Positively Scottish Humans of the US: the goalkeeping great now coaching US soccer stars of tomorrow

Bobby Clark was one of the finest Scottish goalkeepers of his generation. He was a fixture between the sticks for Aberdeen from 1965 until 1982, won 17 caps for Scotland, and was selected as part of the 1978 World Cup squad in Argentina. In 1971, he set a British record by not conceding a goal for 1,155 minutes. Bobby grew up in the Sandyhills area of Glasgow and supports Clyde FC to this day…he can still rattle off the two Clyde teams that won the Scottish Cup in the 1950s. A qualified physical education coach, his goalkeeping career started off at Queen’s Park. Nowadays, at the tender age of 71, Bobby is still on the training ground most days as head coach at Notre Dame University in Indiana, a post he has held since 2001. He has coached with great success at other US universities and had spells in Zimbabwe and New Zealand. Today, he talks about his footballing life, the coaches who influenced him, his greatest team-mates and toughest opponents, and his life in the USA.

Scottish football, when I was playing in the 1960s and 70s, was very strong. It was the era before what I would call the super teams. Nowadays you can predict it’s going to be one of about five or six clubs that’s going to get to the European finals: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Manchester City, Manchester United, that type of club where there’s a lot of money.

Back in the day, I remember in 1970 Celtic played Leeds United, who were the top team in England, in the semi-final of the European Cup. I was at Hampden Park, and Celtic absolutely dominated that game. They were clearly the best team in Britain at that time. We had beaten them in the Scottish Cup Final a few days before, so there was no question that Scottish football was alive and kicking in those days.

The 1970 Aberdeen team with the Scottish Cup

British teams back then mainly had domestic players, and if you look at the English league now there’s hardly any of the top teams without foreign players. Some have only one or two domestic players, some don’t have any.

In the 1960s, Aberdeen and other Scottish clubs had a smattering of Scandinavian players. The ones that were outstanding for us were Jens Petersen and Henning Boel. Rangers had Erik Sorensen and Kai Johansen, but I think it was Morton that really started bringing them over. Dundee United had some good ones, Mogens Berg, Orjan Persson who want to Rangers, Lennart Wing, a really good half-back.

I had started at Queen’s Park, went there as a youngster and played for the under-18 team. I was still at high school and that’s where I met Eddie Turnbull, he was my coach. He was the reason I went to Aberdeen.

At Aberdeen, we had two of the best central defenders that Scotland has ever produced. Martin Buchan came first and Willie Miller second. These two were tremendous to play behind. Martin had a great understanding with Tommy McMillan, they were very much in synch with each other. Willie of course had Alex McLeish with him, so that was another tandem. I was lucky to play behind both.

There were so many – Zoltan Varga, Arthur Graham, Jimmy Smith and little Tommy Craig. One of the best all-round players, and he never got a lot of notice, was a guy called Stevie Murray. And if you’re talking about great players, you’ve got to talk about Joe Harper, Stevie Archibald, Mark McGhee, Franny Munro, Stewart Kennedy.

As for opponents in Scotland, Jimmy Johnstone comes to mind and the whole Celtic team of that era, they were all very fast, they were buzzing. In later years, there was Kenny Dalglish. Kenny was a special player and I was lucky enough to be in some squads with him. Davie Cooper was a great player, he could cross the ball on the run. Tommy McLean too and big Derek Johnstone in the middle was a handful.

Hibs had some excellent players at that time, Alan Gordon, wee Jim O’Rourke, Peter Cormack. Dundee United had Finn Dossing and Orjan Persson. There were players that were a handful for goalkeepers – Dixie Deans, Alex Ingram from Ayr United, who was my old buddy from Queen’s Park. He hammered goalkeepers, he was really a piece of work! Big Gerry Queen at Kilmarnock, he was another.

Bobby (front, second left) with the Scottish squad 1971-2 under manager Tommy Docherty

Although I didn’t play in any of the games in 1978 in Argentina, it was fun just to go there. I know you’ll say ‘how can it be fun when it was such a disappointment?’ Ally MacLeod had built up expectations, but the great thing about Ally was he’d got everybody excited. At that time, he had everybody believing we could win a World Cup. I don’t think that could possibly happen now. At least then we were getting to the finals and we did beat Holland who got to the final and lost to the host nation. The Iran game was the one that really finished us.

For me, getting to a World Cup finals was really something. It was a team that should have advanced. Peru had a good team, they had Cubillas at that time who was a tremendous player. We should have beaten them, but that’s football. The guys worked hard, it just didn’t come off for us.

When I finished playing, I had to make the decision to either coach or teach in Scotland. Then I was approached by Roy Small, a lecturer at Jordanhill, and the coach for Scotland’s under-18 youth team. He had been in Africa and had a team called Bulawayo Highlanders in Zimbabwe. I had my coaching licence and Roy asked if I fancied going to Africa to set up this team. I took the whole family. We had a great year, no TV for a whole year!

I loved it and the Highlanders were playing in front of 20,000 every week. They had under-14s, under-16s, under-18s, and the first team. The experience taught me that I loved coaching and that I could do well. Alex Ferguson had written to me and said that perhaps there would be a job at Aberdeen. Then I got a call from someone I knew in America who said there was a job going at Princeton University in New Jersey and to put in a resume.

They flew me over from Aberdeen and I spent three days in New Jersey. I loved the place and the set-up, they were coaching some very talented young athletes. I thought it was a nice halfway house between teaching and coaching, perfect for my background. I was married with three kids and being in professional football is a pretty precarious profession. But, long story short, I didn’t get the job.

I decided to give myself a year to see if I could get a job in America in the college set-up. The next job that came up was at Dartmouth and I got it. I spent nine very happy years at Dartmouth. I went to New Zealand for two years working with the national team. Then the president who had hired me was ousted, and I handed in my resignation because I didn’t feel comfortable with the new regime.

Then I came back to America and went to Stanford University for five years. We had some superb teams there. A lot of good boys came out of there. When Notre Dame approached me, I twice said no to them. But I liked the people there, and my wife Beth and I went up for a visit. It’s a special place, a terrific university, I never thought for a moment I was going to spend 17 years here but it’s fun and we have had 39 players go into Major Soccer League (the professional MLS).

Coach Clark on the training ground with one of his Notre Dame players

I follow all the players that have moved to the MLS, they play for Toronto, Colorado, Real Salt Lake and other top teams. The quality of soccer has improved enormously since 1985, it is now one of the best supported leagues in the world, and soccer is one of the highest participation sports in the US. The USA national team can hold their own in the World Cup now. Soccer is certainly here and it’s here to stay.

Coming through the era that I did in Scotland, my first coach was Eddie Turnbull. Eddie was a coach way ahead of his time. Then I had good coaches in between -Jimmy Bonthrone, Billy McNeill, Ally MacLeod – but the one it was great to finish off with was Alex Ferguson. It was from these people that I got my grounding.

I’ve enjoyed the American way of life; my family have all done well. My two oldest went to Dartmouth, and my youngest went to Stanford. All my kids are now grown up and they’re all coaching soccer.

We still have a house in Lossiemouth. When nobody will employ me any more, I think I’d like to go back to Scotland. My wife will want to go back eventually. She is originally from Golspie, and we met at Jordanhill College.

I’ve still got a wee bit of energy just now. I’m 71 past but I’m still working and I don’t feel any different. We can’t do it forever, although we like to think we could…

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