Obituary: Jock Govan

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The Independent Culture
IN THE immediate post-Second-World-War and pre-television years, there was a thirst for football entertainment. And nowhere was better entertainment to be found than at Easter Road, Edinburgh; capacity crowds of 55,000 were commonplace, and parents of young teenagers like me had not the slightest hesitation in letting us go to matches with our friends, in the knowledge that no harm would come to us on the terraces.

Humour prevailed; there was no violence, nor did it occur to the crowd to be more than verbally and wittily ribald to opposing supporters. The chairman of Hibernian Football Club, the late and great Harry Swan, had his birth certificate at the ready to wave to any of the crowd who, as a ritual when things were going badly for Hibs, would shout epithets casting doubt on Swan's parentage.

Up front for Hibernian Football Club, Scottish champions in 1947/48, were the Famous Five, lovingly remembered to this day in Edinburgh and the Lothians: Gordon Smith, the artist, Bobby Johnston, the schemer, Lawrie Reilly, arguably the best centre forward ever to don a Scotland shirt, Eddie Turnbull, the powerhouse, and Willy Ormond, later the successful manager of the Scottish inter-national team. Behind them was a large, loping mining engineer, Jock Govan.

Eddie Turnbull recalled: "Govan was a good entertainer, wholehearted, and gave everything he had. He was extremely skilful for a big man." He reflected, "If Govan had been playing the 4-4-2 he would have been a riot as an overlapping full back. But he was told by Harry Swan not to go beyond the halfway line - and that was after he had scored two goals for us from the full back position in the first six games."

Govan was born in Larkhall, that Lanarkshire mining-town cradle for so many footballers, of a father who had 21 bullet wounds in his body to show for his time in the trenches of the First World War, and who became a shoemaker/cobbler. Educated at Larkhall Academy, Govan came into contact with the ever-encouraging chemistry teacher Willie Herbison - brother of the future cabinet minister Peggy Herbison - who was in charge of football.

Halfway through his seven-year-long mining engineer apprenticeship, as a 20-year-old, Govan got a lucky break, when the regular first team full- back David Shaw had a temporary cartilage problem. For Jimmy Kerr, 16 years the Hibs regular goalkeeper, Govan was not only a great friend, but a full back, displaying intelligent consideration for his "keeper".

Govan made the most of his luck, enhanced by the fact that the team captain for many matches was a guest player, warrant officer Matt Busby, temporarily stationed in wartime Edinburgh. Even then his benign influence and qualities of leadership made an indelible impression on the young players.

My father-in-law, John Wheatley, who hardly missed a Hibs home match (and who as an appeal court judge conducted the inquiry into the 1970 Ibrox disaster and safety at football grounds), was no mean judge of a player. He reckoned Govan made a massive contribution to the Hibernian league and cup-winning teams of the late 1940s. Wheatley thought he was not only a great entertainer, with an enormous punt when required, but displayed a shrewd football brain.

For Lawrie Reilly, "Jock was probably one of the best full-backs with whom I ever played. He was very fast and he was capable of long strikes." Reilly added that they were room mates on the Hibernian extended tour of North America in 1949 and that Govan was a man of no airs and graces. He was also a fine athlete, good at snooker, good at bowls, with an excellent eye for a ball. And, quipped Reilly: "When Jock Govan took his teeth out, he meant business and I was thankful that he was always on my side!"

Although he won caps against Wales, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Northern Ireland, the apex of Govan's career came on 10 April 1948 when I was among the 135,000 who squeezed into Hampden Park. Scotland lost 2-0 - but it was the best England side that ever I saw. It read Frank Swift in goal, Laurie Scott and George Hardwick the captain, Billy Wright, Neil Franklin, and Harry Cockburn, Stanley Matthews, Stanley Mortenson, Tommy Lawton, Stan Pearson and Tom Finney.

Poor Govan got the blame for the first of the two England goals. This is how the association football correspondent of the Press Association reported it:

When all else is forgotten we shall remember the move that suddenly and quite against the run of play put England into the lead a minute before half time. Swift found Lawton with a clearance; the centre forward flicked the ball to Pearson and Finney, taking a perfect through-pass in his stride, beat Young and Govan by balance and footwork to shoot magnificently past Black. The ball had in fact travelled from the England goal area into the Scottish net without a Scottish player touching it, and so England went in for the interval with a goal out of the textbook and out of the blue.

The consensus of opinion in Scotland by Monday morning was that stopping the then young Tom Finney at his rampant best was easier said than done and that George Young of the Rangers and Jock Govan should be forgiven.

The PA correspondent added:

Scotland's basic plan was certainly a success up to the moment Finney altered the course of events, but their forwards had failed to push home the advantage Govan, Shaw, Young, and Macaulay had gained for them.

After his football career ended Jock Govan got a job with Ferranti's in Crewe Toll, the weapons division, in Edinburgh. Later he returned to work as a mining engineer. For his last six years he was housebound, lovingly cared for by his wife Betty; she related that, even then, his humour never deserted him.

Thomas ("Jock") Govan, footballer and mining engineer: born Larkhall, Lanarkshire 16 January 1923; married Betty West (one son, one daughter); died Edinburgh 19 February 1999.