'Slim' Jim Baxter & A Game Of Three Card Brag: Part II

Baxter, now immortalised forever.

Ah, why hello. Today sees the second part of our feature on the intriguing character of James Curran Baxter. We won't bore you with mind-numbing unfunny satire about why you should read it, instead we'll just let you get on with it...

Certainly though, it was not just for his club football that Jim Baxter is remembered. His time in the Scotland starting eleven was a short one, particularly given the lengthy international careers that many players manage to churn out nowadays, but one would be hard pushed to find a Scotsman more revered than Baxter still is for his time in national colours.

 

Effectively, his Scotland career is remembered for two games against the auld enemy – England. The first of these came in 1963, just two years after the Scots had been battered 9-3 by their neighbours at Wembley. This time they returned with revenge in mind, and a new weapon in the shape of Baxter. This new weapon showed how powerful his ammunition was too, scoring both Scotland goals in a famous 2-1 victory. The legendary Scotsman Dave Mackay states that that game gave him his favourite memories of Baxter, and many more have echoed such sentiments. For proof, we need only go to biographer Gallacher, who pronounced almost half a century following the game, 'They still talk in tones of reverence today of the moment that Jim Baxter first made Wembley his own personal property.'

 

It was not just the two goals that made Baxter a household name from this game, but the manner in which he presented himself. Throwing caution to the wind, he roamed majestically across the turf he came to love so dearly. One moment he would pop up on the left, the next he would surface on the right, all the time with the ball glued to his foot in a manner Lionel Messi would have been proud of.

 

Conjecture is a brittle device, forever plagued by the inability to prove its propositions. And yet, one would find it very hard to argue with the assumption that, had James Curran Baxter been born a mere one hundred or so miles south of Fife, then he would have been part of the side that held aloft the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966. Baxter himself certainly thought so. Following the success of Ramsey's 'Wingless Wonders', the miffed Scot was said to have been incredulous that the Three Lions were champions of the world. He, along with Denis Law, felt their own Scotland side were simply better than their southern counterparts. They acted upon those feelings less than a year later, in the game that usurps Wembley 1963 as Baxter's most memorable.

 

Scotland's 3-2 victory over England at Wembley in 1967 was a result that brought joy for an entire nation. In a world away from the game of today, where home internationals are met with more apathy than anticipation, this fixture was then the highlight of many a calendar. The visitors' taste for the encounter was further whetted by the dismissive nature of the English press; no one gave their northern neighbours a chance against the reigning world champions.

 

Though Baxter often asserted that he had played far better in lesser-known games – indeed, he often made a point of stating that his first pass in this victory went hopelessly awry – other observers are much more adamant of his brilliance that day. Bobby Brown, then Scotland manager, believed Baxter “gave one of the greatest displays ever seen at Wembley”, while those Three Lions on the opposing side, particularly the diminutive Alan Ball, would later wax lyrical about the beating Baxter so stylishly handed them.

 

Yet, despite his almost perfect footballing display, it was a far more impish act that ensured he would forever remain a prominent figure in the history books. With the game winding down and the visitors in the lead, ignoring the desperate pleas of Denis Law who, searching to further avenge that 9-3 defeat, wanted to run up a cricket score beneath the Twin Towers, Baxter incredibly teed the ball up for himself and jauntily performed a five second 'keepy-uppy' routine. Look back at the grainy black and white footage now, and the feat is no less astonishing. Here he was, on the hallowed turf of Wembley, against the reigning world champions, acting as carelessly as though he was back in Fife on a brisk Sunday morning, having a kickaround with his fellow pit workers. In the process of doing it, as with so many of his actions, he managed to upset plenty of people. England defender Jack Charlton was said to be disgusted by Baxter's sheer nerve to try such a thing, while Law was angered by his belief that the final score could, and should, have been far greater than the eventual result of 3-2. For Baxter himself, it was truly the final peak in a career that would go steadily downhill from there. One cannot help but think that such a peak is hardly the worst legacy to look back on.

 

Following his departure from Rangers, a sensible observer would have expected a plethora of clubs to be fighting tooth and nail for Baxter's services. Yet such a situation could not be further from the truth. Even without the mass of communications that reverberate through the game today, bad news still travelled relatively fast in 1960s football, and there were few who were not aware of Jim Baxter's off the field reputation.

 

So, 'Slim Jim', whose increasing frame would soon make a mockery of that moniker, was very much left with limited options. Perhaps hoping against all evidence to the contrary, it was Sunderland who eventually came in for him, believing he could be the man to return the north-east club to their pre-War glories. The writing was on the wall from Baxter's very first game – a 0-5 friendly defeat against his own previous arch rivals, Celtic. The enthusiasm that he had met his move southwards with evaporated quickly, his promises of 'a fresh start' off the field were soon shattered. A miserly few years on Wearside, injected with the all too irregular show of the old brilliance, were followed up with an even worse spell at Nottingham Forest. It became abundantly clear to both him and others: the players whom Baxter now found himself alongside were simply not in his league.

