Frank McGarvey was one of the most promising young strikers in Scotland. English champions, Liverpool paid big money to bring him south. But he didn’t get a game.
He was back up north of the border within a year and what’s more, he was mighty annoyed about the whole experience too.
Slagging off the club, the people and the English game. And another thing……
Glasgow-born, McGarvey was signed by Alex Ferguson for St. Mirren, making his debut towards the end of the 1974-75 season. Two years later he was the top scorer as the club won promotion back to the Premier Division as First Division Champions.
Then in the summer of 1979, Bob Paisley came calling.
Liverpool had just won the title with a record points total. There were other league records too, one of those was the most goals scored (85), with Kenny Dalglish and David Johnson forming a potent partnership up front. They were supported by ‘supersub’ himself, David Fairclough.
Needless to say, competition was fierce. McGarvey admitted as much when he signed. Not long into his time at the club, he gave an interview to ‘Anfield Review’;
“It’s up to me to work hard and if I get the chance, to take it. The only way to achieve success is to do your stuff. And just look at what competition they have at Anfield!”
Paisley had big plans for the Scot, believing he would increase the pressure on those already at the club, but also an investment for the future.
McGarvey was 23 when he arrived at Anfield. Five years younger than Dalglish.
Liverpool weren’t the only club interested in him.
“When the talk first began about my leaving St. Mirren, it wasn’t just a case of the club letting me go. In fact, I might well have ended up at Aston Villa last year, but St. Mirren decided to hold on to me. Although, to be honest, I felt that another year with the club was probably best for me, anyway.”
“When I did ask for a transfer, Arsenal made a move to sign me, but the clubs couldn’t agree on the valuation. I was going through a bad patch. Then there was talk about Ajax.”
He soon snapped out of it and resumed banging the goals in;
“What I really meant was that I had to buckle down to the job of showing everyone I could do my stuff, which involved getting goals……and I knocked in 13 in a dozen games. I knew the only way was to prove to people what I could do on the park. Then it’s up to the clubs to decide.”
Frank openly admitted he was a Celtic fan, but they weren’t interested in him at the time.
“When Liverpool came for me, I just asked them for the pen and paper, and in two or three minutes I had signed. And I’ve been very happy since I moved to Merseyside.”
“The training has been somewhat different, because with Saints you put in so much work in short spells, while here it’s a longer process and you pace it more.”
May 1979 was a bit of a whirlwind for the lad. Liverpool had paid £300,000 for his services a couple of months before, and despite not making a first-team appearance, Scotland manager Jock Stein selected him for the British International Championship match against Northern Ireland at Hampden Park. He came on as a late substitute for Leeds United’s Arthur Graham, who’d scored the only goal of the game.
12 days later he got his first start for the national team. It was the game where Britain got their first glimpse of Diego Maradona as World Champions, Argentina visited. His new clubmate, Alan Hansen was also picking up his second cap but he went on to make considerably more of his international career than McGarvey did. Frank wouldn’t be seen in a Scotland shirt for another four years.
McGarvey got his chance to show what he could do for Liverpool in a pre-season friendly against Borussia Monchengladbach, coming on as a second-half substitute for Johnson.
The team then went on a tour of Denmark where he made his first start. But when they made the trip to Wembley for the season curtain-raiser, The Charity Shield, against Arsenal, he was merely a spectator. He didn’t even make the bench.
Liverpool were magnificent that day, putting on one of the best performances seen on the hallowed turf. The signs for the rest of the league were ominous, as they were for the Scot.
He was into the reserves from the start of the season, something he admitted at the time he was prepared for.
In 2006 he explained how Jock Stein had been the influence in him signing for the league champions.
“He told Liverpool to buy me. I was playing for St. Mirren, scoring goals against Celtic and Rangers continually. At one stage we went top of the league halfway through the season. I was scoring goals for fun, but I could not get into the Scotland squad.”
He went on to explain how he knew the competition at Anfield was fierce and he’d have to wait his turn.
“I signed for Liverpool in March. Bob Paisley said, ‘Go get a house and rest until the end of the season’. I had not played a game for six weeks and next thing I know I’m in the Scotland squad. I went to Liverpool when David Johnson and Kenny Dalglish were working up front. David scored 27 goals that season, so there was no way I was going to get in the team right away.”
Johnson actually scored 18 that season, and with Dalglish hitting 25 McGarvey was right to understand it would take time to force his way in. Gradually McGarvey was finding his feet in the reserves under Roy Evans.
“I was scoring goals and playing well in the second team and ready to move into the first team, David Johnson knew that so he then had an edge. If there is no forward playing well in the second team, the forward loses his edge. David Johnson got injured and I was the top scorer by a mile in the second team. I scored 16 goals in a run of games and David Fairclough had only scored two. When David Johnson got injured I thought ‘Yes, I’m playing on Saturday’.”
“We were on the training ground and Bob Paisley said ‘In you come Frank and David’. I thought at last I’ve got my chance. I was playing out of my skin at the time, but David Fairclough got in before me. I could not say a thing, I was raging, absolutely raging. If you play well in the second team you should be first choice, but that’s not the way they done it. On the Monday morning I asked for a transfer. I went up the road; no one knew that I had asked for a transfer, just me and Bob Paisley.
Alex Ferguson met me that Monday night and made me an unbelievable offer to move to Aberdeen.”
But it was when Celtic showed some interest there was really only one destination for McGarvey.
