No-one did it quite as well, nor as joyously, as Ally McCoist

Date published: Saturday 6th March 2021 8:14 - John Nicholson

Ally McCoist was a phenomenal and underrated striker in his time. But first and foremost, he enjoys himself and brings a smile to everyone.

 

Who’s this then?
Alistair Murdoch McCoist is a 58-year-old former goal machine who is now everyone’s favourite co-commentator. Bellshill-born and East Kilbride-raised, the 5ft 10ins striker played for just four clubs in his career: St Johnstone, Sunderland, Rangers and Kilmarnock. He racked up 777 games and 405 goals. Internationally he played 61 games and scored 19 times.

He began playing for St Johnstone in 1978 and his first full season was in 1980/81 when he scored 23 goals in 43 games. This brought him to the attention of Sunderland who were prepared to pay a club record £400,000 for his services. But the Roker Men were a rubbish side at the time and Ally didn’t fare well,with only nine strikes in over 60 games.

Even so, Rangers manager John Greig wanted our man and in 1983/84 he signed for the Ibrox side for a mere £185,000. It was to be the start of an amazing 15-year career at the club where he would play 581 games and put the ball in the net 355 times.

He is the second all-time highest scorer in Scottish football with 396 goals in 712 games. He has ten league titles and 10 cup medals in his collection. Often overlooked is that he was top scorer in the 1987/88 European Cup and won the European Golden Shoe two years running from 1991 to 1993 with 34 goals.

In 1992/93 he scored a total of – and you’ll need to take a stiff drink here – 49 goals in 52 games. It was the second time he’d scored over 40 in a season, having got 42 in 1987/88, this coming after a season of scoring 39 times in 49 games.

He wound up his career at Kilmarnock for three seasons. In his last game he was subbed for a young Kris Boyd to make his debut. Ally retired in 2001 with 838 games under his belt and 424 goals notched up.

By this time he’d already been doing regular TV work, from 1996 being a team captain on Question Of Sport, and doing a BBC Scotland show with that fine comedian Fred McAuley. So well was he doing in this field that he won Sports Presenter of the Year at the Television and Radio Industries Club Awards in 2001.

The next six years were spent doing media work and being a Scotland coach under Walter Smith. When Smith took over at Rangers in 2007, he took Ally with him as assistant. They won five cups and won the title three years on the spin, the last time the club would do so well until this season under Steven Gerrard. They also made the UEFA Cup final, losing 2-0 to Zenit.

After all this, understandably, he was named Smith’s replacement. There followed a complicated phase in the club’s history which saw them dumped down to the third division and struggle to claw their way back with our man leaving at the end of 2014, finally terminating his contract in September 2015. For once in his life, he was at a low ebb and it was a sad sight to see.

But you can’t keep a good man down and instead of being in football he worked more on TV as a co-comm and pundit, achieving cult status for his role alongside Jon Champion at the 2018 World Cup and now with Amazon Prime’s Premier League games to an undisclosed audience of literally some people.

As in his playing career, though less in his time as a manager, he is almost universally loved for bringing a smile to every occasion.

 

Why the love?
The Ally love-in has two distinct phases. First, his playing career. It’s been said that he was the quintessential ‘women want to be with him, men want to be him’ footballer and that says it about right. He was simply a brilliant striker, who at his peak had few equals. Because back in the day we were more concerned with watching football than adding things up, we don’t have his shooting stats, but there was a time, especially in the early ’90s, when he just seemed incapable of missing the net.

His showreels reveal a striker who could do it all. His game was based on being absolutely nerveless in a one-on-one or taking a penalty, and he was one of those players who never seemed to stop moving. While he wasn’t the biggest, or the quickest, or the most powerful, he was as slippery as an eel and knew where the space was. He would shoot from any distance and any angle and was as happy with a tap-in as a long-range volley. Better yet, every goal was celebrated like it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. And that’s how it should be. There were no pre-planned, elaborate and embarrassing goal celebrations, no too-cool-for-school pouting. No, that wasn’t Super Ally’s style. There was just a lot of leaping in the air and grinning like the cat that got the cream, the dairy and the cow’s udders, too.

Those two elements are crucial to understand why we’ve always loved him. It’s one thing to be a bloody good player, but that’s not the whole job. It is not said often enough that one of football’s great pleasures is witnessing a player’s own joy. Too many do not understand that. A goal is great but made all the better for the scorer punching the air, genuinely thrilled like he’s won the lottery, and to do so every time like it is the first time will always endear a player to the fans.

