There is so much that is achingly sad in the story of Ian Redford’s life and premature death that it is hard to know where to start.
The last entries, for example, of his Twitter feed – @MrBHogan, because the golfer Ben Hogan was one of his great heroes – in which, with typical self-conscious modesty, he expressed thanks to those who had acknowledged the quality of his football. The only posts since 7 January have been automated messages detailing movements on his diminishing followers list, the most recent appearing on Sunday. The mechanics of social media carry on regardless, as it is well over six weeks now since Redford was found dead at the age of 53 in woodland near Irvine, North Ayrshire. Police said there were no suspicious circumstances involved in his death.
Nothing can compare, however, to the desperate sense of loss that comes with reading the autobiography Redford wrote which was published in November. Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head was not destined to make him a wealthy man – you can pick it up for £1.06 in digital format and it has barely been recognised outside of Scotland, where Redford is best remembered as a key member of the wonderful Dundee United side who beat Barcelona home and away to reach the 1987 Uefa Cup final. Yet it reveals that the answer to his question of what life after football might bring was there all along. He would have been an incredibly fine writer.
How typical of Redford’s struggle for self-belief that he didn’t see that. His achievements as a footballer, for Rangers as well as both Dundee clubs, soared above any reasonable expectations, since at the age of six he was diagnosed as completely deaf in one ear and told that contact sports were out of the question. Yet still he struggled to “break free of the shackles of doubt, fear and anxiety,” as he puts it in the book.
The source of much of that doubt is traced with a level of detail rarely even found in the autobiographies ghost written by journalists. The death of a young brother at the age of seven, after a five-year fight with leukaemia, is something Redford’s parents never got over and it plunged the family into recriminations and guilt. His father’s goading criticism about Redford’s youth football performances only began when his brother had died. And there was also the schoolyard teasing about his disability. The nerve damage which caused the deafness meant that Redford always tended to speak out of the side of his mouth. He was still self-conscious about this when Rangers paid a Scottish record £210,000 for him in 1980. “I wasn’t great, holding my own verbally, in that kind of environment,” he reflects.
But the absence of self-pity is what strikes you about Redford’s writing. He is brutally hard on himself. “It was my choice to feel the way I did about what others said or thought. Internally I just didn’t deal with things very well,” he admits. His intense dissection of the sportsman’s pre-match mental turmoil – cricketer Ed Smith’s On And Off The Field is the only comparable autobiographical work, for my money – shows a mind that was perhaps too reflexive for its own good.
He writes of how a smack on the face with the ball during a Dundee training session released his pent-up anger and freed him from his own thoughts. “Suddenly I felt like I had real clarity and I was no longer travelling in fear or anticipation. It was as though for the first time as a professional player I was able to be me in the moment. I didn’t know how to trigger this in myself. Maybe I just needed someone to kick a ball in my face every now and then.”
By and large, football did keep Redford’s demons at bay. The insecurities were always there – like his reputation as a rich kid and sneers of nepotism because Tommy Gemmell, the one-time Lisbon Lion who signed him for Dundee and played him ahead of Gordon Strachan, knew Redford’s father. He was also terrified that at his Rangers medical “they would discover I was deaf”. But football freed his mind, until the playing days drew to an end and he wondered what might fill the void.
Far less introspective souls than he have wrestled with that. The struggle faced by ex-Norwich City player Darren Eadie was related vividly on these pages by his former team-mate James Scowcroft 18 months ago, helping trigger the Professional Footballers’ Association’s introduction of a helpline. “I felt it too,” another recently retired former Premier League player told me. “A psychologist told me that I don’t realise quite what my social status has been as a player. For the first time in your life you have to be somebody else.”
The signs of Redford’s mental disintegration came when his playing career was petering out in a wretched second season at St Johnstone. He and his wife had taken their daughter, Natalie, to the cinema in Perth when the first of what he would later realise was a panic attack – “terrifying” – forced him to leave the auditorium. His description of that afternoon has overtures of Eadie’s testimony, and after being prescribed the antidepressant Seroxat, Redford felt he was losing all grip on reality. Psychology restored him after two long years. “Believe me, I know it is very difficult to accept that the adrenalin rush is over,” he writes. “Ally McCoist once said, ‘I’m going to play for Rangers as long as I can, then spend the rest of my life being depressed.’ I understand.”
The projects Redford embarked upon revealed the more fruitful workings of that highly engaged mind. He tried, unsuccessfully, to sell plastics recycling technology to Libya and organic pesticide substitutes to Saudi Arabia, but behind vague ambitions of future media work lurked an old insecurity: “It has taken me a long time to get over my self-consciousness about being deaf…” His book ends positively, and football would do well to tear itself away from its weekly pantomime and reflect on what happened next: the merciless way that depression can pull away the ground from your feet and make a mirage of optimism. “Whatever comes my way, I will be up for the challenges,” Redford concludes. “If you have a good core philosophy of who you are and how you feel about yourself, nothing can get in your way.” He was dead within two months.
Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head (Black and White Publishing, £15.99)