RIP Alex, gone to join his beloved Sylvie. They had been inseparable for years and when you saw them together it was clear that he thought the absolute world of her. As Ian says above Alex was a hugely interesting man. I sat with him for hours listening to reflections of his life before, during and after football. Below is a short excerpt of a chapter I wrote about him in my book Thanks For The Memory, the story of the 1958-59 promotion side. I opened the chapter by saying that it was easy to tell when Alex Govan was saying something interesting - his lips moved. It was difficult to choose just one section, because his life away from football was as interesting as his time in it. But make no mistake, this man was a huge talent.
We were discussing Birmingham's promotion to the old First Division in 1955 and this is how it unfolded:-
But there is one particular day of that campaign which stands far above the rest - 11 December 1954. City were at home to Liverpool, who were mid-table after coming down the previous season. In a Press interview some years later Alex described the events of that day. “Before the game we would have taken just a 1-0 win. “Although we had beat Port Vale 7-2 the week before, Liverpool had a few decent players. “Billy Liddell was a Scottish international and they had a flying young left winger called Alan A’Court. Then there was Geoff Twentyman who went on to play a key role when Bill Shankly went there a few years later. “But once we scored our first they folded like a pack of cards. After 16 minutes we were three up, but Liddell pulled one back three minutes later. “That just seemed to inspire us and my old Plymouth team-mate Gordon Astall made it 4-1 for half time. “Four minutes later Astall got his second and it was soon 6-1. “I scored the seventh in the 77th minute, after full back Jeff Hall and Astall had hit the bar. “We then scored again in the 85th and 86th minutes to run out 9-1 winners. “Strangely, I am hard pressed to remember any of the Birmingham goals, yet to this day I can shut my eyes and see Billy Liddell’s.”
Just as in his earlier experience at Plymouth, the promoted team took encouragement from their promotion campaign and finished 6th in their first season back in the top-flight. It remains the highest Birmingham City has ever finished in the Football League. In addition they reached the 1956 FA Cup Final, losing 3-1 to Manchester City, the previous year’s beaten finalists. It was the game made famous by the fact that City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, that year’s Footballer of the Year, played with a broken neck for the final 20 minutes. City had Don Revie, who later managed Leeds and England, playing in a (then) unusual deep-lying centre forward role and he ran the game. In the Birmingham side that day was future Argyle skipper John Newman, called in when Roy Warhurst dropped out through injury. Birmingham had been credited with being the first team to reach Wembley without playing at home, and they did not need a single replay. Alex remembers thinking what a blow it was to lose Warhurst. “From memory we were about 4/9 on favourites. “We never considered we would lose but that is football for you. “Despite the result, it was a wonderful day and I was proud to be the only Scot in the side. No disrespect to anyone else, but if Warhurst had played I am certain we would have won the game.”
Alex Govan talks fondly of Warhurst and he also had a lot of time for another ex Plymouth player there, Len Boyd. “I was always glad I played in front of that Birmingham defence. “I would have hated to play against them.” He chuckles as he recalls how they could get stuck in with the best of them. “I often had to tell Warhurst to be careful and remind him that I was on his side. “He was a hard man. There were plenty of tough individuals around then – people like Scoular of Newcastle and Docherty at Preston. “But none of them mixed it with Roy. “Len Boyd was a hard man too and Boydy could really see a pass. “His passing was exceptional.”
In addition to finding the defeat hard to take he had another deep, much more personal regret about the 1956 FA Cup Final. “My brother died of TB the year before. “He was only 34 and would have loved to have seen his brother playing in a match like that. “I still find that sad to think about now.”
No story about the 1956 FA Cup Final and Alex Govan could be complete without reference to the club song that he is credited with introducing. No one quite knows in which part of the 1956 Cup run that the Harry Lauder song “Keep Right On To The End Of The Road” became the team’s anthem. One version of events says that it was when Birmingham were at Arsenal for the quarter-final tie. At manager Arthur Turner’s behest, Alex led the players sing song on the coach with his favourite song, Harry Lauder’s Keep Right On. Fans waiting outside the bus for autographs heard the players and took up singing it. Govan is also credited with saying during a Press interview prior to the Sunderland semi-final that it was his favourite song. “Whatever way it happened, when we scored our third goal at Hillsborough that day, every Blues fan was singing it. “It was my proudest moment in football—bar none.” And what is more, that song has endured as the club’s favoured anthem these 52 years. It will be one of the greatest ever epitaphs to any player who has played the game.
