Archie Baird: Footballer who escaped from POW camp before helping Aberdeen to post-war triumphs
Tuesday 01 December 2009
Any contemplation of the life of Archie Baird must attach colossal significance to the game of football, as Aberdeen fans of the 1940s and early 1950s will testify with unstinting enthusiasm and affection.
But all that achievement and derring-do in the Pittodrie cause, exhilarating and ground-breaking though unquestionably it was, doesn't begin to tell the full story of a remarkable individual whose intrepid, intensely harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war place mere sporting issues in their proper context.
Baird, a tall, stylish, creative inside-forward, was a key figure as the Dons lifted the first major trophies in their history during the immediate post-war seasons, by which time he was no longer looking at the world through the eyes of the callow, promising rookie who had been the target of eminent clubs on both sides of the border in 1938. At that point the likes of Blackpool, Motherwell, Partick Thistle and St Mirren were vying for his signature, but the 19-year-old's mother was so impressed by the honest approach of the Aberdeen manager David Halliday that the boy heeded her advice to head north-east from his Lanarkshire home to enlist with the Dons.
Baird, who had starred for Strathclyde Juniors alongside the future Rangers luminary Willie Waddell, was an intelligent fellow who nursed ambitions to be an architect, but his football skills had proved impossible to ignore and now he planned to train in the mornings and study for his future career in the afternoons. However, he made a slow start at Pittodrie, struggling for an impact in this new competitive environment, and he was still featuring for the reserves when war broke out in 1939.
Now, all too soon, the youngster who had viewed joining the Dons as a great adventure was to find himself caught up in an expedition of an altogether more daunting nature, one on which failure surely must have carried fatal consequences.
While serving in the medical corps for the ill-fated British Expeditionary Force, he missed the evacuation at Dunkirk but managed to board the last ship out of St Nazaire when France fell in summer 1940. Awaiting his return to the war, Baird was stationed at Headingley, Yorkshire's cricket headquarters, and while he was there he guested for Leeds United, facing top performers of the day such as the Everton trio Tommy Lawton, Joe Mercer and Cliff Britton.
The respite was brief, though, and he was dispatched to North Africa, where he was part of the force which confronted Rommel in the Western Desert. When Tobruk was taken in the summer of 1942, his field ambulance was surrounded by German tanks and he was captured and handed over to the Italians, who placed him in a prisoner-of-war camp near Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
Many of his fellow detainees died in what he described later as "a filthy hell-hole" but Baird, who whiled away some of his time by day-dreaming about his life as a footballer, remained resilient and in 1943, after 18 months of incarceration, he and a comrade, Harold Smith, managed to escape. Knowing that the Allies had landed in Italy, and aiming to join them, the pair headed south into the lower reaches of the Appenines. They lived off the land, helped on their way by sympathetic Italian farmers, and when severe winter weather set in Baird was sheltered for some months by a compassionate family, the Pilottis, who found other safe billetts for Smith and another fugitive who had joined the pair on their trek towards freedom.
With his sharp and lively mind, Baird picked up Italian quickly, enabling him to pose convincingly as the son of his courageous benefactors, to whom he became devoted and with whom he embarked on a lifelong friendship. "They were real heroes," he said years later. "They looked after me despite knowing the Germans would have shot them if they had found out."
Eventually, as Hitler's forces pulled out of Italy, Baird rejoined the Allied ranks and returned to Britain, guesting as a footballer for Aldershot and non-League Falmouth before returning to Aberdeen following his demob in September 1945. Vastly matured by his recent experiences, he was now a far more confident character than the tentative youth he had been during his initial Pittodrie sojourn, and he became established rapidly in the Dons' first team.
Operating as an incisive prompter alongside his close pal and fellow inside-forward George Hamilton and the diminutive spearhead Stan Williams, Baird proved hugely influential as Aberdeen won the Southern League Cup, an emergency wartime competition and the precursor to the soon-to-be-launched Scottish League Cup. They beat Rangers 3-2 in a see-sawing final in front of 135,000 fans at Hampden Park in May 1946 to claim the first big prize since the club's formation in 1903.
There was reward on a wider front, too, with an appearance for Scotland in the Victory international against Belgium that January, the game finishing 2-2. Because it was classed as an unofficial wartime encounter, no cap was awarded, and that proved to be his sole outing for his country. He was immensely unfortunate because he had excelled against the Belgians, keeping his feet deftly in thick snow on a foggy Hampden afternoon, and had been selected for the next fixture, against England, only to be forced out through injury.
A season later Baird was prominent again as the Dons beat highly-fancied Hibernian 2-1 to win the Scottish Cup, thus securing their first senior trophy and emphasising the progress they had made in finishing third in that term's title race behind Rangers and Hibs. They reached the inaugural League Cup final, too, losing 4-0 to Rangers, and faced the future on a tide of optimism.
Baird, with his clever passing, neat ball skill and happy knack of contributing important goals, was seen as a major plank of Halliday's entertaining side, but he was hampered cruelly by knee problems which demanded three operations, and also he suffered a fractured leg. His best extended run was in 1950-51, when he scored 10 times in 40 league and cup appearances, but after barely figuring in 1952-53, the 34-year-old – whose overall record of 37 goals in 144 games for Aberdeen would have been far more extensive had he been blessed with fitness on a consistent basis – accepted a transfer to second-tier St Johnstone.
At McDiarmid Park Baird enjoyed a fruitful Indian summer, moving back to wing-half and missing only a handful of matches as the Saints twice finished in upper mid-table, then narrowly missed promotion to the top flight in 1955-56, his last campaign.
After leaving the game, Baird – who until his death was believed to be Aberdeen's oldest surviving player – embarked on a fulfilling and packed life as a sports writer for the Scottish Sunday Express and a PE teacher who rose to become assistant head of Hilton Academy in Aberdeen by the time he retired in 1979. Somehow he even chiselled out the necessary time from his crowded schedule to qualify as a glider pilot.
Baird believed passionately in education, achieving degrees in English and Italian through the University of London by correspondence course in the 1960s then teaching his second language at evening class. A warm, gregarious and charming man who had come to love all things Italian, he moved to Italy for a year from 1980, along with his wife Nancy, to teach English there.
His attachment to journalism was equally deep – many of his family members were practitioners, including his brother-in-law Magnus Magnusson and Magnusson's daughter Sally – and he became a popular columnist on the Aberdeen-based monthly magazine Leopard.
Archie Baird was an author, too, penning a moving autobiography, Family Of Four (1989). It was a book in which his love of football was abundantly evident, but which illustrated eloquently his appreciation of its rightful place when he came to consider the more profound values of life.
Archibald MacKechnie Baird, footballer, journalist and teacher; born Rutherglen, Lanarkshire 8 May 1919; played for Aberdeen 1938-53, St Johnstone 1953-56; marriedn (one son, one daughter); died Cove, Aberdeen 3 November 2009.
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