IN a stellar football career that spanned four decades, Willie Donachie played alongside some truly exceptional centre backs.

But the former Manchester City and Scotland left back is in no doubt whatsoever about who the very best was – Gordon McQueen.

McQueen, who has passed away at the age of 70 following a battle with vascular dementia, won the English title with Leeds United, the FA Cup with Manchester United and made 30 appearances for Scotland in his heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

For Donachie, who was devastated when he learned of his close friend’s death today, there was nobody better in his position. 

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“Gordon was great to have alongside you on the pitch because he was so strong,” he said. “He was unbeatable in the air, he was very fast over the ground, he could score goals as well as defend. His goal at Wembley in the win over England in 1977 showed that. He was a top, top player. He would walk in to any team in the world now, even Manchester City.

“He was a very underrated player. It was only his injuries which prevented him from amassing more caps than he did. He was very unlucky with injuries. But he was probably the best central defender I ever played with. I think Gordon McQueen and Alan Hansen are the two best centre backs Scotland have had.”

The Herald:

Indeed, Donachie is convinced the World Cup in Argentina in 1978 would have turned out differently for Scotland if McQueen had been involved.

The Manchester United man picked up an injury before those finals. He travelled to South America because manager Ally MacLeod hoped he might be fit for the latter stages. But the national team lost to Peru, drew with Iran and failed to progress out of their group without him.

“I always say to people that if Gordon had been fit then Scotland could have won it,” said Donachie. “He was so important for us both defensively and in attack. We had a very good team and I think we would have been serious challengers if he had been there.”

Yet, when Donachie thought of McQueen today it was not his outstanding ability as a footballer which he remembered. It was his old mate’s sense of humour and his larger-than-life personality which sprang to mind. He was able to laugh about all the memorable moments they shared together on and off the park over the years.

“Gordon was a great guy,” he said. “I have just been sat here thinking about him. It is obviously very sad news. But Gordon himself wouldn’t have wanted anyone to be sad. He was one of the funniest people you could ever meet. He was very self-deprecating about himself. He was just great fun to be around.

“There are so many funny stories about Gordon. His strength was that he was a powerful defender who was good at attacking the ball. But he always fancied himlf as a bit of footballer.

“When he tried to come out of defence with the ball when he was at Leeds his team mates (Billy) Bremner and (Johnny) Giles would go up to him and say: ‘What do you think you’re doing? You just give us the ball! You’re at the back! You defend!’ He was a giant of a man - but he was scared of those two little guys!

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“His infectious personality could lift a squad. He was a leader, was always first in line for anything. I can remember once we played Czechoslovakia. We were in the tunnel waiting to go out onto the pitch before kick-off. He was a giant of a man, but he was jumping up and down next to the Czech players so they could see what they were going to come up against. He was outstanding in that game.

“Even when he became ill later in his life he would always joke about it. Even when he had his throat cancer a few years ago he was never down. He would laugh about it. He was a serious friend. He looked after people. He was just a fantastic person to know.”

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A high number of former footballers have died from dementia in recent years; Billy McNeill, Stevie Chalmers, Dave Mackay and Frank Kopel all had the illness in later life.  

Research carried out at the University of Glasgow in 2021 showed that defenders are up to five times more at risk of developing neurodegenerative disease than members of the general population.

The SFA responded to the scientific study last year and banned professional players in this country from heading the ball both the day before and the day after a match because of the effect it has on the brain. Clubs have also been advised to limit heading in training to one session a week. 

Donachie is hoping that McQueen’s passing underlines the safeguards which have been introduced are important and will help to ensure that future generations do not suffer in the same way as their predecessors in the years to come.  

“I was going to visit Gordon quite regularly up until about a year ago,” he said. “But my wife has sadly got dementia now so I wasn’t able to get to see him much. It was a shame and I feel bad about it, but it just couldn’t be helped.

“I know how terrible an illness dementia is. Anything that can highlight this issue and help to prevent or even cure it in future is to be welcomed. I know that Gordon would want to help anyone. As I mentioned, he was a very generous person. He was a great man. I loved him.”