When Bill Shankly signed Ron Yeats, Dundee United’s centre half, for Liverpool in 1961 it’s said that he used to stand him in a room and invite journalists to “take a walk around him” so immense was his stature and considerable his presence.
John McNamee was Ken Furphy’s Ron Yeats.
Far from the first flush of youth at 30 when he signed for Rovers in November 1971, his influence on the team was far greater than his individual ability or particular defensive contribution to it.
The former Celtic and Hibs man had enjoyed some success at Newcastle in a five-year spell. With Ben Arentoft he had been part of Joe Harvey’ side which beat Ujpest Dozsa in a thrilling two-leg Fairs Cup (later to become UEFA Cup) final in 1969. It remains the Magpies’ last major trophy.
Ravaged by injuries and the scars of combat, he was getting a bit long in the tooth to cope with First Division forwards and many questioned Furphy’s wisdom in acquiring a damaged old journeyman to partner the youthful and highly promising Fazackerley after trying the likes of the soon-sold Bell, weary old striker Brian Conlon, Terry Eccles and another kid, Mick Wood who had all proved unsatisfactory as results worsened.
McNamee’s debut came on a Friday night at Prenton Park, beloved of Wirral punk ironists Half Man Half Biscuit. On the same day the band Yes, they of Accringtonian lead singer Jon Anderson, released their album “Fragile,” possibly the LP title least applicable to McNamee in the entire lexicon of rock and pop.
Those who were born too late to witness 1970’s football would wince at the sheer brutality of the spectacle.
Tackles such as the one which should have seen James MacLean sent off at weekend were commonplace but seldom even called as free-kicks. Bookings were rare and to be sent off you had to more or less commit an offence equivalent to inflicting grievous bodily harm.
McNamee was an undoubted practitioner of the darkest of these arts in a day when attackers rarely rolled or dived around unless actual limbs were broken for fear of being branded a “big girl’s blouse” or “great Mary Ellen” – sometimes by their own team-mates and fans who would more commonly urge them to get up and get on with it.
Many forwards, however, devised a cunning method to avoid McNamee’s extreme crudities…they simply kept as far away from him as bloody well possible, often practically inventing the “deep-lying” role to keep out of his orbit.
This was obviously of benefit to the team and the giant veteran was able to use the saved breath to instruct his young partner Faz on how to deal with his man should he prove willing to enter the death zone.
Not only was McNamee a fearsome prospect to the opposition, he was the kind of character no team-mate would want to share a dressing room with after 45 or 90 minutes having left anything on the field or shirked their duties.
While the purists might have thought McNamee a bit of an animal, his relish for the scrap and will to win by whatever methods spread rapidly through what had been a damaged, flimsy outfit coming to terms with life in the lower leagues.
Tranmere were dispatched 3-1 despite the inclusion of the formidable Yeats among their number and results improved by some measure, although after the woeful start not by enough to finish any higher than a barely-respectable 10th in Rovers’ first season in the third flight.
At Halifax on the 27th December, McNamee scored the only goal of a game which is still remembered, not only for the manner in which he bundled ball, several colleagues, half of the Halifax defence and keeper and possibly the ref into the back of the net, which promptly collapsed, but also for a lengthy floodlight failure which he was also possibly responsible for.
Nobody stood below a row of corporation buses parked atop a slag heap at one open end of the Shay for fear that McNamee’s sheer presence and seismic challenges might precipitate a landslide.
There were embarrassments present-day fans would find hard to imagine – defeats at Torquay, Mansfield and Rochdale – but the flamboyant Field scored 17 in 33 games and gates held steady around the 7,000 mark.
There was nothing in the kitty for any Furphy deadline swoops but on one April night McNamee scored one of the most remarkable goals I ever saw at Ewood.
Shuffling back to the half-way line after attempts to cause mayhem at a corner came to nothing, McNamee was alerted by a colleague to the fact that Brighton’s keeper was taking the goal-kick quickly in an attempt to by-pass his lumbering return to duty.
Big Mac turned around in the centre circle and seeing, in an instant, that the ball was landing on the bounce where he was stood, he unceremoniously, with a minimum of backlift, half-volleyed it back like a shell from a tank past the astonished goalkeeper and virtually burst the Dawen End net on the full, never having gone above about head height all the 50 yards it had travelled in a micro-second.
Who cared if the 1950’s and 1960’s good times of Duggie and Ronnie and Fred Pick were over?
I was young and loving the freedom of being able to travel away with my school pals on the Ribblesdale coaches for the first time. The 51st to arrive at Spotland we were on, we counted them walking by after we parked up.
We had our own heroes now, and travelled away, a cocky, confident bunch enjoying the new experience often of outnumbering the home fans on grounds that you could pretty well walk round all four sides of. We thought we were pretty big fish in a little pool.
Tony Field’s wonder goals, Johnny Price’s improbable 35-yarders, a team improving all the time and entertaining us royally.
Furphy had made football fun and supporting Rovers a source of pride and camaraderie again.
Promotion was surely only a matter of time….