When I first see Jim Baxter in a Forest shirt at the City Ground, I know something isn’t quite right but the sight of him still takes my breath away. I’d feasted on photos, reports and profiles of him in my football magazines and annuals for years. He’d starred at Rangers and for Scotland when both were a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. ‘Slim Jim’ was selected, with the likes of Di Stefano, Puskas and Eusebio, to play for a FIFA World XI team in 1963 to celebrate the centenary of the Football Association at Wembley. But if I fed my childhood passion for all things football, (and especially anything with a taste of the exotic, namely genius) Baxter had clearly been feeding on something else. ‘Beer,’ says Dad. ‘He’s got a beer-belly. Carrying too much weight.’
Warm-up done and kick-off under way, I wait for normal service to resume, for Jim Baxter to play the book of clichés with his ‘wand’ of a left foot that I’d read about: the ‘arrow-accurate’ pass, the ‘split the defence’ through-ball or the ‘close-control trickery’ of a dribble to bamboozle the opposition. Dad was less fired-up for the occasion. Working long hours, including through Saturday mornings, it’s a struggle to make the game and I know he’s dog-tired. So it’s left to me – and thousands of other besotted fans of course – to will ‘Slim Jim’ to work his magic.
George Best is, well, undoubtedly the best example of a flawed football genius in Britain. A prodigious talent, a remarkable rise to success and a public profile to match any pop-star of his day. Then early retirement and a long struggle trying to resurrect his career and dealing with alcohol addiction, ending with a premature and very public death in 2005. Yet he was reason enough alone to make sure you never missed Man United on black and white ‘Match of the Day’ when his bewitching presence brought colour to the screen. He was the catalyst for change in the game, in how footballers played and looked.
Team-mates and opposition players alike, testified to his unique, on-field brilliance, his capacity to ride scything tackles, his ability to conjure goals against impossible odds. On those mud-bath pitches of the sixties and seventies, his talent shone like a jewel. He was a genius. But it was all too short-lived. Star of United’s European Cup win in 1968, only a few years later he was earning a wage across the Atlantic. Asked about his move to play for Vancouver Whitecaps, he replied, ‘I saw an advert on the side of a London bus inviting me to “Drink Canada Dry”.’
That’s the conundrum with the flawed genius. They can dazzle on the pitch and be self-destructive off it. Line them up, from Best and Baxter to Paul Gascoigne and the late, great Maradona and you have exquisite control on the field, chaotic life everywhere else. Alcohol or drug addiction, fame, fortune, gambling, dive-bomb business ventures, idolatry, an insatiable media and dubious ‘friendships’ are just some of the challenges these young players faced. All from humble backgrounds, they were adventurous but vulnerable, unorthodox but prone to temptation. And they all felt the weight of that word ‘genius’ until it seemed they were destined to be flawed.
Back at the City Ground, I watch and wait for Baxter to perform, to turn-on his crowd-pleasing play. There are flashes, a drop of the shoulder that has opposing defenders wrong-footed, a nonchalant out-side of the boot pass, a forward lob to start an attack, but it’s thin gruel. Not that I’d admit this to Dad, even days later, when he’s muttering over his after-dinner Evening Post that Forest’s most expensive signing ever is a waste of money. ‘Never moved out of that centre circle on Saturday.’
A heavy drinker by the time the Reds bought him from Sunderland for £100,000, he could still demonstrate his silky skills. (Sample YouTube footage of the 1967 Scotland win over England which inspired Alex Ferguson to say of Baxter’s performance: ‘It could have been set to music.’) But what turn-of-speed he had was in quick decline and so, too, his ability to take the opposition by surprise. Early promise had faded, even by the time we were watching him in spring, 1968, and the next year he was returning to Rangers on a free transfer before his footballing days evaporated and he took up a new career: as a publican!
I watched Jim Baxter at Forest on only a couple more occasions – being heavily involved in my schoolboy and club games by this time – and I caught enough glimpses of the sublime, enacted in the name of football in the magic of that centre circle, to convince me I was witness to genius. His funeral, in 2001 at Glasgow Cathedral, aged 61, was a measure of the respect Scotland still had for him and two years later a statue of Jim Baxter was erected in his home town in Fife. These days, though, I’d be reluctant to land anyone in football with the burden of genius-status and happily settle for a player being celebrated as ‘gifted’. That’s quite enough to cope with.
*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).
*Main image @MemorabiliaMal Jim Baxter running out at the City Ground.