In part one of this interview, Ali describes how his career started in Scotland when he played for Irvine Meadow, Kilmarnock and Motherwell before he moved to Leicester with his Motherwell team-mate Gary McAllister.
Sitting in the sunshine with a cup of coffee outside a café in Clarendon Park’s Queens Road, Ali began: “I was born in Kilwinning in Ayrshire but I lived in West Kilbride which is a little fishing village with a population of about 3,000. Everybody knew everybody back in the day.
“I went to the village school there. Growing up I played Boys’ Brigade and schools’ football. We played on the park. In those days they were ash pitches, so slide tackles and stuff like that weren’t ideal but we still did it.
“My brother Stewart was two years older than me. He was a big 6ft centre forward who was very good with both feet. This was because he broke his right leg, so he just practiced with his left foot all the time with a ‘sticky on,’ as we called them: a sticky-on plaster. This meant that he became as good with his left foot as with his right foot, unlike me! He went on to play for Morton and Stranraer.
“I was brought up as a protestant in Ayrshire and as a kid I was a Rangers fan. My next-door neighbour Mr. Lapsley tried to convert me to be a Celtic fan. I also bolted onto Leeds because Billy Bremner was my idol and I was really impressed with their side in those days. I also followed the Scotland national side because we had some good players back then like Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and Jimmy Johnstone.
The Boys Brigade team, including Ali, second from the right on the back row.
“When I was 15 I went down to Sheffield United for a trial. There was starting to be a bit of interest in me from Greenock Morton and Queen of the South but then word came that Sheffield United were interested in me. A scout called Bill Stewart took me together with a ginger haired centre forward from Possilpark (in Glasgow),whose name I can’t remember, by train to Sheffield on a Friday.
“We stayed in digs in Sheffield that night with other young prospects. We had a late supper at about 10 o’clock, then played a game against York at 10:30am on Saturday morning. I didn’t know anybody and nobody wanted to pass the ball to you because they thought you were a threat. Then we watched the first team play at Bramall Lane on the Saturday afternoon.
“After the game, the manager Jimmy Sirrel drove us back to the station in his Audi with a tartan rug in the back. As he was driving, he looked in the rear-view mirror and told the two of us that we weren’t what he was looking for. We got on the train with Bill Stewart and went back to Scotland.
“So we’d got to Sheffield late Friday night, had an early start for a game on Saturday morning, watched the first team in the afternoon, were told we weren’t good enough and then we got home late Saturday night. That was my first real experience of professional football and it left me totally disillusioned.
“I still carried on playing football though. One day we were at a loose end, so my dad drove us to Dalry, about eight miles from West Kilbride, to watch West Kilbride Amateurs play. They were short of a player so their manager John Burns said if I went home to get my boots he would put me on the bench. We drove back home and got my boots so I started my career there at the age of 15 which was very young because it was a proper man’s game.”
Kilmarnock was the club where Ali, fourth player in from the right on the front row, cut his teeth in Scottish football.
Soon after his 18th birthday, Ali signed for Kilmarnock in August 1978.
He explained: “Morton and Queen of the South were interested in signing me but I just didn’t feel the love for these two teams. I don’t know why. It was just a gut feeling. Then Kilmarnock came in for me. Jim Clunie was the manager. Something in my head clicked and I knew that this was the team for me.=
“In my first season there I went on loan to a local team halfway between Kilmarnock and West Kilbride called Irvine Meadow who were a big name in junior football. I had a year there. It hardened me up big time. It was proper men’s football and a good standard because a lot of ex-pros drop back into junior football in Scotland.
“I had a good year at Irvine Meadow and the decision was made that I was ready to step up. Playing central midfield I made my Kilmarnock debut at home against Raith Rovers.”
After a relegation from the Scottish Premier Division followed by a promotion at Kilmarnock, Ali was signed for Motherwell in October 1982 by Jock Wallace who had controversially broken his contract as manager of Leicester City three months earlier.
“Hibernian came for me before Motherwell,” Ali continued. “Their manager was Bertie Auld, the old Celtic stalwart. I was working with my dad at the dry dock rig for an American company when word came that Hibs wanted to sign me, and that Bertie Auld wanted to see me at a hotel just outside Kilmarnock.
