12 July 2013

Meiklejohn - the tale of an overlooked great

by Ross McAdam | Contributor

A discussion over who is the 'Greatest Ranger' always provokes an interesting debate amongst the Rangers support. I asked the question on Twitter recently and had names such as John Greig, Ally McCoist, Willie Waddell, Walter Smith and Bill Struth suggested to me. 

Personally, Bill Struth would be my choice but in this article I’m looking at one of Struth’s stalwarts, David Meiklejohn, who I would argue was a large contributor towards Struth’s early on field success.

Born in Govan on the 12th December 1900 'Meeks', as he was known to his fellow team-mates and supporters, was destined to play for Rangers. He would go on to make 563 appearances for his beloved Rangers winning 12 league championships and five Scottish Cups before retiring from playing football in 1936 having only played for the Gers. Meeks would also captain the club from 1930-1936 before he was replaced by Jimmy Simpson. Meeks’ untimely death came on the 22nd August 1959 in the Airdrieonians Directors Box after an Airdrie v Partick Thistle match when he was the Partick manager.

Meiklejohn made his debut for Rangers aged 19 in an away game against Aberdeen on the 20th March 1920 in a 2-0 victory. He went on to play in ten of the final 11 games that season helping Rangers secure the club’s tenth league title. Bill Struth then arrived to take the place of William Wilton who had tragically died in a boating accident off the coast of Gourock. 

Meek would go on to become Struth’s main man within the team. As captain, Struth would have Meiklejohn into his office before matches where Bob McPhail stated that it was "obvious to him that Meek would probably be telling Struth how the game should be tackled and where our advantages should be." Struth didn’t take an active role in tactics and team talks, he would focus on keeping the players fit, motivated and understanding the importance of playing for Rangers. Meeks’ contribution to the on-field success of Rangers during the pre-war period cannot be underestimated.

Meeks’ finest and most defining moment in a Rangers jersey came on the 14th April 1928 in the Scottish Cup Final. Incredibly, Rangers had not won the Scottish Cup since 1903 (a victory against Hearts which required two replays). 118,115 spectators crammed into Hampden, with the Rangers support desperate to end their dreadful recent record in the competition. 

After a goalless first half, Rangers were awarded a penalty early into the second half. The penalty was awarded after Willie McStay stopped a Jimmy Fleming from hitting the back of the net with his hand, although many reports from the game suggested the ball had already crossed the line. It looked as if the Gods were again going against Rangers in their quest to finally win the national trophy. Described in the ‘Old Firm Classics’ book as "possibly the most important penalty kick in the club’s history", only one man could step up and handle the pressure. 

Meeks blasted home and set the Bears on there way to a famous 4-0 victory with the other goals coming through Bob McPhail and a Sandy Archibald double. After the game Meeks said "I saw, in a flash, the whole picture of our striving to win the Cup. I saw the dire flicks of fortune which had beaten us when we should have won. That ball should have been in the net. It was on the penalty spot instead. If I scored, we would win; if I failed we could be beaten. It was a moment of agony." The win was crucial to ending the hoodoo and Rangers went on to win five out of the following eight Scottish Cups. 

That Scottish Cup win would be part of an incredible period of success for Rangers. Five consecutive league championships were won between 1927 and 1931 and under Meiklejohn’s captaincy Rangers completed the ‘World’s Greatest Clean Sweep’ winning the league, Scottish Cup, Glasgow Cup and the Glasgow Merchants’ Charity Cup which amazingly was won by the flip of a coin. 

A further three league titles were secured in 1933, 1934 and 1935; the last Meeks would win before playing his last ever game against Hearts in 1936. Meiklejohn was also given the honour of a benefit match against Huddersfield on the 22nd September 1925. Rangers lost 5-1 in front of around 2,000 people. The reasons why Meeks was given a benefit match are unknown but it was the last one a Rangers player would receive until John Greig 53 years later.

There are many anecdotes to be told about Meeks. Bill Struth used to take the squad to Turnberry a few times each season for team bonding to play golf. Meeks and Alan Morton talents didn’t stop on the football pitch as they were the best golfers at the club and would play against Struth and the club Chairman at the time, Bailie Joe Buchanan. Meek and Morton decided that it wouldn’t be prudent to win all the time and would sometimes deliberately lose to Struth and Buchanan with dignity, a sign of the respect even the most senior players at the club had for their peers.

Meeks was also involved in a rather bizarre incident in a match in 1922 against a Danish Select on a Danish tour. A newspaper report on the match describes how the referee had lost control of the match as Rangers battled from 2-0 down to bring the match back to 2-2. Tempers were starting to rise and incredibly Meeks was knocked unconscious by a Danish spectator and had to be carried to the dressing room to receive medical attention where he made a full recovery. When the game finished the report describes how "the teams left the field together after exchanging congratulations and no ill feeling existed."

A more sombre story surrounds the tragic death of Celtic goalkeeper John Thomson. During the match after the tragic accidental collision with Sam English, Meeks quickly realised the severity of the incident and quickly tried to hush the Rangers support by waving his hands up and down. Such is the man that Meeks was he read a passage from the Bible at one of memorial services held for Thomson.
Meiklejohn also played 15 times for Scotland, six as captain. He made his international debut against Wales in a 2-1 defeat on the 4th February 1922. He also became the first Rangers player to captain Scotland at Wembley on the 5th April 1930 in a disappointing 5-2 defeat. However, Meeks gained revenge the following year as a then world record crowd of 129,810 watched a Meiklejohn led Scotland defeat the Auld Enemy on the 28th March 1931. His final game in a Scotland jersey was as it started, albeit this time in a 3-2 victory against Wales.

Following Meeks’ retirement from playing football Meeks initially became a columnist for the Daily Record. However, the lure of football was too much and in 1947 Meeks became Partick Thistle’s manager and would be there until his death in 1959. During his stint as manager he had relative success. During his tenure Thistle reached three League Cup finals, although they did lose them all. Three Glasgow Cups were won along with one Merchant’s Charity Cup and Thistle achieved two third-place finishes in the league. The following two Thistle managers also had deep Rangers connections in Willie Thornton and Scott Symon. It has often been suggested, probably correctly, that had James Bowie got his way during the infamous boardroom struggle in 1947 that Meeks may well have become the next Rangers manager.

Meeks was deservedly inducted into the Scottish Hall of Fame in 2009. There are many quotes from Rangers legends that describe the impact Meeks had as a player. Alan Morton said "No cause was ever lost when Davie was behind you. He will go down in history as one of the greatest Rangers to wear the colours." Perhaps the most standout quote was from Gers legend Willie Thornton who described Meeks as "the greatest player I ever saw." 

It is easy to forget the impact players had in the pre-war era and when the Rangers greatest 11 was chosen players from that era were not eligible. If they were Meeks would definitely be close to being chosen, although judging that category is of course very difficult. A man who loved the club and was a vital component of the traditions that were set by Struth - David Meiklejohn should be regarded as one of the greatest to ever pull on the Rangers jersey.

Thanks to @RangersFACTS and @ToryglenRangers for the help they provided in the research of this article.