Stellar Line-Up And A Distinctive Mersey Beat
By David Instone
Ten hours out of the house, 180 miles of driving, not a ball kicked and I didn’t regret a moment of it. Well, not every day presents the chance to sing You’ll Never Walk Alone with Kevin Keegan, Ian St John, Ray Clemence and Ian Callaghan while saying goodbye to a friend.
The presence of these and other Anfield giants at West Lancashire Crematorium yesterday underlined the commonly held view that football has lost a highly respected member of its family with the passing of Ian Ross.
The list of luminaries seemed to stretch as deep as The Kop……Alan Kennedy, David Johnson, Chris Lawler, Phil Thompson, Phil Boersma, Roy Evans, Gordon Wallace, Howard Gayle and, from Ian’s other main professional home, Aston Villa, Jim Cumbes, Frank Carrodus, Tommy Hughes and the former Wolves caretaker manager Brian Little.
Not a bad turn-out for a man who left both clubs well over 40 years ago and who went on to utilise his huge sense of professionalism and discipline in a substantial spell in management and coaching that included eight seasons in Iceland.
There was a stint at Molineux, too – hence my attendance at a packed service – and the family’s 13-year residence on this patch saw to it that six friends from Wolverhampton travelled to Ormskirk in the heart of an area populated by any number of Liverpool and Everton favourites.
It wasn’t just the Wolves link that tempted me north, though. There were more personal connections with the Rosses dating back the best part of three decades.
I first bumped into Ian in 1989-90, in a corridor in the old main stand at Walsall’s Fellows Park, where he was casting a friendly match-night eye over the Saddlers side then under the management of his ex-Molineux boss John Barnwell.
In no time, this engaging Glaswegian had done more than agree to my request for a sit-down interview soon afterwards at his home in Compton, not far from where Wolves players have trained for the last two decades. He also made it clear there was a bed and a warm welcome awaiting me any time I fancied visiting Reykjavik.
Maybe he asked the wrong person! I touched down in the land of the midnight sun the following summer and spent five wonderful days in and out of the company of he and his wife, Rona.
Such was his impact over there that the close friend Ian fixed me up to stay with, a former AIK Stockholm and Iceland international midfielder called Hordur Hilmarsson, flew in to deliver one of the stirring eulogies yesterday morning, an FC Valur banner vying for space on the wall behind him with a personalised red one bearing the famous liver bird and a silhouette of a celebrating Bill Shankly.
Ian and Rona’s children also defied their emotion by speaking, son Steven having spent a week of work experience with me on the Express & Star sports desk in 1993. Oh well, that was a little bit of the debt chalked off…..
It was through them that we learned about some of the sacrifices and challenges football folk face but which we rarely stop to consider.
The couple adopted Victoria in 1975 when convinced they couldn’t have children and were in California, where Ian was playing under his former Anfield colleague Ron Yeats for Santa Barbara Condors, that they realised a brother would be arriving in 1978 by more conventional means.
“With all Dad’s moves and with filling in when he thought we would be heading somewhere else, we must have lived in 12 or 13 houses in the Wolverhampton area alone,” Steven told me. “There were three in Compton.
“I went to Christ Church Junior School in Tettenhall Wood but to both Regis in Tettenhall and Codsall High during my secondary years. We also went to an American Embassy school in Reykjavik when he was managing over there and Victoria briefly attended one in Perth when he helped out with some coaching during the long family holiday we had in Australia after he left Wolves.
“During his time in charge of Huddersfield in the early 1990s, he did a lot of commuting from Wolverhampton and thought nothing of coming home on a Friday night, so he could take me to the following day’s game.
“I went on a few scouting trips with him as well and remember one game at Oldham when we came out of the ground a few minutes early and, without either of them saying a word, he raced Alex Ferguson up the road to the car park because they were both so competitive!”
We also heard about the time Huddersfield’s fortunes had taken a nosedive and a baying mob outside Leeds Road were congregating and looking to vent their anger. Ross brushed past them with his teenage son, seated him safely in the car and then returned to berate the gathering for acting as they did in front of a young one.
“I thought he was going to die there when he went back,” Steven added. “But after making his point, he stopped to answer all their questions and in the end had them all shaking his hand and gesturing to me in the car to say sorry.” It was proof that, despite a career of more than 30 years in the game, one team mattered much more than all others to Ian Ross – one that had only four members.
It partly explains why he turned down a Scotland call-up to go ahead with his Wednesday afternoon wedding in April, 1970, the date having been brought forward as he had a game on the Saturday.
Rona, we learned, had initially been indifferent and spent the best part of 18 months telling him to ‘walk on’ as she clearly saw herself tying the knot one day with someone in ‘a proper job’.
But a lad who had spent some of his formative years on the terraces at Partick Thistle and cycling round Loch Ness got there in the end, in the latter stages of an eight-year Anfield career that brought him 69 first-team appearances.
Ross also had trials at Arsenal and Chelsea but sensed a greater warmth on Merseyside, where he signed in July, 1963 and then waited four years for his first-team debut, against Sheffield Wednesday.
His appearance tally was supplemented by four goals but he would surely have been seen much more senior action had it not been for the presence of thoroughbreds like Gordon Milne, Ron Yeats, Willie Stevenson, Tommy Smith and Emlyn Hughes.
