THE death, in his 85th year, of Eric Caldow, sees the passing of arguably the finest footballer Cumnock and its surrounding area has produced.

Eric’s final years were blighted, first by the early loss of his beloved wife Laura, then by the onset of Alzheimer’s, but, nothing can dim the lustre of his football legacy.

The ordinary schoolboy player in a Cumnock Academy team, deemed: “Lacking pace,” used his earnings from a Saturday job with Blackwood and Veitch the butchers, to buy a pair of athletics spikes. He then practised his sprinting until, less than a decade later, he was considered the fastest full-back in the world, able to catch and dispossess “The Madrid Express” as the great Francisco Gento of Real Madrid was known.

Even as a 14 year old Academy player, Charlie Wilson, who ran the Academy teams, had seen enough to recommend him to Rangers. Bill Struth kept a watching brief as Caldow left school, got a job as an apprentice painter with Cumnock Burgh Council and learned his football with Glenpark Amateurs, then Muirkirk Juniors.

In 1952 Struth called the now 18-year-old up to Ibrox, from then, until his passing, Eric was proud to be known as one of the last of “Bill’s Boys.”

That first-team debut came against Ayr United, at Ibrox, in a League Cup tie, on 12 September, 1953. Just seven days later, he was flung into the cauldron of his first Old Firm game, again at Ibrox – this one finishing 1-1.

He took some time to establish himself. It was not until Willie Woodburn was suspended sine die, and Scotland captain George Young moved to centre-half, that Eric became a first-team regular, on his way to playing 463 first-team games, over his 14 seasons at Rangers.

In that time he won 11 winner’s medals (five League Championship, three Scottish Cup and three League Cup.) He also played 40 times for Scotland, captaining the side 15 times; 24 times for the Scottish League XI and twice for the Scotland Under-23 team. He also captained Rangers in the 1961 European Cup-Winners Cup final, against Fiorentina.

Eric played in the first Scotland Under-23 team, in 1955, before winning the first of his caps against England, at Wembley, in April, 1957.

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He was chosen at right back, but, wanted to play left-back, to pit his wits against the great Sir Stanley Matthews.

Legend has it, he went headto-head with “the Wizard of Dribble” once during the game, and emerged with the ball.

With Scotland, he was an ever-present during the 1958 and 1962 World Cup qualifying campaigns, and also an ever-present in the three games during the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden.

He also led the side, and scored the clinching second goal, when Scotland beat England 2-1 at Hampden in 1962, their first home win over the Auld Enemy since 1937.

He seemed odds-on to break George Young’s record of 54 caps, when he led Scotland out for his 40th cap, at Wembley, on 6 April, 1963.

Five minutes into the game, as he went to clear his lines, he was tackled by England’s Bobby Smith and both players were carried off.

Smith returned to limp around the left wing, but, Eric was on his way to hospital, having sustained a compound fracture of his left leg. His recuperation was lengthy and, by the time he returned, reserve Davie Provan had not only taken his Rangers’ jersey, but also his Scotland one.

He became an elder statesman, bringing through young players in the reserves, but, in 1965, after Provan too broke a leg, he returned to the first-team, where he memorably gave a masterclass in how to handle Jimmy Johnstone of Celtic, as Rangers beat their oldest rivals to win the League Cup.

Johnstone used to joke: “The only time I ever got past Eric, he was walking and I was driving my Jaguar.”

If Eric was proud to be one of Mr Struth’s boys, he had a more-difficult relationship with successor Scot Symon.

Symon made him Rangers’ captain in succession to Ian McColl. But, he controversially, at a time when Eric was also Scotland captain, took the Rangers captaincy from him in favour of Bobby Shearer.

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Eric never forgave him this slight. Earlier in his career, Symon had been ready to sell Eric, then out of the first team, to Manchester United, for £75,000 - huge sum for a full-back back then. Matt Busby, rebuilding after the Munich Crash had wiped-out his Busby Babes wanted Eric as left back and captain.

“The deal was done, all I had to do was pick-up the pen and sign, but, I could not do it,” Eric later said. He was soon back in the first team.

At his height, he was considered the best left-back in the world. Indeed, when Daily Record readers were asked to pick their Scotland Team of the Millennium, in 2000, the chosen full-backs were Danny McGrain and Eric. That nomination came 37 years after his last Eric Caldow in his later years.

appearance for Scotland.

Jim Baxter, that gallus genius, was a Caldow fan, saying: “Listen, one of the reasons for me being considered the best left-half in the world was the fact, I was playing in front of the best left-back – Eric Caldow.”

After Rangers he spent a season with Stirling Albion, he also had a pub in Hamilton at this time. He then ran down his playing career as player-manager with Corby Town in England.

Eric returned to Scotland, settling eventually in Mauchline. He briefly managed Stranraer, Cumnock and Hurlford. He golfed, played snooker, then returned to Rangers as an immensely-popular Match Day host.

But, life dealt him some blows in his later years. The death of his son, Eric Junior in a car crash, the loss of his beloved Laura, then, the cruel final years blighted by Alzheimer’s.

From the Victorian Dr John Smith, through to the still active Kirk Broadfoot and Kris Boyd, this district has produced many fine players. Craig Burley might have the most Scotland caps, George Burley might have become Scotland manager, but, if you were to say, Eric Caldow was the best player ever to come out of this area, few who saw him play would argue with you.

He was a wonderful player and a gentleman – who was never, in more than 500 senior games booked, far-less sent off. Now, that is a record to be proud of.