The sight of Coisty peeling away from the goal, arms raised, a massive grin on his face was one of football’s most commonplace things to witness for two decades. He was a player who clearly genuinely loved doing the job and had that rarest of all qualities: he was a fan on the pitch.

So that’s Ally the footballer. Then there’s Coisty the TV dude. A man of charm, twinkle and cheekiness. Never that more negative thing, ‘cocky’, he is very much in the naughty but nice tradition. You can’t fake smiling eyes; it is one of the most attractive characteristics anyone can have. Even now, when working as a pundit he may be making a serious point, but you can see when something silly or amusing enters his brain. His eyes give it away immediately. It’s very endearing.

Look at the mischievous joy on his face here when accosted by Scottish TV and radio legend, Tam Cowan. You know he’s just up for it, whatever ‘it’ might be. It might sound odd, but even without the sound, just watching him brings a huge smile to our faces..

And he was an absolute natural for Question of Sport. Relaxed, quick-witted and sweary. These outtakes are very amusing.

He was actually rather good in the movie ‘A Shot at Glory with Robert Duvall’, playing an ex-Celtic player. The camera is certainly his friend. I wonder if, because we live in more studious days when we must take football so very, very seriously and treat it like a hybrid between geometry and accountancy, Ally’s wit has more currency than ever before.

That he’s stuck out in the mysterious popularity vacuum that is Amazon Prime for Premier League co-comm work while others with less obvious assets get more mainstream work is a pity. But he’s still prominent on ITV’s coverage of Scotland and working on the SPFL coverage for Sky. I know his work on Scottish football for BT Sport was always popular and very much in tune with its audience.

Since 2018 his co-comm work has gone on an upward curve thanks to his adventures with Champion which, perhaps uniquely, combined football insight with a kind of travelogue and history lesson. They have a natural bonhomie that is a real pleasure to listen to.

There’s one other thing to Ally’s love: he’s Scottish. Not for no reason are there a lot of Scots in all sections of the broadcast media. Terry Wogan used to say that the advantage of being an Irishman in UK broadcasting was that no-one knew what class you were or from which strata of society you had come, so had to judge you on the quality of what you said, rather than be shaped by preconceived notions. This works similarly for Scotland.

The accent can confer gravitas and tends to feel connected to the street and the working class in all but the most Morningsidey of voices. It is at turns poetic, lyrical, forceful and amusing. Perfect for dry or acerbic wit and, when given full reign, replete and perfectly suited to some of the best creative insults and cursing, as anyone who remembers Jamie in ‘The Thick Of It’ will recall. No wonder the Scottish accent is often surveyed as the UK’s most favourite and trusted, though frankly there are so many different Scottish accents, I’m not sure which one they mean.

When covering English football, the Scot without a long history of playing in England also seems free of bias to the English listener, in a way that any co-comm who has played for any English team can’t, even if the accusations of bias are almost always wide of the mark and live only in the paranoid critic’s head. This works in Ally’s favour, too. It is different up here in Scotland, of course, where other cultural stresses and strains exist. However, even in the peculiarly specific world of Glasgow football, Ally is widely liked on all sides. This is no small achievement and is purely a result of his charm and ability to laugh at himself. It is hard to take against someone who is genuinely self-deprecating and who, one suspects, doesn’t take life too seriously.

And that is perhaps the most important point to finish this section on. God knows football is taken far too seriously. Ally is a counterweight to that overly heavy mindset at a time when his natural instinct to have a laugh has never been more needed.

 

What the people love
A lot of people, as mad as it sounds to those of us of a certain age, don’t remember Ally as a player. It’s been 20 years since he retired. Where did those days go? So their experience is of him in the media and many of the comments reflect that. Could it be that as a player he’s been somewhat forgotten, or at the very least underappreciated for his incredible scoring feats back in the day? They should not be.

We start with a lovely tribute from the ever excellent, forever young Darrell Currie who, as a long-serving presenter of Scottish football, has been the man tasked with keeping sometimes unruly and always highly entertaining pundits like Ally under some sort of control.

“Ally is an absolute joy to work with. He oozes enthusiasm and happiness at every opportunity and that’s more important than ever, given all the negativity that’s been dominating the headlines for over a year now. He brings smiles to people’s faces, he makes us laugh on every broadcast. I’m lucky I get to work with him every week. On and off air we chat a lot and he’s always the same, he genuinely is a great guy. His ability to work across different leagues, for different broadcasters, is a sign of his talent. If only his time-keeping was as good as his patter. Ally – you know that’s true!”

