The idea of this series invoked plenty of discussion as to which player should be the first featured. Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish obviously garnered much support but in the end there was only one choice; a man whose face graces the pages of this site, a man whose principal achievement in a Scotland shirt was beating the English, a man who remains one of the greatest talents that Scotland ever produced. James Curran Baxter.
‘Slim’ Jim as he became known, a Fife boy born and bred, began his career with Raith Rovers. He joined the Kirkcaldy club as a part-timer, continuing his day job as a miner while impressing enough on the pitch in his three years at Stark’s Park to earn a move to Rangers. They paid £17,500 for his services, a Scottish record fee at the time, and the lad from Hill o’ Beath, still just 21 years old, was about to hit the big time.
His initial five year spell at Ibrox – he would later return for a further year with the Glasgow club after an unsuccessful spell in England – coincided with a period of huge success for the club. When he was sold to Sunderland for £72,000 in 1965, he left with three league winner’s medals, three Scottish Cups and four League Cups on his CV. Baxter was a major reason for the side’s dominance, exerting a languid control over games which exhibited his effortless talent.
While any Scottish success in the present day is generally down to hard work and tactical discipline, in the era of Baxter, there were a number of players north of the border who would today rightly be described as ‘world class’. Baxter, alongside perhaps Jimmy Johnstone, was chief among them. His range of passing was sublime, his ability to create time and space on the ball unrivalled.
One moment in particular for me sums up his talent, when Scotland met Brazil at Hampden Park in June 1966. Baxter, in the opening minute of the game, took possession in the middle of the park, assessed the situation, exchanged passes with Stevie Chalmers and with a final, first time ball of perfect weight and vision, put Chalmers through to score. It was a moment of genuine class, but the sort of thing that was, by then, well expected from Baxter.
He had made his Scotland debut only months after joining Rangers, and whichever blue he wore his reputation rose. One of his greatest moments for Scotland came in 1963 when, in a game overshadowed by Eric Caldow’s broken leg, Baxter scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over England at Wembley; and England side which contained names such as Gordon Banks, Jimmy Armfield, Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton.
Indeed, both of Baxter’s finest games for Scotland, or at very least his most memorable, came against the ‘Auld Enemy’. In the 1967 game, still cheekily celebrated as the day that Scotland became ‘unofficial’ World Champions, Baxter tormented, perhaps even mocked the English side with a range of trickery, but backed it up with a leading performance in the 3-2 victory. The arrogance displayed in that game was a big part of what made Baxter the player he was, but it also got him into trouble.
That 1967 performance was one of the few in his later career which scaled the heights he reached during his time at Rangers. It was a cruel blow that many of his ‘prime’ years didn’t live up to the promise that they could have had, but by that time he was on something of a destructive trail.
Since his move to Glasgow, Baxter had been renowned as a drinker and womaniser, but it was while he was out of the game after suffering a broken leg against Rapid Vienna that his problems became manifest. In December 1964, Baxter led Rangers to a superb 2-0 victory in Vienna, but not satisfied with mere victory, late in the game he got his bag of tricks out, once again looking to humiliate his opposition.
Interviewed for a BBC programme about Baxter, his team mate Davie Wilson said,
‘In the last minute of the game he was being arrogant. He was playing about and I was shouting to him “give it to me, I’ll go to the byline with the ball, the game’s finished”. We were winning two-nothing at the time but no, Jimmy says “I’m going to nutmeg him” and the boy clobbered him’
Out of the game for four months, Baxter began drinking more heavily and many felt he never recovered his fitness to the level it had been. Feeling that Baxter’s best days were behind him, despite the fact that he was not yet 26, Rangers manager Scot Symon sold him to Sunderland.
Scotland didn’t qualify for a FIFA World Cup finals during Baxter’s career, perhaps a factor in that was that beating the English was considered more important. At a time when England were at their height, proving Scotland better – and gaining revenge for the 9-3 defeat in 1961 – seemed all consuming, and as such Baxter goes down on the list of the World’s greatest players to have never graced the biggest tournament in the game.
Having retired early, aged just 31, Baxter opened a pub and continued to drink heavily. He required two liver transplants in the mid-1990s, and in April 2001, aged just 61, Baxter died from pancreatic cancer. His life, as his career, ended before its time and with unfulfilled promise, but for a brief period Slim Jim shone bright as one of the greatest talents this nation has ever produced.
Scotland career 1960 to 1967
Scotland caps 34
Scotland goals 3
Major championship appearances None