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Yalla Shoot :Gordon McQueen obituary | Soccer

The footballer Gordon McQueen, who has died aged 70 after suffering from cancer and dementia, was a fearless defender who divided most of his career between Leeds United and Manchester United. His celebrated status in his native Scotland was underpinned by a winning goal for his country at Wembley in 1977.

The image of McQueen rising above the England defence to head home an Asa Hartford free-kick is captured in the memory of a Scottish football generation. He later said: “That was me on the way down. I don’t know why Ray Clemence had the cheek to dive.” A goal from Kenny Dalglish clinched the victory required for Scotland to retain the British Home Championship.

McQueen joined Leeds in 1972 when Jack Charlton was on the verge of retirement and Don Revie needed a centre-half with similar qualities. Standing 6ft 3in and uncompromising in attitude, McQueen fitted the bill. Entering the Leeds dressing room, he remembered, was “like walking into the pages of a football magazine, with so many famous faces”.

Revie liked signing Scots, and at one point, McQueen recalled, there were 18 on the Leeds books, including Billy Bremner and Joe Jordan. “Even the English players spoke with Scottish accents,” he said. After six games in his first season, including as substitute in the 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup final, which Leeds lost 1-0 to Milan (the referee was later banned for match-fixing), he formed a defensive partnership with Norman Hunter that proved crucial to Leeds’s golden period.

Gordon McQueen appearing for Manchester United against Ipswich in 1978.
Gordon McQueen appearing for Manchester United against Ipswich in 1978. Photograph: Colorsport/Shutterstock

From the start of the 1973-74 season they went on a run of 29 games undefeated and won the First Division title for only the second time in the club’s history. McQueen then played a key role in helping Leeds reach the 1975 European Cup final, scoring three goals en route, but missed the final against Bayern Munich after being sent off at the Camp Nou for throwing a punch at a Barcelona opponent who had spat at him.

“It was the self-destruct button for me but it was very difficult at the time, when someone spits in your face,” he said. “Everyone says count to 10. I did count to 10 – and then knocked him out”.

McQueen played more than 140 times for Leeds before transferring in 1978 to Old Trafford for a British record fee of £495,000. A month earlier his friend Jordan had made the same move. McQueen admitted it made him “hugely unpopular” in Leeds but the assumption he went for money was misplaced. He was on the same wages but felt that Leeds “weren’t the ambitious club they had been previously”.

Always well equipped with good one-liners, McQueen poured fuel on this “war of the roses” by observing that “99% of players want to play for Manchester United and the rest are liars”. He played 184 league matches for United, was popular with the supporters, and in 1983 finally won an FA Cup winners’ medal, after a replay against Brighton.

The 1978 World Cup finals should have allowed him to appear on the greatest football stage, and he featured throughout Scotland’s successful qualifying campaign. However, a recurring knee injury that blighted his later Old Trafford years intervened. The Scotland manager Ally Macleod included him in the squad for Argentina in anticipation that he would recover in time to play a part – but the hope was in vain. The last of his 30 Scotland caps came against Wales in 1981.

Gordon McQueen in 2015.
Gordon McQueen in 2015. Photograph: Nigel French/PA

After leaving Manchester United in 1985 McQueen played a season for Seiko in Hong Kong before a brief stint in charge of Airdrieonians convinced him that management was not his forte. He then enjoyed a long association with Middlesbrough as a coach under his former teammate Bryan Robson. McQueen’s articulate good nature and knowledge of the game subsequently made him an excellent pundit for Sky Sports.

He was born in the Ayrshire steel town of Kilbirnie, where his father, Tom, was a joiner and his mother, Millie, was a shop worker. Junior football, a semi-professional grade, commanded fierce loyalties in Scotland’s industrial communities, and the year Gordon was born his father was goalkeeper for Kilbirnie Ladeside when they won the Scottish Junior Cup before a crowd of 70,000 at Hampden Park. Tom went on to a professional career, mainly with Accrington Stanley and Berwick Rangers.

Gordon played in goal, too, while he was a pupil at Glengarnock primary school and then Kilbirnie Central secondary school, but eventually transitioned to central defence. He signed for the junior side Largs Thistle before moving in 1970 to St Mirren in Scottish Division One, where he attracted immediate attention from bigger clubs, including Celtic, Spurs and Leeds. “It wasn’t even a decision”, he said later. “Leeds were huge at the time.”

A charismatic, gregarious personality, McQueen never lost contact with his roots and frequently returned to his home town, family and friends from childhood. The commitment to maintaining connections extended to his politics, and he often supported Labour party campaigns, including my own when I represented a constituency that included Kilbirnie.

Since 2011 he had fought cancer of the larynx, diagnosed after a doctor watching Sky Sports recognised a problem. In 2015 he suffered a stroke and, two years ago, his family made public that he was suffering from dementia. Since then his daughter, Hayley, a Sky Sports presenter, has been a prominent campaigner for education in football around the long-term risks of heading the ball.

He is survived by his wife, Yvonne (nee Crowther), whom he married in 1977, and their daughters, Hayley and Anna, son, Eddie, and three grandchildren.

Gordon McQueen, footballer and television pundit, born 26 June 1952; died 15 June 2023

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