Vox in the Box: Brian McClair, new The Set Pieces contributor

Former Manchester United and Celtic forward Brian McClair became a household name playing for two of Britain’s biggest clubs during the ’80s and ’90s, but was just as well known by fans for his quirky anecdotes and tales in magazine interviews.

And after agreeing to bring back his Choccy’s Diaries exclusively for The Set Pieces from next month, McClair lifts the lid on his unusual nickname, a deep-seated fear of being shot and his love for the Liechtenstein national team.

Welcome to The Set Pieces Brian, or should that be Choccy? How about you set the record straight about where one of the most misunderstood nicknames in football came from?

I never had a nickname when I was growing up, so always felt I was missing out somewhat. But a career in football was always going to make up for that I suppose.

The funny thing is, I thought nicknames were supposed to be a shortened version or an abbreviation, but in football, for some reason they become longer, like Giggsy, Scholesy and even Maysie.

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So when I rocked up at Celtic, Tommy Burns, who was a very humorous individual, tried a few things out but nothing really stuck… until a pre-season trip to Switzerland a few weeks later.

On a blazing hot day in Basel, two Celtic fans, complete with green-and-white scarves appeared on the terracing behind the goal and started shouting: “On you go the Chocolate McClair!” Immediately Tommy Burns turned to me and said: “Aye, that’s it. Yer having that.”

Even all these years afterwards, I still have to explain its origin as the usual question I get is: “Is it because you like chocolate?”

Your diary was a popular feature in the official Manchester United magazine back in the 1990s, so how did that come about?

I don’t know whose idea it was, but the Manchester United magazine was in its infancy and we were going down to South Africa for a pre-season tour and someone asked if I would write a diary while we were on our travels.

Nobody really suggested what it should be like or gave me an idea of what they wanted, so I just did what I thought would be interesting and humorous. Luckily it seemed to capture people’s attention.

I never wanted to be controversial and disrespectful. I’ve always been keen that it should be funny and it should be quirky and that us footballers are not superhuman beings, we actually do ordinary things like everyone else.

A lot of United fans still talk fondly of Choccy’s Diary, did you realise it would give you such a connection with supporters all these years on?

Back then it was the only real way supporters could get a feel for what it was like behind the scenes of a football club I suppose.

These days there is social media, but even with things like Twitter, so much of it is regulated and everyone is so careful about what they say, you probably still don’t get a true reflection of day-to-day life inside a football club or as a player.

So it must have been refreshing to be able to give people an insight into your daily life as a footballer?

I’m no different from everybody else, I just had an extraordinary job and if people enjoy reading about it then that’s good enough for me.

I knew every time I said something slightly controversial I’d be sailing pretty close to the wind with the gaffer though, especially as players would often be feeding me information knowing full well it would be published.

Quite often Gary Neville would come up and tell me something about Phil and then the next day Phil would say something about Gary and so on, which I would naturally put in the column and the next thing everyone was talking about it.

Of course, I was well aware the manager was reading what I was writing, or at least that someone was telling him what was going in the mag. I actually got a few ‘hairdryers’ over the years for what I said, but he never told me to stop doing it.

For a bit of a laugh, some of the stories I completely made up and it was those ones that made the headlines in the papers the following day, which I naturally found amusing.

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Do you see yourself as something of a frustrated scribe then?

I enjoyed the diary because it was a fun thing to do, but I never thought that after football it would be something that I’d still be doing or people would still be interested in.

I did do a piece for the student paper when I was at University in Glasgow, but that wasn’t anything particularly ground-breaking and very few people ever come up to me on the street and say how much they loved that, strangely enough.

One of my proudest achievements is being a clue in the NME crossword, though, which was something like: An Elvis Costello song which you’d often see Brian McClair and Paul McStay in. And the answer, of course, was Green Shirt, which seems obvious now, but it had a few people stumped at the time.

Your popular Q&A features in Shoot! and Match magazine were also legendary, was this a conscious decision of yours?

