Large Boots To Fill
Room To Spare For Melrose – But Not On Payroll
California-based Charles Bamforth catches up with a mid-1980s Wolves striker who made a favourable fleeting impact – and retained a long love of the club.
You’ve probably seen the Wallace and Gromit film, The Wrong Trousers. Screamingly funny. For this interviewee, it was a case of The Wrong Boots.
Jim Melrose fizzes with enthusiasm and speaks with relish about a career well spent – until he fell out of love with the game towards the end of a journey that lasted way more than 400 appearances and an average of a goal in every fourth game.
It was a career that saw him capped by Scotland Schools and eight times for Scotland Under-21s as well as playing for the Scottish League representative side.
It all started with the Glasgow-born centre-forward being enrolled with junior side Eastercraigs.
“I suppose I went further than the other lads, though we had a good wee side, including the likes of Ian McDonald, who I played alongside at Partick and who later went to Motherwell and Morton,” he said. “The transition between youth and senior football, however, is a tough one.
“I was signed for Thistle as a 13-year-old by Davie McParland in 1971 but it was Bertie Auld who gave me my chance in the first team. What a character he was!
“In my last season, we were playing against Hearts and I had put us ahead. Bertie kept screaming that I needed to get wide, first on the left and then on the right.
“But, being a centre-forward, I kept going back to the place I knew best. I told him where he could go and he went ballistic. Despite us having used our substitute, he hauled me off and left us with ten men! We still won 2-0.
“I believe several clubs were after me, Celtic and Newcastle among them. The word was that Liverpool wanted to include me as part of the deal that took Alan Hansen to Anfield.
“As it was, I signed for Jock Wallace at Leicester City in July, 1980. He told me he had tried to buy me for Rangers.
“We had a decent side at Filbert Street but were very young. We beat Liverpool twice and I scored the winner at Anfield that ended their five years of home dominance. I also scored the next week against Manchester United.
“In 1981-1982, as a Second Division side, we reached the semi-final of the FA Cup but lost 2-0 to the eventual winners, Tottenham, at Villa Park. Our top scorer that season was Gary Lineker and I suppose I became something of a ‘super sub’ and would go on for the last 30 minutes or so.”
In September of the following season, Gordon Milne swapped Melrose for Tom English of Coventry and that didn’t work out too well for Leicester.
“Years later, Milne admitted it had been a mistake and said he had tried to buy me back,” he added. “I was now working for Dave Sexton, a lovely man but he would put a glass eye to sleep.
“I just wanted to play the game and didn’t want to listen to endless talks about tactics. Bobby Gould replaced him but events in my personal life dictated that I would be away.
“My wife was an only child who had just lost her mother and her father had a heart attack. We had a very young baby and she said it was time to go home to Scotland. So, I went to Celtic.
“That did nae work out too well. I was born and brought up a Rangers fan! They were a good bunch of lads but it just wasn’t the right move for me professionally.
“Which is when Tommy Docherty came in to take me on loan to Wolves in September of 1984. I loved my short time at Molineux, despite all the turmoil.
“I stayed with my brother in Leicester and travelled over each day. The Doc was great for me, getting me involved in a bit of the coaching and so on. He tried everything to buy me but the Bhattis would not dig into their pockets for the cash.
“I signed on the Friday and was named in the team for the next day’s game at Middlesbrough. When we arrived, we found that the kids had not packed my size eight boots! The only ones that were available were size ten.
“So Docherty had no choice but to make me substitute. I replaced Tony Evans for the last 20 minutes, felt like Charlie Cairoli and promptly tore a hamstring. That put me out for a week or two.
“I played nine games for Wolves, including that substitute appearance, and scored four goals. Two of those came at Southampton in the League Cup when we drew 2-2 but really should have won. My last game was against Cardiff and I ended up in New Cross Hospital with concussion.
“Billy McNeill, the Celtic legend, was manager at Manchester City and he took me to Maine Road. We won promotion but Billy decided I wasn’t for the First Division.
“He and I had a couple of arguments. I wasn’t the only one to be treated like that and he deemed several of us surplus to requirements. We were replaced by players who were not as good and you saw what happened. He went to Villa and see what occurred there.
“City had been down to Charlton and Steve Kinsey and I gave them a real going over. Charlton’s gaffer Lennie Lawrence came up to watch a Central League game I was playing in for City against United. He was taking in Gordon Davies, the United winger, but he talked to me and remembered what Kinsey and I had done.
“City were due to play Chelsea in the Full Members Cup final (Chelsea won 5-4) and McNeill told me he wanted me in the squad. I told him bluntly what he could do and signed for Charlton. I guess I did myself out of a Wembley appearance but I really wanted away.
“Playing for Charlton, who of course were ‘cuckooing’ at Palace’s Selhurst Park at the time, was like the atmosphere at Wolves and I loved it. Okay, it wasn’t a case of us having to wash our own training kit or bring in our own tea and biscuits like at Molineux. But there was just the same camaraderie among the players and a wonderful relationship with the spectators, everyone desperate to succeed at a club that had been run into the ground by previous owners.
“There was that rustic feel, with the players eager to please the fans. All that is missing from the game today.
“I lodged on Penge High Street with Neil Harman, the tennis correspondent for The Times. After the game on a Saturday, I would travel home to be with the family (we were now in Macclesfield) and then head south again at 5am on Monday.
“My next move, in September of 1987 to Leeds, was an unmitigated disaster. We were expecting our third child and had been trying to sell our house in Macclesfield so we could all be down in London together.
“Lennie had signed Andy Jones from Port Vale at twice my wages. That pissed me off, so, in a fit of pique, I signed for Billy Bremner.
“In due course, my wife went into labour and our two boys were being looked after by a neighbour before family could come down from Scotland to help. Which is when Billy called to tell me to get down to join the squad at Millwall. I told him that was impossible – and he never spoke to me again.
“It was Shrewsbury next under a lovely wee man, Ian McNeill. But I had fallen out of love with football. I was travelling daily from Macclesfield and it all starts to wear on you after a while. It takes its toll.
“The folks at Macclesfield Town, where I played a handful of games, told me they were intending to let the manager, Peter Wragg, go and wanted me to replace him. But he got wind of it and was none too pleased. I don’t blame him at all.
“Leaving a career as a footballer is, I suppose, a bit like coming out of a long prison sentence. You have become institutionalised and are just spit out to fend for yourself.
“I went into insurance for a while, then around 1995 started a football agency, with Neil Lennon, Steve Lomas and Paul Lambert as my best-known players. I became chief scout at Leicester under Martin O’Neill but didn’t want to follow him to Celtic.
“I joined Bolton as chief scout but quickly discovered that all was not what it seemed and that promises could not be kept. So I resigned and headed into banking, and back to live in Glasgow.
“I occasionally go to watch Rangers and Celtic but nothing I have seen will draw me back to love the game. I don’t like the way it has gone, with all the stats and the lack of physicality. Just because a player completes 85 per cent of passes does not make him a good player.
“Football, too, needs to do far more to help those who suffer as a result of what they put into the game. When the door closes, they spit you out.
“Look at the statistics of how much more likely it is for an ex-footballer to develop Alzheimer’s, Motor Neurone Disease and other ailments. What is football doing to help those from my time and before? The game is awash with money at Premiership level. Let’s see some of it directed to helping former players.”