Author David Gordon looks back on the hugely impressive career of the late, great Scot Symon whose cricketing and footballing pursuits earned him recognition, but perhaps he deserved more...
Over 100 individuals have been inducted to the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame since its inception in 2002, and it is a worthy initiative to permanently recognise and celebrate Scotland’s greatest sportsmen and women.
The cricketing contribution is scant, with Mike Denness being the only cricketer inductee on the list; two others with a cricketing connection are included, but for their all-round talents in a variety of ball games (L. M. Balfour-Melville and K. G. MacLeod). A third – rugby union great Ken Scotland – has also been honoured, although his cricketing ability that earned him a cap for Scotland against Ireland in 1958 does not appear to have been a consideration.
From a cricketing perspective, the paucity of inductees is disappointing but perhaps not surprising, although the omission of Archie Jackson and Douglas Jardine is somewhat confounding. What is quite bewildering to this writer, however, is the continuing omission of arguably Scotland’s most gifted all-round sportsman – Scot Symon. The Hall of Fame’s own website describes how it “celebrates and pays tribute to Scotland’s iconic sports men and women from the past 100 years.” Symon’s outstanding playing career alone should ensure his iconic status – a full Scottish international at both cricket and football (the most prominent of only four such players to be similarly honoured in over 140 years of international competition.) And that’s before you even begin to consider his phenomenal achievements in football management.
It’s a bit like trying to describe Frank Sinatra’s artistic and cultural contribution to 20th century America by only referencing his achievements as Oscar-winning film actor, director and producer, omitting to mention the unparalleled magnificence of ‘The Voice’.
Unlike Sinatra, however, Symon’s legacy has been marginalised and his lack of recognition is baffling, particularly as he is never included in Scottish football’s management pantheon of Stein, Shankly and Busby (all of whom are Hall of Fame inductees.)
Perhaps this is because Symon did not cultivate the media to the same extent as did his three managerial contemporaries. Or is it because his origins in agricultural Perthshire and a Dundee architect's office do not conform to the archetypal west of Scotland working-class background deemed necessary by those writers and commentators who created the 'cult of the football manager'? Whilst Ferguson and Dalglish are now recognised as worthy of the level of veneration hitherto reserved for the Stein/Shankly/Busby troika, Symon is still precluded. This despite his being the first manager to take a British club to a European final, his phenomenal success with a small club (East Fife) at the beginning of his managerial career, taking Preston to an FA Cup final in his single season managing in English football, and all the glittering prizes won by his great Rangers team of the early 1960s.
James Scotland Symon (always known as 'Scot') was born in the Carse of Gowrie village of Errol on 9 May 1911, at the family home, ‘View Bank’. His father, James Simpson Scotland Symon, was a local drainage contractor and sanitary inspector, who had married Symon’s mother – Bella Bruce – at Little Dunkeld, Perthshire in 1899. They had six children – three boys and three girls – with Scot being the fourth. Symon was a product of rural Perthshire, and while that was a fertile breeding ground for Scottish cricket talent at the time, it provided him with a background more unusual than most of the pre-war international footballers, the majority of whom hailed from the industrial central belt.
Naturally fit and athletic, he would often bowl unchanged for Perthshire during an entire innings of a Scottish Counties cricket match. In an era in which the health hazards of tobacco were less well-documented, Scot was a resolute non-smoker (although he became partial to the occasional cigar when his playing days were over.) A non-drinker, he was an exemplar of Presbyterian rectitude. He was equally abstemious when it came to swearing; the Rangers dressing-room was reduced to stunned silence on one occasion in the mid-1960s, such was the surprise when the usually quiet-spoken Symon uncharacteristically employed some industrial language in a half-time reprimand of a defender who had conceded a penalty.
From childhood Scot had a natural sporting aptitude, and although he attended Perth Academy in the 1920s (at that time located in its original Georgian home on Rose Terrace, overlooking the North Inch and its first-class cricket ground), his football and cricket education was undertaken on Errol's Recreation Park, which was home to both the Errol Juveniles football team and the Errol Cricket Club. At 14, Symon was a regular in the village cricket XI, and in 1926, aged 15, he topped the batting averages – a feat he repeated the following season. Despite his prodigious cricketing talents when playing as a boy against men, his precocious talents as a young footballer were what first made him noticed beyond the farming communities of the Carse.
It has been erroneously propounded, perhaps based on the fact that Perth Academy preferred the oval ball in winter (although football was also played in the 1920s), that Symon had played rugby as a youth, with it even reported that he favoured rugby over football. This inaccuracy is even repeated on the pages of the Cricket Scotland website, where his biographical notes state that: ‘When, exactly, he decided that he preferred to play football to rugby in the winter we do not know.’ This is completely false. The archives of the Perth Academy school magazine, for the years Symon was in attendance, confirm that he never played rugby for Perth Academy. Interestingly, neither did he represent the school at cricket. Football was always his winter game.
Scot’s exceptional promise as a footballer was noticed as he progressed from Errol Juveniles to Perth North End, assisting the Perth side to the quarter-final of the Scottish Juvenile Cup in April 1929, before stepping up to the junior ranks with Dundee Violet. Symon had played as a trialist for St Johnstone in pre-season games in the August of 1929, and the Perth senior side were keen to obtain his signature, but Symon honoured his commitment to Dundee Violet.
When with the Glenesk Park side, he attracted a lot of interest from senior clubs, with the Courier of Friday 10 January 1930 listing Dundee, Dundee United, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Clyde, Rangers, Motherwell and Arbroath all keen to sign him.
