When the wind howls in off the Irish Sea, the par-four 13th hole at Hillside - the Southport course widely considered as challenging as its more illustrious neighbour Royal Birkdale - is the very definition of an uphill struggle. Somehow, I leave the green with a five to Alan Hansen's double-bogey six. "Class always tells on the hardest holes," I remark flippantly, as we make our way to the next tee. "That must have been the exception," Hansen mutters, half in banter but half in earnest. He is a fierce competitor on the golf course. And he duly stuffs me by a margin I do not care to mention. His handicap is three, and with the help of his long-handled Odyssey putter - "I was the worst putter in the western world until I got this," he says - he is confident that he can get down to one. I wouldn't offer odds against it.
Hansen started playing golf at the age of seven, as Alloa lads do. By 16, he had a handicap of two and thoughts of turning pro. In 1972, he was a reserve for Scottish Boys in a fixture against English Boys. One of the players on the English team - later, incidentally, to switch allegiance to the Scots - was the 14-year-old prodigy Sandy Lyle. So Hansen was on teeing-up terms with the best young golfers in the land. He was also in the Scottish volleyball squad. And he was a talented squash player, once hammering the Scottish junior champion by three games to one.
When sporting skills were handed out, Hansen jumped the queue. In fact, the rest of us must have been queuing in the wrong place. If there were any justice at all, he would at least have buck teeth or a cauliflower ear. But the cruellest nickname anyone has managed to think up for Hansen is Captain Scarlet, and that's because the scourge of the Mysterons was plastic and, therefore, unblemished. Actually, Hansen does have a blemish, a long vertical scar on his forehead. Wearily, I wait for him to tell me that it marks a wound sustained in some heroic sporting encounter, but the banal truth is that during a volleyball tournament when he was 17, he walked through a glass door. He sued the education authority and, as has generally been his wont, won.
At 17, having reluctantly accepted that he was not quite good enough to cut it in professional golf, Hansen planned to read history at Aberdeen University. But then someone suggested that he become a PE teacher. However, the PE college, Jordanhill, had a policy of accepting only one applicant per school, and someone else from Hansen's school got the nod. "That was when I decided to concentrate on football," he says.
Oh yes, football. Hansen had already been wooed by 10 clubs, but told them he wanted to concentrate on golf. In the end, the Jordanhill reject joined Partick Thistle, where his elder brother John was on the books, and spent four years there gradually making his name as a classy centre-back. He didn't forsake golf, though, and one memorable Saturday played in a monthly medal in the morning and against Kilmarnock in the afternoon. At Liverpool it was a different story. Bill Shankly had always believed that golf was bad for his players' knees, and his successor Bob Paisley reckoned it tired them out. "He was right, too," says Hansen. "Once I turned 30, if I played 18 holes on a Wednesday, I always knew it in training on a Thursday."
In May 1977, Paisley paid £100,000 - how quaint that figure sounds now - to take Hansen to Liverpool. He stayed at Anfield for the next 14 years, scandalously winning only 26 caps for Scotland, yet collecting 17 major medals for Liverpool (17 majors, he happily points out, equals the tally of his hero Jack Nicklaus) and becoming a linchpin in what amounted to four different Liverpool sides. The best of them, Hansen reckons, was the 1977-1981 team, usually comprising Clemence, Neal, Kennedy (A), Thompson, Hansen, Kennedy (R), Dalglish, Case, Johnson, McDermott, Souness.
"In the 1978-79 season," he recalls, "we scored 85 goals and conceded 16. That will never be beaten. You talk about Arsenal's defence now, but their scoring record is not so great. We had it at both ends. Yet that team only won the championship twice. I say 'only,' because I played in other Liverpool sides that won doubles and trebles. In 1989, six weeks before we won the double, I said to Kenny Dalglish that it was the worst Liverpool team I'd ever played in. So maybe I'm not a very good judge."
He is certainly given to rash predictions, famously inspiring a T-shirt slogan popular at Old Trafford with his assertion, in what was to be Manchester United's double-winning season of 1995-96, that "you can't win anything with kids". Gamely, Hansen gives a few more examples of getting it embarrassingly wrong. "Shortly after Ian Rush joined Liverpool I said to a friend, 'he can't head it, and he hasn't got a left foot or a right foot'. Five years later, he'd broken every goalscoring record there was."
