Wed, Jul

Butcher: My Autobiography (by Terry Butcher/Bob Harris)

The Blue Library
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The Rangers crowd can cheer a tackle almost as loudly as a goal at times. Few sights in football are as rousing for us as seeing an opponent being stopped in their tracks by a crunching, no nonsense, take the ball and the man tackle. I stand and cheer them, fist clenched, like a wild-eyed savage. Indeed I’m embarrassed to recall the summer we signed both Basil Boli and Brian Laudrup because I was much more excited by the signing of Boli than Laudrup. I’d seen Boli in the flesh playing for Marseille, he looked formidable, powerful, skillful, athletic and arguably one of the best defenders in world football at that time. He wasn’t. In mitigation though I’d point out that the last time signing a defender had excited me that much it was Terry Butcher. He was.

Even today the signing of Terry Butcher seems inconceivable. Unlike poor Boli, Butcher actually was one of the best defenders in the world at that time. He’d just played in the 1986 World Cup and been chosen for the team of the tournament. His England team had lost to the eventual winners, Argentina, and in particular to the genius of Maradona, and even that was a much closer game than most of us remember. Indeed Butcher’s entire career is the stuff of Boys Own legend, which only makes the fact his autobiography is so poor all the more annoying. Much of the criticism for that must rest with Bob Harris who has joint credit on the cover. How you can take a story as exciting and full as Butcher’s and turn it into this turgid, plodding rubbish is quite a trick. Harris is a professional writer, which tells you all you need to know about the state of English tabloid journalism.

The book follows a standard chronological order, rarely deviating from it. From his early, relatively idyllic, life in Lowestoft, to signing for Ipswich Town the club he supported, playing for England, signing for Rangers, Coventry and then onto management. Butcher is almost the identikit footballer for that time. A local boy, he marries his teenage sweetheart at a young age as all footballers seem to do, and becomes a regular in an Ipswich Town team that was one of the finest English club sides ever.

He enjoyed a long relationship with Sir Bobby Robson, he clearly knew him well, annoyingly this relationship isn’t properly explored. Robson was a fine tactician and a great man-manager, yet little of that is imparted here. Instead we get the clichéd drinking stories. Indeed Harris and Butcher seem to want you to believe that Terry is a borderline alcoholic, even though that simply doesn’t ring true. Drinking to excess is clearly part of British football culture, that’s news to nobody, but I struggle to accept Butcher was anymore than one of the lads on that score. Yet this is a recurring theme. He calls it his Jekyll and Hyde personality but Butcher is no schizophrenic, he just got a bit of a temper and is a bad loser, not uncommon in successful footballers.

Butcher dedicates only 3 chapters, out of 24, to his time at Rangers, yet the cover has him in Rangers kit celebrating a league triumph rather than the blue of Ipswich, perhaps that was the idea of the publishers financial director (the reverse is the iconic, blood spattered England player). Surprisingly Butcher actually spent less than four years at Ibrox although his influence and impact at Rangers suggest longer. Butcher was the finest centre-half in the country when he joined Rangers. His arrival, more than anyone else, signaled what Souness was trying to achieve, Butcher was the cornerstone around which that great Rangers team was built; he was our talisman. It’s no coincidence that in the 87/88 season he was seriously injured and Celtic won the league.

Even the worst written books contain some interesting information. Butcher was ‘tapped-up’ to join Rangers, a strictly illegal practice, by his co-author of all people. No doubt some Celtic supporter filled with Corinthian spirited outrage will start a blog about this and attempt to have all the trophies we won whilst he was with us removed. Still, we weren’t the only ones, Manchester United did too, as did Spurs, he turned them down for us. Butcher also talks about the pre-season training before the 87-88 season being the reason we lost the league. Souness experimented with playing friendlies to regain fitness rather than the more conventional running based fitness work, it didn’t suit the players and they started the season very badly. After the infamous Celtic game where Butcher, Chris Woods and Frank McAvennie were sent off and Graeme Roberts ended up playing in goal for most of the match, all four of them were reported to the Procurator Fiscal in one of the Scottish legal systems darkest hours. The policeman who formally charged Butcher apologised to him for having to do it, and David Holmes told him, Woods and Roberts the club would not stand in their way if they wanted to leave after the case. Most surprising for me was that Walter Smith approached him about becoming his number two when Souness left.

When the book was first released newspaper serialisation focused heavily on his take on the ‘religious’ side of Glasgow football. In fact it’s only a small part of the book, and in keeping with the rest it’s poorly handled and factually inaccurate. However Butcher does hold a mirror up to us. His experience is telling, he rightly points out the absurdity of a lot of our songs, songs he freely admits he embraced when he first arrived. Indeed Butcher has made a pretty good living out of being first a Rangers player and then an ex-Rangers player. I personally, along with 20,000 others, took an afternoon off work and drove from Glasgow to Sunderland to attend a testimonial for a player I’d never heard of before the game, and can’t recall today, all because Butcher was the Sunderland manager. He remained popular with the support until relatively recently, indeed this book proved something of a turning point.

His leaving of the club was undignified. He handled it badly, something he himself now admits. Had he agreed to play instead of refusing, had he not spoken to the TV station Souness had banned he could have rehabilitated himself and he might have seen out the remainder of his contract at Rangers and gone on to the coaching side under Walter Smith. He could have been Rangers manager today had he not taken a childish huff in 1990. Yet that’s not properly examined in this book, a career defining moment is brushed over in a couple of pages.

If Butcher is actually a boring, hackneyed, dullard then Harris has portrayed him perfectly. But you can’t help but hope he's not and I feel that the Butcher story, straddling the ‘old days’ of football and the modern age, a player blessed with ability and energy, so pivotal to Rangers and to England has simply been badly told. Perhaps Bob Harris was another bad career decision on Butcher’s part.