Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Face To Face: Frank McAvennie (part 1)

As a companion piece to the interview, here is the first part of a lengthy article about Frank in which he discusses his 'colourful' past...

A kaleidoscope would never dazzle if compared to the multi-coloured Frank McAvennie.

A flamboyant footballer who played with the arrogant strut of conviction for West Ham, Celtic and Scotland, he did drugs, did bird in Durham jail, pulled Page Three birds by the treeful, drank himself stupid and blew a fortune. What a bird-brain, the do-gooders would maintain.

He made his good pal George Best look like a monk living in a monastery. As for Gazza, well, he's just a pussycat in comparison.

Yet somehow McAvennie has survived what would kill ordinary men and is living happily in Gateshead with his wife Karen. Trying to stay on the straight and narrow - well, with only a few slight diversions perhaps.

When I arrive at Frank's house I'm greeted by a smiling man with blond hair, black shirt and slick jeans. Not a wrinkled has-been soaked and ravaged by the deadly passing of time.

The twinkle in the eye and mischievous grin gives more than a hint of how so many topless models were most willing to tumble out of Stringfellows on his arm. He may be 45 in November but remarkably birds, booze and rock 'n' roll have not dimmed the light.

Jack The Lad may just have grown into a man. But don't bet on it.

He faces up to a wildly colourful past without self-pity or the two-fingered defiance of the untamed. Facts are facts and, damn it, life is still there to be lived.

Smoking endless cigarettes and forever chuckling at his own misfortune, McAvennie didn't make a single subject taboo despite spiraling downwards from an 80's icon earning £5,000 a week - a fortune at the time - and adored by millions of fans to an ex-player accused of being a drugs dealer and who spent agonising time in jail on remand.

"Aye, I was a great club man - Stringfellows, Browns and Blondes," he laughed. "Oh, West Ham, Celtic and St Mirren as well. Do ya know I'm in the Guinness Book of Records as the only footballer to play twice for three clubs. I mustn't have been so bad if they'd have me back, must I?

"I've always enjoyed life and enjoyed the nightclubs. I drank nothing but champagne at one time and, aye, I had a few model birds. It goes with the territory. If you have a couple of quid in your pocket you're everybody's friend.

"I went to London and scored 26 goals in 41 games in my first season. West Ham finished third and nearly won the championship. I was king, the fans loved me, and I loved life.

"Here was a wee laddie from Glasgow who was 21 years of age before he began playing and he was suddenly the toast of London. Of the east end anyway!"

McAvennie laughingly blames John Lyall, the fatherly figure who was manager of the Hammers, for the discovery that Stringfellows was fun enough to become his second home.

Dragging long on a ciggie, Frank smiled: "I was actually going to leave after a couple of months and go back home, you know.

"I hated London. I had such a strong Scottish accent that no-one knew what I was talking about. When I was shouting in training the other players thought I was trying to pick a fight. The boss had put me up miles out of London to stop me getting into any trouble and I was isolated. A single man with nothing to do.

"I went to see John and told him I wanted to go home. He asked me to give him three months and if I still felt the same he'd let me leave. And, being a lovely man, he arranged for the boys to take me on a night out and cheer me up. We went to Stringfellows and that was it. The place buzzed, the booze was all there and so were the birds. I was hooked."

If the pace of life quickened considerably it didn't seem to affect McAvennie's form. He was plundering goals, winning pay rises and becoming the darling of the Upton Park crowd.

"Tony Cottee was supposed to play up front alongside Paul Goddard with me tucked behind them but Sarge got injured in the first game against Birmingham and was out for a long time so I was pushed up. Me and Cottee scored 54 to 56 goals between us and used to make bets on who would score the best goal.

"We were both quick and we had a great supply line from Alan Devonshire, one of the best footballers I've ever played with.

"Life was sweet. I was on the Wogan Show on telly with Denis Law and mixing with showbiz celebs. I went to Blondes, the club owned by George Best, and to Browns as well. They were my locals, not the pubs. I could go myself because I knew friends would be in. Pubs encourage fights and I preferred to slaughter people with a bit of slick patter. You know, someone says you're crap with a fierce look on his face and I'd reply: `Aye, you're right but don't tell anyone. You're the only bloke that realises it.' I've always loved patter. Whenever I was down injured I'd exchange banter with the crowd.

"Bestie was terrific. He looked after me - we had the same agent - and so did Peter at Stringfellows, of course."

McAvennie's off-field reputation as a regular feature on the London party scene was building rapidly until it became legend.

Yet he maintains that others were just as bad - or as good!