“Leaving Liverpool was really hard, and a lot of players told me I left too soon, that if I had stayed and waited on my chance I could have won a European Cup. But I always wanted to play for Celtic.”
But McGarvey didn’t go quietly. He gave an interview to Shoot! Magazine and he didn’t hold back. This was clearly a bitter individual.
“In the first six month I was at Liverpool I spoke to the manager only once and I think that was just to wish him good morning!”
Celtic bought him for £275,000 as Liverpool virtually recouped their outlay. Liverpool were well-known for buying players and putting them in the reserves for a year or two to allow them to develop and buy into the ‘Liverpool way’.
Johnson had to wait for his chance as John Toshack was the man in possession when he arrived. Fairclough had been waiting two or three years to be a first-team regular. But the Scot didn’t have their patience.
He was also scathing in his assessment of what the club was all about;
“I never saw anything of the so-called family spirit that is supposed to exist at Anfield. Even the other players did not accept that I was part of the set-up.
If I had been lying stretched out on the dressing room floor, the other players would have stepped over me. Another year of that and I would have been back playing junior football in Scotland.”
During his time at Celtic McGarvey became known for speaking his mind. He wasn’t shy in pointing out how bad he thought football was down south.
“Much nonsense is talked about their invulnerability, but I have learned it is because the others are so mediocre.”
“The people in England claim that their league contains the best teams in Europe, but nothing could be further from the truth.”
It’s probably fair to point out that English clubs were in a period of unprecedented success in Europe with Liverpool (1977, 1978, 1981), Nottingham Forest (1979, 1980) and Aston Villa (1982) all lifting the European Cup. Ipswich won the UEFA Cup in 1981 and Arsenal were losing finalists in the Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1980. Hardly mediocre.
McGarvey was asked why he thought Liverpool were so highly rated;
“It’s all to do with money. They are able to commandeer the best players in the country because of their financial resources and because of the reputation and tradition they have built up over the past ten years.”
He did concede he didn’t think his time at Anfield was a complete waste.
“I doubt if St. Mirren would have sold me direct to Celtic so I suppose it helped me to get to Parkhead by going to Liverpool for nine months.”
Gradually during the interview his icy demeanour lifted slightly as he thought back on his time at St. Mirren.
“When I was with St. Mirren I used to talk about signing for Celtic along with Tony Fitzpatrick. It was a dream at the time, but I’m delighted it has come true. Tony is now with Bristol City, so he’ll be jealous!”
Reading Bob Paisley’s book it is quite clear he was disappointed the player didn’t stay and fight for his place in the team.
He had the player change in the first team dressing room instead of with the reserves, in a bid to get him accustomed to they way the went about their business. But McGarvey admitted later he felt overawed as if he didn’t deserve to be there.
Fairclough made his debut in November 1975. He famously scored the winner in the European Cup Quarter-Final against St. Etienne at Anfield in 1977. After making the starting line-up in the First Leg of the Semi-Final against Zurich he felt he should’ve played in either the FA Cup Final or the European Cup Final, four days later. Neither he nor Johnson made the European Cup Final as Paisley chose, what is now known as a ‘false nine’. And it worked.
Fairclough started in the European Cup Final win over Bruges a year later, but Johnson’s form kept him in the reserves until the injury McGarvey mentioned.
What McGarvey fails to mention is how well Fairclough did when he got his chance over the Scot. Seven goals in five games, including a hat-trick against Norwich in the game which saw THAT goal from Justin Fashanu.
He also doesn’t mention he was in contention for a place in the side which met Ipswich Town at Anfield towards the end of February 1980. Fairclough started and scored. McGarvey stayed on the bench all game. He was the closest he got to a first team appearance for the club.
A week later Johnson was fit again and so even Fairclough had to return to the bench, pushing McGarvey back down the pecking order.
Of course, what no one knew at the time was that even if McGarvey had stayed and forced his way past Johnson and Fairclough, it was likely he would’ve lost out to Ian Rush.
Rush signed from Chester City two months after McGarvey left. Paisley treated him the same way he had done with McGarvey. In fact, at one point Rush knocked on the manager’s door and demanded a first-team place. But he succeeded in being punished with a further period in the reserves.
Paisley kept him there until he was full to burst. When he was finally let loose he became one of the greatest goalscorers the English game has ever seen.
McGarvey had a successful time at Celtic, scoring 135 goals in 245 appearances. After winning two League titles, two Scottish Cups and a League Cup, he returned to Love Street.
Eventually time can be a great healer and an older, wiser Frank wrote this in his autobiography “Totally Frank”;
“Most of the players were older and more experienced than me. I had gone from being a big fish in a small pond to a very small fish in an enormous pond, and that hit my confidence.”
He also revealed he and his wife never really settled in Liverpool, and also admitted his gambling problems weren’t helped by his mood. He would often be seen down the bookies when it would’ve helped his cause if he’d been putting in extra sessions on the training ground.
The legendary ‘boot room’ at Anfield could also have sealed his fate. Paisley, Joe Fagan and Ronnie Moran were joined by Evans and among the many things they discussed was player development. Evans was encouraged to give his assessment on the players in his reserve team. Not putting in the work would’ve counted against him.
Ultimately, the whole thing probably worked out best for McGarvey, Liverpool and Celtic. Liverpool didn’t have to deal with a player who couldn’t settle, and McGarvey got his dream to play for Celtic. There’s little doubt he took advantage of that opportunity at least.
McGarvey died on 1 January 2023 of pancreatic cancer aged 66.