No, you haven't picked up Roy of the Rovers by mistake. A kid on holiday has really signed for Mallorca after a scout saw him having a kick–about, as Neil White relates
Not since Steve Norman and Martin Kemp moved from Spandau Ballet to Melchester Rovers in the early 1980s has there been as unlikely a transfer as the one that took 18-year-old apprentice mechanic Jimmy Stevenson from Alloa Athletic to Real Mallorca.
I remember the Barry Davies commentary on the FA Cup semi-final when Gascoigne scored that 30-yard free-kick against Arsenal in 1991. “Boys’ Own stuff,” he said. But really it was just a fantastic goal from a fantastic footballer. This really is straight out of the comics.
Jimmy was 17 when he went on holiday to Mallorca, where his ex-pat uncle plays in a five-a-side league. He was kicking a ball around on the sidelines, trying to nutmeg his uncle like any good nephew would, when a man approached and identified himself as a scout for Real. He was taking the piss, of course. Awakening the kind of dreams spawned by stories in Roy of the Rovers or Football Monthly. Jimmy, flattered but suspicious, returned to Scotland with a tale to tell his pals in the workshop.
Jimmy was used to getting his dreams deflated. The natural talent that had so taken the Spanish charlatan had earlier impressed Aberdeen, but two years ago the SPL club had released him. “Too small. You’ll never make it.”
He had found his way to part-time Alloa, then propping up the First Division. He had yet to start a game for the Wasps when he took that holiday. So when an email from Spain arrived in his in-box, he still couldn’t quite believe it was the genuine article. The message, in Spanish, was an invitation for a ten-day trial at Real over Christmas 2002.
Jimmy, a dreamer once more, jacked in the job at the mechanics and spent the silly season in the sun, despite the fact the he couldn’t speak Spanish and no one at the club knew much English. “I scored seven goals in three Under-18 games, so I think that did most of the talking for me,” he said. “I remember arriving at the training ground and seeing the first-team players drive up in their Ferraris and thinking: ‘What is an 18-year-old guy fae Alloa, who drives a poxy Astra, doing here?’” There and then, the club that were then heading up the best league in the world offered the boy in the Astra the chance to stay until the end of the season.
The fairy-tale ending, though, had to wait. He returned to Scotland to warm the bench at Recreation Park, Alloa, while matters between the clubs were resolved. Then, in January, he signed a two-and-a-half year deal with Real. The language barrier is, slowly but surely, being overcome. “I’m picking it up all the time,” he says.
More importantly, he has made an impact in Real’s B side and that is no mean feat. Spain’s reserve system is clogged full of multi-million pound players who can’t get a start for La Liga’s finest. Alloa received a nominal fee for Stevenson, with a significant pay day if he plays in the first team or gets a game for Scotland.
Four months ago the latter would have seemed as unlikely as, well, him signing for Real Mallorca. Now, however, Scotland boss Berti Vogts is casting his net far and wide in the face of a dearth of Scottish talent. Players are being capped before they have barely completed 90 minutes of first-team action with whatever English Premiership side they are on the fringes of.
The fact that he is even at Real and making significant progress should be enough to persuade Berti to take a trip to Spain. Jimmy’s story is vaguely reminiscent of another Scot that had to travel before his talent was acknowledged.
Paul Lambert, one of the few world-class Scottish players over recent years, slipped away unnoticed when his contract expired with Motherwell in 1996. Borussia Dortmund saw something that the rest of the Scottish top division had not, however, and Lambert had a huge impact on the Dortmund side that won the Champions League a year later, becoming the keystone of the Scotland midfield in the process.
All of which is still a long way off for Jimmy Stevenson, but stranger things have happened to him already. This most remarkable of footballing fairy tales is far from complete.
From WSC 194 April 2003. What was happening this month