THE mop of red curls is long gone, but Jim Steele’s passion for Saints still burns bright.
Since returning to Southampton earlier this season, the Saints legend has been a regular at St Mary’s as well as the city’s pubs, the habitat where he is most fondly remembered since the passing of The Dell.
We meet at the West End Brewery, where he is holding court at the bar. His views are delivered thick and fast, in his broad Scottish accent.
“Nigel Adkins was treated disgracefully but the fans have to get behind the new guy now...when I first joined Southampton every team had at least four Scots in the team but all the kids seem to do now is go on the bloody computer... It would be fantastic to chat with fans about our experiences but Nicola Cortese has gone over the top...we miss Lallana...Luke Shaw’s being built up too much...I realise the youngsters want to go on to bigger and better things but what have Bale, Chamberlain and Walcott ever won?”
Certainly less than Steele, the man-of-the-match when Saints won the FA Cup on that glorious day at Wembley nearly 37 years ago.
Inevitably, conversation soon comes round to 1976. Steele is in reflective mood. He caught up with several former teammates at the funeral of another ex-Saint, Ken Jones, the previous week, a few days after he and Jimmy Case bumped into Gordon Strachan, Steele’s boot cleaner at Dundee in the early seventies, en route back from a Spanish holiday.
“I asked Gordon whether he’d got the Scotland job but he wouldn’t let on - not that the information would have been worth anything to me as he was 12-1 on!” Steele laughs heartily, as jovial a figure off the pitch as he was formidable on it.
“Six-foot-two, eyes are blue, Jimmy Steele is after you,” went the chant when the talented defender lined up for Saints during the mid-seventies.
He is still fondly remembered, despite spending only four years at The Dell after Ted Bates paid a then club-record £80,000 for his services in January 1972.
“When you think of today’s transfers with all those agents,” he sighs, pint of lager in hand, as he recalls the day his life changed forever 41 years ago.
“I was on some field in Dundee - we didn’t have training pitches in those days - when this taxi pulls up and the driver asks the coach if James Steele’s around?
“He didn’t know what was going on, he just said he’d been told to take me to Dens Park. I’m thinking someone’s died.
“So I get to Dens Park, walk in the door and Ted Bates is standing there. ‘Hi. I’m Ted Bates, Southampton,’ he said. ‘You’ve just signed for Southampton, you’ve got an hour to get ready.’ ‘Where’s Southampton?’ I said. ‘Seriously!’ I was surprised, I thought I was supposed to be going to Leeds as Norman Hunter’s stand-in as he and Jack Charlton were getting on.
“But there were no ifs or buts, that was it! We flew down and Ted put me in a B & B round the corner from the Dell, showed me where the Dell was and said training’s at ten - be there at 9.15. I said ‘Aye’ – I couldn’t speak English then – and was so excited I got there early.
“No-one was there but I saw my name above my peg in the dressing room and was in my underpants when big Ron Davies walked in the door: ‘Are you that guy from Scotland we’ve just signed?’ ‘Aye!’ ‘A lot of money for a freckle,’ he said. Ron was a good lad, magic.”
While Steele cherishes his time with Saints, he believes the move ended his Scotland career before it begun.
“A few weeks earlier I’d been picked for Scotland at the same time as Tommy Docherty - I sat on the bench with Kenny Dalglish against Belgium - but as soon as I moved to Southampton that was it. Anywhere south of London and they didn’t notice you.”
Steele received five per cent of the £80,000 transfer fee, which he used as a deposit on a house in Chandlers Ford.
He made 200 appearances under Ted Bates and then Lawrie McMenemy, one of which stands out above the rest.
‘Amazing Grace’ is the voicemail message on Steele’s mobile phone, but ‘Abide With Me’ would be more appropriate, so vital was his performance at Wembley on May 1 1976.
“The ‘76 FA Cup run was one of those fantastic things. It all began with Hughie Fisher scoring in the last minute against Villa in the third round. Hughie never scores, a bit like me really.
“We had to go to Villa for the replay on a Wednesday night and didn’t think we had much chance, but as we went past Wembley on the train Channon said ‘we’ll be there’. ‘Yeah right,’ we thought, but after beating Villa 2-1 we said ‘you could be right’. We got fairly easy draws, we drew a couple away and kicked West Brom’s arse at home, then beat Crystal Palace quite easily in the semi-final after getting them instead of Man United or Derby.”
The off-field drinking exploits of Steele and co. are almost as legendary as their performances on the field, and they were no different in the build up to the final.
“On the eve of one away game, [Mick] Channon tells me to get some beer.
“I said ‘we’re playing tomorrow’ but he said ‘this is our last chance’.
“I got six cases of beer for five or six of us.
