Hibs legend Joe Baker so nearly England 1966 hero

Tom Maxwell has written 'The Fabulous Baker Boys'. Pic: GREG MACVEAN
Tom Maxwell has written 'The Fabulous Baker Boys'. Pic: GREG MACVEAN
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How would history have recorded it, a man with a broad Scottish accent scoring that Wembley hat-trick which won England the World Cup in 1966?

We will, of course, never know but it could, just could, have been Hibs legend Joe Baker rather than Geoff Hurst who prompted those legendary words from commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme “Some people are on the pitch, they think it is all over. It is now, it’s four.”

However, the idea is not as fanciful as it might seem at first. The story of Baker, the first player never to have played in the English Football League to play for England at the age of 19, is, of course, well known.

But what isn’t immediately obvious is just how close the man with a Lanarkshire drawl came to be part of Sir Alf Ramsey’s squad on that epic day in July, 1966.

After five years in the international wilderness, Baker, pictured below, now with Arsenal following his ill-fated sojourn to Italy and Torino, was back in a white shirt as the countdown to the finals began in earnest. He played three matches in quick succession against Northern Ireland, Spain (against whom he scored) and Poland, in Liverpool, the city of his birth, which under the rules of the day branded him, at least in the eyes of the football world, as English. England’s next match, though, saw Hurst make his debut against West Germany, a decision which ultimately saw Baker miss out and the West Ham United striker claim his place in 
history. Today’s generation will, no doubt, struggle to get their heads round just how someone whose mother Lizzie hailed from Motherwell and who lived barely 15 miles from Hampden, could, thanks to spending the first six weeks of his life on Merseyside, never be considered to play for Scotland, the rules having been relaxed through the years to the extent that even being educated in a country for a number of years can confer a national identity.

Even more intriguing was the fact Joe’s older brother Gerry, born in New York where his father George worked as a door-to-door salesman before returning to Liverpool to join the Navy following the outbreak of the Second World War, also had cause to lament his parent’s sense of timing when he was hoping to play for Scotland, but was restricted to playing for the United States where his name as a player for Coventry City at the time stood out among team-mates from clubs such as Vancouver Royals, Chicago Mustangs and Kansas City Spurs.

The story of the two brothers’ lives and careers is told in a forthcoming book “The Fabulous Baker Boys – The Greatest Strikers Scotland Never Had,” by author Tom Maxwell, who today revealed his curiosity about Joe and Gerry was aroused during a casual sub-editing shift on the sports desk of the Evening News.

He said: “The News was doing a retrospective report of the 1961 game between Hibs and Barcelona at the time Barca were coming to play them at Murrayfield and I remember someone talking of this guy Baker who had scored more than 100 goals for Hibs by the time he was 21, that he’d played for England and his brother for the United States.

“It was the first time I’d come across them. Today you have players like Andy Driver being eligible for Scotland because he spent so many years in a Scottish school or Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland side at the World Cup finals in 1994 where there was barely an Irish accent in the squad because the players had some Irish blood. “Yet in Gerry and Joe’s case you had an American striker and an England centre-forward – brothers, growing up in Scotland and couldn’t play for the country they both saw as theirs.”

However, it was enough for Maxwell, now 34 and a lifelong Berwick Rangers fan, to start digging, becoming more and more intrigued by the stories he uncovered about both men.

Maxwell said: “To be honest, you could probably have written a book about each of them – each has an amazing story to tell, but their lives and careers are inextricably intertwined.”

In today’s world, football players have their autobiographies written when they are barely out of their teens but the life stories of Gerry and Joe are remarkable even from an early age, Joe spending more than a year in hospital having been struck down by tuberculosis while Gerry twice broke his right leg by the age of eight, the upshot being that leg was slightly shorter than his left.

Not that anyone would have known as Gerry went on to score 201 goals in a career which took him from Chelsea, then English champions, at the age of 17, to Motherwell, St Mirren, Manchester City, Hibs, Ipswich Town, Coventry City and Brentford, while Joe managed to notch up 372 – including 141 in only 160 appearances for Hibs – before moving on to Torino, Arsenal (where he also scored 100 goals), Nottingham Forrest, Sunderland, and Raith Rovers, having spent a second, less successful spell at Hibs.

Maxwell said: “To a certain extent Gerry was probably in Joe’s shadow a bit. He was something of a late developer. His international debut didn’t come until he was 30, while Joe was capped at 19. But the fact Gerry’s record shows he scored a goal almost every other game tells you all you need to know.

“I think Joe benefited from Lawrie Reilly’s early retirement through injury. Had that not happened, I don’t think he’d have got his chance so early on. But he did, at 17, and that was him up and away.”

While Joe never managed to get his hands on the Scottish Cup – he was part of the side which lost the 1958 final to Clyde – Gerry did so, scoring in every round for St Mirren, including the final against Aberdeen the following year, and also going one better than his younger sibling’s nine-goal Cup haul in the 15-1 win over Peebles Rovers by scoring ten against Glasgow University.

Maxwell said: “Denis Law, who kindly wrote the foreword to my book, played with both Gerry at Manchester City and then Joe with Torino in Italy. He told me that Scotland would not have been a good team with Joe Baker – they’d have been a great team. He said he’d have loved to have played for Scotland alongside Joe and that Joe would have loved to have played for Scotland.”

Having become very friendly with Gerry over the two years it took to research and write the book, Maxwell was naturally upset when he died suddenly only a few weeks ago, Joe having collapsed and died on the golf course almost ten years ago. He said: “At Gerry’s funeral a few of his golfing buddies were telling me he’d been saying he’d sign a copy for them.

“It’s really sad he won’t be able to do that, but he did read the finished book and gave it the thumbs-up and I’ve had really nice messages from all the family who have also read it.”

The Fabulous Baker Boys – The Greatest Strikers Scotland Never Had by Tom Maxwell is released on September 19, published by Birlinn, priced £14.99.