Supermac aims for new goals: Simon O'Hagan meets a former Newcastle hero who is now big in Milan

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The Independent Online
THE SIDEBURNS have gone, and the wild mop of black hair is now a neatly trimmed steel grey. A pair of small, rectangular, metal-framed spectacles adds to an overall impression of studiousness. But one thing has not changed: the famous walk, the bow-legged, hip- swinging swagger with which he marked his formidable presence on the football field.

It is 18 years since Malcolm Macdonald was banging in the goals for Newcastle United - 95 of them in five seasons between 1971 and 1976. No player since Jackie Milburn 20 years previously had so fully satisfied St James' Park's craving for heroes, and it's taken another 20 years for them to find, in Andy Cole, a centre-forward they can feel as strongly about.

While the legend of Supermac lives on in Newcastle, the man himself does so rather further afield - in Milan, where his home is a five- minute drive from the San Siro stadium. He loves the city, 'so vibrant, and the people are so honest, so full of life'.

The story of how Macdonald, now 44, comes to be in Italy is a troubled one. And the twists and turns on the way have taken their toll on someone whose true nature seems to bear no relation to the buccaneering figure who used to storm past defenders and try to burst the net with his shooting.

That, he says, was always so, though we perhaps did not realise it at the time. 'It's a dual personality thing. Part of me enjoyed being larger than life. The other part just wanted to go home and mow the lawn.'

As with Cole, the fact that Macdonald was not a Geordie did nothing to diminish his appeal. He was a Londoner, a Fulhamite in fact, who remembers spending 'a wonderfully free childhood', all coats-down in the local park and dreams of being Johnny Haynes.

Fulham was where Macdonald started his League career, but as a full-back, not a forward. Then he decided that 'full-backs were 10 a penny' so he set about turning himself into a striker. 'I think I needed to feel I was indispensable.'

He proved exactly that. After Fulham came Luton Town, then Newcastle, and finally Arsenal. He won 14 caps for England, scoring six goals, including all five in a European Championship qualifier against Cyprus. He had plenty left in him when a knee injury ended his career in 1979. He was 29.

While the image of Macdonald was somewhere between crude and cavalier, his astuteness meant a career in management was always likely. It was Fulham, inevitably, who gave him his first chance. There he built a young, successful and attractive team - the team of Gordon Davies, Ray Houghton and Paul Parker - of which Macdonald is still proud to say that only one failed to become an international.

But then Macdonald's world fell apart. An acrimonious and very public split with his wife was followed by his departure from Fulham. He had another go at management at Huddersfield Town, failed, and got into deep trouble financially when a hotel business he had went bust. Then his second marriage broke up.

There was a lot for Macdonald to get away from, and an Italian woman, an interpreter he met on a business trip, was the main reason he was able to do so. He has been in Italy three years now. He still does some football work - journalism and scouting - but his main business is a company that sets up telephone chat lines. 'You wouldn't believe how important the phone is to people here,' he says. 'You'll often see people with two portables.'

It is perhaps no surprise that the Malcolm Macdonald quietly getting on with life a long way from home is a more reflective, not to say hesitant, figure than the one most people remember. There is bitterness and bewilderment in him, but an awareness too of the part he played in some of the things that went wrong. 'It's like playing football,' he says. 'You had to have the failures to have the successes. It's been a bit like that in my personal life.'

A career in football, he says, is not - or was not - the best preparation for what comes after. 'I think playing football at a high level gives you a certain confidence which is never lost. But it doesn't give you knowledge or experience. In those years I spent as a footballer I actually learnt nothing about life. You get thrown out into the jungle of the world. It's like you've just come out of prison camp - a most enjoyable prison camp - but the world has passed you by.'

The resentment Macdonald feels is not towards the game itself - he talks with passionate enthusiasm about both Italian and English football. The beauty of Keegan's Newcastle, 'as good a team as they've ever had', is that they 'can attack from all angles'. As for Cole, what impresses Macdonald is his ability to bounce off defenders and always get in a shot.

But other aspects of the game, the way clubs are run, leave a sour taste in his mouth. His ogre figure is the club chairman, and he says it would have to be 'something very special' to lure him back home.

For now, he is like a lot of Englishmen abroad, missing his beloved cricket, buying the Daily Telegraph every day, for the crossword. 'I sometimes find I've worked out the answer to a clue and start filling it in in Italian,' he says. Even today, it seems, Macdonald is not quite sure who he really is.

(Photograph omitted)

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