Sat 18 Jan 2003
WHAT a difference a day makes. This, the title of the autobiography Brian Irvine once wrote, makes one wonder. Such has been the momentous tread of his career, to what particular day, to which life-altering experience, is he referring?
Can it be the Saturday afternoon in May 1990, when his penalty kick sealed for Aberdeen Scottish Cup victory against Celtic, and turned him from jobbing centre-half into a Pittodrie cult figure? Or, another early summer’s day five years later, when Irvine was invited into a side ward of an Aberdeen hospital, and where he learned a cruel disease called multiple sclerosis had entered his athlete’s frame? Or maybe we must stop instead and consider a teenager turning to the bible one evening, having grown weary of drunken nights out in Airdrie, and who found himself still reading the Gospels as midnight approaches, lost in profound contemplation.
Then there is the day fast approaching, when this quite extraordinary footballer will finally call time on a career which has already taken in 752 senior matches, a number which swells upwards to 1,034 if you count the 196 reserve appearances, the 51 unused substitute appearances, the five abandoned and ten minor reserve team games, the 20 five-and six-a-side contests. And, believe me, Brian Irvine does. It is, he says, a hangover from days working in a bank in Baillieston, where he grew fond of logistics and where he learned the importance of saving: be it money, be it memories. After each game he has played since turning professional 20 seasons ago with Falkirk, Irvine has sat down and collated the facts of this appearance, while also adding a comment about the worth of his performance.
Such has been the longevity of his career, one imagines the Doomsday book was a product of only marginally more effort.
The end, though, might now be in sight. After Ross County’s last game of the season against Ayr, by which time he will have turned 38, Irvine will lay down his pen one last time and let his cheeks billow out in exclamation and maybe in exhaustion too. It’s been quite a ride.
But then he, clearly, is quite a fellow. Irvine, being a practical type, would possibly prefer we started at the beginning, when, as an 18-year-old, he made his debut for Falkirk. But his is a tale which fans out from merely football, from the dry statistics of which we speak above, of the 70 goals scored (61 competitive, nine friendly) and the nine international caps won.
Irvine, you will know, is not your average footballer. Few have dedicated their careers to "the glory of God", as he does, and fewer still have played the game while battling the subtle disease which we now rather blithely refer to by two letters - MS. Absolutely none, you hazard, have played it, like Irvine, to a standstill, and to the extent that some have wondered whether the defender, in shaking off his fears, has shaken off the disease in the process. It is, however, only contained, though mentions of his association with MS occasionally erupt, as it did when Dundee’s Spanish winger Javier Artero was diagnosed as a sufferer in late 2001. Artero, in a clear marker of a disease which laps against the body in many different guises, is already back in Spain, having given up football at the age of 27. Irvine is today in Paisley, preparing himself for game No1,035.
"At Dundee and at Ross County I have played as regularly as at any other time in my career, and this at a stage when I’d be expected to play a wee bit less," he says.
"There was the time when I moved to Dundee, and I told reporters that hopefully you will write ‘Brian Irvine was rubbish today’, not ‘Brian Irvine, committed Christian and MS sufferer’, followed by however bad I was. That seemed to happen. I was allowed to get on with my game." His time at Dens did not get off to the best of starts, however. The day he signed, a newspaper chose to run an article with the headline: "Would you sign a footballer with MS?" The Dundee board got jumpy and sought to change the terms of the contract Irvine had agreed with manager John McCormack.
"Instead of £600 a week, it was £200 basic wage and £400 each time I played," he recalls. It confirmed that the enemy Irvine would have to fight was not just the disease, but the perception of it. Another sometime foe was his own mind. "The biggest barrier was the mental thing. It’s a horrible label to live with. But if that’s all it is, then I’m thankful for that. Because physically I feel well."
For this he hails the Tollhouse Therapy Centre at Braco, where Irvine is supplied with a sustaining force made up from minerals and vitamins. While not strictly homeopathic, you will find it filed under alternative treatment. You wonder if his doctor concurs with this route taken by Irvine: "Hopefully my doctor is happy in that he does not see me," he says. Another clear source of vitality is the faith which has shaped Irvine’s adulthood. We know when MS barged so abruptly into his life, but what of religion? When did this footballer, amid the banter and the barks of the dressing- room, find the time or indeed the inclination for this?
"It was after a game with Falkirk," he remembers. "At that time I had drifted away from the church background I had as a boy. At the weekends I was going out with my friends. I was not a wild guy, but I still had two years either side of 18 when I was spending weekends having too much to drink, and just exploring. I’ve never done drugs or smoked a cigarette in my life, but I have certainly taken a drink. I remember thinking, after I had sobered up the next morning, was that as funny as I thought it was last night. The answer was always no.
"So this particular Saturday night sticks out in my mind because instead of going out with my pals, I stayed in and took a bible from the shelf. I started reading the new testament, the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was early in the evening, about 7:30. But the next thing I knew it was 12 o’clock. I was so engrossed. The next thing for me after this re-introduction was to join the church. And the next day I did."
Irvine says all this while making unwavering eye contact. It’s pretty intense stuff, but always captivating. "I don’t like preaching," he says at one point, though it never gets close to this. He was once head of a clan of Christians in Scottish football, who would meet up regularly in Comrie. Raymond Montgomerie, Stuart Elliott and Derek Adams were among those who would attend. There are fewer now, although last week against St Johnstone, after Irvine had upended an opponent, referee Mike McCurry approached him. "He warned ‘anymore of that, and you’ll go in the book’," recalls Irvine. "Then he quoted a verse at me."
Often you long to be conversing with Irvine somewhere else than the rather prosaic front lobby of the Thistle Hotel in Inverness, where the nearest thing to this spiritual, biblical sweep of which he so eloquently speaks, are the after-effects of a great flood from which he tells you the place has only recently recovered. Despite the sometime need for an ark, Irvine, along with his wife and two daughters, is clearly happy in the Highlands. It certainly beats the static caravan he once stayed in when at Dundee.
Ross County, too, are going places, particularly after the arrival of Alex Smith, the manager for whom Irvine won the Scottish Cup 13 years ago. "The football’s taking a direction that was not really happening before," says Irvine. "Neale Cooper was a great manager for the club at the time, but for me it was not really working. Now under Alex, there is no excuse for it not to work for me now."
Smith has already handed Irvine some coaching duties, including warming
the players up before training and games. You suspect he will remain true
to an intention to make this his 20th and last season. Although, as Irvine
will no doubt be the first to warn, if you want to give God a laugh tell
him your plans.