“Of course, McMenemy finds out and goes absolutely mad, saying ‘if I knew you were going to drink I’d have brought the reserve team up here!’ “But we won. On another occasion, a few days after the semi-final, we were told to make our way to Hayling Island, where we were staying before playing Pompey. “Ossie (Peter Osgood), [Jim] McCalliog and myself went down Cowherds for a couple of drinks and a couple more and a couple more - and then two for the road!
“When we got to the hotel George the trainer came out and said we might as well go home - so we thought we might as well go for another drink!”
Steve Williams and Pat Earles made their debuts in a 2-1 win at Fratton Park that night.
“There was a threat that Osgood, McCalliog and I wouldn’t play in the final, but that was never going to happen,” smiles Steele.
Most Saints fans will not need reminding that it was from McCalliog’s exquisite pass that Bobby Stokes scored the most famous goal in the club’s history.
“We were under severe pressure for the first 20 minutes but at half-time Lawrie asked what I thought. I told him ‘if we score, we win’.
“Luckily enough, that was the case. Tommy Docherty still says the goal was offside, but that’s life!”
While Stokes will always be remembered as the match-winner, Steele’s heroics are not forgotten either.
“Stokesy got a car for scoring the goal and kept it when he couldn’t even drive!
“I got an extra £2,000 and split it between all the guys. But my share soon went as I paid for my parents to stay for the week with two friends.”
Steele’s two younger brothers – “both Jambos” - watched Hearts lose 3-1 to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final at Hampden Park, while he frustrated a Manchester United side including Stuart Pearson, Lou Macari and Steve Coppell at Wembley.
“I could read the game, I knew when someone would dart forward and would just step up,” he says.
“I was always the last man as [full-backs] Peachy (David Peach) and Pedro (Peter Rodriguez) would always go forward, leaving me and Mel Blyth, who would be marking his man.
“I have an affinity with Bobby Moore, he wasn’t very quick but could read the game and so could I. I just moved up, which annoyed Pearson!”
Steele remembers the celebrations as though they were yesterday.
“It was the last time the Queen presented the FA Cup but when all the wives and girlfriends asked what she had on all we could reply was ‘black gloves’!
“I was very happy for the likes of George Reader, the chairman. Everyone was over the moon.
“We had to stay in London, which sucked, but Ossie (Peter Osgood) did a runner and got a car back to Windsor.”
The next day more than 250,000 people welcomed their heroes back to the south coast during an open-top bus tour of Southampton.
“Ossie had to run quicker than I’d ever seen him to get on the bus!
“Mick Channon’s testimonial against QPR was on the Monday and we were still half drunk, with fans sat on the touchline.”
During the celebrations, Steele, Osgood and Stokes took the silverware to the Drummond Arms in Portswood, where Steele had been staying with landlord Jimmy McGowan, a former Southampton player who tragically took his own life when financial worries took hold in the mid-eighties.
“All the locals were drinking out of the Cup and then we took it into the centre of town,” continues Steele.
“After a couple of burgers, we drank coffee out of it and Ossie left it by McMenemy’s door the next morning.
“When Lawrie called us back in he told us Keith Honey, the secretary, had nearly had a heart attack but Ted Bates was doubled up laughing his head off. We knew we were ok then! I told Keith’s daughter that story at his funeral six months ago! They were fantastic times.”
Less than a year later, Steele played his last game for Saints, his top-flight career over at the age of 26.
He was sent off at Old Trafford following persistent clashes with Jimmy Greenhoff, as United had their revenge, winning an FA Cup fifth-round replay 2-1 in March 1977.
A week later, Steele was made the scapegoat for Saints’ European Cup Winners Cup exit against Anderlecht at The Dell.
His slip gifted the winning goal to Andt Van Der Elst with seven minutes remaining of the two-legged third round tie, as Saints lost 3-2 on aggregate.
“That was my last hurrah, that was basically when I got dumped,” he laughs. “Ted MacDougall hit the post three times, Ossy hit the bar twice and then they blamed me for getting beat! I told them that afterwards!”
Steele did not play in Britain again. Instead he moved to the United States to captain Washington Diplomats under former Manchester United player Dennis Viollet, one of the survivors of the Munich air disaster.
“A few clubs were in for me, including Rangers, but I’d just got divorced, the money was good, I was given a free car and a free apartment,” said Steele, who also played against some of the world’s best players. “One day, Dennis told me he needed me to go to a press conference ahead of a game against New York Cosmos.
“I was supposed to be playing golf but he persuaded me to go with a couple of others – including my best mate Eric Martin (the former Saints goalkeeper).
“The place was packed so I wound the window down and asked what was going on, only to be told that *mimicks American accent* ‘New York Cosmos had signed some players called Pele, Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto!’ “Pele said he didn’t drink when we were offered Budweisers, but when the press conference finished we were invited by his entourage to a suite on the top floor of the hotel.