He famously stifled Franz Beckenbauer so effectively in a Fairs Cup tie away to Bayern Munich, even finding time to score in a 1-1 draw, that he became known as Der Kaiser’s Shadow, having done a similar job on Alan Ball in a 3-0 derby win over Everton. “He made history as a man-marker,” St John said after the service. “Shanks never used them but knew he could trust Roscoe to stay close to two such special opponents as these were.”
The legendary manager called Ross his buffer; a man disciplined enough to do the less glamorous jobs and let those around him be more expressive. At the side of the taller Yeats or Larry Lloyd, or in a defensive midfield role, he was one of the Mr Dependables, accomplished on either foot.
Steven brought groans in the build-up to tomorrow’s Old Trafford blockbuster by revealing he is a Manchester United fan but was thrilled to recently be sent the full 90 minutes of Wembley footage that provided the highlight of his dad’s post-Anfield playing career.
Ross skippered Villa to their 1975 League Cup final victory over Norwich and also led them to promotions from Third Division to First before becoming the first man to captain them in European competition – in a UEFA Cup defeat against an Antwerp side containing Louis Van Gaal.
He made more than 200 appearances in the Second City after becoming a record Division Three buy at £70,000 and achieved a popularity reflected by the wearing of black armbands by Villa’s players for their game against Albion last Saturday, with flags flown at half mast.
Spells followed elsewhere, notably across some 115 games at Peterborough, where Steven was born. That was also the stay that brought him into contact with John Barnwell, who subsequently brought him back to the West Midlands as player-coach of Wolves with responsibilities for the reserves.
Ian’s death in Wigan Hospital on February 9 brought a flurry of comments from the players he knew at Molineux and Barnwell would have been present yesterday had it not been for a clash with a foreign trip.
John Black posted on Facebook: “An absolutely smashing bloke and coach. We all learned from his enthusiasm, desire to win and the way he enjoyed every minute when he had his boots on. Really sad to hear of his passing. He pushed me hard to improve me. Rest in peace, Roscoe.”
Hugh Atkinson called him ‘an enormous help when I was trying to break into the first team’ and Bob Coy wrote: “He was my mentor and the sole reason I was taken on as a pro at Wolves. He played alongside me and coached me to be a better player in the reserves. I hope my other partners aren’t offended but he was without doubt the best central defender I ever played with. He taught me so many things about my trade and was one of the most genuine blokes you will ever meet.”
Colin Brazier is another who had planned to be at the funeral and said: “I played a few reserve games with him and he was as hard as nails. Good in the air as well considering he wasn’t tall.”
On arrival in Iceland in 1984, Ross, who had had a brief coaching spell at Birmingham, surveyed the Valur players under his command and told confidants: “I don’t know how good they are but I promise we will win the fair play award.”
Four times out of four, his sides took the annual prize for accumulating the fewest bookings and sendings-off and, by way of more recognised football currency, he delivered the league title twice and oversaw two runners-up finishes.
“I was Valur’s secretary and had just retired as a player,” said Hordur Hilmarsson, whose club sent a representative to Compton to interview Ross three and a half decades ago. “I later became his assistant manager and his best friend in Iceland. He was my mentor….he taught respect to his players. He was a genius as a man-manager.
“He is a legend at Valur – one of the best coaches in their 107 years. We had a memorial service there recently and representatives came along from his other two Icelandic clubs, KR Reykjavik and Keflavik. The priest was a Liverpool fan and You’ll Never Walk Alone was played. I stand here today with a heavy heart.”
Hordur also read out a tribute from former Tottenham and Bolton defender Gudni Bergsson, who is now president of the Icelandic FA. Happily, Steven took his dad back there in 2017 for a major reunion – his first time in the country for more than 20 years.
Quite what this modest 72-year-old would have made of all the platitudes yesterday is anyone’s guess. He didn’t give up stories of his own success too readily.
He would have been flattered by the number of team-mates who turned up to pay their respects, though, and not altogether surprised by the formula.
It being a Liverpool-themed service, there was naturally lots of singing despite the absence of hymns…..That’s Life by Frank Sinatra played as we enjoyed a display of photos of his life and career on screen, Let It Be had an airing during personal reflections, Steven started a somewhat shaky version of You’ll Never Walk Alone at the end of his address and there was a more convincing rendition of Anfield’s most famous anthem during the committal, this time helped with Gerry and the Pacemakers in the background.
But, for raw emotion, nothing could rival the courage of nine-year-old Toby in stepping forward for a solo of You Are My Sunshine – a song he and his granddad were apparently allowed to sing only to each other. He is due to be a mascot for Watford’s visit to Anfield on Wednesday, when the Ross banner will be held aloft on The Kop.
Toby’s mother, Victoria, wearing a Liverpool scarf as she spoke at the lectern, said: “We’re overwhelmed by the love and support of friends and strangers alike. His two grandchildren had an amazing role model.”
All that said, she revealed that she had not quite forgiven her dad for taking a photo of her with her all-time hero Luis Suarez – and covering three-quarters of it with his thumb.
Ian Ross also had a coaching spell at Sunderland in the mid-1990s and then a brief managerial stint with the part-timers of Berwick Rangers, for whom son Steven demonstrated that he was a useful player of semi-pro standard.
Dad’s post-football jobs included running two pubs in the north-west but they merely underlined how lucky he felt he had been in working outdoors for so long.
An Anfield regular who had been talking excitedly of Wolves’ trip there in May being a possible title decider, Ian was taken ill after returning home from the Liverpool v Arsenal game just after Christmas, went to hospital that night and sadly did not come out.