Given that he was a Rangers supporter and was destined to become a Rangers legend, it is interesting to note that the Ibrox club was first interested in him as early as 1929, as the Courier of Friday 8 November 1929 related:
“Scott (sic) Symon, the right half-back of Dundee Violet, is attracting considerable attention at present, and quite a number of senior clubs have been endeavouring to secure his signature.
“Yesterday representatives of the Rangers visited Dundee in an endeavour to persuade him to take a locker at Ibrox Park, but I understand their efforts were in vain. Symon is to remain with the Violet – in the meantime at least.”
His one season with Violet culminated with him being capped for Scotland against Wales in a Junior International in May 1930. The match was at Dundee’s Dens Park and Symon was at right-half for the Scots’ juniors, who drew 3-3 with their Welsh counterparts before an attendance of 7,000.
Two months’ earlier, in March 1930, Symon turned down an offer from Bolton Wanderers, not wishing to relocate while still undergoing his architect apprenticeship. This alerted Dundee FC, and he signed up for the Dens Park club later that same month, still aged only 18. The Errol youngster was highly regarded as a footballer, as the People’s Journal of Saturday 7 June 1930 reported:
“Dundee have secured a junior for whose services most of the First Division clubs in Scotland were anxious. Scott (sic) Symon is his name. I met Mr James Bissett, the Dundee manager, recently, and we had a talk about this half-back. Mr Bissett was loud in his praise. Here is his opinion.
“ ‘Scott (sic) Symon is one of the best players I have ever seen as a junior, and I confidently prophesy that he will play international for Scotland in the matter of two years, or even less. All he needs is a turn or two with the spikes to give him just a little more speed for bursts and he will be a top-notcher right away…he is really a promising lad.’ ”
Dundee manager James Bissett, like Symon, had excelled at both football and cricket; a former Dundee, Everton and Middlesbrough full-back, he also kept wicket for Forfarshire.
Symon made his first-team début, aged 19, on Saturday 18 October 1930 at left-back against Cowdenbeath. Dundee won this First Division match 2-0 in front of 15,000 at Dens Park. Scot quickly established himself as a hard-tackling wing-half, and tremendous passer of the ball. He blossomed at Dens and his versatility meant that he was equally comfortable at full-back and centre-half as he was at either wing-half position, although he later became established at left-half.
The 23-year-old Symon had been appointed captain of Dundee for the 1934/35 season, which was to be his last with the ‘Dark Blues’. Top English clubs had started to take notice of Scot, and as early as December 1932 he was being linked with both Everton and Chelsea; the Errol youngster made no secret of his ambition to play in England. By March 1935, however, Symon formally submitted a transfer request, and was adamant that he would not sign a new contract at Dens. The Dundee board agreed that they would sell him if a suitable offer was received.
He was subsequently sold – along with Dens team-mate Lew Morgan – to English First Division side Portsmouth on Saturday 24 August 1935. Portsmouth manager Jack Tinn agreed to pay Dundee the then massive fee of £7,000 for both Symon and Morgan. (The signing took place in a tea-room on Glasgow’s Buchanan Street after a Rangers v Dundee game at Ibrox.)
He made 160 appearances during his five years as a first-team regular at Dundee, but Scot had remained a part-time player. On leaving school, he had forsaken the family drainage business and commenced his apprenticeship in the Dundee architectural practice of Frank Thomson, situated at 11 Nethergate in the city centre. He completed his arduous eight-and-a-quarter years’ training as an architect in 1935 – hence the timing of his move to Portsmouth. (The canny Symon is likely to have moved south with a substantial nest-egg tucked away, as it was rumoured in Errol that he banked all his football earnings from Dundee, whilst living on his trainee architect's wages.)
Symon would enjoy personal success in his three seasons in the English top flight with Portsmouth, captaining the side in 1936/37 and 1937/38. Injury and a loss of form restricted him to only nine first-team appearances in the latter season, and he was one of six Pompey players placed on the transfer list by manager Jack Tinn in May 1938, subsequently departing Fratton Park on Tuesday 30 August 1938 when transferred from Portsmouth to Glasgow Rangers. He was signed by legendary Rangers manager, Bill Struth and Symon would succeed Struth in the Ibrox manager’s office some 16 years later.
The Portsmouth Evening News reflected Symon’s popularity in noting with pleasure that his return north had resurrected his football career:
“Scot. Symon was too good a footballer to pass out of the game as a spent force. He was transferred to the Rangers just before the opening of the present season and the return to his native air has restored to this excellent half-back all the brilliance which at one time delighted the crowds at Fratton Park.”
The Glasgow Herald of 6 December 1938 reported on Symon’s new lease of life at Ibrox:
“In recent weeks Symon has been showing splendid form for Rangers. A stylist if ever there was one, he has splendid ball control, and he makes a feature of ground passing…he delights in forcing on the play.”
His return to form belatedly earned Scot the full international football cap predicted for him some eight years’ earlier. He played against Hungary at Ibrox on 7 December 1938. Scot was left-half in Scotland's 3-1 win – before a crowd of 23,000 for a friendly international on a midweek afternoon. Andy Black, Tommy Walker (with a penalty), and Torry Gillick were the Scotland scorers. A certain Bill Shankly partnered Symon at half-back.
‘Waverley’ in the Daily Record noted that:
“On the other wing Symon pleased in his constructive work. Those lovely grand passes of his, or his first-time transfers to a mate…were delightfully judged. True, he did not go back in defence, but when he did tackle he tackled timeously and strongly.”
Romance had blossomed for Symon during his time at Pompey, with the Portsmouth Evening News of 27 December 1938 reporting that he had become engaged to Miss Doreen Mabel Pearn of Southsea, Hampshire, noting that: “Miss Pearn visited Symon’s relatives at Errol, Perthshire during the week-end.”