He never got out of his car. I sat in the passenger seat to negotiate my contract. How bizarre!Ali Mauchlen on Bertie Auld
“I made a quick exit from the building site, drove to the hotel, went into the reception and asked if Mr Bertie Auld was there. He wasn’t. I waited for another ten minutes in my car, went back to reception and was told that Bertie Auld still wasn’t there. I was starting to panic, wondering if I’d got the time wrong.
“I was a young lad about to make a career move. There were no agents then. I went back to reception for the third time. Still no Bertie Auld! As I walked back to my car, these headlights were flashing at me. I walked towards the car and Bertie Auld was sitting in it.
“He never got out of his car. I sat in the passenger seat to negotiate my contract. How bizarre! The offer was poor. I was a vulnerable young kid and he probably played quite a hard hand. He said ‘Look, that’s the deal. If you don’t accept my offer and get out of this car I won’t be back’. So, I just got out of the car. Again, the experience made me a bit disillusioned with the professional game.
“Then Jock Wallace came along. He was very positive. I drove to Motherwell to meet him and got lost! I had to find a phone box to phone Motherwell to say I was lost. When I turned up Jim Clunie and Jock Wallace were sitting in the office waiting for me. I was about 20 minutes late. Again, panic stations.
“Motherwell agreed to pay £35,000 for me. The deal was done. We all shook hands. Jim Clunie suggested we went to lunch, but Jock said: ‘No. He’s going to go straight up to Hamilton Racecourse for training’. That was the start of my life with Jock Wallace.
The midfielder helped Motherwell back up to the top-flight of Scottish football.
“He was a big rough guy. Tactics and technical stuff were not his forte. It was all about motivation. There was no finesse to his training. It was all about getting yourself fit.
“I’d heard that he used to run Leicester City players up and down a sand hill he had made at Wanlip when he was at Filbert Street, but he didn’t have to do that in Scotland because there are beaches everywhere. We’d go Gullane near Berwick and the sand dunes were already there. He’d have his assistant manager Frank Connor in the middle of the sand dune. Jock would be at the top and you had to run up and down time after time. I’ve seen players on all fours, throwing up after this training.
“Also, there were no holds barred in his five-a-side matches in training. They were full-on contact even though they were played on the Friday afternoon before the Saturday match.
“Jock was a decent man. When he looked you in the eye you knew that what he was saying was from the heart. He was a great motivator. I had a lot of time for Jock. Later on, he tried to get me to go to Rangers when he was manager there. Our relationship was good. I think I suited his type of player.”
Motherwell were relegated from the Premier Division in 1984 but the following season Ali captained the side back in the top flight, playing in the same side as his future Leicester City team-mate Gary McAllister.
Playing alongside Gary McAllister for Jock Wallace's Motherwell.
Thinking back, Ali continued: “I captained the promotion side. We also got to the Scottish Cup Semi- Final against Celtic. We drew 1-1 on the Saturday. We were the better side and should have beaten them. They took us back to Hampden on the Wednesday night and we lost 3-0 it. Playing at Hampden in the semi-final was a great experience though.”
Ali became Motherwell’s captain at a young age, in his early twenties. Reflecting on this, Ali continued: “Everywhere I played, I always led by example. We’re all different. I felt that if I played a certain way, it would motivate and encourage my team-mates to be a little bit more like me. I had (future Manchester United player and Scotland international) Brian McClair and (future Scotland international) Andy Walker playing in the same side.
“They had more finesse and culture than me, so they couldn’t do what I did. So there was a mix. You had to recognize early on as a captain that everyone is not the same as you and you can’t be the same as them. That’s how you manage a dressing room as well. You can’t manage every single player the same way. Some folk need a cuddle. Some need a rollicking. Some need a quiet conversation. Some will take a dressing down in front of their mates. Others won’t.”
In the 1985 close season, having just captained Motherwell to the Scottish Championship title and to a replay in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final, Ali, together with his promising young team-mate Gary McAllister, left Fir Park to join Gordon Milne’s Leicester City side who were in the English old First Division.
In part two of this interview, Ali recalls his eight years as a player, captain and ultimately as a coach, at Filbert Street and his subsequent spells at Leeds United, Heart of Midlothian, Glenavon and Ballymena United. He also describes his experiences in local Leicestershire football, winning the Sky Masters tournament and his current role at Leicester City as a Club Ambassador.
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