Cables Greats: Alex Muir

Alex Muir with his wife Shirley on their wedding day

Small in stature, his driving play from right-half proved to be inspirational.

Neville Walker, From Slacky Brow to Hope Street

In the early months of 1948 Liverpool manager George Kay had a problem on the team’s right wing. With first-choice no.7 Bob Priday unavailable, he recalled Prescot-born Bill Watkinson for matches against Portsmouth on 31 January and Bolton on 7 February. Liverpool lost 3-0 on both occasions and Watkinson (who had played in the run-up to the previous season’s championship success) was replaced by an untried Scot called Alex Muir. Muir played in matches against Middlesbrough on 21 February and Chelsea on 28 February 1948 (both defeats) before making way for the more versatile Billy Liddell, who excelled on either wing. Muir kept his reserve team-mate Watkinson at bay twice more: on 10 April in an away victory at Blackburn Rovers and 24 April in a defeat at Villa Park. Watkinson was to play in just seven more games for Liverpool’s first team (stretching over two seasons) and Muir none (he played on in the reserves until the end of the following season). But Muir and Watkinson’s victory days were not entirely over. Both men went on to make vital contributions, Muir as right-half and captain, Watkinson as centre-forward, to Cables’ 1956-57 Lancashire Combination championship team.

Alexander Johnston Muir was born on 10 December 1923 – at 5.15 in the morning according to his birth certificate. His parents were John Brown Muir and Jessie née Johnston of 6 Dunlop Terrace, Inverkeithing, in the Scottish county of Fife. According to someone remembering Dunlop Terrace on www.rootschat.com, it was ‘a short steep street of 4- or 5-storey stone tenements sloping down to the west side of the railway … demolished in the 1950s or 60s’. Inverkeithing is a small port on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, close to Rosyth to the west, North Queensferry to the south and quite literally in the shadow of the Forth Bridge. It must have been close to this place where John Buchan’s fictional hero Richard Hannay jumps from the train in at least one film version of The 39 Steps. In its heyday Inverkeithing was known for ship-breaking, notably under the flag of Sheffield-based Thomas W. Ward Ltd, a company that undertook salvage work on many vessels, including the SS Majestic in 1890 and many years later on the hull of White Star’s long-serving Olympic after it was de-commissioned in 1935. It is highly likely that John Brown Muir, described as ‘Seaman (Dockyard Craft)’ on Alex’s birth certificate, was involved with this trade.

Little is known about Alex’s formative years in the 1930s except that on weekdays he worked at Caldwell’s Paper Mill (the town’s other big employer) and on Saturdays played for Lochgelly Violet, a football club situated a few miles northeast on the A92. It is likely that his team-mates at Lochgelly included Billy Liddell, who was born in nearby Townhill, Fife, just twenty-one months earlier on 19 January 1922 and who signed for Lochgelly for the grand sum of seven-shillings-and-sixpence in 1937. Liddell joined Liverpool aged just sixteen the following year. Following an unsuccessful trial at Falkirk in 1946, Alex followed him to Anfield, aged twenty-three and with two or three years’ service in the military behind him no doubt, in July 1947. Liverpool had just won the Football League Division 1 championship, its strong squad featuring not only Liddell but Paisley, Hughes, Sidlow, Bamber, Stubbins and, from time to time, Bill Watkinson. Alex had to endure seven months of Central League football in Liverpool’s reserve team before finally breaking through with the four first-team appearances in February and April 1948 outlined above. Injury to his old Lochgelly Violet pal Liddell had given him his chance but it was the long-term supremacy of Liddell throughout the 1940s and 50s that sealed his fate. His contract expired at the end of the 1948-49 season. He’d played in four league matches, two Lancashire Cup matches and one game in the Liverpool Senior Cup (in which he’d scored his one and only goal for Liverpool). His time alongside Watkinson in the reserves paints a much brighter picture: 44 matches, 15 goals. Veteran Reds supporter and archivist Eric Doig has passed on this memory of the young Scottish winger in action:

I remember a goal he scored at the Anfield Road End about a yard from the goal line near the edge of the penalty area.  He cracked the ball in from this acute angle inside the near post – a goal worthy of Suarez.

