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Superfan Joe McGunnigle will be there in spirit when Scotland start Euro 2020 glory bid

It was a trip which meant Joe McGunnigle had to pedal to the mettle: a 300-mile marathon on his bike from Aberdeen to Glasgow and back more than 60 years ago.

And, though the 15-year-old later admitted there were times when he worried about finding places to sleep or losing his way, that journey to Hampden Park in 1958 sparked a lifelong love affair with the Scottish national team.

He was among the 127,874-strong crowd who watched the hosts tackle England in the Home International Championship – and the visitors romped to a 4-0 win with goals from the likes of Bobby Charlton and Derek Kevan.

Joe travelled the globe over six decades

But even if the result was a disappointment, it did nothing to extinguish Joe’s enthusiasm for the game, nor his determination to follow his beloved Scotland to every corner of the globe in the next six decades.

It was a passion which led him to Five World Cups between 1974 and 1998, and he was among the Tartan Army soldiers who witnessed Craig Brown’s side tackle England, the Netherlands and Switzerland at the 1996 European Championship, where they exited frustratingly despite drawing with the Dutch and beating the Swiss, through Ally McCoist’s lone goal.

If Joe was downhearted or deflated on his travels, it never lasted for long, nor diminished his relish for the next trip. His passport read like a gazetteer: following the Scots took him to Mexico, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Italy, Slovenia, San Marino, Germany, Holland, France, Belgium, Malta, Spain, the former Yugoslavia….and he embraced every journey with joie de vivre.

Joe McGunnigle was well-known as one of Scotland’s most passionate fans.

It all began with that lung-bursting exodus to Glasgow from his home in the Granite City, where he said cheerio to his family and departed on his bike.

Joe, who died of cancer aged 77 last year, but not before taking a starring role in Brave at the Beach Ballroom for the charity Friends of ANCHOR recalled: “It was the first of many great adventures and I was lucky wherever I went.

“I had to stop at Arbroath, because it was dark and I was feeling a bit tired, and I suppose I was a wee bit scared of being involved in an accident, but I just jumped back on the saddle the next morning and finally arrived at Hampden, only 20 or 25 minutes before the match was due to kick off.

“I hadn’t thought about buying a ticket in advance – I imagined that I would just be able to get one at the gate, like I did when I went to Pittodrie. So my journey might have been in vain, considering how late I got to the stadium.

“But thankfully, I got one off a policeman who was standing outside Hampden – and he kindly agreed to keep an eye out for my bike until I came back out.

“The game itself didn’t go very well, but that didn’t really matter. I was thrilled by cheering on the Scots and I knew I was going to keep doing it.”

Book commemoration of Joe’s life

This man had so many stories it was a shame he didn’t write a book. But now, that omission is being addressed by his grand-daughter, Cassie, who is starting a Masters degree in journalism at RGU in September, and intends to publish a commemoration to Joe later this year.

Cassie with cuttings and photographs from Joe’s exploits over the years supporting Scotland.

As she said about that epic cycling odyssey; “It’s funny that, despite the defeat, he went on to spend his life following Scotland.

“And I think the beauty of that one journey was that this young boy on his bike had no idea what a life he was yet to lead.

“I want to ensure there is an everlasting memory of my Granda in the years ahead. There are stories all over the world about him and to have them all in one place would be magical.

“He touched the lives of so many folk and there isn’t a more fitting tribute than putting his story into words. He might have passed away in January 2020, but he continues to be my biggest inspiration and he always will be.”

She has obviously inherited her relative’s keen-as-mustard enthusiasm for life and ability to turn adversity to advantage wherever he ventured – and, when we visited her in Aberdeen at the weekend, it was clear the 23-year-old’s hardest task might be deciding what to leave out of her book.

Stewart McKimmie came to the rescue

Joe never worried about such minor issues as lacking a ticket on his magical mystery tour. Nor was he concerned if his logistics weren’t always perfect, such as the time when he went to Portugal to watch Scotland in a World Cup qualifying contest in April 1993, which turned into an ordeal for everybody.

He recalled: “The hotel in which I was staying was 120 miles away from Lisbon, so I had to set out on a lengthy trek to get there.

“Unfortunately, when I reached the ground, I realised I had left my ticket on the bedside cabinet in my hotel room.

“But then, Aberdeen skipper Stewart McKimmie, whom I had met on many previous occasions, came to the rescue. I stopped him as he climbed off the team bus and he kindly went off and got me another ticket.

“However, at the end of the game, I was rather wishing that he hadn’t bothered – because Scotland were thrashed 5-0 [which dashed their 1994 World Cup hopes and led to the departure of coach Andy Roxburgh].

Joe McGunnigle would always get his Scotland ticket!

“The thing is that I was never down for too long. It was just a game of football, but the camaraderie among the Tartan Army was tremendous and we were treated so well by by the people we met in all those different countries.”

This twinkly-eyed character never relinquished his affection for Scotland and he was quick to take advantage of living in the days when his compatriots used to qualify regularly for the finals of major tournaments.

Travelled with his wife to West Germany

As his daughter, Karen Sedgwick, told me: “Dad enjoyed every excursion, all over the globe, beginning with the World Cup in Germany in 1974, when he was accompanied by my mum (his late wife Cath).

“That was the only overseas football trip she ever went on, but she always watched the games on television and we would always try to ‘spot Dad’.

“He primarily travelled to watch his beloved Scotland, but he always came home with stories of his experiences with the local people from every trip.

“He was invited into family homes for meals in Mexico and Japan amongst other places. It was the hospitality he shared with so many, that made his trips memorable. He befriended so many people in every country he visited.”

Cassie with some of the cuttings from Joe’s life and times.

Joe’s wanderlust meant that he established bonds with scores of supporters from different countries and continents, and the response to the news of his death last year showed the impact he made on his hosts.

Karen added: “We recently received a message from a gentleman from Germany, who told us: ‘I met Joe 15 years ago on a bus from Lithuania to Belarus, which he had organised to see the Scotland game in Minsk.

“It was always good to bump into him or hear from him, it was a pleasure to know him and we always had a good laugh together. He will be sadly missed.”

When I met Joe at his home in 2018 with Karen, Cassie and his little dog, Misty – whom he loved to bits and the feeling was clearly mutual – he had recently undergone gruelling treatment for his illness.

Joe will be there in spirit

But he refused to let it define him, joked about his last meal before a major operation being a “brilliant” fish supper at The Ashvale and carried out his modelling assignments at the Beach Ballroom with a flashy sashay.

Cassie has spoken about her father’s love for Scotland.

The World Cup adventures finished for him and Scotland in France in 1998, but it didn’t deter him from continuing to support his compatriots.

And while he won’t be there when the Steve Clarke’s squad launch their European Championship campaign next week against the Czech Republic, we can wager he will surely be watching somewhere with hope in his heart.

Do you have stories, memories or pictures of Joe from his football travels?

Email or visit the special page set up on social media for the project by searching for “The Cycle to Hampden – The Story of Joe McGunnigle.”