“Pele then brings out a bottle of whisky and asks if it’s any good!
“We said it wasn’t bad and he said ‘I thought you two were Scottish!’ “Pele drank but not in public so as not to harm his status with the kids. Fantastic!”
Steele went into the pub trade on his return to the UK in 1994, running the Chamberlayne Arms in Woolston and the Kings Arms in Shirley before moving to the Cotswolds, where he was landlord of the Black Bear in Moreton-in-Marsh for many years.
It was from there that he returned to Southampton five months ago.
Suffice to say, he has received a warmer welcome in the city’s hostelries than he has at the football club.
“I’d heard all the things about Le Tissier and Cortese and this and that so when I bought two tickets for the Aston Villa game soon after moving down, I gave my name as ‘James Steele’.
“I was hardly going to say ‘Jim Steele’ even though the girl at the ticket office was only young and wouldn’t have known who I was.
“But the guy behind her said ‘I thought it was you Steeley!’ I said ‘don’t say anything, I might not get a ticket!’ “I don’t totally disagree with what’s been going on, so I bought two tickets thinking one of the ex-Saints would show up sooner or later.
“I went on to the supporters club below the stand and two or three came over to shake my hand and say it was great to see me back in town.
“Then this young kid came over and said ‘are you a member sir’? I said ‘no I’m an ex-Saint’ and he said ‘sorry you’re not allowed in, this is a supporters’ club’.
“I don’t blame Cortese for making us buy tickets but to not be allowed in the supporters club...! It wasn’t as if I wanted a free drink or anything!
“I love Saints but this sort of thing doesn’t happen at any other top club. It doesn’t make sense.
“After being thrown out I wasn’t even going to go to the game, but the pub round the corner made me feel so welcome.
“I went with one of them in the end and it was a great win. I’ve been to every game since.”
Now 62, Steele is twice divorced and lives in Waltham Chase with Jill Smith, his partner of 11 years, “She’s different class, I taught her the pub business and she’s probably better at it than me, but she’s now got a job looking after people with dementia.
“When I asked if she was sure she wanted to do it, she said she’d be ok and that it would help her look after me in a couple of years!”
Steele reveals the cortisone injections he had in his groin prevented him from having children.
“I had them twice a week for two-and-a-half months, I couldn’t walk the next day but would be fit as a fiddle the next.
“It was only when I went to America and the wife wanted kids that I found out.
“I went to see what’s wrong and a test showed it was the cortisone injections.
“It probably cost me a marriage, but I’ve met Jill and she’s different class.”
They met while Steele was enjoying an evening out with Osgood, one of many former teammates to have passed on in recent years.
“It’s not the same nowadays,” he sighs as he recalls the likes of Bobby Stokes and John McGrath.
“I miss the guys; Ossy was only 58, Bobby 44 and although we didn’t play together I also had a lot of time for Bally (Alan Ball), who was only 61.”
Steele is a little rheumy-eyed as he recounts his next tale.
“I got these black cashmere coats made to measure, the sort worn by Jose Mourinho, when I went to Thailand with Jill seven years ago.
“One was for Ossie and his long arms, one for Casey (Jimmy Case) and one for myself.
“Ossie loved it but the first time he wore it was at his uncle’s funeral – where he dropped dead of a heart attack.
“Ossie’s son tells me he still has the coat but Casey gave his to his brother, who wouldn’t wear it, and mine’s still hanging in the wardrobe!”
Steele has enjoyed meeting other former teammates since returning south. “Hughie Fisher and I took Brian O’Neil out for a drink last week but he only drinks orange juice now.
“He lives on Hill Lane so I said ‘we’ll meet you in the The Winston’.
“He said ‘I can’t go in there, they don’t allow dogs!’ He dotes on his lovely little Cocker spaniel!
“Jimmy Gabriel’s another character. ‘I’m not drinking all week,’ he once said. ‘We’ll see about that,’ we replied.
“By the Friday we were surprised he still hadn’t had a drink.
“Saturday morning comes round and he’s been drinking the night before we play Arsenal!
“He said he had to have a drink with John Wayne, who had been on the telly the previous night! Nuts!”
As he reaches the dregs of his second pint, Steele admits he is unsure about the immediate future.
“We decided to get out of the pub trade but I love it and I miss it now,” he admits.
“I don’t know if I’m looking for another pub or not. I’m supposed to see one in Shirley tomorrow but I’m not sure I fancy it.
“There are so many chains that monitor all the pumps now and that’s not for me.
“Maybe I should give Gordon a call and ask if he needs another Scotland coach - I’ll remind him he used to clean my boots!”