Four days later, Symon rounded-off a happy week by scoring his second Rangers goal. It was an important one, as he netted the winner in a 4-3 victory over Ayr United at Somerset Park on Hogmanay 1938, watched by 20,000. Two days’ later (on 2 January 1939) Scot appeared in his first ‘Old Firm’ match, as Rangers defeated Celtic 2-1 at Ibrox in front of a British record attendance for a League match – an incredible 118,730.
Symon won a League Championship medal with Rangers in April 1939, as well as a Glasgow Charity Cup winners’ medal the following month. He returned to Hampshire in June 1939 for his marriage to 22-year-old Doreen. (His wedding plans meant he was unable to tour North America with the Scotland team in the summer of 1939, and he and Doreen commenced married life in a flat at 202 Copland Road, round the corner form Ibrox, as war loomed.)
Due to the Second World War, Scot played in only 43 League and Cup matches for Rangers (scoring 3 goals), with a further 6 appearances in Glasgow Cup/Charity Cup matches. He was, however, able to continue his football with Rangers in war-time matches, putting his architectural skills towards the war effort whilst working in a reserved occupation, as a draughtsman, in the Linthouse shipyard on Govan Road of Alexander Stephen and Sons Limited. During the war, the yard produced aircraft carriers, cruisers, mine-layers, destroyers, sloops, minesweepers and tank transport ferries.
In war-time football, however, Scot was a mainstay of the Rangers side which enjoyed huge success in the war-time competitions, playing in 270 League and Cup matches (scoring 12 goals.) His list of honours is impressive: member of the Scottish Regional League Champion side in 1939/40; member of the team that won the Southern League Championship in seasons 1940/41, ’41/42, ’42/43, ’43/44, ’44/45 and ’45/46; Summer Cup winner in 1941/42; Southern League Cup winner in 1940/41, ’42/43 and ’44/45; Victory Cup winner in 1945/46; Glasgow Cup winner in 1939/40, ’41/42, ’42/43, ’43/44 and ’44/45; Glasgow Charity Cup winner in 1939/40, ’41/42, ’43/44 and ’44/45.
These finals were certainly big occasions: 70,000 watched Rangers beat Hearts 4-2 in the Hampden replay of the 1940/41 Southern League Cup Final; 69,879 saw Rangers’ 2-1 victory over Motherwell at Hampden in the 1944/45 Southern League Cup Final; a crowd of 100,000 attended the 1945/46 Victory Cup Final at Hampden, in which Rangers defeated Hibs 3-1. The 1944/45 Glasgow Cup Final would have been particularly memorable for Scot – he scored Rangers’ second goal in a 3-2 win over Celtic before a Hampden crowd of 48,000.
In April of 1942, Scot demonstrated his all-round sporting skill and versatility when Rangers found themselves without a goalkeeper in the absence of Jerry Dawson. Symon played in goal for the full 90 minutes of a Southern League match at Shawfield against Clyde (Rangers winning 8-2.)
On the domestic front, Scot and Doreen became parents with the birth of daughter Carolyn Margaret in 1943, followed by son Kenneth James in 1946.
The only downside of this period in Symon’s football career was on the international front, as Matt Busby of Liverpool had taken his place in the Scotland team. His absence from representative wartime football prompted ‘Waverley’ to make the following comment in the Daily Record of 7 March 1944:
“It surprises some people that Symon’s name is so seldom, if ever, mentioned in an International connection. Yet, game after game, he plays away with the same steady consistency, a fine man for his team. He has had English experience, too, and if he were still playing for Portsmouth, he would probably get a recommendation from the South that would put him bang into the running.”
One of Scot’s finest performances for Rangers came in the twilight of his playing career when the touring Moscow Dynamo were held to a 2-2 draw at Ibrox before more than 90,000, with Symon’s contribution recalled by John Rafferty in his 1973 history One Hundred Years of Scottish Football:
“. . . a great Rangers wing-half who had turned the memorable game against Moscow Dynamo in November 1945 with his powerful tackling and firm passing.”
Symon's final season as a Rangers player was 1946/47, when the Championship was again won by the Ibrox side. It's a significant achievement that Scot Symon was a member of a Championship-winning side in each of his ten consecutive seasons as a player at Ibrox.
Astonishingly, although the Rangers’ ‘Hall of Fame’ was established in 2000 and 89 former players have been inducted, Scot Symon is not one of them. Despite representing Rangers in 313 competitive matches, the fact that 86% of these happened to be in war-time football is apparently sufficient to deny, bizarrely, a Rangers legend from his rightful place among the club’s elite. Contrarily, Symon is an inductee of the ‘Scottish Football Hall of Fame’, although why it took nine years from its initiation in 2004 before admitting Symon is a mystery.
As a cricketer, Symon was a hard-hitting right-handed batsman, a right-arm fast medium bowler, who bowled off-cutters, and an athletic fielder. Scot was one of three professional footballers who were the backbone of the Errol village cricket side, with Willie Logie and George Watson – both of Dundee United – being cricketing team-mates. Symon had been first called up to the Perthshire county side as a 21-year-old wicket-keeper in 1932, as the North Inch side were trying out various contenders who could wear the ’keeper’s gloves on a regular basis.
He made his début against Edinburgh Accies in a North Inch friendly on 11 June 1932, with the Perthshire Advertiser commenting that he ”…has been making a good many runs for his club and is worth inclusion for his batting alone.”