Muir spent the ensuing two or three seasons (from 1949) at South Liverpool. He was present at the 1950 South Liverpool Directors’ Christmas Dinner and, together with ex-Cables wing-half Fred Finney, future Cables inside-forward John Bennison and the rest of the team, signed the dinner card, styling himself ‘Alex’ (www.southliverpoolfc.com).  Some people called him ‘Alec’.

It is uncertain if Muir joined New Brighton before or after they were voted out of the Football League in 1951. He stayed there until the end of the 1953-54 season, by which time he’d been invited by Cables’ trainer-coach Harry Topping to take part in a trial match at Hope Street in August 1954. It proved a successful venture, Cables capturing the services not only of Muir but Prescot-born Jackie Lawton plus Frank Phillips, Freddie Crampton and Bill Maddison from Earlestown.

He was a gentleman. Calm, collected, polite and a pleasure to play alongside (Harry Boydell).

Muir’s first season at Cables started soon after the trial match and concluded with the team securing runners-up spot in Lancashire Combination Division 2 and promotion. All the new boys had played well, especially Phillips at wing-half, Crampton in the forward line and Muir mostly at right-half. He made a modest contribution to the Great Harwood 18-2 victory in February 1955, scoring just one goal compared with Crampton’s seven, Whitehead’s six and Lawton’s four! When Bert Jelly finally hung up his boots at the end of the season Alex Muir replaced him as captain – after just one season in the team but a wealth of experience in his 32 years. 1955-56 brought no silverware to Hope Street, the team finishing in a respectable 8th place back in Division 1, but it did conclude with captain Muir cutting the first piece of a cake baked especially for the occasion by club secretary Paul Nicholson’s wife, ‘depicting a football field, at a pleasing little ceremony following the final game of the season’ (Neville Walker, unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street). An idea for late-April or early-May 2015, perhaps? 1956-57 was Muir’s last and most successful season at Cables, skippering the team to success and bringing the Lancashire Combination Division 1 championship to Prescot for the one and only time. Though invited to continue for the ensuing 1957-58 season, Alex chose to return to South Liverpool where he played for ‘a couple of seasons’ (Walker), by which time he would have been about 36. Off the field he’d married his wife Shirley at some point in the 1940s or 1950s, had moved across to the Wirral and acquired a day job behind the counter at Jack Sharp’s sport shop on Whitechapel, Liverpool. Eric Doig recalls travelling many times on the same ferry over to the Pier Head. ‘I am sorry I did not speak to him then,’ Eric adds. John Hayes remembers clearly buying a red-and-white rattle from him in the 1950s. It cost John three shillings and sixpence.

As with his old South Liverpool team-mate John Bennison, who played for Cables in the early 1950s and  went on to coach the reserve team at Liverpool, the end of Alex Muir’s playing days did not herald an end to his association with the game. Far from it. For the last 25 years of his life (1969 to his death in 1994) he worked as a youth coach at Tranmere Rovers. In Alex’s Liverpool Echo obituary, which describes him as ‘a hugely popular figure among players and coaching staff’, Tranmere manager John King wrote a fitting eulogy:

His enthusiasm for the game was second to none and he gave Tranmere a big part of his life. … He was one of the great men behind the scenes. … I can’t speak too highly of him. … Alec knew the game backwards and he loved to be involved, and often played in five-a-sides. He was as fit as a fiddle. … Even though he has gone I feel I should thank him for all the marvellous work he put in at Tranmere.

Not that he stopped short at coaching. Alex Muir remains the oldest footballer ever to play for a Tranmere team, turning out at the age of 58 (about 1981) when a regular member of the reserve side failed to turn up. Playing as sweeper, he happily soldiered on even though the missing player eventually turned up!

He died in Wallasey ‘after a cancer related illness’ (Echo obituary), aged just 61, on 4 September 1995.

I am indebted to Neville Walker for access to unpublished notes for his book From Slacky Brow to Hope Street; John Hayes for access to his collection of Cables’ programmes from the 1950s; Jonny Stokkeland and Eric Doig for access to the Liverpool FC Official Archives; Harry Boydell for his memories of Muir as a South Liverpool team-mate; and John Williams for assistance with public records.  

Glyn Williams