The Watford manager who played for Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool

The Watford Observer has again teamed up with its friends at The Watford Treasury to share stories from previous issues.

David Harrison looks at the remarkable career of a two-time Watford manager.

Football managers come in all shapes and sizes but it’s fair to suggest Watford has seen few managers possessing the physical characteristics of Neil McBain.

However, there was a great deal more to McBain than poundage. This was a man who joined Watford in 1928 as a seriously accomplished 33-year-old defender. As an indication of his quality, he had collected three international caps for Scotland, the first of which saw a memorable 1-0 win over England, followed by appearances against Ireland and Wales.

We’ll come to McBain’s time at Vicarage Road shortly, but this was a notable man whose wider life and career warrant examination.

McBain was born in Campbeltown, Argyllshire in November 1895, and saw service in the First World War, thereby disrupting a promising football career. During the Great War he served in both the Black Watch and Royal Navy. He made his Scottish League debut as a teenager, for Ayr United against Clyde.

McBain crossed the border as an experienced 26-year-old half-back in 1921. He joined Manchester United from Ayr for £4,600. He made 43 appearances for United, scoring in successive home games in December 1922.

In addition to his spell at Old Trafford he subsequently represented both Everton and Liverpool, thereby launching an exclusive three-club society of which he remained sole member for more than half a century. (Peter Beardsley, to save you looking).

Having paid £4,200 for his services, McBain made 103 first team appearances for Everton, scoring once, against Arsenal, in his penultimate game. He made only 12 appearances for Liverpool before joining Watford in November 1928. His time at Anfield was not a great success, but nevertheless he is recalled there for ‘his heading ability and elegance on the ball’.

Following that impressive playing career, McBain achieved the unprecedented, and these days barely comprehensible, double of managing both Watford and Luton Town.

As well as any number of scouting assignments, he also had an eye-catching spell as manager of the world-famous Argentinian club, Estudiantes de la Plata. The Scottish press in particular was fascinated by this unusual career interlude. His initial contract was extended by a further year and the Dundee Evening Telegraph reported in 1950 that Mrs McBain was travelling to Argentina to join her husband.

And in case you thought that more than enough to complete an eventful career, he also holds two Football League records most unlikely ever to be broken. On 15th March 1947, while managing Division 3 (North) club New Brighton, McBain was forced to appear in goal for the club when his regular ‘keeper was unable to reach an away game at Hartlepools, owing to transport problems. McBain was 51 years old, somewhat bulky (his optimum playing weight of 12 stone 3lbs was already a distant memory), and hadn’t played since his final Watford appearance 16 years earlier. He was also 5ft 8ins and a half-back, so hardly the obvious candidate for a goalkeeping slot.

Nevertheless his performance that day was the stuff of legends. The New Brighton club history reports: “Mr McBain kept his charge really well, showing remarkable agility and saving many shots. Hartlepools were 3-0 winners on a waterlogged pitch, but the real honours went to McBain who was heartily congratulated by the Hartlepools officials, who insisted he accept a stiff tot of whisky for his efforts.”

His appearance at Hartlepools made him the oldest man ever to play in the Football League, as well as achieving the longest playing career, 32 years having elapsed between his first and last competitive games.

Hillingdon Times:

Back for a second spell at Vicarage Road things weren’t to go so smoothly for Neil McBain. Picture: Watford Observer, from the Watford Museum Collection. Colourised by Colin Payne

But on to his achievements at Vicarage Road.

McBain joined the club as a seasoned performer, for a fee of around £1,000, from Liverpool in November 1928. He had just turned 33. He became one of a series of players attracted to the club from Manchester United, where he had played alongside the controversial Frank Barson, who himself had joined Watford a few months earlier.

The talented Barson arrived at Watford with a fearsome reputation, which proved at least partly responsible for his being hit with a series of increasingly lengthy suspensions. Barson left Watford after making just ten appearances, but his Old Trafford contacts continued to pay dividends for manager Fred Pagnam, with a series of influential arrivals.

Seemingly with little in the way of fanfare, McBain immediately slotted into the half-back line. In just his ninth game, however, he sprang to prominence, playing a starring role in what at that time represented the club’s finest-ever result, a 1-0 FA Cup victory at Vicarage Road over previous winners, the famous Preston North End.

The club programme didn’t hold back in praising the team or, in particular, McBain. “They all played wonderfully well and if there was a player who stood out in the 22, it was Neil McBain. He was simply wonderful and gave the PNE halves an exhibition and object lesson of how half-backs should play, especially how to keep the ball on the ground and feed the forwards. It was pretty to see McBain bring the ball under control on the hard going so quickly and glide his passes just at the right moment. Well played McBain!”

Needless to say they crashed out, 6-4 at Bournemouth of all places in the next round, but McBain had put down a very clear marker as a quality performer.

Having joined the club, McBain immediately began a run of 44 consecutive appearances. His first game had been against Brighton at Vicarage Road on December 1, 1928, with his first goal coming against Merthyr Town on March 23, 1929. The following summer he replaced Fred Pagnam as manager, but continued as a first team regular for another eighteen months.