Their season was not over after the FA Cup Final. Birmingham City had been invited to an annual exhibition match which was always played during the Edinburgh Festival. Hibs and Hearts would pick a combined XI against English First Division opposition. “I was the only Scot in the Birmingham side so I was really pleased to play in that one.” He also played for the Football Combination select XI against the Holland national side. “Although it was a Combination side it had nothing to do with reserve players. “Birmingham were in the Combination League so their players were eligible. “The manager was George Hardwick and the great Spurs player Tommy Harmer played too. “Holland were not the power they are now and we beat them 4-1.”
Season 1956-57 saw the former Plymouth man hailed as one of the best players in the First Division. Don’t forget, this was in an era when players of the calibre of Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, John Charles and Nat Lofthouse graced the top tier. Although City finished only 12th in the League, Govan amassed 24 goals, finishing with one more goal than the great Tom Finney. In the end he finished ninth in the leading scorers with household names John Charles (Leeds) 36, Jackie Mudie (Blackpool) 32 and Nat Lofthouse (Bolton) 28 amongst those above him.
During the season he scored no fewer than four First Division hat tricks, three of them early in the season in a period spanning only 10 days. On Wednesday 29 August 1957 he netted three at Fratton Park in a 4-3 success. “The Russian Navy were on a visit to Pompey at the time. “The club must have give them tickets because there were a lot of them there, all dressed in red tee shirts. “Our change kit was red so they shouted for us.” After a 2-0 reverse at Burnley the following Saturday, City were then at home to Newcastle on Wednesday 5 September. He grabbed another three and then repeated the feat by hitting three more on the following Saturday in a home fixture against Preston (3-0). 44,500 were drawn to a match billed as a battle between two great left wingers—Finney and Govan. In the event Finney played at centre-forward.
Alex remembers being interviewed for television by a young David Coleman, then with ITV at the fledgling ATV station in the Midlands. “I did an interview after the Newcastle game on the Wednesday. David Coleman told me that he would ask me on again after the Preston game if I got another hat-trick. “I was feeling that confident I asked him what time and where, on live TV! “It was good money too, ten guineas (£10.50 and worth half a week’s wages). “In them days we pooled all that kind of thing and shared it out amongst the lads at the end of the season.”
His fourth League hat-trick of that season came against Leeds United in a 3-2 win, a game which was the last John Charles played in England before his £65,000 move to Italy. And Alex provides a marvellous story about that match. “Years and years later a fan came up to me and said that he had a pound note signed by John Charles after he scored in his last game in England against Birmingham. “He produced it from his wallet. “I told him that I too played in that match and got three goals – let me sign it too and it will be worth a lot more!” Govan’s only regret is that players were not presented with the match ball in those days. “The trainer grabbed it and it was dubbined up and used again the next week.”
That season saw them have another good FA Cup run, losing 2-0 in the semis to the great pre Munich Manchester United side. He confirms a widely held view in saying “they were a class side, that is for sure. “They were so strong and skilful all over the pitch.” On the way to the semi finals he hit his fifth hat-trick in a 5-2 success against Southend United.
He has one more memory of that season. “In a match against Tottenham I came up against Danny Blanchflower again. “He was no longer the unknown boy I had played against when Plymouth beat Barnsley in the FA Cup. “Anyway, I went into a challenge with him and caught him. “I went over to see how he was. “He looked up at me and said ‘I thought you were a better player than that.’ “I felt really bad about that – I was never a malicious player.” In the remaining part of 1957-58 Alex Govan played nine times for Portsmouth, scoring twice. On his debut he scored the only goal, against old rivals Aston Villa. It was soon after his transfer from St Andrews and he returned to Birmingham on the same train as the Villa lads. “They were fine with me but their captain Johnny Dixon reminded me that I had never previously scored for Birmingham against the Villa.”
Not surprisingly, he remains a household name at City and is a frequent visitor to their St Andrews ground. He is immensely popular with the Birmingham support. At the top of his game he was undoubtedly the finest winger never to play for Scotland. Although Alex Govan is not a man for regrets or post-mortems into what may have been, he remains disappointed that he missed out on international honours. He was chosen only once, for a friendly against Austria. Unfortunately the match was to be played just three days prior to the English FA Cup Final (a minor consideration to the Scottish FA!) and Birmingham, understandably, would not release him. He was never invited to play for his country again.
What a special man, the like of which we will never see again.