Symon, going in second wicket down, made 33 not out in Perthshire’s victory, with the Advertiser noting that:
“…most of his shots were made with precision and he reached the boundary five times. He was particularly strong on the off and, while he probably did not show all the strokes at his command, he must have done enough to impress the selectors. His defence was excellent. By the way, it was expected that Symon would keep wickets but I understand he is not particularly keen on the stumper’s job.”
Cricket was a serious, competitive and demanding pursuit for Symon in the 1930s. Those were the days when crowds of 10,000 surrounded the carpet-like greensward of Perth’s North Inch for the fiercely contested Tayside derby with Forfarshire from Dundee. Symon was in a dichotomous position in the midst of this Perth/Dundee 1930s sporting rivalry, being on different sides of the great divide with his opposing cricket and football allegiances.
With football not the year-round event it now is, Symon was able to concentrate on his cricket during the football close-season and, in 1935, he was a key member of the Perthshire side which won the Scottish Counties’ Championship. He opened both the batting and bowling in tandem with pro Bert Marshall of Notts. Standing 5’ 11” and weighing in at 13st 4lbs, he was as formidable a competitor on the cricket field as he was in the tough school of English First Division football.
From a current perspective, it appears almost incomprehensible that Symon would perform in front of similar-sized crowds, whether playing cricket on Perth’s lush North Inch turf or football at Dundee’s Dens Park. When Andy Goram became a cricket and football double international some 50 years later, his league cricket with Penicuik and Kelso was akin to a diversionary pastime in the brief respite between football seasons, played out in front of a handful of spectators.
Scot’s best-ever bowling performance in Counties’ cricket came in that Championship-winning season of 1935, when he took five West Lothian wickets for only 18 runs in 13 overs (5 of which were maidens), in a drawn match at Linlithgow. In the return match at the North Inch on 17 August 1935, Symon took three wicket for only 8 runs in 9 overs, helping to skittle West Lothian for just 68 to give Perthshire a 109-run victory.
Symon finished the 1935 season with 30 Championship wickets at 12.43. With the bat, he scored 183 runs in 10 Championship innings (once not out) for an average of 20.03. The Perthshire Advertiser described him, prior to the big 1935 mid-summer derby with Forfarshire at Forthill, as:
“One of those young men who plays any game well…Now fulfilling his cricket promise of two seasons ago, making runs at number one and taking wickets. Swings the new ball dangerously.”
Apart from his cricket success with Perthshire, and earning his football transfer to Portsmouth, August 1935 was of further special significance in Symon’s career – receiving the first of his five Scottish cricket caps, against Sir Julien Cahn’s XI, who were being opposed by Scotland for the first time. Cahn was a multi-millionaire and a patron of both Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire cricket. In the 1930s, he employed many first-class cricketers in his furniture business, who played in his side at home and on overseas tours. He possessed two fine grounds: at West Bridgford, Nottingham, and at his country house – Stanford Hall, Loughborough, where champagne was the staple interval refreshment!
The first of Symon’s international appearances, a two-day match at West Bridgford on 19 and 20 August, was drawn. Horace Wass, a professional footballer with Chesterfield, hit 103 not out in Scotland’s first innings 265 all out, with J S Symon, batting no 9, out for nought – lbw to Denys Morkel, the South African Test all-rounder. The Scottish leg-spinner, Ian Peebles, claimed five of his countrymen’s wickets for 61 runs. In reply, Cahn’s XI declared on 453 for seven, R E C Butterworth scoring 121 and New Zealander ‘Stewie’ Dempster (who had appeared for Scotland the previous summer) hitting 77. Symon opened the bowling for Scotland, and he was wicket-less in his 22 overs, conceding 73 runs, with 4 maidens. Forfarshire’s left-arm spinner Jack Melville was the pick of the Scottish bowlers with five for 111. Scotland held out for the draw on 122 for seven, with Bruce Jones of Stirling County not out on 50.
The Scots then moved on to Stanford Hall the following morning, for a one-day match – also drawn. Bruce Jones hit 122 and Hugh Stewart of Cupar made 65 not out in Scotland’s 272 for seven (J S Symon, lbw b Hall 10). In reply, Cahn’s XI reached 191 for six. Symon failed to take a wicket in his short bowling stint, his four overs providing 23 runs to the opposition total, with no maidens.
While Symon was playing cricket for Scotland, Portsmouth FC manager Jack Tinn was in Dundee trying to finalise the deal that would secure the transfer of the Dens Park captain. After returning home from his cricketing commitments in the east midlands, Symon was made aware of Portsmouth’s interest in him and he put pen to paper two days’ later.
Symon’s cricketing reputation preceded him to the south coast, with the Portsmouth Evening News of 24 April 1936 noting that:
“Hampshire Club and Ground matches may introduce another Portsmouth footballer, in the person of J. Scott (sic) Symon, who has been invited to play during August when he returns from Scotland preparatory to the 1936-37 soccer season. At home Scott (sic) Symon plays for Perthshire, and is more than a useful fast bowler.”
His trial for the Hampshire Club and Ground (effectively the county club’s 2nd XI) came during the final match of the Portsmouth Cricket Week on 8 August 1936. He helped the Hants side defeat Portsmouth by six wickets on the Grammar School ground at Hilsea. Symon took three wickets for 13 runs, but did not bat.
Almost two years were to elapse before Scot Symon’s next international cricket appearances. Sir Julien Cahn brought his team to Edinburgh’s Raeburn Place for a drawn two-day match on 22 and 23 July 1938. Cahn’s XI were dismissed for 196 in their first innings, with Symon’s nine overs, including two maidens, conceding just 15 runs and his clean bowling of Australian Vic Jackson for 4, provided him with his first wicket for Scotland. Going in at no. 7, Symon was lbw to Walsh for 23, as the Scots were all out for 195. (It was to be the highest score of his international career.) Cahn’s XI were dismissed a second time for 246 (Symon returning nought for 36 from his six maiden-less overs.) Scotland settled for the draw at 116 for six (Symon not out 17, batting no.5.) The high point of his cricketing career, however, would take place the following month.