McBain’s final Watford appearance came on February 16, 1931, in a dismal 3-2 Division 3 (South) defeat on a sodden surface away at the ill-fated Thames club. The 853 spectators must have rattled around the cavernous 120,000-capacity West Ham Stadium, used primarily for speedway and greyhound racing. He was 35, and given his football pedigree and managerial status, could have been forgiven for questioning what on earth he was doing there.

Under McBain’s management Watford adopted a more considered, passing style of football and enjoyed some success, culminating in three consecutive top six finishes in what proved his last three seasons. He remained in charge until the start of the 1937/38 season, when the programme for the opening game against Bristol Rovers contained the following club statement:

“Neil McBain, owing to sudden illness in his family, asked the Directors of the Watford Football Club to release him from his engagement as Manager forthwith. The Directors have consented to release him now rather than have a change during the season. For the time being W. Findlay, recently appointed under-manager, is fulfilling the Manager’s duties. The Directors wish McBain every success in the family business he is undertaking in Glasgow.”

So, just under nine years after arriving at the club, McBain was gone. Rumours swirled around the town concerning the real cause of his sudden exit, with serious financial misdemeanours understood to have been the catalyst. Whatever the reason, Bill Findlay was confirmed as manager a few months later and the players responded by finishing the 1937/38 season in fourth place, having amassed 53 points, at that point Watford’s best-ever Football League return.

McBain had made a total of 94 playing appearances for the club while clocking up a total of 377 games, in all competitions, as manager. Our friends at Luton Town offered an escape route and appointed him chief scout in March 1938. By June he was managing the Bedfordshire club, but endured barely 12 months in the Kenilworth Road hot seat before disappearing back to the family business in Ayr, never to be seen again.

Except of course he was seen again, albeit not until his post-war New Brighton and Argentinian experiences were behind him.

Having survived seasons ranging from not too bad (fourth in 1953/54) to catastrophic (23rd in 1950/51), under the management of first Findlay, then Jack Bray, Eddie Hapgood, Ron Gray, Haydn Green, Len Goulden and Johnny Paton, the Directors turned to a familiar face. The match programme for the opening home game of the 1956/57 season demonstrated that time is indeed a great healer. Under the familiar ‘Voice of Watford’ banner, the club made this statement:-

“May we extend a very warm welcome to our new Manager Neil McBain who returns to Watford after 19 years. Mr McBain joins the club on a three-year contract and will have full control but quite obviously wants time to take stock – Rome was not built in a day.”

Quite so. In fact during McBain’s second spell at the club, Rome never came remotely close to being built at all.

McBain’s own programme column was considerably more pragmatic, opening in world-weary fashion with, ‘Here we are again…..’

Perceived wisdom suggests you should never go back, and although Graham Taylor was to prove those sentiments gloriously wide of the mark when he returned, in McBain’s case they were well founded. By then he was drinking heavily, while his office was reputedly littered with discarded fish and chip wrappers. The three seasons in his second managerial spell saw the club finish 11th, 16th and 15h, before Ron Burgess replaced him in February 1959.

To be fair to McBain, he offered more than conventional managerial support. When the 1958/59 season opened, the directors were generous in their praise of work the manager had undertaken during the summer,

“Mr McBain has put in very many hours in his shirt-sleeves and has had a major hand in the concreting behind the Shrodell’s Stand, the new concrete steps and the building of the tunnel from the Grand Stand to the pitch. Thank you Mr McBain.”

Sadly, though, by then as a manager he was hopeless and increasingly irrelevant. McBain’s programme notes became progressively shorter and more downbeat, while results showed no significant sign of improvement. Finally, in February 1959, the directors saw fit to clarify the position.

“We should like to give supporters the simple facts regarding our late Manager. There have been so many conflicting press reports that we hope this statement will at least give supporters a clear picture.

“Mr McBain, reading a report in a national newspaper that his future with the club was in doubt, rightly asked the board to clarify the position.”

And sure enough, after due discussion the board decided not to renew McBain’s contract. He duly resigned and, no doubt in exchange for going quietly, was offered the position of Watford’s chief scout in Scotland.

Ironically, the most significant signing in Watford’s history had been made while McBain was still nominally in charge. In due course Cliff Holton’s arrival at Vicarage Road changed everything, but in the short term served only to hasten the hapless McBain’s inevitable departure.

Even when his formal scouting commitment came to an end, McBain wasn’t done and continued to seek out young Scottish talent until well into his seventies.

Neil McBain died in hospital back in Ayr, aged 78, on May 13, 1974. On his death, the Liverpool Echo described him as ‘one of the most remarkable characters in professional football’ and ‘one of the most travelled men in the game’. Having played for seven clubs, racked up nine managerial stints at six different clubs, repeatedly alternated between jobs in England and Scotland, as well as filling any number of scouting roles, that claim was well founded, even leaving the South American experience to one side!

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