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

Jim Baxter (right) works out with another familiar face...
Jim Baxter (right) works out with another familiar face...

Recently, we here at the Roker Report were asked by the excellent In Bed With Maradona to produce them a piece onmercurial figure that was Jim Baxter. Leaping to the front of the queue like the opportunistic, selfish git that he is, Chris Weatherspoon managed to seize the piece for himself, and, ignoring the usual democratic processes we apply at RR HQ, set about writing it.

The piece itself went live on IBWM on Monday, but we decided to share it on here too. Chris clearly doesn't care for word limits, and thus ended up with a piece topping 3600 words. As a result, we've decided to split it into two pieces for you all, and here's the first...

Vienna, 1964.

It is a bitingly cold December evening. Snow has cascaded down upon the Austrian capital over the past week or so. Just to the west of the very heart of the city, groundsmen at the Praterstadion have been working feverishly, fighting against the chill, to clear the pitch of its newly acquired white blanket.

Their efforts are successful but, in its wake, the snow leaves behind a meddlesome, sticky field. The upcoming second leg of the European Cup second round between Austrian champions Rapid Vienna and Scottish champions Rangers looks set to be an ugly affair.

And yet, there is one man who seems particularly oblivious to the playing conditions. The Rangers left-half, 'Slim' Jim Baxter, adorned in the famous Glaswegian blue, shows no signs of allowing his play to succumb to the recent weather. The twenty-five year old from Fife glides around the field as effortlessly as if playing on the pristine grass of the modern game, leading The Gers to a famous 2-0 victory. It is Baxter's finest hour for the Ibrox outfit. It is effectively his last.

Jim Baxter was one of those rare men in football, a man who transcended the game and strayed far too often away from the footballing bubble towards the salubrious excesses of 'real life', and one who would nowadays find himself on as many front pages as back ones. His flair and brilliance on the field was undoubted, his eccentricities off it even more so. His death in April 2001 was met with an outpouring of respect and remembrance in the footballing world - Sir Alex Ferguson remarked that Baxter was "arguably the best player to play in Scottish football."

Such a legacy is all the more remarkable given that, by the age of just 30, Baxter had departed the game for good. Years of playing by his own rules, drinking copiously, sleeping marginally, and training sporadically, had caught up with him, and he was released from Rangers following an inglorious second spell at the club.

It is remarkable that Baxter even managed a few years at the top, considering his nonchalant manner when it came to pursuing a livelihood in the game. Having enjoyed a successful schools career at a young age, he found himself emancipated from organised football once he left education. Following in the footsteps of many a young male in Fife, the future Scotland international soon ventured down the mines, with his footballing exploits limited to ragtag games taking place on blustery Sundays in the village. He had been approached many a time by the local Halbeath Boys Club, refusing their advances almost as quickly as they could proposition him.

Eventually, he would turn out for them – but only on his own terms. In a story that is effectively a microcosm of Baxter's wider career and lifestyle, his entrance into the footballing world was one that was decided by, quite literally, how fortunate his cards had been dealt.

Malcolm Sinclair, friend of Jim's since a young age, once again attempted to get his acquaintance to play for Halbeath. Knowing full well where he would more than likely find Baxter, Sinclair ventured to the Hill o' Beath Institute. There in the card room, sure enough, was Jim Baxter, deeply involved in a game of three card brag. Rejecting Halbeath's advances once more, Baxter told Sinclair in no uncertain terms that he would not be accompanying him to the team's game that afternoon.

Thirty minutes or so later, Baxter was out of money, and decided he may as well go along for the ride. From there, the only way was up, and he soon made it onto the books of Raith Rovers. However, as Sinclair would later recount to Ken Gallacher, Baxter's biographer, 'I believe that if Jim had turned up the three aces and won the hand of brag then Rangers and Scotland might never have had him playing for them.'

A successful few years at Raith would come and go, before Rangers manager Scot Symon decided Baxter was the man he needed to complete the side he was building at Ibrox. Nicknamed 'Slim Jim' for his slender frame, a gift which enabled him to glide past many a defender with effortless ease, Baxter was thought by Symon to be the final piece of his Glaswegian jigsaw.

History suggests he was most certainly right. Baxter's five years in Glasgow reaped three league championships, three Scottish FA Cup victories and four Scottish League Cup hauls. For half a decade he was the brightest star in fantastic Rangers team, and only European glory eluded them. He became a legend for the Ibrox faithful, turning in one splendid performance after the other, and all this while enjoying the Glasgow high life on an almost nightly basis.