On Thursday 4 August 1938, Scotland took the field at a sun-drenched Forthill, in front of a Dundee crowd in excess of 8,000, to engage the Australian tourists in a two-day match. The visitors were already one-up in the Test series with England and had retained the Ashes. The events which would make 1938 the Annus Mirabilis of Symon’s dual sporting career were about to unfold.
The Australians batted first, and were all out for 213, with the 1939 Wisden noting that: “Symon, bowling fast-medium, stood out in the Scotland attack.” He returned his best-ever international analysis: taking five for 33 from his 18 overs, five of which were maidens, with his victims being Sid Barnes, Jack Fingleton, Bill Brown, Bill O'Reilly and Frank Ward.
Contemporary press reports are generous in their praise of his caught and bowled to dismiss O'Reilly – holding onto a straight drive high above his head. The Daily Record of 5 August 1938 reported how:
“…Symon, frisky after a salad lunch, went on at the entrance end, and with his second ball, he had Fingleton caught just on the wicket.”
Scotland, in turn, was rolled over for 88 (Symon not out 11, batting 9.) The Australians did not enforce the follow-on, and ran up 320 all out in their second innings – Symon bowling two maidens in his 15 overs for the loss of 93 runs, taking one wicket: Frank Ward, stumped Gibb, bowled Symon for 71.The Scots held out for the draw at 185 for eight (Symon scoring 3 runs before being stumped by Barnes off the bowling of Ward) to the satisfaction of the 4,000 in attendance.
C D Stuart, cricket correspondent of Glasgow’s Evening Times, reflected on Symon’s contribution with the ball:
“The success of the game was J S Symon, and his figures, five wickets for 33, one of the best performances ever given by a Scots bowler, in no way flatter him. He had every batsman subdued, McCabe included. Unlike Baxter, he attacked all the time, and varied his deliveries cleverly.”
That Symon’s bowling is compared favourably with that of Sandy Baxter is praise indeed, as the Edinburgh-born Baxter had been a member of the MCC touring side to Australia and New Zealand during 1935/36.
On Saturday 6 August 1938, both sides travelled to Hamilton Crescent for a one-day match – which was to be Symon’s last cricket international. Paul Gibb won the toss and asked the Aussies to bat. The Scots produced a tremendous bowling performance, dismissing their powerful opponents (albeit minus Bradman) for 143 with Symon again spearheading the Scottish attack, taking three for 44 from 15 overs, five of which were maidens: Lindsay Hassett, c Nichol b Symon 6; S G Barnes, lbw b Symon 49; W J O'Reilly, c Davidson b Symon 0.) In the words of the Sunday Mail correspondent:
“Scotland, in fact, at one stage caused quite a flutter among the 10,000 crowd that sprawled over the West ground like Rothesay on Fair Saturday.”
Unfortunately, the Scots’ batting failed (82 all out), with Symon the not out batsman on two, going in at number eight.
It’s ironical, from a present day perspective, that the match attendance (some reports state 8,000; others record it as 10,000) was considered disappointing, the counter-attractions of the Empire Exhibition at Bellahouston Park and the Rangers Sports at Ibrox (where nearly 70,000 were in attendance) being cited as contributory factors. The admission charge of two shillings to see the Australians (as opposed to one shilling for the Rangers Sports) may also have kept the crowd down.
Scot Symon never played Counties’ Cricket after the 1939 season (when he was only 28), appearing only once or twice for the Errol village team immediately after the end of the war. Curiously, in the first wartime summer of cricket, Symon assisted the Rangers FC Cricket XI against West of Scotland CC at Hamilton Crescent on 12 June 1940. Top scoring for Rangers with 52 was guest player Sam Thomson, Ferguslie and Scotland cricketer and Queen’s Park footballer; Rangers were all out for 137 (Symon making 18), with West holding out for the draw on 106 for eight.
Thomson had played cricket with Scot against Australia in 1938 at that same Hamilton Crescent ground, but was an opponent of his on the football field, as he recalled for the writer before his death in 1995:
“I played football against him at Ibrox and Hampden, and my opinions of him are summed up very accurately in the comment, ‘a tough all-round competitor’ – emphasising tough.”
As well as being only the second of Scotland’s cricket/football double-internationalists, Scot was the first man to have been a member of a Scottish Counties’ Championship-winning side at cricket and a Scottish League Championship-winning side at football. The only other individual to hold this honour is Alan Cousin, a member of Clackmannan’s Counties’ Championship-winning team of 1960 and Dundee’s League Championship-winning side of 1961/62.
At the time of Symon’s appointment as manager of Rangers, C D Stuart reflected on his cricketing abilities in the Evening Times of 16 June 1954:
“Scot Symon was one of the best all-rounders the Perthshire club ever had, He was a medium pace spin bowler of excellent quality, and a batsman of no mean calibre.”
A Dundee-based sports journalist, writing under the name ‘Colin Glen’ in The Courier of 31 March 1954, had closely observed Symon’s career for almost 25 years at that time, and offered an insight into his all-round abilities:
“Just after Scot Symon, the young architect from Errol, had played his first game for Dundee…I met one of his experienced half-back mates.
“‘This Symon’s some lad,’ he said. ‘Straight from the juniors and, before the game was well started, he was telling me to get stuck into it!’
