Farewell to Gordon McQueen – a Scotland, Leeds and Man Utd icon who was tough as they come

John Nicholson
Gordon McQueen challenges for a header

Gordon McQueen was the dominant British defender of his era, tough enough to lead a brilliant Scotland side and swap Leeds for Man Utd and get away with it.


Who’s this then?
Gordon McQueen was born in 1952 in Kilbirnie in North Ayrshire. Dementia took him away from us this week, aged just 70. He was a fantastic Scottish international centre-half, who played for St Mirren, Leeds and Manchester United, ending his career playing one season in Hong Kong at Seiko. When he was transferred from Elland Road to Old Trafford for half a million pounds, he was the most expensive British transfer at the time.

His career got started at St Mirren in 1970, turning out 57 times for the Buddies across two seasons. In this era English clubs regularly scouted players from Scotland and he was soon spotted by the likes of Bill Shankly at Liverpool but it was Don Revie who turned up with £30,000, doubtless wearing a suede coat which, at time, was called car coat. Literally a coat you’d wear in the car because the heaters were useless.

And away to Leeds he went in 1972 as a replacement for legendary-centre half, Jack Charlton. What a bitter irony that both men should suffer a similar fate with dementia. Those balls were so heavy when wet, it’s hard to think that heading it hasn’t contributed to their condition.

Leeds were a footballing superpower at the time. In 1973/74 they played their first 29 games without losing and picked up the league title. McQueen played six seasons in Yorkshire, helping them get to the disgracefully corrupt 1975 European Cup final where, under Jimmy Armfield, they lost 2-0 to Bayern Munich. However he got sent off in the semi-final defeat of Barcelona for chinning a Spaniard who spat at him. Knocked him clean out.

He was the Whites’ player of the year in 1974/75 and again 1976/77. He was the dominant British defender of his era and was in high demand.

In 1978 Manchester United signed him for a British record fee of £500,000. This caused much consternation in Yorkshire and it was the talk of football all that summer. Gordon made a famous quote that “99% of players wanted to play for Manchester United and the rest are liars”. Yeah, he really was that brave.

He played 184 times for Manchester United across seven seasons, winning an FA Cup along the way as well a runners-up medal in the League Cup and FA Cup.

He was usurped in the United team by Paul McGrath and after a year in Hong Kong, he retired aged just 34.

Internationally he got 30 caps and scored five times for Scotland, one of which is fondly remembered as a towering header for the opening goal in a 2-1 win over England to win the 1976/77 British Home Championship, a game in which he also gave a penalty away. Scottish fans invaded the pitch at the end of the game, broke the bar and dug up the pitch. Hurrah! Scotland were a much better team than England at the time and played much better football.

After retiring as a player he managed Airdrie and coached St Mirren, then was a coach at Middlesbrough for the reserves and then the first team under old teammate Bryan Robson; he later worked as a scout for Middlesbrough, living on the edge of Teesside in Hutton Rudby. He had a good 10 or more years on Sky as a Soccer Saturday and midweek special pundit before being struck down with laryngeal cancer, which he beat, only to be diagnosed with vascular dementia in early 2021, surviving for another 30 months.


Why the love?
Gordon was a handsome, blonde, 6ft 3ins tall absolutely imperious defender. He played in one of the hardest, most physically robust periods of British football. To play centre-half from 1970 to 1986 you had to be really f***ing, f***ing, hard and you had to be able to look after yourself. McQueen took sh*t off no-one. I have to tell you that seeing him playing alongside Norman Hunter for Leeds was like seeing two human wrecking balls sweeping all before them. Their reputation went before them. They could beat you with skill and vision, but if you wanted to mix it with them, they could batter you black and blue. This really was, in Graeme Souness’ words, “men, at it”. And, for a teenage boy, it was brilliant. All my angst and stress was dissipated by seeing the likes of Souey, McQueen, Hunter, Stuart Boam and many more ploughing in and through the opposition like so much footballing pig iron.

But that Leeds team which won the First Division in 1974 was as skilful as it was brutal. You couldn’t play through them but, man, they could play you off the park. They finished five points ahead of Liverpool and a massive 14 ahead of Derby in third. When it was just two points for a win that was a huge gap.

However, while you had to be able to play a physical game in the ’70s and ’80s, there was also plenty of skill on display too – that is often forgotten. Leeds could fillet any team with their crisp passing and rotational positioning. They had trickery, they had guile, they had pace and they had Peter Lorimer, a man who could hit the ball harder than anyone had ever hit it; they were the perfect blend of skill and outright violence. They ticked all the boxes in a way which few have ever done.

Of course, at Manchester United, he joined a legendary drinking gang, back when everyone wasn’t a citizen journalist keen to shop players to the tabloids. It all seems a long way away from the modern day…unless you’re Jack Grealish, of course.

In a 2016 interview he talked about that European Cup semi v Barca. “We played Barcelona in the semi-final and we were 2-1 up going into the second leg in Spain. A few of their players said they were going to do me, and Jimmy Armfield, our manager, told me to count to 10 if anything happened. The boy (Manuel) Clares spat in my face, I counted to 10 and then knocked him out. I was sent off. Missed the final.”

Hard not to smile at that. Bless him.

When he was doing punditry on Sky, like Souey, there was always the swish of the old lion’s tail as he witnessed a robust challenge or a bit of afters between players. When you were handsomely rewarded for your ability in this field, it must never really leave you, regardless of modern culture. The instincts must remain, so when you see someone go down clutching their face like they’ve been hit with a haymaker but haven’t been touched, it must feel like an insult to your profession. Similarly, witnessing someone pulling out of the sort of challenge that you’d have relished to take man and ball and put them both in Row Z, must also feel like an insult.


Three great moments
The definition of a towering header:

Even in 1975 you couldn’t knock out a Spaniard with a left hook:

One of the greatest nights in Middlesbrough’s history:


A farewell…
If you’re 25, hearing that some dude has died at 70, it probably seems to be a very old age. I know I would’ve thought so. But in 2023, it’s really not. Gordon could’ve expected to live well into his 80s if this terrible disease of dementia hadn’t taken him. His daughter Hayley will carry his name on in the broadcasting world with class. But he will not be forgotten. And to a certain generation, we have lost one of the giants of the game we grew up loving.