If ever there was a good judge of footballers, by contrast, it was Bob Paisley, the quiet, self-effacing Geordie who, according to Hansen, was utterly ruthless dealing with his players. Indeed, while the likes of Jimmy Case and Graeme Souness were not best known for shouting "three hurrahs for the jolly old oppo" before or even after a match, they would not, under Paisley, have dared wind up an opposing player by showing their backsides and yelling "come on, give it me up the arse". Still, on a perhaps more significant note, Hansen reckons that the miscreant Robbie Fowler is better than any Liverpool player he has ever seen at creating that all-important yard of space in the penalty area. "Rush and Dalglish were masters at it. Ray Kennedy was sensational for a big guy. But Fowler is the best."
Fowler, though, has the benefit of playing in front of a noisily supportive Anfield crowd. Not so Hansen for much of his career. "Under Bob Paisley, if a player showed signs of complacency, he was out. It was all over for him. But the crowd, the crowd was blase. The Liverpool crowd at that time was the quietest of the lot. They were spoilt. They only went off their heads if there was a chance we were going to get beaten. We'd come off after a 2-0 win and it wasn't enough. Now it's different. They are hungry again, and if Liverpool won the championship now they would go berserk. I went to the 4-2 Newcastle game this season and the atmosphere was sensational. We never had that."
The ingrates on the Kop owed much to the formidable defensive partnership of Hansen and Phil Thompson, now the Liverpool assistant manager. "It was like telepathy. Neither of us could head it, neither of us could tackle, my missus was quicker than he was, but we did alright. Paisley's philosophy was simple. Strengths and weaknesses. We played to our strengths and exploited their weaknesses. Now I hear things about different philosophies and it's mostly a lot of tosh. I hear people saying 'the way the game should be played'. Rubbish. That's the worst saying in football. You win the game, then worry about the way it should be played."
By now we are approaching Hillside's 17th green, which tops an enormous sand hill. Hansen has hit a towering approach shot to within eight feet. Heaven knows where my ball has got to. The wind-chill factor, meanwhile, would have Sir Ranulph Fiennes scampering for the clubhouse. But my playing partner has reached boiling point.
"It's absolute folly," he continues, "to say 'here are the tactics, now let's look at the players'. You look at your players, then decide your tactics. Take the sweeper system. In the Eighties everyone was saying that you can't win the World Cup without a sweeper. Then Brazil in 1994, and France in 1998, win it with a flat back four, so where does that leave us?
"In 1982 we tried it for four games at Liverpool, with me as sweeper. I could give you a day-long seminar on the sweeper system, but on the pitch we couldn't do it. We didn't know when to come or when to stay. We had problems with marking. In the end, Joe Fagan decided we didn't have time to mess about with it. Quit while you're losing, that's another important lesson."
Hansen has always been opinionated about football. And when a knee injury forced him to stop playing, he was the obvious candidate to coach Liverpool reserves. Then his close friend Kenny Dalglish - his regular golf partner at Hillside - quit as manager. "He'd tried to call me twice the day before, but I was out," recalls Hansen, "so I didn't find out until training the next morning. Was I surprised? Christ, yes."
A lot of smart money went on Hansen to succeed Dalglish, but he claims that management never attracted him. "Dalglish and Souness live and breathe football in a way that I never have," he says. "There again, in my last season as captain, I wasn't getting any sleep at night, worrying about three points here and three points there. And at 2.15 on a Saturday I used to go back and forth to the toilet 45 times. So I knew management wasn't for me."
Instead, he joined Sky as a pundit, moving to Radio 5 Live, and then to Match of the Day, where he has become part of the furniture (his fellow piece of furniture, Des Lynam, he ventures, is to television what Liverpool circa 1978 were to football). Moreover, he is blossoming as a presenter. Next Tuesday he fronts a BBC1 programme called The Football Millionaires, and soon afterwards is back presenting The Magic of the Masters, for which he interviewed Jack Nicklaus and Seve Ballesteros, as well as his boyhood foe Sandy Lyle. Last year, he went to the Masters for the first time, and entered the traditional post-tournament ballot which entitles a lucky few from the media to take on the mighty Augusta National. Sadly, he wasn't chosen. With his beloved new Odyssey putter working well, it might have been an interesting contest.
(By Brian Viner for "The Independent")
Thor Zakariassen ©