Neil Dougall: Versatile and creative Scottish international footballer
Saturday 12 December 2009
The Scottish international Neil Dougall was a jack of most footballing trades and a master of several as he helped Birmingham City and Plymouth Argyle to a trio of divisional titles in the decade and a half after the Second World War.
During a career spanning 19 seasons he appeared in every outfield position except the left wing, though he is remembered most vividly in the Midlands as an elegant, sparkily creative inside-forward and on the South-West coast in a deeper-lying role as a solid, often inspirationally canny wing-half.
Dougall's instinctive mastery of virtually all the game's individual skills was acclaimed by team-mates at both clubs, and his remarkable versatility was viewed as an invaluable insurance policy by a succession of managers in an era before substitutes could be employed to plug gaps caused by injuries.
Football was in the Dougall genes. His uncle, James, had played for Preston North End and Scotland, and his father, Billy, represented Falkirk and Burnley before joining the training staff at Turf Moor, where he launched the Clarets' youth development scheme. That connection brought Neil to the club as a schoolboy in 1935 and he made promising progress through the junior ranks, turning professional in 1940. However, the outbreak of war produced a dramatic change in priorities and he joined the RAF.
Still, there was time for him to guest with Oldham Athletic, Watford, Coventry City and Walsall, then when hostilities ceased in 1945 Dougall was transferred to Birmingham City for £2,750. In his first season he excelled at inside-right, his combination of pace, passing skills and intelligence helping the Blues to win the Football League South, an unofficial wartime competition. In addition, he made his senior debut in the FA Cup, earning the approbation of St Andrews regulars by chipping in with three goals as City reached the last four, where they bowed out only after a replay to Derby County, the eventual winners.
The newcomer proved to be the final, melding constituent in a dashing forward line assembled by the shrewd manager Harry Storer and comprising right-winger Ambrose Mulvaney, Dougall himself at inside-right, centre-forward Charlie Jones, Harold Bodle at inside-left and George Edwards on the left flank. So resplendent was the Scottish play-maker's form in the autumn of 1946 that he was called up for his only full cap in his country's first official post-war fixture, which ended in a 3-1 defeat by Wales in Wrexham.
With Dougall continuing to torment opponents, Birmingham finished that term a creditable third in the Second Division table, a prelude to their promotion as champions a year later, a triumph to which he contributed only five goals but in which he was vastly influential. In 1948-49 he never seemed out of place among the elite, but in the spring, with the team looking increasingly weary and new manager Bob Brocklebank wanting to rebuild, he was sold to Second Division strugglers Plymouth Argyle for £13,000.
At 27 Dougall was still in his prime, but he was slow to re-settle in the lower flight and it was not until his conversion to right-half midway through the 1949-50 season that he began to attain the consistent excellence that would sustain him throughout the new decade. Sadly for the Pilgrims, Dougall's personal renaissance was not enough to keep them from slipping into the Third Division (South) at season's end, but their new-found bulwark did prove immensely instrumental in their bouncing back as champions in 1951-52.
During the following campaign the Scot was at his imperious best, missing only one game as the men from Home Park equalled the highest position in their Football League history, climbing to fourth place in the Second Division. Such elevation didn't last, however, and Argyle slumped in the mid-1950s, culminating with relegation in 1955-56. Despite suffering a succession of injuries, Dougall remained undaunted, and it was fitting that he provided sterling input as the Pilgrims became the first winners of the newly consolidated Third Division, taking in the former North and South sections, in 1958-59. Operating at left-back, he managed the first half of that triumphant effort before stepping aside, not long after entering his 38th year, to join the coaching staff.
But turbulent times lay ahead at Home Park. In March 1960 manager Jack Rowley departed after a boardroom dispute. By then the side was labouring dangerously near the foot of the second tier and Dougall was called in alongside his former Argyle team-mate George Taylor to steer them narrowly clear of demotion that spring. Such joint management responsibility rarely works smoothly, however, and soon, after the club failed in an attempt to recruit the former West Bromwich Albion manager Vic Buckingham, Dougall took sole control, espousing an attractive brand of free-flowing football in which the front-men Wilf Carter and George Kirby and constructive wing-half Johnny Williams were prominent.
But after a top-half finish in 1960-61, results declined dismally in the following autumn, and after Argyle conceded five goals on three consecutive Saturdays, Dougall was replaced by one of his staff, Ellis Stuttard. There was a feeling that the affable Scot was simply "too nice" for the abrasive business of football management and he returned to a backroom role with the club until 1968.
After leaving the game he ran a fitness club in Plymouth until his retirement in 1986. Dougall, who scored 44 goals in nearly 400 senior appearances for his two clubs, died in his adopted home town following a lengthy illness.
Cornelius Dougall, footballer; born Falkirk, Stirlingshire 7 November 1921; played for Birmingham City 1945-49, Plymouth Argyle 1949-59; capped once by Scotland, 1946; managed Plymouth Argyle 1960-61; married (wife deceased, two daughters); died Plymouth 1 December 2009.
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