilton, Hearts, St Mirren, Killie, Alloa, Dumbarton, Partick Thistle, Glenafton, Waterford … eh … that team in Sweden … eh … Tampa Bay… the wee club in Italy, and of course Benfica and Estoril and …"

By this time Quitongo has his fingers outstretched on both hands in front of him. He has played for somewhere between 19 and 22 clubs.

"I came to Scotland nearly 20 years ago and I have never really left. I love this place. I think Scottish football is unique: the pace, the passion of it. You can be the best player in the world, but if you come to Scotland and can't adapt to the game here, then you will struggle.

"Scotland is now my home. My two boys were born here. I love Scotland."

Quitongo's two sons, Jai and Rico, both born to his Scottish ex-partner, are on Hamilton's books, with Jai in particular making good progress as a Scottish schools under-18 internationalist. This kid is skilful and handsome, sporting his dad's famous dreadlocks.

Quitongo Sr takes great pride in his two sons, lavishly describing to me Jai's impressive physique, while lamenting his own paltry frame. "I am the wee man of the family," says Jose.

There are touching traces of deep Scottishness in Quitongo - his use of language, for example, is very native, which brings us to one of his greatest gaffes in his 20 years with us.

Two years ago, while guesting on BBC Radio Scotland's Off The Ball programme, Quitongo caused hosts Tam Cowan and Stuart Cosgrove to fall off their chairs while relating live on air that many a Scottish manager or fan had referred to him as "a wee c***". On the spot Cosgrove had to blurt out his panicked apologies to the listening nation.

"I didn't really know how bad that word was; I'd heard it used by everyone in football," Jose told me. "A woman came up to me later and said, 'Jose, you've been here long enough, you should know about that word.' But I didn't. Sorry."

Amid it all, he has been back to Angola just once in 30 years since leaving as a 10-year-old.

"The last time I was there was in 2005. I have five brothers and three sisters, and I am the only one that went away. My father died when I was young, and my mother came over here to see me in 1998. She was frozen. My brothers and sisters are still in Angola. I'm the only one that left. I am now more of a European, I feel."

And Muirkirk? Can he make a decent fist of it? "It's a big, big job," Jose says with a big grin. "I'm waiting for next season. I'm going to bring in a couple of good players and, hopefully, we will get promotion."

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