 

But if Baxter had difficulties finding like-minded individuals on the field during his time in England, no such problems presented themselves to him when off it. At Sunderland, in George Kinnell, he came across a man who was more than happy to indulge his new teammate in his taste for the good life. Nowhere was this found to be more true than in the Wearsiders' infamous pre-season trip to Vancouver in 1967. Their feet had barely touched Canadian soil before Baxter and Kinnell found themselves on the wrong side of the law; club staff were forced to sweet talk two Canadian policeman out of arresting the two players on the very first morning of the trip. Numerous Baxter-related stories emanated from that tour, none of them that the club would have looked upon favourably, including one where a member of the side found himself hospitalised with alcohol poisoning following a particularly devilish drinking game instigated by his two associates.

 

When Baxter then ventured deeper into England, taking up a generous contract at Forest, he once again discovered a willing drinking partner. This time around it was Gary Sobers, he of West Indian cricketing fame, who was then plying his trade for Nottinghamshire. Known about town as the duet of “Drunk 'n' Sobers”, the famous all-rounder shared his Scottish compatriot's verve for socialising, and their lengthy spells at the bar in Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club became an all too regular occurrence. One of the most renowned stories from that era came when England faced off against the West Indies at Trent Bridge. Baxter, accompanied by a swathe of teammates and other accomplices, was disallowed from buying drinks at the club bar, only for Sobers to instruct all drinks to go on his tab whilst he went out to the middle and batted. In perhaps one of the less sensible choices in his illustrious career, Sobers proceeded to bat for roughly a day and a half, before returning to a drinks bill of staggering proportions.

 

Inevitably, it all took its toll. Gone from the game before he'd turned 31, Baxter was left with little to do than spend his days drinking and gambling profusely. He had never swayed from this livelihood during his playing days, so the chances of a change in character once he no longer had a ball at his feet were slimmer than he himself had been at his Ibrox peak. He opened his own bar near the Rangers ground but, in another example of his torrid gambling luck, his ownership soon coincided with a dramatic loss of form for The Gers, and with it a downturn in custom. Baxter, cutting his losses, sold up. Sure enough, in a mere few years, Rangers were back on top, cantering to a record-equalling nine consecutive league championships (replicating the aforementioned success of the post-1965 Celtic team). The man from Fife had once again missed out financially.

 

And yet, as many will testify, he was never one to blame others. Baxter knew that it was his own fault his football career had been cut so pathetically short. He knew he had done wrong. He knew the consequences of his drinking, and his party lifestyle, were catching him up far quicker than he could ever hope to outrun them. In 1994, they brought him to the brink of death, and he required a liver transplant to prolong his own life. Much was made of this in the media, with many claiming he was the wrongful recipient of another chance; what is often forgotten is that Baxter never once requested the transplant, he was simply fortunate enough to be offered one. From there, the drinking lessened, despite the odd relapse, though the ludicrous gambling would continue until his very final days.

 

April 15th is remembered forever in the footballing world for that fateful day in 1989 when ninety-six Liverpool fans went to watch an FA Cup semi-final and tragically never returned. That Jim Baxter died on the very same date, this time in 2001, ensures that it will never be a popular date in the sporting calendar.

 

Some would surmise that Baxter's real end had come long before then. Though pancreatic cancer took him from the world at the age of 61, for many his most inglorious finale came over thirty years earlier with his second departure from Rangers. Both were unsuitably sad ends for a man who, in the space of a mere decade, set the game alight.

 

Not long before his death, the impact of Baxter upon the beautiful game was formally recognised. In front of an adoring crowd at Hampden Park, he and ten others, including Denis Law, were recognised as Scotland's greatest ever XI. This came despite Baxter's rather meagre international statistics; a tragically short Scotland career, a mere six years long, produced just thirty-four caps and three goals. If nothing else, this simply served to showcase how brilliant the former left-half had been – he had needed less time than most to confirm himself as one of the game's greats.

 

Of course, were it not for his pitiful gambling skills in that seemingly minor game of three card brag back in the Hill o' Beath Institute, the world may have never have known both the skill and the mischief of 'Slim' Jim Baxter.

 

And that's our lot. We hope you enjoyed it. Indeed, Chris is no doubt maniacally refreshing our stats page to gauge how many viewers these two pieces have yielded. If you did enjoy it, well, good! If you didn't, we're sorry, and we'll try not to bang on about it any more.

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