This article first appeared in the Sunday Herald in 2009.
IAN WALLACE puts the memories of mayhem aside. They are essential to his story and won’t be forgotten. But at this moment he’s recalling a time when life was so intoxicating he could have bottled it and sold it as a perfume.
He alights on a July day in 1980; the day he was about to leave Coventry City and sign for European champions Nottingham Forest, and thus become Britain’s third £1 million footballer.
There was nothing to suggest at the City Ground that this was a transfer of any consequence, however: there were no agents, chief executives or lawyers thronging Brian Clough’s office, just the great man himself and the little Glaswegian striker with the somewhat outrageous Afro hairstyle.
It was an agreeable afternoon all round. Rather than initially concern themselves with tiresome detail, Clough suggested they watch the Wimbledon men’s singles final between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe on television. Drinks in their hands (Clough chose brandy, while Wallace opted, more prosaically, for bottled beer), they would witness a tennis classic unfold.
They would be conducting a transfer classic in its own right. After the Swede had planted both feet in sporting history with his fifth successive victory at the All England Club, it was time for pragmatism. Clough, declaring a need to go to the toilet, indicated Wallace should write down his terms on a piece of paper. The player immediately applied himself to the art of speed writing.
When the manager returned, he perused the demands for a few seconds, found them to be agreeable and proffered his hand. “Done!” he announced. Whereupon, he phoned his chairman and told him that he had just spent another million pounds of his money. The chairman duly arrived with three bottles of champagne.
Sensitive nostrils are not an essential to smell the good life in Glasgow’s Hilton hotel. Its aroma is pervasive as Wallace and I sit in the huge, marbled reception area, sipping latte and water chasers in a style championed by our fellow Europeans. There is a significant absence of beer, brandy or champagne at our table. Wallace, a recovering alcoholic and a man familiar with the architecture of hell, chased the demons out of his life over three years ago. There are no plans, immediate or long-term, to invite them back for a bad boys’ reunion..
There were, assuredly, draconian penalties for his two-decade dependency on alcohol; he lost his foothold in society with a court appearance for assault; he also lost his job as manager of Dumbarton FC, his business, his house, and his marriage to Carol.
He also forfeited, temporarily, the trust of his beloved daughter Nicola and the respect of his younger brother Scott. Ultimately, he jettisoned that which is possibly most important to men of any fibre: his dignity.
Alcoholism, it must be said, is a deviant, treacherous adversary and possesses this innate ability to come at you in a variety of ways. In Wallace’s case, his defence system is currently proving superior, having dropped its guard only once in the last three years. So, hopefully, the mayhem is confined to the past and, God willing, it stays there.
But there’s zero chance of banishing the guilt. It remains, like some accursed party guest failing to respond to the emergence of daylight. Wallace is laden down by it. A couple of hours spent in his company, in fact, suggests that the amount he is carrying would provide Weight Watchers with a test case.
Long before we arrive at the complexities of guilt, however, let’s begin with the man’s travails and focus on the Erskine Bridge, that wonderful box girder structure that carries cars and other vehicles over the Clyde from West Dumbartonshire to Renfrewshire and back. What are its other benefits? According to Wallace, it can also double as a doss house, one free from fiscal tariffs if not from fear.
My companion lowers his eyes and tells you of time spent sleeping under the bridge, seemingly oblivious to the elements. “Listen, I’ve slept there a few nights…when my house was only a couple of miles away. When you get to that stage, level-headedness and straight thinking goes out the window and alcohol jumps in. Simple as that.
“I can remember one night, it must have been November or December, I’d been trying to see my wife and either she wisnae in or wouldn’t let me in. There were no taxis, no buses, nothing, so I says to myself: ‘Och, I’ll just sleep here.’ Me and my sheepskin coat and a cardboard box.
“There’s a church under the bridge and I was sleeping in the doorway. My house was just up the road. Insanity! I remember there were about four or five young boys up the glen, about a hundred yards distant. They were drinking and all that. I was too scared to go up to them in case I got attacked..”
