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Born: Friday 29 September 1939, Hill of Beath, Scotland
Died: Saturday 14 April 2001, Glasgow, Scotland (aged 61)
Position: Half Back/Midfielder
Undoubtedly one of Scotland's most skilful players, Jim Baxter's finest hour came during his country's famous victory over world champions England at Wembley in 1967. One of the game's true entertainers, he enjoyed his finest years with Rangers in the early 1960s before his off-field lifestyle began to take its toll. Heavy drinking affected his fitness and he retired at a relatively early age, but not before he had made a significant impact on British football.
James Curran Baxter was born in the Fife town of Hill of Beath on 29 September 1939, where on leaving school he worked first as an apprentice cabinet maker before eventually finding a job in the coal mines. He played in non-league football with Crossgates Primrose, before joining nearby First Division side Raith Rovers in the summer of 1957. Only on a part-time contract, Baxter continued to work alongside playing for Raith as well as completing his National Service.
After three seasons with Raith, Baxter earned his first professional contract in 1960 when he joined Glasgow giants Rangers. Although he made his debut as an inside-left, it was at left-half that he made his name during five very successful years with the club. Small in stature and overwhelmingly left-footed, he possessed superb vision and an excellent range of passing which allowed him to dominate games completely. A supremely confident player who often came into conflict with authority figures, he was also fond of using tricks to embarrass defenders which while not to everyone's taste, endeared him to crowds wherever he played.
Even early on in his career Baxter's wild lifestyle attracted comment, but his time at Rangers nevertheless got off to a fantastic start. Within weeks of making his debut he was called into the Scottish national team, his first appearance coming in a 5-2 win over Northern Ireland. During that first season Rangers won both the league title and the League Cup, edging out Kilmarnock in both competitions. They also reached the final of the European Cup Winners' Cup, but were beaten in both legs of the final by Fiorentina.
In the autumn of 1961 Baxter helped Scotland to the brink of qualification for the following year's World Cup, as a dramatic win over Czechoslovakia forced a play-off to decide who would reach the finals in Chile. Scotland led twice in that match, but ultimately were beaten 4-2 after extra-time. That season did however bring further success at domestic level, as despite losing their league title to Dundee, Rangers won both the Scottish Cup and the League Cup.
Baxter won his second championship medal with Rangers in 1963, as the team cruised to the title by a clear nine points ahead of Kilmarnock, before a replay win over Celtic in the cup final sealed another double success. That season also brought one of the highlights of his international career, in the British Home Championship match against England at Wembley. Baxter scored both goals in a 2-1 victory, ensuring that Scotland clinched the title at the home of their fiercest rivals despite playing much of the match with ten men.
Despite his success, Baxter was not entirely happy at Rangers. With all the squad on the same wages, he wanted more money than players he perceived to be less gifted and eventually requested a transfer, hoping to move to England. Many clubs were interested but no bids came, and Baxter remained at Rangers. Early in the 1963-64 season, his standing in the game was acknowledged when he was one of two Scots (the other being Denis Law) picked to play for the FIFA XI which faced England in the FA's centenary match.
The 1963-64 season proved to be the most successful of Baxter's time at Rangers, with another championship success alongside comfortable wins over Dundee and Morton in the two domestic cup competitions sealing a famous treble. Seemingly at the top of his game, Baxter put in another fine performance in Rangers win over Rapid Vienna in December 1964, which sealed a place in the last eight of the European Cup. However, Rapid defender Walter Skocik had taken exception to Baxter's repeated nutmegging of him during the game and responded with a fierce tackle late on which fractured Baxter's shin.
His injury lay-off proved to be a pivotal moment in his career. While out of action Baxter began to drink more heavily, and his fitness suffered considerably. He was still officially on the transfer list, and when English side Sunderland made a bid for him at the end of the season, Rangers decided to sell. Baxter saw the move as a step down in class but a move that was necessary due to financial problems stemming from his alcohol use. Baxter spend two and a half relatively uneventful years with Sunderland, during which time the club flirted with relegation from the English First Division and Scotland again narrowly missed out on a place at the World Cup.
It was while with Sunderland however that he put in perhaps the most famous performance of his career. On 15 April 1967, Scotland travelled to Wembley to face world champions England. The Scots pulled off a famous 3-2 win and Baxter was the undoubted star of the show, dazzling the English players with his skills and often juggling the ball while waiting for his team-mates to find better positions. Some observers felt that he should have taken the game more seriously and helped the team to a bigger win, while other just enjoyed the humiliation of their neighbours. Baxter himself actually considered his performance against England in 1963 to have been better.
Remarkably, Baxter won just two more caps for Scotland after that famous day at Wembley. His drinking and his reluctance to train properly had a negative impact on his fitness, but he was clearly still an extremely talented player. In December 1967, Nottingham Forest identified him as the man who could propel them to a title challenge. Sunderland let him go, but his time in Nottingham was something of a disaster. The team struggled in mid-table for the rest of the season and having tried to use Baxter as a striker in the following campaign, ended up fighting against relegation.
Having found himself in conflict with the club's management, Baxter was put on the transfer list and eventually released in the summer of 1969. He rejoined Rangers on a free transfer, but it soon became obvious that his career was coming to an end. Previously nicknamed 'Slim', he was now noticeably overweight and following further off-field problems, lost his place in the team. His final appearance for Rangers came in December 1969 and when he was released by the club early in 1970, he decided to retire aged just 30.
In retirement, Baxter perhaps unwisely decided to open a pub. Having done so, his drinking problems escalated still further and by the time he reached his mid-50s he was dangerously overweight and in need of a liver transplant. That operation increased his quality of life significantly for several years, but by 2001 he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Baxter died of the disease on 14 April that year, aged 61.
References (all accessed 23 November 2012 except *):
http://www.rsssf.com/tables/66qual.html (* accessed 27 November 2012)
- Published on Friday, 23 November 2012 22:15