“I knew what he was getting at. I’d played cricket against Scot and found him just as tough in outlook. Bowling bumpers for his native village team in a mere friendly game. Batting just as painstakingly at 50 as he did at five. Playing his way towards county and Scotland caps. Playing, always, to win.
“That terrific determination and thirst for success was never more to the fore than when he was a Ranger, at left-half in that famous Ibrox game against the Dynamos (sic) from Moscow. It was Scot Symon who blunted the inspired thrusts of the Russian forwards. Scot who urged his mates on to a face-saving draw. Didn’t the East Fife team of the Scot Symon reign bear the very imprint of his personality? Dour, industrious, never beaten till the last whistle…
“This man who shuns publicity can’t seem to keep out of the news.”
He was to enjoy even greater sporting success when his playing career ended, taking up football management, at the age of 36, in the unpromising setting of Methil in the summer of 1947. In his first season in charge at Bayview (1947/48), he guided East Fife to the 'B' Division Championship and promotion. More significantly, the unfashionable Methil club also won the Scottish League Cup that year (defeating Falkirk 4-1 in a Hampden replay) – a remarkable achievement for the first season manager of a lower division side. He again steered East Fife to Hampden glory two years later, when they defeated Dunfermline Athletic 3-0 in the League Cup Final of 1949. Symon also took the Methil club to the 1950 Scottish Cup Final, but the Fifers lost out 0-3 to Rangers before a Hampden crowd of 118,262.
Symon's success at East Fife wasn’t just confined to the Cup competitions. He moulded them into a consistent force in the League: fourth in 1948/49 and 1949/50; tenth in 1950/51; then two successive third place finishes in 1951/52 and 1952/53. His dedication to the task at Bayview was almost obsessive. Symon undertook an SFA coaching course at Jordanhill College in the summer of 1947. He then spent a week shadowing SFA Secretary George Graham to ensure that he had a detailed understanding of the administrative machinations of the game. Later on, he utilised his architectural training to draw up the plans for renovations to the Bayview stand and for terracing extensions which doubled the ground’s capacity. He was already proving to be a shrewd judge of a player, and two of his East Fife signings – Charlie Fleming and Ian Gardiner – went on to play for Scotland.
This unprecedented run of success with a small, unfashionable club did not go unnoticed, and Scot was lured south in March 1953 to manage then First Division Preston North End. His former Rangers’ team-mate Jerry Dawson succeeded him as manager at Bayview, even moving in to the Leven bungalow vacated by the Symon family, who relocated to the Fulwell area of Preston.
Scot's spell at Deepdale was short, but successful, and culminated in a 1954 FA Cup Final appearance at Wembley, which Preston lost narrowly 3-2 to West Bromwich Albion. Bill Struth had retired as Rangers manager and the ex-Ranger Scot Symon was seen as his natural successor. Scot returned to Ibrox, as manager, in June 1954.
Scot Symon's task at Ibrox was by no means an easy one. 1953/54 had been Rangers' poorest season in 20 years (they had finished fourth in the old 'A' Division) and he had been left with an ageing side. He was dealt a severe blow in September 1954 with the sine die suspension of experienced centre-half Willie Woodburn. Symon had seen Woodburn as the dominant figure around whom he planned to build his team for the next two seasons.
Despite that initial setback, it is the measure of his managerial abilities that over the next 13 successful years, Scot led Rangers to 6 Championships, 5 Scottish Cups and 4 League Cups. He took Rangers into Europe for the first time (1956/57) and was the first British manager to guide a side to a European final – Rangers losing 4-1 on aggregate to Fiorentina in the 1961 two-leg European Cup-Winners’ Cup Final. Six years’ later he led them to a second Cup-Winners’ Cup Final, where they were unlucky to lose 1-0 in extra time to Bayern Munich in Nuremberg in May 1967.
In 1960, he had steered Rangers to a European Champions' Cup semi-final, only to be eliminated by a very fine Eintracht Frankfurt side. Not only were his sides successful, but they played attractive football as well, in an era when the Scottish top flight was not simply a two-horse race, with the likes of Dundee, Hearts, Aberdeen, Hibs and Kilmarnock all able to lift the championship.
During the 18 month period between October 1962 and April 1964 Scot Symon's Rangers won back-to-back ‘trebles’, picking up six consecutive domestic trophies – two League Cups, two Championships and two Scottish Cups. What might have been for this great team, built by Symon, in the 1965 European Cup, had the truly world-class Jim Baxter not suffered a broken leg in the elimination of Rapid Vienna and been able to face eventual winners Inter-Milan in the Quarter-Final, which Rangers lost 3-2 on aggregate?
The often uneasy alliance between Scot Symon and the Rangers board was to end in November 1967. The re-emergence of Celtic under Jock Stein and the earlier shock Scottish Cup defeat at Berwick were major contributory factors. The 56-year old Symon was earmarked for the post of General Manager, with Davie White taking on the Team Manager duties. Symon, however, refused the offer. He rose from his sick bed to issue a brief statement to the press:
“I was informed by a Glasgow businessman that, at a meeting of the directors of Rangers Football Club, it was decided to terminate my employment forthwith. I am awaiting confirmation of this.”
Coach Bobby Seith was left with the unpleasant task of removing Symon’s personal items from his Ibrox office. Seith also had to appease Alex Ferguson – Symon’s last Rangers’ signing (a £65,000 record buy from Dunfermline) – so incensed was Ferguson at Symon’s treatment that he wished a transfer out of Ibrox. Seith persuaded Ferguson to stay, but he resigned himself in a show of solidarity with his boss. Rangers were top of the league when Symon was dismissed, and at that time he was the most successful football manager in Britain.
