Jim Baxter

By Adam Robertson
 September 12, 2020

Jim Baxter - A Footballing Genius
Jim Baxter

Jim Baxter - A Footballing Genius

Jim Baxter is both an argument for the invention of the time machine and a wonderful example of the problems and pitfalls of comparison across the historical record. He was also – and here you’ll find no disagreement, far less dissent, even from people who’re not swift to offer a compliment to anything associated with RFC – a footballing genius.

Baxter’s early years at Rangers from 1960, when Symon’s team reigned supreme and Jim in particular lorded it over the opposition –and one team in particular – with a particularly gallus and unrelenting enthusiasm, are among the most successful and celebrated in our history, most notable for the high quality teams assembled at Ibrox. Baxter was at the heart of everything creative for both club and country, and the testimonials from contemporaries - from fans, writers, but especially fellow players, some of whom were the best in the world at the time - all tell the same story. Jim was exceptional and at home in that company.

But when you read the books about that time or engage in conversations with the old-timers who’re lucky enough to have fresh in their memory those days when you could (mostly) rhyme off the team without hesitation, it doesn’t take long before it gets a little dark, and the elephant in the room makes known its presence.

We keep coming back to that day in Vienna in 1964 when Baxter broke his leg. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with how these things work will appreciate that if we could somehow use that time machine and make an intervention to disrupt the flow of the game or cause a change in circumstances it’s likely that a stray step or freak baggage claim accident would instead cause the damage. But we should try.

Medical science of the present – and specifically the application of it in sports that we are used to in 2020 - would in some respects have appeared as magical to doctors from the mid-1960s. A leg break then was rarely something that would appear only as a minor footnote at the end of a long recollection of an extended career. Baxter would return, but a combination of injury and – it has to be said – a less than professional approach to his fitness, not uncommon in the era and beyond, would curtail and in many respects colour the response to that career.

The fact that it’s a later iteration of Baxter – the 1967 post-RFC version playing keepy-up – that comes to mind for many is simply a hostage to hubris and technology, tinged with a little not atypical Scottish chip on the shoulder. His performances in previous games against the Auld Enemy – notably the victory in 1963 where even a leg-break suffered by Eric Caldow could not deny Baxter and Scotland - were just as impressive, and it’s notable that even at the time (and especially within his own squad) there was not universal acclaim for the piss-taking, with many feeling some more goals would have been more to the liking. The spectre of that haddy Haffey and the nine goals shipped only six years earlier had not disappeared. It lingered especially for those Anglos who were reminded of it more regularly and who had the previous summer had to suffer the unspeakable becoming possible and then fixed forever in the record books.

We often make a mess of maintaining, celebrating, and contextualising our own history – hell, in recent times the club itself has been one of the worst culprits – but it’s not difficult to evaluate the importance of key figures in different eras.

Jim Baxter, at his peak, was one of the most talented players these British Isles have ever produced. He is undoubtedly one of the finest players to put on a blue jersey. Arguments that run along the lines of “Could X play in this period?” or “Would team A have beaten team B?” are huge fun but ultimately almost worthless.

You can no more compare a team playing in the 1960s with a team in the 2020s than you can ask how Fred Perry would get on versus Andy Murray. We don’t have or actually need that time machine. It’s not just a matter of equipment, or conditioning, or style, or laws, or any of those combined. It’s just not possible once you skip a generation or two and that’s partly why it’s still so popular: you can neither prove nor disprove anything.

What you can say is that when compared to those with whom he played with and against, Jim Baxter was comfortable at any level. That is tribute enough. But what you can and should do is to ensure that those like Baxter - for whom only scant footage is available to adequately satisfy a world now fixated on recording every last movement - are never forgotten or their legacy reduced to ‘too long ago, not interested’. Sporting legends become stories and they only fade and die when people stop telling them.

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