And here’s another tale, this time from a top commentator.

‘I’ve mostly had commentary on mute this season. I don’t when he’s on, he brings joy to the games he speaks about and in a cynical sport, brings light to it in my opinion.’

‘One of, if not the greatest striker Scotland has ever produced!’

‘As a co-commentator he simply enjoys the game and to English ears despite his time at Sunderland is seen as a genuine neutral with no club allegiance – this would not be the case in Scotland. He is best cast with a more technical half-time analyst – someone like Alex Scott but his love of the game shines through and in his amiable way he points out stuff an old pro sees but a fan may not. Excellent performer.’

‘I was at hospitality at Love Street, St Mirren vs Rangers, big Rangers fan. Sitting down to a cold one after the game. Coisty walks in, long camel hair coat on. Says hello to everyone, picks up two scotch pies and shoves them in the pocket of said coat before boarding the team bus.’

‘That story he told about Gazza and the 2 fish, kills me every time.’

‘I’m a Celtic fan and he was part of the most successful Rangers team of all time through my whole childhood. He constantly scored against us. I should hate him but I don’t. He’s the best colour commentary out there. The last World Cup, him and Jon Champion were a tour de force.’

‘His double act with Jon Champion during the World Cup was a delight. The best of conversational cricket commentary brought to TV football.’

‘It’s a short list of people that almost all of Glasgow loves. Billy, Kenny, Sir Alex, and Ally.’

‘His overhead kick against Hibs in the 1993 Skol cup final as he made his comeback from his broken leg just encapsulated everything about the striker he was. Also his goal against Greece in 1995 for Scotland when he came of the bench to score the winner. There’s an anecdote about the ref asking him if he always scored with his first touch but can’t quite remember it. The two games against Leeds as well. He was a Titan in both games. Also when Rangers signed Mo Johnston and McCoist found himself benched he nicknamed himself the Judge. Getting fined for sneaking to Cheltenham. I could go on all day. He was my hero when I was growing up.’

‘Has an inherent likeability that will take anyone far in life. Great commentator, but his goal against the Swiss at Euro 96 I’ll always love him for. For a few minutes, he allowed us to dream. Grinning disbelief all round. Then England conceded against Holland and that was that.’

‘Not sure there’s enough characters in a Tweet to sum up the wonderfulness of Mr McCoist. A legend as a player, with Sandy Jardine he carried rangers on his shoulders at their darkest time, and as a pundit pure unadulterated joy and entertainment. One of the finest people I’ve met!’

‘He has a thirst for knowledge, always seems keen to impart that knowledge on the viewers and clearly puts a lot of research into the job. It’s refreshing in an era of lazy and say what you see punditry.’

‘Iconic. Growing up in the ’90s McCoist was foreign glamour to a West Brom fan. Star player and personality. A type of striker just not valued enough anymore.’

‘Seems to just bloody love his life in football, and I have all the time in the world for that. I also swear he’s played – and scored – in every testimonial match since about 1997.’

‘There’s one story when he finds Gazza in his kitchen in the middle of the night making a sandwich. At the time Gazza lived miles away.’

 

Five great moments
Goals goals goals. And pretty much each one celebrated like it was the most fantastic thing ever:

 

A rare header for our man in a legendary game:

 

A typical bit of Coisty punditry, a couple of serious points before breaking into paroxysms of laughter:

 

THAT story about Gazza and the fish. Brilliantly told by a natural raconteur:

 

League Cup final, overhead kick, 81st-minute winner. Classic Ally:

 

Future days
He’ll always have a spot on any studio sofa to tell stories as he’s such good value. His Gazza stories alone should ensure that. Judging by comments on social media – which clearly is not always a guide to anything other than the worst of human nature – Ally’s work as a co-comm has never been more popular and he’s widely hailed as the primo man for the job. This must be partly due to the chemistry he has with Champion, but it is not exclusive to that partnership.

I do recall three years or so ago, him working on 5 live in tandem with Jonno Pearce and it being an absolute riot of fun. Similarly, he was once on the same station alongside Neil Lennon in a wide-ranging discussion and the pair of them bounced off each other in fine style, drawing on a wealth of experience to make entertainment and provide insight.

So we shouldn’t think that his skills are not transferable to other team-ups. In an era with so much football television, he should never be short of work. If you don’t watch Scottish football, Ally is just one good reason to do so.

Slàinte mhath, Ally, son. Slàinte mhath.

 

John Nicholson

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