'I was on £18 a week. I'd doubled my wage'

Bertie Auld joined Birmingham from Celtic and helped them win the 1963 League Cup. He tells Phil Shaw how the game's changed

Saturday 26 February 2011 01:00

Now there's a thought, says Bertie Auld as he ponders how Birmingham City might add the Carling Cup to the Football League Cup he helped them win nearly half a century ago. When the modern Blues wait in the Wembley tunnel with Arsenal before tomorrow's final, they could sing them into submission.

They have a stirring anthem, "Keep Right on to the End of the Road". And it worked for Auld before the game of his life. As one of the Celtic players lining up before the 1967 European Cup final in Lisbon, all pale-skinned and many literally toothless, he looked at the taller, stylishly groomed Internazionale team with their bronzed, oiled limbs and led his colleagues into "Hail, Hail, the Celts are Here!" Italian arrogance turned into anxiety.

The trophy was won in epic fashion and Auld's ability to call the tune in more ways than one immortalised. But his prodigious contribution to Celtic's golden age under Jock Stein could not have happened, he maintains, but for his four years with Birmingham and his part in beating neighbouring Aston Villa in 1963 to secure what remains their only major honour.

Rewind a further two years. Auld, 73 next month, had just turned 23 and his second spell at Celtic was going the way of the first, his lavish talent on the left wing being compromised by disciplinary problems. Chairman Bob Kelly wanted him out. The night the "big team" lost to Dunfermline in the Scottish Cup final replay, the three-times Scotland international played for the reserves at Hearts where his hat-trick impressed one onlooker.

The next day Gil Merrick, Birmingham's manager, offered Celtic £15,000 for Auld. "I'd previously turned down Everton because I'd just met Liz, now my wife, and I didn't like being bullied into anything. I'd never been away from home. My father always said travel was Girvan in Ayrshire. I'd only been to England once, to play for a Glasgow Select XI at Sheffield United."

He was invited "down south". Arriving at New Street station, Auld was met by Merrick, an imposing, dapper man with a pencil moustache, and chief scout Don Dorman. They took him to St Andrew's to meet the directors, "great characters wearing dicky bows like they were on at the Palladium". He signed for £18 a week, double his Celtic wage.

Merrick and Dorman dropped him at the Midland Hotel. He said he would see them at morning training and unpacked. "When I was on my own I felt homesick. I went for a walk. On Corporation Street I looked in a shop window. I saw my reflection and thought, 'What are you doing here? Your fiancée, your family and pals are all in Glasgow.'

"I went back to the hotel and re-packed. I promise you: I was going home. Then there was a knock on the door. It was Don Dorman wondering if I wanted company on my first night. We saw a film and had a meal. Even now I lie in bed and think, 'What would've happened if I'd gone?' That could've been me finished in football for breaking a contract."

Meeting his team-mates, he instantly felt at home among "some real characters". There was England centre-half Trevor Smith, "like John Terry but with more skill"; Jimmy Bloomfield, a schemer bought from Arsenal, who was a "typical Londoner, always snappily dressed, and a great passer"; Johnny Harris, a Liverpudlian "buzz bomb"; and Ken Leek, a clever Welsh centre-forward about whom Auld later raved to Stein.

He lived in digs at Small Heath. Then he married Liz in St Andrew's Church, by Birmingham's ground, and daughter Susan was born a Brummie. After training it was "sausage sandwiches and tea thicker than tar" at Harry's transport cafe. A quiet night out found him in the dominoes team of a pub on Coventry Road. And when Blues celebrated a win it was often at a nightspot, the Rum Runner or Cedar Club.

They ended up in one or both after beating Villa in the first all-First Division final. Villa, who included the 18-year-old George Graham, had thrashed Birmingham 4-0 in a recent League derby, but in the first leg at St Andrew's, Auld's crosses set up two goals for Leek while Harris laid one on for Bloomfield in a 3-1 win. Four days later, Villa Park was goalless, though Auld insists "Gil never instructed us to play defensively". The raising of the cup, on enemy territory, is a blur ("the adrenalin would still have been pumping").

Other aspects remain vivid. "We all got a tankard with the League crest on it, not a medal, and a £200 bonus each. Me and Liz had moved into a place in Solihull. We had hardly any furniture, just a bed and no wardrobe in the bedroom, so we spent it on things like tables and chairs. Sounds ridiculous but things were very different for footballers in those days."

The games drew 70,000 spectators. However, a measure of how far the three-year-old competition had to go can be gauged from the Birmingham Post's decision to make the second-leg report second "lead" to coverage of Warwickshire's cricket match with Kent.

In 1965, Auld took a £5-a-week pay cut to join Celtic for a third time. "I had unfinished business in Glasgow. Also I wanted to get back to my family. Mum used to hawk fruit and fish, and Dad earned only £13 a week, so it was a wrench when I left, financially and emotionally.

"I went home a much-improved, more mature and disciplined player. Gil's successor, Joe Mallett, used me in midfield, where I went on to partner the great Bobby Murdoch at Celtic.

"On the wing I ran at people with the ball; in midfield I looked round for people running off it. That was strong in English football. I also pitted myself against great players like Bobby Moore, Dave Mackay and Johnny Haynes. In hindsight, coming to Birmingham was one of the best things I ever did."

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