Riddled with bullet-wounds in the Korean War, Harold Davis defied doctors and enjoyed a glorious football career. In 2012 KEITH MACKENZIE met up with him at his home near Gairloch
He may be etched into the folklore of Scottish football, but Harold Davis shouldn’t really have been known as Harold Davis at all.
His surname should in fact better reflect the Wester Ross area he’s called home for almost 40 years.
“I like that to be known up here in MacKenzie country,” he notes from his home near Badachro, on the shores of Gairloch. “My mother was Catherine MacQueen Kirk, and my father was Angus Davis, though originally he was born Angus MacKenzie. The change came when my grandmother remarried, and so then the family name became Davis.”
For 37 years “MacKenzie country” has been his base, and these days it’s fishing rather than football which is his passion. Yet before making the move north with wife Vi to build the Craigmore Hotel in Gairloch, Harry Davis had enjoyed a remarkable sporting life — recovering from multiple bullet wounds in the Korean War to carve out a glittering football career with Rangers.
Talk about “dual contracts” may have loomed large over Scottish football in recent months, but here was one ex-professional who really knew what it was like to serve two paymasters.
A native Fifer, but brought up in Perth, Harry was an emerging talent with East Fife when he signed up as part of his national service to join the Black Watch. He soon found himself in the thick of the bloody, but often forgotten, Korean War where in the midst of conflict he suffered injuries from which it would take him over two years to recover.
Remarkably, not only did he return to full health, he resumed his football career with gusto — signing for Rangers in 1956. He would enjoy a memorable eight-year spell with the Ibrox club, winning three league titles, two league cups and a Scottish Cup, as well as playing in the first Scottish side to reach a European final.
A fearsome defender known as the “Iron Man”, he was never one to shirk a tackle on the pitch, and he’s not afraid to offer an opinion off it either — as he documents in a compelling autobiography which recently hit the bookshelves.
His is a tale far removed from the anodyne offerings served up by today’s breed of pampered millionaires. Having witnessed and experienced what he did on the battlefield, it’s hardly surprising that Davis had little time for those less appreciative of their sporting talents.
Take, for example, the Rangers and Scotland great Jim Baxter.
“I don’t dispute Baxter’s talent — he was a class player, but he wasted it,” he says ruefully. “He got privileges no one else got and it upset a lot of players in the team. He only turned it on once every three games and for the rest of the time, when your backs were to the wall, Baxter was nowhere to be seen.”
He describes Willie Waddell, the man who led Rangers to their only European trophy, as a “lucky manager” who had used his position as a sportswriter to undermine predecessor David White — a man Harry Davis had returned to Ibrox to assist.
Meanwhile, Gordon Strachan, who Davis encountered as a teenage talent at Dundee, was characterised by a “bad attitude” which prevented him from being a team player. Safe to say, he’s not enamoured by the prospect of Strachan becoming the next manager of Scotland.
IT SEEMS CLEAR that wartime experience — and the discipline and work ethic it instilled — would leave a lasting imprint on everything Harry Davis did thereafter. But, ironically, his prowess on the football field might actually have spared him from active service altogether.
His military call came just after he had broken into East Fife’s excellent post-war team under Scott Symon — the man who would later bring him to Ibrox. And he adds: “I had a couple of opportunities, one to be a PTI in the army, and the other to take an airborne course.
“It was all a scam to get you to play in the army team and I turned them all down. I was quite happy to go and thought it was all a bit of an adventure.”
That sense of wide-eyed wonder would soon give way to the full-blooded horrors of war, as he found himself fighting off Chinese forces intent on advancing further south on the Korean peninsula.
He remembers that many caught in the thick of the fighting were simple conscripts — scarcely prepared for the brutality they would encounter. Indelibly marked in his memory is the image of one desperate soldier running deliberately into enemy fire and to his death.
“He was away with the birds,” he added. “I tried to stop him, but just at that moment a shell landed on top of our trench — all the hairs on the back of my hand were singed, but we were sheltered and escaped the full impact. But by the time I got up he was off again, and disappeared.
“I couldn’t do anything about it, but that stayed with me. You can’t blame the guy — he was just a conscript as well.
“There was always a little bit of ill feeling in that these conscripts were shipped out to the battlefield, yet regular, more experienced soldiers from the Black Watch were left behind in Germany.”
Harry’s contribution to the war effort ended in the spring of 1953, though to this day he has no idea where the bullets which left him wounded actually came from. Years later, a former colleague contacted him to say he believed he had been responsible.
“I said to him it might have been him, it might not have been. Who knows? But everyone was in a state of panic, and again we go back to conscripts. I certainly wouldn’t place any blame on him.”
