Mightier than the Sword: the Life and Times of Chic Charnley

Posted: January 3, 2022 in Scottish Football, Uncategorized
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The late 80s and early 90s were the heyday of the dressing room joker. Almost every club seemed to have at least one in various assorted flavours: from the John Moncur-alike journeyman prankster, always name-dropped in interviews in the pages of Shoot! or Match for his antics with a can of fart spray in the physio’s room; to the next level ‘clown prince’ maverick, who sprinkled his anarchic mischief on and off the pitch. Paul Gascoigne was, of course, the market leader, whether it was bringing an ostrich to training or digging up London with a pneumatic drill. The rise of ‘professionalism’ as a concept in British football, with its super athletes and and-it’s-live portentousness, seems to have squeezed out the game’s harlequins.

Scotland had its own sort-of version of Gazza around this time, a midfielder of considerable vision, guile and craft, wired differently to his peers. The 1992 Shoot! Annual even had a feature on this ‘court jester’ who’d embarrass opponents, selling them dummies and then allowing the ball to run out of play as he ‘bowed theatrically to the crowd.’ Mascots were terrorised. Bottoms were wiggled.

Chic Charnley was a joker, alright. It’s just that he was more of the Heath Ledger I’m-going-to-make-this-pencil-disappear variety…

Charnley was a magician. The sight of him in full flow was vivid, unforgettable, indelible, primarily because the man didn’t look like a footballer. ‘His chest is all puffed up like a chubby pigeon, and his shoulders seem to come out of his ears, as if on a coathanger’, wrote The Guardian‘s John Mullin. He didn’t run like one either, if you could call it running. John Penman’s affectionate tribute in Nutmeg described him as having ‘the look of an exhausted spaniel on a boiling hot day’. He wasn’t athletic. He was fond of an ale and a night out or two. Christ though, could he play. Supporters of the many clubs he graced still talk about his netbursting, Hotshot Hamish free kicks and other assorted wondergoals. His Casanova-like caress of the football, his eye and instinct for a pass, the frenzied commitment and showmanship he brought to games, put him firmly in the ‘worth the entrance fee alone’ bracket.

Yet, but for a brief spell at Hibs, Charnley never officially turned out for any of Scotland’s biggest clubs, nor did he wear the navy of the national side. He moved 18 times in his career, but the places he called home were grounds like Firhill, Kilbowie Park and Somerset Park. He played more games in the Swedish Allsvenskan than he ever did at Hampden. Too often, his magic was overshadowed by his penchant for a bit of the old ultraviolence. When you’ve been sent off 17 times in your career, had numerous punch-ups with your own team mates and coaches, and had a run-in with a bloke wielding a samurai sword, suddenly that 60 yard lob at Alloa doesn’t sound quite as interesting…

Professional fowl

The young James Callaghan Charnley, growing up in the tough Glaswegian district of Possill, earned his moniker by selling door-to-door the poultry dubiously acquired by a relative. Such enterprising roguishness proved transferrable to his football, and various clubs were keen to have a look at him throughout the 80s. However, by the dawn of the following decade, aged 27, he was only just beginning to make any real headway. His lifestyle, sulfurous temper and appetite for self-destruction had already seen him cast out of several clubs. As a young player at St. Mirren, he’d responded to manager Alex Miller’s suggestion that he clean his boots by hurling said footwear at his head. He’d left both Clydebank and Hamilton under a cloud after punching, respectively, a coach and the assistant manager. Somewhere in the middle of that, he’d even had a couple of years out of the professional game, working on the oil rigs in Nairn (he clocked in but never left shore, having been hired primarily as a ringer for the company football team).

In 1991, following a period of relative stability at Partick Thistle (the only club mad enough to ever really feel like home), the opportunity for a return to St Mirren and another crack at the SPL arose for the older, supposedly wiser Charnley. Things started well enough, and he performed strongly as part of a retrospectively starry midfield alongside Roy Aitken and Paul Lambert, with three goals in his first 10 games. He was even handed the captaincy in recognition of his supposedly mended ways.