I used to read football magazines as a boy and think to myself if I was ever asked those kinds of questions, I’d try to give answers that were a bit more interesting and different from what everyone else was saying.

It was always about your favourite meal, favourite drink or choice of holiday destination, which generated the same responses each week. I saw it as an opportunity to be a bit more creative as well as a wee bit mischievous, though being partial to lasagne was a change from steak and chips in the early ‘80s I suppose.

I also felt that, if I told people I enjoyed a pint of Buckfast on a Friday night before a game, it might make people realise we led lives that weren’t really that far detached from theirs.

The funny thing is, I once had a Celtic fan come up to me and say he’d won £20 in a pub quiz tie-breaker because he knew my middle name was Tarquin having seen it in a magazine.

My middle name is actually John, but I just took Tarquin from a Monty Python sketch and some people obviously went with it – I mean, how would John ever be the answer in a pub quiz? Anyone could guess that.

Back in 1984 when asked: “What team did you support as a boy?” you revealed it was the Liechtenstein national team, so were you really an avid fan?

Ah, you see, but Liechtenstein didn’t have a national team in those days, so I was being mischievous again.

The thing was, it was harder for people to look these things up back then, whereas now you could just Google it. Where’s the fun in that?

Also that year you named the Psychedelic Furs, David Bowie, Velvet Underground and the Mighty Wah as your musical heroes. Have your tastes evolved since then and if so what are you listening to these days?

The music ones were always genuine, same with books and films, as they were always keen interests of mine, so I genuinely was a fan of those artists and bands, as I still am today.

I still like to keep up with what’s out there at the moment too, though during lockdown I made the decision to revert back to some of my old favourites as I was in need of a bit of escapism and couldn’t bring myself to listen to the likes of 6 Music, which I usually love.

As for artists I’m listening to right now, I was supposed to see Gerry Cinnamon this summer before the show was cancelled, while an artist I really like is Christian Lee Hutson, an Americana musician from Los Angeles.

My son, Liam, is a singer/songwriter and has been doing some really good things, too, which I’d obviously recommend to everyone.

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You once claimed you wanted a portable CD player for your birthday, assuming you no longer have it, how do you like to consume your music these days?

I’ve always been a huge fan of vinyl and still love to buy albums when I get the chance. I have a pretty large CD collection too, particularly those discs you’d get free on the front of the music magazines like Q.

My recent fascination has been asking Google to play random songs and albums from various genres or years and then see what it throws up. It’s a great way to discover old stuff that you’ve not listened to in a while, as well as things you may have never heard before.

Among your hobbies you listed horse riding, skiing, chess and collecting matchboxes, so is a more mature Choccy as active all these years on?

I seem to recall I chose the hobbies I wasn’t allowed to do as a professional footballer, to cause a bit of a stir, as I’ve never been skiing in my life.

As for the matchboxes, I was always fascinated by people that collect strange things, like train numbers or pictures of busses, so that’s where that came from as I have never been an avid hoarder myself.

The problem was, someone in Northern Ireland must have seen that piece and decided to send me a few matchboxes to add to my non-existent collection. The only problem was, they’d forgotten to take the matches out first.

As you can imagine, during the height of the troubles, this was something which was quite tricky to explain to the post office at the time.

Finally, when asked if you had any recurring dreams, you revealed it was being shot. So any near misses since that revelation back in 1986 or are you still looking over your shoulder?

That was true, but I don’t think that’s overly unusual. I think a dream expert or psychiatrist would simply put it down to a mild anxiety issue or maybe even the Buckfast?

It has been somewhat superseded by being attacked by tigers now, though, and this was before I’d even watched Tiger King.

Saying that, since watching that programme, I’ve not had that dream, so maybe it’s provided me with some form of therapy?

Stay tuned for our monthly Choccy’s Diaries on The Set Pieces in the coming weeks.

Vox in the Box: Brian McClair, new The Set Pieces contributor
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