Allan McGraw

Born: 29th July, 1939

Died: 1st March, 2023

EVERY football club has its legends. Greenock Morton have had their fair share down the years, but few, if any, will be more enduring than Allan McGraw whose recent death leaves a big hole in the fabric of the Cappielow club.

His tapestry in that fabric has been colourful, woven indelibly and intricately with its mixture of rough and smooth, detailing moments of joy, anguish, delight and despair.

Allan was born on 29th July, 1939, in Kinning Park, Glasgow, but his parents, Peter and Margaret, soon moved to Govan with its rich shipbuilding history, in the shadow of Ibrox Park, home of the mighty Glasgow Rangers whom he supported as a boy.

One of five children, an early childhood memory was of playing ‘hooky’ as a six-year-old from school so that he could go to watch the Light Blues against the illustrious Moscow Dynamo on a misty, dreich Scottish midweek afternoon. An uncle, home on leave from the army, took him to the glamorous friendly fixture, dad Peter being more interested in boxing than football. “I don’t remember much about the game,” Allan later told me. “My main memory is of all these men in the crowd with their flat caps.”

HeraldScotland: Allan McGrawAllan McGraw (Image: free)

Tragedy struck the McGraw household when his sister Catherine was killed following a dreadful accident when the seven-year-old, coming out of the close where the family lived, was struck by a lad swinging a bat at a ball in a game of street cricket. It was to cast a dark shadow over the family.

McGraw was to become a good footballer as a youngster, being spotted playing at lunchtime at the sheet metal company where he worked. That led to a signing for Partick Avondale and later a switch to Renfrew Juniors.

National Service intervened and Allan joined the Cameronians. He was eventually sent to Germany where, along with his best pal Jimmy Mallon, who was to join him later at Morton, he was part of a team that won the British Army of the Rhine Cup.

Allan and Jimmy were also teammates in the Scottish Command side along with such illustrious names as the great Jim Baxter and John White, the former going on to become a world class half-back for Allan’s boyhood heroes Rangers, and the latter being an integral part of one of the greatest British club sides ever, Bill Nicholson’s double-winning Tottenham Hotspur, the first British team to win a European trophy when they thrashed Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

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That latter connection led to a trial with Spurs and an offer to join them once he had left the army. It was then that fate intervened in the shape of the mercurial showman of 60s Scottish football, one Haldane Y Stewart, who had become manager and impresario at Morton Football Club.

Allan’s dad worked in the same company in which Hal was a manager. When Allan’s father died, Hal, some might say shamelessly, saw an opportunity to persuade Allan to sign up for Morton. He promised McGraw flights home from Germany every weekend so that he could see his mother if he would sign for Morton. Understandably, Allan accepted the offer. “No one flew at that time,” Allan told me. “But Hal was true to his word. He got me the flights home. I don’t know how he did it, but he had contacts everywhere.”

Greenock, with its shipyards which dominated the Greenock waterfront in those days, was a far cry from the bright city lights of London where Allan might have been part of that great Spurs side, but McGraw was to illuminate Cappielow Park with his own personal floodlight.

In one record-breaking 1963-64 Second Division season he scored 58 league and cup goals, still a club record. That Morton side also reached the League Cup Final where they locked horns with a Rangers team dominant in Scottish football, containing such venerated names as Jim Baxter, Willie Henderson, Davie Wilson, Jim Forrest and John Greig. McGraw was to hit the crossbar in a goalless first half before Rangers took control in the second period, scoring five times without reply. “Our centre half, Jim Kiernan, was worried about the pace of Jim Forrest. He had done well in the first half against Forrest, but Hal Stewart pulled Jim Reilly back as cover and Rangers then took control of the middle of the park,” was Allan’s explanation for the collapse.

HeraldScotland: Allan McGrawAllan McGraw (Image: FREE)

“Quick-draw McGraw” had become penthouse property. But in those days, when footballers were virtual slaves of the clubs, he had no negotiating leverage; no control over his footballing future. And Hal Stewart wasn’t going to let his prize asset depart easily.

First Tommy Docherty’s star-studded Chelsea, including such stars as Terry Venables, Peter Osgood, Peter Bonnetti and Greenock’s own Charlie Cooke, came knocking on the Cappielow portals. Docherty and McGraw had already agreed personal terms, but the bold Hal would not budge from his £30,000 transfer valuation, a sizeable fee in those days, turning down Chelsea’s final offer of £22,500. At the time Allan’s wife, Jean, was pregnant and he told me with a wry smile: “Instead of a house in London and a huge increase in my wages, I got a pram and a three-piece suite from Hal.”