It wasn’t long before the misdemeanors again began to accumulate, however – 17 suspensions, four red cards (one of which was for cracking Darren Jackson in the jaw in the tunnel at half time), obscene gestures to opposing fans, and his own. Another dismissal in the new year for spitting on an opponent – an act which appalled even Charnley himself – saw the Paisley outfit hand him his cards.

It was a similar story at Dundee a few years later. Thrown a lifeline at Dens Park by his old Partick mate Jim Duffy, he’d raised eyebrows on arrival by getting lost (he claimed the only place in Dundee he knew was the casino) and turning up late, sporting a black eye after a spot of public house feistiness the previous evening. A 35-yard screamer on his debut seemed to win over teammates and supporters alike, Dee fans taking to his blend of battle, bottle and creativity in a big way. He starred in a derby cup win over Dundee United as midfield orchestrator, scoring a penalty in the decisive shoot-out and then disrobing to his boxers during the on-pitch celebrations afterwards. Again, however, an unhappy new year lay in prospect.

On New Year’s Day 1997, Dundee took on St Johnstone in another derby, and proceeded to take an absolute gubbing. When the second of what would eventually be seven Saints goals went in, Charnley pointed the finger squarely at centre back Robbie Raeside. He then took that finger and four of its friends, balled them up and popped Raeside flush in the mouth. Red card.

Charnley had time in the dressing room to consider his actions, and when his teammates filed in at half time, he immediately sought out Raeside…and punched him again. It was his last game for the club.

The Ruchill Park Samurai

Charnley was very much the hero of the most notorious story to involve him. Back among Partick’s assorted rogues and rapscallions, presided over by enduringly oddball manager John Lambie (a man who once hurled a dead pigeon at a player, and dropped a medicine ball on Charnley’s head), Chic and teammates were training in Ruchill Park – not-so affectionately known as ‘dogshit park’. The club’s lack of a training ground meant they had to train on whatever loosely-termed greenery they could find, leaving the players open to the occasional interaction with their adoring public.

On this particular morning in 1996, they met with a torrent of abuse from some local ne’er do wells. Charnley invited them to take their leave and to come back in an hour if they wanted to continue the ‘conversation’; the duo took him at his word, and returned a short while later with a carving knife, an Alsatian and a samurai sword.

At this point, most of the squad wisely took a powder. “I’ll argue with a player all night,” said Lambie, “but I’m not arguing with some fucking nutter with a sword”. Charnley and a couple of teammates however, remained to face down the would-be ronin. When the dog blinked first and scarpered, causing a distraction, Charnley’s mates acted quickly to take down the man with the knife. That left Charnley with the swordsman, and he bravely charged towards him, inexplicably taking a stray traffic cone as a makeshift weapon, only to see a flash of the blade and blood pouring from his hand. That his assailant dropped the weapon in the process allowed Charnley to deliver unto him an absolute pasting and drive him off, but he still bears the scar to this day. Just another day at Partick Thistle.

Hoop Dreams

By the time of the samurai incident, Charnley’s lone shot at the big time had been and gone. In the summer of 1994, the day before Celtic were due to meet Manchester United for Mark Hughes’ testimonial, he answered the phone to learn that Celtic had squared with Partick for him to turn out for The Bhoys at Old Trafford. It was all Chic had ever wanted – he’d been planning on going to the game as a supporter with his mates anyway. The only slight problem was that he’d spent the previous evening with said mates getting positively steaming, and had serious beer fear that his new teammates would smell the booze on him when he boarded the team coach for Manchester. Instead, he hopped into the same minibus ferrying his pals south of the border.

Initially overwhelmed by the emotion of pulling on the shirt, Charnley went on to have the game of his life. Spraying passes hither and thither, he made a goal for Simon Donnelly with a clever reverse pass, and took man of the match honours in a 3-1 win. He even had time to humiliate Eric Cantona by foiling his attempted nutmeg and slaloming past him, bellowing “who does he think he is?” to the chuckling benches as he went. There was talk of him fulfilling his Pinocchio-ish dream of becoming a real Bhoy, with manager Lou Macari inviting him on the club’s pre-season tour of North America. Charnley, however, had arranged an end-of-season lash in the Algarve with some Partick mates, and kept that commitment instead. Macari was not impressed, allegedly telling journalists (according to Charnley’s book Seeing Red): “If Chic Charnley really wanted to be a Celtic player, he should have been on the trip,” He didn’t receive another call from Parkhead.