If that anecdote disturbs the hairs at the back of your neck, prepare to cover your eyes for the next: Wallace invites you to walk down one of life’s even scarier corridors. “There were times when I was having black-outs. People think that this means you fall down and go to sleep. They’re wrong. I was actually doing my daily business in a black-out. I didn’t realise where I was or what I was doing.
“I was living in Fife at the time and I once went to the Canary Islands and back again. I can picture a promenade but, to this day, I don’t know how I got there or what hotel I was in. I just about remember booking in for three days, but I don’t know which hotel.
“I must have stayed in the room just drinking. I had to leave that hotel because it was full and go to another. But again I don’t know which one. All I really remember is being back in Fife with one of those wee trolley cases. Frightening! “
With his mind so irrevocably divorced from what occurred in the Canaries, you may be thinking that the mere carcase of a human being is seated here in the Hilton today. Quite the reverse. Wallace may have lost much of the red hair that turned him into a cult figure in England’s Midlands, but his marbles have gone nowhere.
Here is a clear-eyed, sharp-witted advertisement for sobriety. Just mention that hairstyle to him and he’s off and running from the darkness into the daylight of humour. “I remember going into Sweeney Todd’s; my hair was just like a forest fire. I says to the guy: ‘Just dae something with it.’ He says: ‘Trust me.’ The result was an Afro. It was a good bit of business for him, ’cos the kids in Coventry were soon asking for an Ian Wallace haircut. I’ll bet there were thousands of parents wanting to strangle me!”
Inevitably, the darkness, a skilled seductress, beckons him back inside. He is telling you how the lunatic drinking began. “ I was always one of those people who said they were never going to drink or smoke. And I didn’t do that much in my prime.
“I wasn’t maybe the model pro, but I gave 100 per cent and there were no liberties. Hey, at Christmas and New Year, I was in bed by 11 o’clock.
“At Forest, we lived next door to Kenny Burns. Both our families came down and there was a bit party and that. But Kenny and I were asleep before the bells. I was a professional and that meant everything had to be right.
“Peter Taylor once pulled me in and told me: ‘You’re a perfectionist. You can’t get that in this game.’ Too right. After four years at Forest (he was leading scorer for two seasons), Clough offered me another four-year contract, but I had to take a 50 quid a week drop in wages.
“I was on £1400 a week, plus £600 in bonuses. Now sometimes you’ve got to come and go in life, but I was the original bull rampaging around the china shop. I should maybe have sat back and thought about it. Not me. I refused on a point of principal and went to Brest in France instead. A fresh start, it was supposed to be. Big mistake. I didn’t enjoy it from day one.”
Wallace’s disaffection with the Gallic culture was such that he played only sixteen times for Brest. Sunderland were alerted. A private plane whisking him to Weareside, but negotiations took somewhat longer than they had at the City Ground four years earlier. After seven hours he emerged from the boardroom to phone his wife with the “brilliant news” that he had signed for the Roker Park outfit. The response tarnished the brilliance. Clough had been on the phone all day hoping to resign him.
“I was so deflated it was untrue. I went from the top of the world to the bottom in one phone call. Even when Lawrie McMenemy came as manager, I wasn’t really interested. The fact is you can’t blame your drinking on anyone or anything. Nobody’s pouring it down your throat, nobody’s making you walk in front of a bus.
“But that day certainly would be part of the reason for my story. Listen, the only thing I ever wanted to do was play football and, at the end, I wasn‘t enjoying it. Maybe that’s when the alcohol took over. Whatever, it ruined everything…”
And so we come to the guilt; it’s almost as if it’s sitting there waiting to receive us, arms crossed, mouth set tightly in disapproval. Perhaps we’ve been too long in addressing it. Still only 28, Wallace went to Portugal and then Australia in search of the increasingly elusive dream of job satisfaction. His playing career over, he set his mind to management in Melbourne and then returned to take charge of junior side Yoker before Dumbarton. Everything, however, crumbled to dust with his obsession with strong drink.