The stray bullets had caught him on the back of the foot — fracturing his heel, but mercifully just missing the Achilles tendon. Having also suffered abdominal damage, Harry Davis would spend months recuperating in a Japanese hospital before returning to the UK to continue a slow road to recovery.
In the far east a nursing sister from Stornoway would become something of an inspiration, but it is Harry’s biggest regret that on leaving Japan he would never see the woman again.
“She was marvellous and encouraged me so much through all the operations, the bad nights and bad days,” he added. “I made a point that I would go and see her, and when I built the hotel up here I thought I’d be able to find her. I only knew her as Sister MacKenzie, but she was from Stornoway and I believe she had something to do with the Post Office over there.
“But then I did hear from one source that she had died — I never got to make contact with her. It’s one of the great disappointments of my lifetime.”
ON HARRY’S RETURN HOME doctors gave him little hope of ever playing top-level football again — sometimes in fairly graphic terms.
“One doctor at the military hospital in London told me that my only hope was that my bowels were in such a state, defenders were likely to slip on what would come out! It didn’t look very encouraging.”
Yet after being helped back to fitness by David Kinnear — a physiotherapist and former Ibrox player — Harry Davis would eventually get his career back on track.
He resumed action for East Fife, and in 1956 got the call from Symon to follow him to Ibrox.
In Glasgow, he initially learned the ropes in the reserve side — one of his memorable early encounters bringing him into direct contact with the Celtic legend Charlie Tully, who by this time was at the opposite stage of his career.
Before too long Davis would join a first-team pool that included vintage names likes George Young, George Niven, Sammy Baird and Alex Scott, and Rangers lifted the league at the end of his first full season in 1957.
In something of a golden era for the Scottish game, Davis regularly played in front of crowds topping the 100,000 mark, and he remembers a vibrant and competitive league where in his first few years the main challenge came from a Hearts team which claimed two league titles.
“If we had fewer than 40,000 at a game it was a disaster,” he said. “But regularly the crowds were 60-70,000 and for big games the 100,000-mark wasn’t unusual.”
A degree of European success followed, as Rangers reached the European Cup Winners Cup Final in 1961. There they would be outclassed by a fine Fiorentina side, and tellingly Harry feels the Scots simply refused to heed their continental lesson. Half a century on, and the same basic mistakes continue to be made.
“They were ahead of us,” he said. “Scott Symon was a great manager, no question, but he didn’t keep up with modern techniques. He still said get the ball to the winger, get the winger up the field and cross it and get the centre forward to head it into the net. That worked in the old days, but it didn’t work when you played these continental teams.”
After winding down his playing career with a season at Partick Thistle, Harry took the manager’s job at the grand old institution of Queens Park. It was a time he enjoyed immensely, though the lure of Ibrox once again tempted him back across the city — this time to hook up with White.
That spell in the dugout was to prove less successful than his playing days, with Rangers then in the shadow of Jock Stein’s great Celtic side. Yet some redemption would arrive at Dundee where White and Davis led the Dens Park club to a memorable league cup final triumph over Celtic in 1973. A few months later the pair gained revenge over their old nemesis Waddell, dumping Rangers out of the Scottish Cup at Ibrox.
Dundee would prove to be Harry’s last staging post in football — and thereafter he set his sights on the quiet life in the north west Highlands.
THESE DAYS his football involvement is limited to appearing alongside former team-mates at charity fundraisers for the Erskine Trust, for which he is also to donate most of the proceeds from his book. However, he still keeps one eye on developments at Ibrox, even if he struggles to comprehend the team’s recent high-profile fall from grace.
“The honest answer is that I just don’t know what to make of it all,” he said. “One conclusion is reached one week, and a week later it’s turned around again. But I do believe a number of teams were quite happy to get rid of them because they were strong competition. I don’t think that was right.”
Asked for his personal highlights in the game, his answer is a simple one. He just reels off a list of the players he played with, and it reads like a who’s who of greats for fans of the Ibrox club.
“I joined Rangers and played with George Young, George Niven, Baird, Billy Simpson, Bobby Shearer, Alex Scott, Jim McColl — a great team. And then by the end I had also played with John Greig, Ronnie MacKinnon, Ian MacMillan, Millar, Brand, Baxter and Wilson. How many people can say that?”
A Scotland cap may have proved elusive — “in those days they only picked 11” — with a place on the reserve list as close as he got to pulling on the dark blue.
Nevertheless, Harry Davis had long since proved his mettle on the international stage — and he still has the scars to prove it.
“Tougher than Bullets,” Harold Davis with Paul Smith, Mainstream Publishing, £17.99.
This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press on December 21st 2012.