In a week when Scottish football mourned another left-footed flawed hero in Ralph Milne, it felt particularly instructive to watch a superbly researched documentary on the life of Jim Baxter.
Of course, Milne would have been the first to admit he could not hold a candle to Baxter. Almost no-one born in this country since pigs’ bladders started being kicked around could. He was a one-off, a genius. But yes, a flawed one.
This side to his character is of course explored by the Purple TV documentary titled simply Jim Baxter that was premiered at the Glasgow Film Theatre. But it isn’t the whole tale. There is a family backstory that more than one talking head proposes as being why Baxter, who died in 2001 at the age of just 61, lived life to such excess.
There are other, more celebratory lines that linger long after the credits roll. Baxter’s coach at Crossgates Primrose is heard recalling why he stood out: “He could trap and pass a ball – 75 per cent of players can’t do that now.” This was vintage footage which means today’s complaints are clearly not new ones.
As well as being present for the first screening, author Val McDermid is interviewed at length for the documentary itself. Her father, Jim, was the man who scouted Baxter for Raith. McDermid was the person Baxter had to thank for supplementing the £7 he was then earning a week as a miner by another £10, which is what he originally earned from Raith.
According to Val, Baxter was “god’s gift to the working classes”. He was also god’s gift to those Scots dismayed by England winning the World Cup in 1966, leading the world champions a merry dance the following year (having already done so at Wembley in 1963).
Perhaps highlighting how the documentary seems to want to present a more rounded portrayal of the man, footage of his famous keepie-uppies is glimpsed only very briefly towards the end – and by which time Baxter has been given the tribute he deserves.
As well as Baxter, the stars of the show include his parents, Agnes and Rab. There is brilliant archive footage where Baxter himself is interviewing his mum and dad. Agnes recalls a Christmas where Baxter was given a pair of football boots and a mouth organ. Baxter put the mouth organ down at side of the pitch and went to play football. This isn’t to decry Hill of Beath, the Fife village from where Baxter hails. But, yes, the moothie was lifted. So had it not been for a quirk of fate, Baxter might well have gone on to distinguish himself by joining fellow Fifer Jimmy Shand’s band.
But he didn’t. He became a footballer, a quite brilliant one at that. He also allowed himself to become snared by some of the trappings of fame. Baxter, of course, would have appreciated being the reason for some Glasgow glitz last night. It wasn’t quite the red- carpet glamour of Hollywood. But then, as a child of Fife, there was also a likeably down-home quality to Baxter, despite the renown.
Plenty of stars turned out, however. Two of Scotland’s finest goalies, Andy Goram and Alan Rough, were present in the audience, as were contemporaries of Baxter, including Willie Henderson from Rangers, and, from his earlier Raith Rovers days, Denis Mochan and Jim Thorburn.
One of the most effective contributions came from Alan Baxter, Jim’s eldest son. He admitted to having felt uneasy at the start of the evening, since he had not seen the film prior to its premiere. In his view, some attempts to capture his father have been hampered by a tendency to linger on the caricature, as opposed to the real man. He expressed relief this production did not stumble into these pot-holes.
Above all, Alan wanted to stress that his father had been an entertainer. “He was a Sinatra fan – he thought being on the pitch was no different to being a singer on stage. “It was never dull,” continued Alan, 49. “You were growing up in the 70s, your dad drove a Capri, holidays in Aberdour. You were living the life! There were more laughs than tears.”
There certainly were at the premiere, as poignant as some of the footage was.
Alan re-told a story of when Baxter attended the 1966 World Cup final with the journalist, Ken Gallacher.
He got tickets. Why? Because, despite everything, he simply loved football. But as he walked out at the end, he turned to Gallacher. “Imagine, eh. England world champions. I’m puffed oot beating them…”
Jim Baxter will be shown again on BBC Alba on September 26, at 11pm.
A star who learned so much from his days at Stark’s Park
Jim Baxter’s former team mates at Raith Rovers, Jim Thorburn and Denis Mochan, were back at Stark’s Park this week and both say they have fond memories of him, both on and off the pitch, and say the BBC Alba film is a fitting tribute.
“I learned a lot about Jimmy that I didn’t know,” said Jim. It’s very comprehensive.”
“He was a very, very special player,” says Denis. “He wasn’t a good trainer but I would say he learnt a lot here. He had players around him like Willie McNaught, Andy Leigh, Johnny Urquhart so by the time he went to Ibrox, he was a qualified journeyman in a sense.”
Jim said that even at the height of his fame Baxter never changed. “I would be getting the train through here and sometimes would meet Jim on the platform.
“There would be people coming up to him all the time but he would say, “away you go the now. I want to chat to my pals here”!
“I remember one night I was at the pictures. The lights went up in the interval and who’s sitting in front of me but the whole Scotland team. Denis Law, the lot of them.
Baxter turned around and shouted “Hey, Jim!” and instead of going out into the aisle he just climbed over all the seats, going “excuse me, excuse me”! That was typical of Jim. He was good fun.
Denis says that despite his deserved legendary status Baxter never fulfilled his potential.
“He achieved a lot, but he could have achieved a lot more.”
Jim added: “But he put more into his short life than most do in a long, long lifetime.”