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NTU Sustainability in Enterprise

Interview: Don Masson

15 November 12 interview: Martin Naylor

Club skipper during the iconic Jimmy Sirrel era that propelled the club from the bottom to the top. Part of the QPR team that lost the league by one point in 1976. A key component of the doomed Scotland '78 World Cup squad. A prodigal son who finished his career helping his beloved 'Pies into the top flight. There's been 150 years of Notts County football, and - according to those who saw him in action - no-one has played it better than Don Masson...

Was football what you wanted to do from a young age?
All I ever wanted to do was to play football. I grew up in Banchory,  in Aberdeenshire, and I'd spend hours kicking a tennis ball against a wall. It was my mum that was the inspiration, rather than my dad;  I'd come home from school at lunchtime and make her play football with me.  If she didn’t I would refuse to go back to school. I was picked to play for Aberdeenshire under twelves, my first game for them was against Dundee boys, and I remember crying all the way home because we got beat.

You moved to Middlesbrough when you were twelve. When did Middlesbrough FC spot you?
Playing for the school football team.  I was so small at that time, but they must have spotted something because I signed on schoolboy terms with them.  At the time they had Raich Carter there, who was a superstar.  I also trained as a painter and decorator because I figured that even if I did make it as a footballer it would only be a twenty-year career at best, and I would need something to fall back on if it didn’t work out.

Was Cloughie at Boro then?
I used to clean his boots.  That team was incredible.  They would go out every Saturday and beat teams 9-2, scores like that, and Cloughie would invariably score three or four of them.  I used to watch him play, he seemed to have that natural instinct of knowing where the ball was going be delivered into him.  He was a nice guy.

When did you make your debut?
When I was eighteen against Charlton.  One of our centre-halves at the time was a Welsh international called Mel Nurse.  Years later I went to see him for the weekend and he said he had an apology to make, “Boyo, when you were a teenager at Boro your mum asked me if you would make a player and I turned to her and said; ‘Not while I’ve got a hole in my arse,  Mrs Masson’.  I guess I was wrong.”

You signed for Notts for the first time in 1968...
I jumped at the chance.  All I knew about Nottingham at the time was what I had watched on the TV when the cricket was being played. The camera would pan across to the City Ground and Meadow Lane and I remember thinking, “what a fantastic sporting city that looks.  The people there are so lucky to have all that so close together”.  I still think that now.

Notts were in the old Division Four then. It was a step down for you...
Yes, but I remember looking at the team and thinking we had a fantastic young centre-back in David Needham and a great young forward in Les Bradd - two big, bustling, strong and keen players - and I figured if we could build a team from youth we would have a chance of success.

How old were you at the time?
21.  Mr Dunnett was the chairman, Jack Wheeler was the trainer and in 1969 Jimmy Sirrel became manager.  That team went from the fourth division to first in just over a decade.  With the same chairman, manager, trainer and captain.  I don’t think that will ever happen again.  Jimmy was shrewd, he quickly got rid of the dead wood - we had this immovable spine of players through the team and we stormed Division Four in 70/71.  Jimmy just kept us together as a team, none us wanted to leave.

Everyone has a Jimmy Sirrel story. What’s your favourite?
He and I had a unique relationship, maybe because I was his captain, maybe because we were both Scottish.  One day we had finished training and I was walking past his office and he collared me. “Hey, little fella” he said, “what are you doing this afternoon? I want you to come and watch a football match with me, I’ll pick you up about 4.”  I didn't know where we were going or who he had his eye on.  

Jimmy was a terrible driver, and I remember sitting in his car for hours until eventually we arrived in Exeter.  Ten minutes into the game, Jimmy nudges me and says, “Come on, I’ve seen enough, we’re going home”.  All that way to Exeter for ten minutes of a match.  To this day I still have no idea which player he was watching. Jimmy was a fantastic person, I owe everything to him in terms of what I achieved in football.

How did the move to QPR in ‘74 come about?
I thought I would always be at Notts, but those days it was totally different, players were powerless.  I didn’t have a phone at the time,  and there was a knock at the door and it was Kathy, Jimmy’s wife.  She said, “Jimmy’s just phoned he said to me ‘tell the little fella to meet me at the ground, he’s being sold.’”  

Just like that?
That was how it was in those days, if someone offered the money, you went.  The last thing Jimmy said to me before we got to QPR was, “Don’t sign for them, because I’ve got something to tell you afterwards.”  Well, QPR were such a talented team then; I had the medical, and then I signed.  I told Jimmy and he said, “what did I tell you, little fella?  Tommy Docherty and Man Utd wanted to sign you, and that Revie fella at Leeds.  That’s why I told you not to sign.”

But QPR almost won the league the year after you signed.
It was a fantastic team and a fantastic three years there.  If I had stayed at Notts, I would never have been called up for Scotland.  It’s not that playing in the top division made me a better player, it’s more that it thrust me into the spotlight.

You were 29 when you first played for Scotland.
Yes, the 1976 Home Championships, which we won that year.  Playing for Scotland was my dream and to have it finally come true was unbelievable.  For my debut at Hampden Park my mum, dad and Jimmy were all there.  Walking out to a packed house was amazing, you couldn’t take it all in.  That summer we beat Wales and Northern Ireland, who I scored against, and then we came up against England.  I scored the winner in a 2-1 win to clinch the Home Championships.  For any Scotsman to do that is beyond their wildest dreams.

You went with Scotland to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup. We have to talk about the penalty miss against Peru in the first game...
No Scotsman lets me forget that.  We were drawing 1-1 with Peru and we got a penalty.  I hit the ball well but it was a good height for the keeper and he saved it.  They went on to win 3-1 and we went out at the group stage.  Scottish fans just remember that, not the winner I scored at Anfield against Wales to get us to the finals in the first place. After the World Cup I was at such a low ebb, and I ended up with Derby having a miserable time under Tommy Docherty.  I’d been warned by players who had played under the Doc at Man Utd not to sign for him - I should have taken that advice.

And then you came home to Notts one season later.

Yes, Mr Dunnett offered me a player-coach role, which I jumped at.  We played a sweeper system that Howard Wilkinson introduced that was quite radical at the time with Pedro (Richards) in the role and Killer -Brian Kilcline - as the strong centre-half.  It was when we went to Newcastle that season and played them off the park that I knew we would get promoted. That was the best Notts team I ever played in and it was fitting that I finished my career helping get Notts back to the top division for the first time in more than fifty years.

Do you still get to see Notts now?
I do get down a few times a season. The club named one of the suites at Meadow Lane after me, it’s quite humbling to know that you are held in such esteem, a fantastic honour. Fans I have spoken to have said the team played well against Crewe and Hartlepool and there seems to be an air of optimism for this season.

Is football a different game now?
Very much so.  In my days players were powerless, you could be traded to the highest bidder. It is very mercenary now, but you can't blame the players. Some of the wages are obscene; no-one is worth that kind of money, despite the argument that football is a short career.  I had twenty years in the game, and I was paid accordingly.  I was and I am a lucky, lucky man who was able to earn a living out of the game that I loved. In fact, I'd love to be able to pull on that black and white shirt and kick a football at Meadow Lane again.

Notts County celebrate 150 years of football with a Legends Day (featuring a host of ex-players) at Meadow Lane this Sunday. Tickets are £5.

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