"Ally McCoist and Gary Lineker could drink like troopers but the papers never slaughtered them because they used to sneak in and out without being noticed," maintained Frank. "Ally's a great lad but I had a personal thing with Gary. He beat me to the Golden Boot as top scorer in England but he had about 14 penalties in his total. I always said they shouldn't count.

"I used to knock about with Charlie Nicolas and Mo Johnston. We were the Three Musketeers. We'd have three-day sessions. Mo was probably the best drinker because he never suffered in the mornings at training as we did."

Like all hell-raisers, Frank believes he became misunderstood, a victim of his own reputation.

"Folk used to swear that they saw me drinking on the morning of a game," he said. "And the stories inevitably ended with me going out and scoring two goals. Ruddy marvellous, eh?

"In fact, I never drank before a game. Remember I played until I was 36 and I'm still alive so how did I do everything I was supposed to do?

"Take Gazza. I played against him when he was with both Newcastle United and Spurs and he was an outstanding talent but the Press got after him.

"I remember meeting him in a club. I was about to leave but he dragged me back in and began dancing with a girl. When he finished he laughed and sent her a bottle of champagne, which wasn't cheap. But the headlines in the Sunday newspaper were all about him being drunk and trying to nick some bloke's bird. Ridiculous.

"Unlike me he was never a bird man - he preferred to go drinking with the lads. All he was doing was having a laugh and a joke."

Of course, being a good-looking football star with the rakish image of an Errol Flynn meant the tabloids both loved and hated McAvennie. He was pursued wherever he went.

"I lost a lot of money on houses," he admitted. "I had two at a time in London. When I was going out with Jenny Blyth, the Page Three model, this paper wanted a photo of us in front of our house. So I said: `Aye, that's it,' pointing behind me and they took a load of photos. I got two grand and it wasn't even our house! "Some poor bugger saw his house splashed over the papers for months afterwards and must have been as puzzled as hell."

Drugs and crime, of course, are other matters completely and McAvennie was to see himself inevitably linked to both as fame faded and life became harder.

The Scot was supposed to snort cocaine during his playing days and famously was arrested in 1995 with £100,000 of his own money seized by Customs at Dover who said it was going to fund a major drugs deal. McAvennie supposedly claimed the money was an investment in an expedition to a sunken treasure ship but the judge backed the Customs.

The fallen footballer then stood trial at Newcastle Crown Court in 2000 charged with conspiracy to supply drugs and spent a month on remand at Durham Prison.

When I mention it, McAvennie goes serious for the first time in our interview. This is no laughing matter.

However, he defended himself rigorously both as a suspected user and supplier.

"I didn't do drugs all my career," he claimed. "I only took cocaine when I was out injured for 10 months with a badly broken leg during my second spell at West Ham and then again when I finished playing. But I'm clean now. My life hasn't been wrecked by it as people would like to suggest.

"As for the drugs charges and the month in jail on remand, that was a disgrace and was totally down to my lawyer. He couldn't get bail on a Saturday morning and on the Monday didn't turn up until lunchtime because he had a case elsewhere. I sacked him but I was already remanded.

"It was horrible inside. I hated it. There were some right villains in there and I was determined never to go back. That month inside brought me to my senses. It was the kick up the backside I needed.

"Even though I was cleared, the whole thing set me back years. I'm only starting to work again. I was made bankrupt and ended up claiming £50 a week on the dole. I was very bitter about the police at the time but life goes on."

McAvennie credits his second wife Karen, a Sunderland girl, with rescuing him from a dangerous life.

"She's great, she's good for me," said Frank, smiling again. "We've been together five years and married for three. I've stayed away from some of my so-called friends."

A voice interrupts. It's Karen.

"I pick his friends now," she said with a knowing smile and a wink.

"Aye," he agreed. "I live on Tyneside because of Karen but also because I can't live in London or Glasgow. They are goldfish bowls and not good for me.

"I have it made with Karen, I've got a good relationship with my ex-wife, and I'm seeing my son a lot these days. He's eight now and he has his own room here for when he comes down from Glasgow. I don't need my old lifestyle."

Surely it doesn't mean that the old playboy is now a totally reformed character on the straight and very narrow, does it?

"Well, I don't drink every day by any means - I haven't the same money in my pocket as I used to - but once in a while I do go for a session. My wife knows where I am, however, and she's happy," he said. "The only difference is that I used to drink for three days and recover in one, now it's the other way round!"

The obvious question had to be asked. Do you have any regrets, Frank?

"Only one," he replied, quick as a flash. "I went to Colchester one day and it pissed down the whole time. I wish I'd never bloody bothered."

The laughter could be heard echoing across the Tyne.

Taken from the Newcastle Chronicle

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