The understandable hurt felt by Symon at the manner of his leaving Rangers was to last a long time. He was briefly a director of Dumbarton FC during 1968, before returning to football management with Partick Thistle in September of that year. He became the club's General Manager in April 1970, a position he held for several years until his retiral, during which time the Firhill club won the League Cup in October 1971 under Davie McParland, with half the team being signed by Symon.
At the time of Symon’s departure from Ibrox in 1967, his former Rangers’ teammate Willie Waddell, then a sports journalist, wrote:
“About football I have never been a sentimentalist. But when I heard yesterday that Scot Symon was no longer the Rangers boss, I had to hold back the tears. For sadly the doors of Ibrox have closed for the last time on one of the greatest Rangers of all time.”
The mark of Symon the man is that after the cataclysmic loss to Berwick Rangers in 1967, Symon still found time to seek out the Berwick groundsman and congratulate him on the condition of the Shielfield Park pitch. His boyhood holidays, spent helping his father install drainage in the farming communities of Perthshire and Angus, gave him a particular knowledge concerning football pitches and their treatment and the effort needed to produce a good playing surface.
The enduring image of Scot Symon is that of the reserved and dignified Rangers Manager of his middle and later years, but the late Pat Morris – a Perthshire cricket team-mate in the 1930s and a close friend until Symon's death – provided the writer with an insight to the real Symon behind the taciturn exterior:
"In my opinion, he was a better cricketer than footballer. He was a 'Botham-type' player. Scot was more open as a youngster – a very friendly, outgoing country chap. Later on, the job of managing Rangers made him more tense and contained."
The late Alex Cameron, one of Scotland’s most respected sports journalists for over 35 years, recalled Symon’s difficulties in Scotland on Sunday in January 2000:
“I felt sorry for Symon…Here was an intelligent, decent, quite sophisticated chap, who had been a fine wing-half for Rangers and played cricket for Scotland, having to live with this constraint of not signing Catholics. When we met in the early 1960s, he said: ‘I can tell by your attitude that we’re not going to get on.’ In fact, we got along okay in time. Towards the end, he asked me to walk around the Ibrox track for a chat, and he told me he thought the end was nigh: Stein was dominant with Celtic. ‘At board meetings,’ Symon said, ‘the directors talk across me as if I don’t exist.’"
The late John Mackenzie, before he became the ‘Voice of Football’ in the Scottish Daily Express, had started off as their ‘Man in the Crowd’ – who interviewed supporters, seeking their immediate post-match criticisms and suggestions, before putting these to the their club’s manager. He recalled his first such interview with Symon in his “People, Places…and Press Boxes” chapter, from the 1976 book We’ll Support You Evermore: The Impertinent Saga of Scottish Fitba, and it provides a fascinating glimpse of Symon’s dealings with the press:
“I eventually climbed the famous marble staircase, after going through the front-door preliminaries, which in those days stopped short only of passwords, countersigns and visas. Suddenly I was in the presence.
“Without even looking up from his blotter…blue, of course… while I wondered whether to sit uninvited in one of the chairs available, or to die standing up with my boots on, he said:
“ ‘I know who you are, so spare me the introductions. I have no time for writers who hide behind ridiculous pen-names.’ Not bad for openers, and as it happened, one of the longest speeches he ever made. ‘I have some comments from your supporters…’ I started tentatively.
“ ‘Rangers have supporters. I have no supporters.’ Never a word wasted and no chance of a come-back. ‘Can I read them to you…?’ I was cut off in mid-sentence.
“ ‘You’ll be printing them, no doubt?’
“ ‘I will.’
“Then I’ll read them in the paper. Good morning.’
“I learned in one not-so-easy lesson that Scot Symon was a hard man to get through to. But he was the most blue-blooded, blue-nosed fanatical Rangers’ man I have ever known, and probably still is under the Partick Thistle exterior he now wears.”
Although guarded in his communications with the press, Symon loved to talk football with football people, and was particularly friendly with Tottenham manager Bill Nicholson. John Greig in his autobiography described how Scot Symon loved to talk about football. Symon still maintained his love of cricket, however, as the late Bob Crampsey, a writer, broadcaster and historian of Scottish football par excellence told the writer:
"Scot Symon's five for 33 in 1938 remains the best bowling by a Scot against the Aussies. I used to kid him about it and he was always happy to talk of something else besides football."
Paradoxically, although Symon is portrayed as the antithesis of ‘media-friendly’, two of his closest friends had strong journalistic connections: Alma Hunt, the Bermudian professional cricketer with Aberdeenshire, who played with Symon for Scotland against the Aussies in 1938, had obtained a degree in journalism from New York’s Columbia University; and Rangers’ Willie Waddell had trained as a sports journalist on the Scottish Daily Express, writing on football between successful managerial stints with both Kilmarnock and Rangers.
The media indifference to Symon’s managerial achievements, and ignorance of his abilities, is shown in stark relief when contrasted with the view of the late great Sir Tom Finney, who played under him at Preston during season 1953/54. Writing in his 2003 autobiography, the England football legend described Scot Symon thus:
“He struck me as a top man from the moment I was first introduced to him and I felt we were destined for great things under his charge. No one I played under had a better football brain…Within days of arriving at Deepdale, aged a relatively young 42, he impressed me with his depth of knowledge of the game and of the players earning a living from it. He was not a tracksuit manager, but he supervised all the training sessions and was tactically brilliant. Eloquent and articulate, he hovered over his players like a mother hen, and nothing and nobody got in the way of him and his team.”