Charnley himself believes Macari simply changed his mind, never having indicated previously that not joining the tour was a dealbreaker, and the Celtic manager’s sacking before the season started would likely have scuppered the transfer anyway. Nevertheless, the breakdown of the move haunted him, and while he would prove a point in orchestrating Partick’s 3-1 win over The Bhoys that season, he struggled to shrug off the disappointment. While Celtic strode out at Hampden that May for the Scottish Cup Final, Chic Charnley found himself unemployed again, released by The Jags.

None-cap wonder

During spells of particularly good form, there would be whispers about Charnley deserving a Scotland call-up, though admittedly, some of these do appear to have been started by the man himself – he recalls once asking Andy Roxburgh “how about a wee cap, Andy?” and receiving the response “why, is the sun in your fucking eyes?”

The most sizeable clamour for a call-up came in August 1997, with Charnley at Hibs, where old pal Duffy was now at the helm. The manager had to convince a very sceptical board that the player was worth the trouble, and at first it seemed like a masterstroke. The opening day of the season brought Celtic to Easter Road for Wim Jansen’s first game in charge of The Bhoys. It would be Charnley, as he often did in his fleeting moments on the grand stage, who stole the show.

Outstanding throughout, he’d already twice left scorchmarks on the crossbar when Jansen, with the score at 1-1, tried to play his ace, introducing an exciting debuting striker by the name of Henrik Larsson. The Swede’s first action however was to miscontrol a pass, which spun enticingly into the path of Charnley, 25 yards out, and which he duly clattered home first time for what would prove the winning goal. “I’m the man who made Chic Charnley famous,” bemoaned Larsson years later.

An outrageous 60-yard lob at Alloa in the cup that midweek only strengthened his claim at a time when the national side was functional but short on magic. There was excitement in the press that Charnley, at the age of 34, seemed finally likely to get his chance at international level as September’s France ’98 qualifier with Belarus neared. Yet when the squad was announced, there was no place for him and things would follow a familiar pattern from there. Charnley’s form faded; Hibs plummeted from top of the league in September to stone bottom by New Year, with Duffy consequently sacked.

When Alex McLeish was appointed in his stead, Charnley saw the writing on the wall. The two men had never been fans of each other – Seeing Red recalls Eck referring to him less than fondly as “a fuckin’ bad penny” during a previous on-field exchange – and Chic didn’t bother trying to change his mind. Going AWOL from training for days, on his return he was stuck with the youth players, then summoned to the manager’s office and told it was best if he left the club. He didn’t argue. By spring, with Hibs relegated, he was back at Partick for a third time, all talk of Scotland and the World Cup feeling like a daydream in a beer garden.

Coulda been a contender

So could Chic Charnley have gone all the way to the top with a couple of different twists and a mite more self-control? A more pertinent question might be whether he wanted to make it. The best spells of his career came when he was settled and at clubs that allowed him a certain amount of freedom. Only two of his 17 red cards came during his four separate spells as a Partick player. He suited Lambie’s rogues’ gallery to a tee, aware his profane mentor would turn a blind eye to his misadventures and occasional escapes from training. Duffy, similarly, gave him Mondays off at Dundee and Hibs, knowing he liked a night out on a Saturday.

The need to let off steam recognised by those managers surely wouldn’t have been proffered further up the pyramid. Charnley himself seems more than aware of this, and is philosophical in his autobiography about his international prospects: ‘I have absolutely no doubt I could have played in the international side back then, but I’m not so confident I could have handled all the other things entailed with being a Scotland player.’

There’s a sadness to his admission that, for all his adventures, ‘I would, without hesitation change about 95% of my career’. He played for the love of the game and had a great, long run – where other mavericks crashed and burned long before their 30th birthdays, Charnley was still playing beyond his 40th – but a midfielder of his gifts really should have lifted more trophies than just the Glasgow Cup.

He has, nevertheless, carved a unique niche in his country’s sporting history. In the grand boozer of Scottish football, there is a terrifying table in the corner that is forever Chic Charnley’s.

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