“It was mental torture for my wife. She’d been trying to get me off drinking for long enough, couldn’t bear to see me destroying myself. My mood swings were terrible and I was going in the house causing an argument, just to get out for a drink.
“She told me if I didn‘t stop she’d leave. Then everything just came to a head and I said: ‘Right, just do it.’ Next minute the place was up for sale. It was a lovely house and was gone after two days. We just halved things down the middle without any lawyers.
“ At that particular time, I just said that nothing could be done. I was on a different planet at the time, not living in the real world, just a drink-fuelled world. It hurts me to think about it. Carol had put everything into our marriage and she’d lost her husband. And my daughter had lost her father. My targets were getting lower and my goals were getting less. I was wanting to drink to forget things.
“I still speak to her (Carol) today, but if the roles were reversed I probably wouldn’t speak to her. There’s no doubt that I humiliated her and humiliated my family. Then there was my brother. Our father had died when Scott was eleven or twelve and I was away, single-minded, doing my fitba thing, but he looked up to me. I used to drive down to his school and see him with all his mates. I was his hero.
“Then he went to Canada, got married and then divorced. About three or four years ago, when I was trying to get help with the drink, he said something that made me very emotional. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘I was looking for a father figure after my Dad died, but I didnae even have one. In fact, I didnae even have a brother! ’ Well, now, he tells me he’s got his brother back…”
Like many before him, Wallace left the road to perdition and took a right turning at last. The Tony Adams’ Sporting Clinic gave him confidence to face up to life and its consequences, without racing out to the nearest off-licence to kill the pain of reality. George Best was there at the same time, with less satisfactory results.
“I went through hell in that clinic. They say in there that you’ve got to live life on life’s terms. I can do that again. When I was drinking, I couldnae. I spoke to George most mornings. What a lovely man. But he just didn’t want to get sober. I did. I wanted to start my life again. I didn’t want to be the person I became, drinking and causing havoc in people’s minds.
“If I was still drinking, I wouldnae be here. When you’re at that stage, you don’t want anybody to see you. Really, you just want to be in your own wee cocoon hiding in the corner. I don’t have a job, but I’ve got my football pension and I’ve got enough to live on and a wee bit more. I would love to go back and do something in football again, because I have all my wits about me, but will anyone give me a chance?
“ Whatever, every day I don’t drink is a bonus to me. Every day I waken up, healthy, is another bonus. I go into pubs, have a game of pool and watch telly, and it doesn’t bother me one bit. The compulsion and desire to drink is not there any more. You can never say never, of course.”
Indeed you can’t. There was been one slip in three years. One night of purgatory. Wallace thought he could just have one drink. The half bottle of vodka metamorphosed into a litre and a half. “It had been building up for weeks, sitting on my shoulder, waiting. I was as sick as a dog for two days, but it showed me one thing: that the hell I had to go through wasn’t worth it.
“The night ended in tears for my Nicola. She kept asking me why and I didnae have an answer. But it finally destroyed the notion that I could have one drink and get away with it. I’ve now got a purpose to live; everybody I love is back round me and back in my life. I’ve got their trust back and I tell you it feels good.
“ I wake up every morning and I shave. I never shaved when I was drinking and I just let myself go. Wee things become big things when you’re on the lash, especially when you’re on your own. You’re in your own private hell, really, and nobody knows it. If you have 24 hours inside your head, it’s not a nice place to be. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.
“Now, I wouldn’t be so bold to say I’ve conquered the obsession. If it was a football match, I’d say I’d come out with a draw. But it just shows me that I don’t need it. My daughter phones me now. I go down there three times a week, go and fix her door, decorate her apartment for her.
“I have a peaceful life, a rewarding life. I used to do everything with pride; I lost that with alcohol. But now I have my pride back. I know I’ll lose all those things if I go back to the drink. I don’t wanted to be a loser again…”
• Ian Wallace has not had a drink for eight years. He lives happily with his partner, Anne McNeill. He is contemplating writing a book of his extraordinary life and is looking for a publisher.