Jim Baxter

By Adam Robertson
 September 30, 2020

Jim Baxter - What If?

Jim Baxter - What If?

“Well wee man, I’ve good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’ve got terminal cancer, the good news is the nurse said I can have a drink again!”

Its impossible to talk about Jim Baxter without mentioning the off-field antics that he became famous for, and ultimately followed him throughout his life until major action had to be taken. For every story that may have involved a wee dram, there was another that spoke of skill that would’ve served him well in the modern day footballing era. Signed by Scot Symon in June 1960 for a Scottish record transfer fee for £17,500 following a display against Rangers whilst playing for Raith Rovers at Ibrox, turning a two-goal deficit into a 3-2 victory, Symon was determined to sign him believing him to have been “the best player on the park”. Baxter didn’t want to come to Glasgow, he didn’t want to even be a full time footballer, already a coal miner following an apprenticeship in cabinet making. Leaving Hill Of Beath to come to the city lights was a daunting prospect for Baxter, bearing in mind returning home to Fife isn’t as easy as it is nowadays, but once he was moved, and made friends at the club with fellow Fifers like Willie Johnston, “Stanley’s” confidence  - already fairly lofty - went into the stratosphere. 

With Symon being able to complement his team of steel with high-quality silk, Baxter was forgiven by his team mates for his somewhat less than committed approach to training due to the fact his left foot was heaven-sent. Whilst most would wince at the thoughts of half-time physical altercations with Harold Davis (usually conducted with Baxter being held about 18 inches off the ground) his comrades knew he was capable of controlling games without fear or nerves - telling them “If we get a penalty in the last minute, you start heading up to get the cup”. Such was his lack of nerves he became a reliable teammate if you were ever in trouble, he would make himself available and take the ball no matter the circumstances. 

Baxter not only tore domestic opponents apart, but now on the international scene his profile became global. Prior to infuriating Dennis Law with keepie-uppies at Wembley in 1967 when he should’ve been creating more goals, Baxter scored 2 of his 3 international goals in a 2-1 win over the Auld Enemy in 1963 in what he personally considered the better performance of the two - a ray of sunshine following a dull cloud after Eric Caldow’s leg break, forcing the Scots to play on with 10 men. As circumstances allowed, Scotland were awarded a penalty kick, no one else was going to take it, Jim slotted it away cooly. Continuing on the worldwide stage, Baxter was included in the Stanley Matthew’s tribute match in April 1965, including legends like Di Stefano, Puskas and Eusebio for a Rest of the World squad. Slim Jim fitted right in. Baxter’s reputation matched his ability, as Puskas joined him for an aperitif in Drumchapel afterwards. Two years later, the Wembley Wizards cemented their place in Scottish footballing history, with Baxter running the show with none of the world champions wanting to come within a 20 foot radius of him.

Where confidence carried him to a new platform, it showed how fragile it could also be. In December 1964 Rangers had a team which - considered by many - could have went the distance in the European Cup, and dreams turned to nightmares when Baxter, having danced his way around the Vienna team in both games, had the option to see out the fixture by passing to Davie Wilson to run the clock down in the final minute, opted instead to heap more suffering on full-back Walter Skokic, nutmegging him twice before Skokic returned the favour in kind with a tackle leaving Baxter with a broken leg  - rumours to this day still exist that Baxter wasn’t shy of visitors that night, Skokic being one and another of the more feminine variety, leaving his teammates to joke that “Typical Jim, breaks one leg and still manages to get the other one over!”. 

Humour on a lining of tragedy that perhaps cost Rangers European glory 3 years after Fiorentina , and 3 years before Celtic. Some remarked a changed man in Baxter in his playing style from that period forward.Some say the break was the defining moment in Baxter’s career, he was more comfortable in the bookies than in the physiotherapy room. The party lifestyle he’d already become accustomed to led to more drinking, during his recovery his attitude to training hadn’t changed, resulting in his weight gain. Whilst Scot Symon could afford him certain luxuries the board and Baxter came to clear disagreements when it came to his wages - forming relationships in the international team with his countrymen playing south of the border left Baxter feeling undervalued and more to his point, underpaid. Although Symon wanted his star man to be paid what he felt would be a worthwhile investment, the board refused and Baxter left, moving to a short spell in the North East with Sunderland then further south with Nottingham Forrest. 

Success didn’t follow with Jim, with the undeserved burden of record transfer fees on his back, in 1969 returned to Davie White’s languishing Rangers, where in his latter years Baxter himself admitted that he didn’t give White his all, by this stage his fitness was beyond saving, resulting in only 14 appearances for the club, and retiring at 31 years old. 

There is a number of “what if?” scenarios when it comes to Slim Jim - What if he had been raised by his birth mother, having been given away at 6 months, having found out when he was a young teenager? What if he had been born 48 hours later and hes career wasn’t disrupted with national service, serving time int he Black Watch at Stirling (Jim was born on 29th September 1939, conscription was halted for those born from 1st October)? What if the Rangers board agreed to his wage increase? What if he just saw out the game against Vienna? These are just a number of things that could be part of the make up of a man who had demons, but struggled to get the help so readily available today. Jim didn’t have a bad word or pre-determination against anyone - his good friend Pat Crerand of Celtic was who he directed the above quote to at the top of this article when he received his diagnosis.

Three league championships, three Scottish cups and four league cups in a career which saw him inducted in the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2002, and the Scottish Hall of Fame in 2004. The legacy he will leave most is from father to son of “I saw Jim Baxter play” as his elegance, skill, poise, vision and genius are still spoken about a half-century after he took to the field of Ibrox park.

Cammy Bell - @beatthatbeat

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