Wolves were later to have their own bid turned down, but McGraw was never bitter. Describing Hal Stewart as a “likeable rogue”, he was to say: “Ach, I might not have made it anyway.” Many would dismiss such self-deprecating doubts, but Allan was not one to hold a grudge.

A bad knee injury incurred during that record-breaking season with Morton undoubtedly impaired his footballing future. A move to Hibs followed, and some enjoyable years, but McGraw admitted that the Easter Road side, who switched him into a midfield role, never got the best out of him. No fewer than 26 cortisone injections in one season while with Morton were to lead to several operations and the disintegration of his left knee. It was to cause him considerable pain and forever blight his life, though he bore it stoically.

A spell as reserve manager at Cappielow followed during the halcyon years when a part-time Morton team under the management of Benny Rooney, and with the incomparable Andy Ritchie as its magical wizard on the pitch, had five consecutive years in the most competitive Premier League ever in Scotland. That 10-club division, in which two teams were always relegated, contained not only the Old Firm of Rangers and Celtic, but the best ever Aberdeen and Dundee United teams.

The demise of Rooney’s side, and subsequent brief management spells by Alex Miller, Tommy McLean and his brother, Willie, led finally to McGraw getting the big job. His spell as boss was to last 12 years during which time he built the best youth system the club has had in modern times. Transfers of players such as Derek McInnes, Alan Mahood, his own son, Mark, and Derek Lilley brought in over a million pounds and revitalised the finances of the club.

McGraw did lead Morton back to the top flight at one stage but, without the resources to consolidate, a swift return to the lower levels followed.

He was later to build a better side which was to narrowly miss out on a return to the Premier League. Always his teams were built on the principle of playing passing football, and none played more sublimely than his 1995-96 side. Only the decimation through transfer and injury of a superb midfield trio of Alan Mahood, Derek McIness and Finish captain Janne Lindberg prevented a move back up among the big boys. They lost out on goal difference to Dundee United.

Shortly after came the worst period in the club’s history when a Largs businessman, Hugh Scott, took over the club. Scott’s four-year term was to end bitterly, in a period of administration, but not before McGraw felt obliged to resign after first being ‘shunted upstairs’ into a meaningless management role, and then forced to watch the mishandling of the club dearest to his heart. That period coincided with the death of his wife Jean in 1996, a huge loss to what was first and foremost a family man.

McGraw was to say that Jean’s death knocked a lot of the fight out of him at that time. Nevertheless, he was prominent among those who fought from the outside to save Greenock Morton, for a while during a spell as a Liberal councillor.

In retirement he remained in Gourock and often enjoyed “a good walk spoiled” at Gleddoch Golf Club, despite the obvious impairment of his damaged knee, more often than not with his late, lamented, pal Eddie Morrison. Indeed, after recovering from yet another operation on his knee, Allan had completed a round of golf just a few days before his death.

His one ‘poison’ was his cigars. On the occasions friends would pop up to his house for a visit he would lay down more smoke than a Second Word War destroyer as the conversation invariably turned to football.

At the start of this piece Allan’s legacy as a true club legend was mentioned. He came to be called Mr Morton and, in January, 2023, the club accorded him the honour of having their main stand named after him, a truly worthy honour. But he was not just revered by the club and its fans. He was hugely respected within the game as a whole, admired by players, fellow managers, directors and those, often cynical, critics in the Press. I came to know him in my press capacity. I later regarded him as a friend.

McGraw was more than the sum of his football parts, though. A family man, his sons Allan and Mark, and their children, were his prime joy and concern. Mark was to follow his father into football, having spells at Morton, Hibernian and Falkirk among others.

If it is football for which he will be most widely remembered, to those who knew Allan McGraw best his greatest legacy comprised his qualities as a human being … a man of principle, a good companion who always had a cheery welcome, whose glass was ever half full; a brave man who suffered pain without complaint; a man to whom there was no side and upon whose word you could rely implicitly.

He is survived by sons Allan and Mark and his four grandchildren.

By Roger Graham (former sports editor at Greenock Telegraph 1974-2010)