Unmitigated praise from Sir Tom Finney is praise indeed; yet even here Sir Tom references the leitmotif of Symon’s management style, the recurring theme that he was not a ‘tracksuit manager.’ Yet contrast that with ‘Colin Glen’, again, in the Courier from 31 March 1954, reflecting on his success with East Fife:
“Scot, an exacting master, was admired and respected by his players. There was scarcely a training day but what he was out on the field joining in with them, playing hard as any in their five-a-side games. I can see him yet, seated on the track on match days, spurring them on to greater efforts.”
Symon has also been denigrated as out of touch and unreceptive to changes in 1960s football, with the accepted narrative of the period emphasising how Stein (Dunfermline) and Waddell (Kilmarnock) spent a few days in late 1963 studying the methods of Helenio Herrera at Inter-Milan. Notwithstanding that Symon’s Rangers actually swept the board with a domestic treble in 1963/64, Symon was also keen to experience the inner workings of a top continental club at first-hand, spending ten days in May 1964 with Real Madrid. He told the Evening Times of 14 May 1964:
“I will only enjoy the trip if I find that I am learning facets of the game that can be of value to my club…One can always learn in this game and I am certainly prepared to do so. That is why I am going to Madrid.”
Interestingly, the great Herrera was actually a year older than Symon. Three years’ later, when the Rangers board decided that Symon was too old for football management, Scot was only 56. In contrast, the last Rangers’ manager Mark Warburton was almost 53 when appointed to the role in 2015.
The other Symon myth is that he was not a great tactician, reinforced by comments from some of his former players. Rangers’ legend, Johnny Hubbard, was scathing of Symon. Knowing ‘Hubbie’ as a keen cricketer, this writer assumed the little South African would have found a kindred spirit in Symon, only to be strongly disabused of this notion in a recent conversation with the ‘Penalty King’:
“I didn't like him. I called him ‘Simple Symon’. I didn't leave Rangers – I left Scot Symon. He would criticise you in the dressing-room in front of everyone; if Mr Struth had something to say to you, he said it upstairs in his office.”
A shared interest in cricket was not enough to create any kind of affinity with Symon for the winger from Pretoria: “I never spoke to him about cricket,” was his blunt response. Hubbard was sold to Bury just short of his tenth year of service with Rangers, thus denying him a testimonial, so his dislike for Symon – even with the passing of almost 60 years – is understandable.
Similarly, Rangers’ great Eric Caldow felt Symon was ‘rude and unapproachable’ (although his view was undoubtedly clouded by his losing the Rangers’ captaincy to Bobby Shearer, at the behest of Symon, in 1962.)
But contrast that with the view of the late great Alex Scott, signed by Symon for Rangers from Bo’ness United, who described how much he benefited from the coaching he received from Symon when the manager was refereeing practice matches at training.
Similarly, the late Jim Baxter explained how Symon the manager operated to Roddy Forsyth in his 1996 book, Blue and True – Unforgettable Rangers Days:
“People used to criticise Scot Symon when he was the Rangers manager because he was aloof, or at least, they thought he was. I thought he was a very dignified man. He hardly ever had trouble from us because we were too busy winning things…He wasn’t one for telling you how to play. You knew your job and in our case we were playing a basic 4-2-4…Scot kept everything simple because it was simple.”
When Sir Tom Finney, one of the finest players ever produced in these islands, described Symon as ‘tactically brilliant’ and was impressed by his ‘depth of knowledge of the game’ and his outstanding ‘football brain’, the myth of the tactically naïve Symon is completely debunked.
Scot Symon succumbed to cancer on 29 April 1985 at his home, 6 Dalkeith Avenue, on Glasgow's southside, aged 73. He was survived by his widow, Doreen, his daughter Carolyn and son Kenneth, and grandchildren Symon, Suzie and Michael. His funeral service was at Glasgow’s Linn Crematorium on 3 May 1985.
Happily, he had been reconciled with Rangers a few weeks before his death, attending a match with Moscow Dynamo at Ibrox that commemorated the epic encounter of 1945 between the clubs in which Symon had been an outstanding performer. His friend and former team-mate Willie Waddell had facilitated the bridge-building. One of the function suites in the reconstructed Ibrox is named in his honour.
The tributes paid to him at the time of his death confirm the high esteem in which he was held by the football community. A deeply saddened former Rangers captain and manager John Greig told the Evening Times:
“Mr Symon was the man who signed me for Rangers in 1959 and has been a father figure to me ever since then. It is a sad loss for football and a sad loss to me personally for there was nothing I liked better to meet and have a chat with the man I never referred to as anything other than Boss, for that was what he was.”
Then Rangers’ manager, the late, great Jock Wallace, described Symon as:
“…one of the finest gentlemen in the game. He was the sort of person who would go out of his way to help people.”
Ex-Scotland player and manager Tommy Docherty, recalled his time as a player under Symon at Preston:
“During his time here he was very demanding but very fair and throughout it all an absolute gentleman. We were very sorry to see him go back to Rangers.”
Former Rangers’ captain, the late Bobby Shearer – ‘Captain Cutlass’ – had been signed by Symon from Hamilton:
“He was a quiet man, but players never tried to mess him about. He commanded the utmost respect…in my 10 years at Ibrox he helped me in every way he could.
“Everything he did was for the good of Rangers and he had a strict code of discipline which many players, including myself, benefited from.”
A final tribute to James Scotland Symon, in the opinion of ‘Alan Breck’ (the pen-name of Archibald Y Wilson, chief sportswriter of the Evening Times for almost 20 years) writing in the edition of the Glasgow newspaper of 17 May 1952:
“…the finest passer of a ball Ibrox ever had – Scot Symon…”
This article first appeared on the Cricket Scotland website in April 2016 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the author.
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