Alex McCrae: Striker who remains the last man to score 20 top-flight League goals in a season for Middlesbrough
Saturday 17 October 2009
Fabrizio Ravanelli, Alen Boksic and Ayegbeni Yakubu are just three of the vaunted international marksmen who have attempted to emulate him in the modern era, but Alex McCrae, who touched his footballing pomp midway through the 20th century, remains the last man to score 20 League goals for Middlesbrough in a top-flight season.
In fact, the slim, elegant Scot hit the target 21 times in 1950-51, when the Teessiders finished sixth in the old First Division table and his lethal link with the sumptuously talented England inside-forward Wilf Mannion constituted one of the most inventive attacking combinations in the land.
The unassuming McCrae was a delightfully subtle operator, physically resilient enough to cope with opponents of a brutish disposition when the need arose but preferring to engage in the deft skills which he had been perfecting since boyhood. Versatile enough to play in any forward position but favouring the inside-left slot alongside a dedicated spearhead, he brought to his work an appealing fusion of flair and enthusiasm, specialising in crowd-pleasing dribbles and quick-fire interchanges of short passes of the type purveyed so beguilingly by the maestro Mannion.
McCrae was a predatory finisher, too, especially with his left foot, which proved particularly potent during that exceptionally prolific campaign at Ayresome Park. He had plundered three hat-tricks before Christmas, and when he netted in a 3-3 draw at home to Burnley just before the turn of the year he had registered 20 times in 24 outings. Alas, that was also the day Middlesbrough surrendered their leadership in the title race and, with their sharpshooter-in-chief sidelined by injury for most of February and March, they never regained either their winning momentum or that coveted top spot.
Born in the central Scottish village of Stoneyburn, McCrae played his early football for local teams Parkhead Thistle, Murrayfield Rangers and Haddington Juniors and began making his living as a coal-miner, which he continued to do after signing for Heart of Midlothian in the summer of 1941. Exempt from military service because of his job, he played for the Edinburgh club throughout the remainder of the war, and was part of the side which triumphed 3-2 over the British Army of the Rhine in Germany in 1946.
By then in his mid-twenties, McCrae shone for Hearts when peace-time competition resumed, attracting the attention of a clutch of top-tier English clubs, eventually moving to Charlton Athletic in May 1947 in exchange for £7,500 and the proceeds of a friendly game between his old and new employers. Many of the Tynecastle faithful were outraged by the sale of such a favourite, but manager Davie McLean bade them be calm, predicting that a lad just starting out in the game would prove to be an ideal replacement. He wasn't wrong; the boy in question was Jimmy Wardhaugh, who by the end of the 1950s had become the most prolific scorer in Hearts' history, a record he would hold for some 40 years.
McCrae, meanwhile, struggled to settle south of the border, switching to Middlesbrough for £10,000 in November 1948 but still not replicating the impressive level of his Scottish League performances during his early weeks beside the Tees. He was dropped and must have feared the worst, but then Mannion, who had been missing from the team due to a bitter wages dispute, was restored to action. Soon the newcomer was recalled and gradually the pair struck up a rewarding rapport.
The full fruits were not apparent, however, until 1949-50, when McCrae began to find the net on a regular basis, his 14 strikes helping a hitherto lacklustre side to a comfortable mid-table position in the First Division. Come 1950-51, during which he celebrated his 31st birthday and was therefore approaching the veteran stage, he struck the form of his life, and Middlesbrough supporters were mortified when he fell prey to fitness problems.
After that McCrae was never quite the same force again, though by the time a £4,000 deal took him to Falkirk in March 1953, he had scored 49 goals in 130 competitive games for 'Boro, a more than respectable tally. At Brockville, too, he performed with a zest that belied his advancing years, his goals proving a key factor in the Bairns clinging on to their top-division status. There was one crushing disappointment, however, when injury kept him out of the side which beat Kilmarnock, after a replay, to lift the Scottish Cup in 1957. Thus he missed what would have been his first major honour at the age of 37.
That autumn, still bursting with characteristic commitment, he took over as player-coach of Ballymena United, guiding them to Irish Cup glory in his first season, and to defeat in the final of the competition a year later. During just over two terms in Ulster he made one appearance for the Irish League, but such was his burgeoning success as a coach that soon he was in demand once more in his homeland.
He duly accepted the reins of Stirling Albion in January 1960, then only two months later succumbed to the lure of his former club, Falkirk. Though they were a relatively small operation with severely limited resources, McCrae preserved their place among the élite for the next half-decade, which was no small achievement.
In 1966 he left the full-time professional game, but maintained his contacts as a scout for Middlesbrough in Scotland, also turning his gaze to Northern Ireland. It was there that he made his most valuable discovery in the person of Jim Platt, a rookie goalkeeper with Ballymena United who went on to make more than 500 appearances for the Teessiders.
In addition McCrae, who was possibly the oldest surviving former Hearts footballer, worked for British Leyland at Bathgate, near Livingston, until his retirement in 1985.
Alexander McCrae, footballer; born Stoneyburn, West Lothian 2 January 1920; played for Heart of Midlothian 1941-47, Charlton Athletic 1947-48, Middlesbrough 1948-53, Falkirk 1953-57, Ballymena United 1957-60; managed Ballymena United 1957-60, Stirling Albion 1960, Falkirk 1960-65; died Livingston, West Lothian 8 October 2009.
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