When he departed the club in 1965 in acrimonious circumstances, great rivals Celtic promptly notched up nine league championships in a row. It was against Celtic that Baxter's influence for Rangers was perhaps most evident. Once notoriously tight affairs, he seemingly reduced the famous Old Firm matches to something of a procession – in eighteen games against The Hoops, he found himself on the losing side just twice. Long time friend of Baxter and notable Celtic player Paddy Crerand was one of many who became accustomed to the mercurial wizardry of this young upstart.

And what an upstart he was. Allegedly shy when first making the grade at Raith Rovers, it wasn't long before the bright lights of the city of Glasgow managed to woo Baxter. The tales of his exploits are ones akin to those of the late Keith Moon; it is hard to determine between the mythical and the legendary. To say that he was fond of a drink would be to understate the matter completely. Many a training session began with a hungover Baxter vomiting the previous night's intake into the changing room toilet before taking to the field. It was a lifestyle he refused to stray from throughout his entire life; some suggest that the only nights he wouldn't get in any way drunk were those that preceded a game he knew he'd be playing in the following day. This, combined with his relentless gambling, would ensure that his career in football would last scarcely more than a decade.

A pertinent example of his frivolous behaviour comes from his time on duty with the Scottish League team. Baxter and his colleagues were instructed by Scotland manager Ian McColl that they could go for a night out, provided they were safely tucked away in their hotel bedrooms by 2am. Knowing full well that his left-half would push any such curfew to the very limit, McColl made a special effort to outline his instructions to Baxter. He took him to one side as one would do to a misbehaving child, and explained to him that when the hands on the clock in the hotel foyer were in such positions as to show two o'clock, then Baxter must be back from wherever the night had taken him. To no great surprise, 2am came and went with no sign of the most rebellious man on the team, and it took until nine in the morning before he finally returned. Livid, McColl readied himself to launch into a tirade, reiterating his earlier explanation about the hands of the clock. Baxter, no doubt with a mischievous grin and glint in his eye, proceeded to return fire with an explanation of his own. The hands had not in fact struck two o'clock at all, he said, for he had made sure to remove them from the clock face before departing for his night out. And with that, he reached into his back pocket, pulled out the two clock hands that had provided such a cunning loophole for his antics, and placed them in the palm of his disbelieving superior.

Not all of Baxter's anecdotal history was linked to his desire to find alcohol and alehouses. His disdain for training never left him, be it physical or mental endurance that he was asked to partake in. Once such tale goes that, during his days at Sunderland, the Scottish left-half and his red and white teammates were subjected to watching the manager - once again, Ian McColl - move Subbuteo men around a tabletop green pitch. Bored beyond belief, and no doubt imagining his time would be much better spent elsewhere, Baxter proceeded to jettison a mouthful of water all over McColl's carefully positioned figurines, before turning and heading for the exit. With his manager furious once more, and inquiring just what Baxter thought he was playing at, Jim is said to have returned the casual riposte of "Match abandoned, boss. Waterlogged pitch."

Ian McColl was by no means the only manager to fall prey to Baxter's mischief. Looking back, some of Baxter's teammates in his original spell at Rangers suggest manager Scot Symon lost the dressing room because of his willingness to turn a blind eye to the numerous occasions when his star player stepped out of line. His refusal to train too, or at least train with any semblance of effort, was the cause of much discontent within the Ibrox dressing room.

Ultimately, it was such mischief that led to his downfall at Rangers. In that aforementioned game in Vienna, Baxter refused to relent with his tormenting of Rapid right-back Walter Skocik, even when it was clear that the game was over as a contest. With the game winding down to its final seconds, Baxter took it past his opponent once, then a second time, then went back for a third and final embarrassing nutmeg. Fed up with being made to look the fool, Skocik decided enough was enough, and promptly scythed down his tormentor. Baxter's leg was broken, a victim of his own tomfoolery. Rangers would go down in the next round in a narrow defeat to Inter Milan, with the injured Baxter able only to look on from the stands and wonder what might have been.

A few months later and he was gone. The Rangers directors, fed up with seeing their club representative getting himself, and others, into trouble, and recognising that his refusal to train properly in rehabilitation would lead to a diminishment of his powers, decided enough was enough. He would return, briefly, four years later, but he would never again reach the heights of his early stages in club football.

If you enjoyed that, and we hope you did, make sure to come back tomorrow for another 1800 words or so of Baxter-related tomfoolery.

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