While the inclement weather is playing havoc with the Scottish domestic football scene, one competition that has progressed without too much trouble has been the Europa League. This article focuses on one player born in Dumfries who as well as a career of distinction playing in England`s lower divisions, also proved to be an unlikely hero in making his mark in a UEFA competition.
William James "Jim" Steel was born in Dumfries on 4th December 1959. Somewhat appropriately he lived in the nearby granite town of Dalbeattie. A big, hard, aggressive player with the physique of a hulking brute, his position was Centre Forward. He played for Greystone Rovers in Dumfries before as a teenager he was signed as an apprentice by Jimmy Frizzell for Oldham Athletic. Steel went on to play over 100 first team games for the Latics, all with Oldham in the second tier of the English football league system.
Frizzell was dismissed in early 1982 and Steel was unable to establish himself under new manager Joe Royle. Steel had loans spells with Wigan Athletic (scoring two goals in his two league games) and Wrexham (scoring six times from his nine league appearances). Steel left Oldham in March 1983 after making 108 league appearances and scoring 24 goals.
Aged 23, Steel was bought by John McGrath at Port Vale for £10,000 in March 1983. He played in every game for the rest of that season as the club were promoted from the Fourth Division in 3rd place. Vale struggled the next season though and in December 1983 Steel lost his place in the team and McGrath lost his job.
Jim Steel at Port Vale
The month after his 24th birthday Steel returned to Wrexham (for £10,000 in January 1984). They became the second club for whom he past the 100 first team appearances mark. Of his non loan moves this was his most prolific period in front of goal with 51 strikes in his 164 league games.
Following Welsh Cup final defeat to Shrewsbury Town, Wrexham took on an FC Porto side of numerous then current Portuguese internationalists in the 1984–85 European Cup Winners` Cup (Shrewsbury as an English club could not represent Wales in European competition). Wrexham won the home leg 1–0 courtesy of Steel`s goal. Steel took the ball on his chest in the centre circle with his back to goal, and volleyed the ball as it dropped to John Muldoon to attack and cross from the right wing into the penalty area. Steel met the cross and jumped to direct a bullet header past Petar Borota.
In the second leg Porto were 3–0 up after 38 minutes. The Welsh club pulled two goals back before half time. In the 61st minute, Paulo Futre no less, restored Porto`s aggregate lead before Wrexham`s last minute strike meant the game finished 4–3 with the Welsh side advancing on away goals.
The second round draw paired Wrexham with the previous season`s European Cup runners up - AS Roma had lost the final to Bruce Grobelaar of Liverpool’s ‘spaghetti legs’ penalty shoot out performance. Now managed by Sven Goran Eriksson, Roma won their visit by Wrexham 2-0. A second half Francesco Graziani strike in Wales killed the contest – Roma won 3–0 on aggregate. Steel commented of the European adventure, "We went to Porto and there was a bloody hurricane. We come to Rome and the bloody shops are shut. When we play in Russia, Reagan will probably have the place blown up."
With Steel scoring both goals in a Welsh Cup final replay 2-1 win over Kidderminster Harriers, Wrexham appeared in the 1986-87 European Cup Winners` Cup with a first round contest against Maltese side Zurrieq, whom they beat 7–0 on aggregate. Steel scored in Wrexham in the second leg. This earned a second round tie against Real Zaragoza which brought two 0-0 draws. At home in extra time in the second leg Wrexham matched the two goals by Chilean winger, Patricio Yáñez. However on this occasion away-goals counted against Steel`s side.
Jim Steel is regarded as a legend by Wrexham fans from his time at The Racecourse Ground. In an entertaining web piece titled, “Man of Steel”, one fan eulogised of the hero he remembered always giving his all including in Arctic conditions,
“A big man up front who put the wind up the opposing centre backs. That`s exactly what Steel was. To me, no target man of the past fifteen years or so has quite captured that raw-boned aggression which was Steel`s hallmark. No-one intimidates defenders like he did, or has such a mastery in the air. Jim Steel is God. Our Jim was made of pure Scottish granite and a bit of hypothermia would never distract him. I imagined him retiring and getting a job on oil rigs, shinning out of the murky North Sea like King Kong to pull rivets out of the rig`s legs with his teeth.”
Aged 27, Steel in late 1987 next played for Tranmere Rovers who became the third club for whom he past the 100 first team appearances mark. Like at Wrexham, he is remembered at Tranmere as a club legend. For a then club record transfer fee, Steel was signed by Johnny King to act as target man for striker Ian Muir. They enjoyed considerable success together in the seasons to follow.
At the end of that 1987-88 season, Tranmere played at Wembley on the weekend of April 16/17th in the 16 team Football League Centenary Tournament. A good mid-season run of form saw Rovers qualify as one of the fourth division`s two representatives. Tranmere were the surprise package of an otherwise derided tournament, beating first division sides Wimbledon and Newcastle United before losing on penalties to eventual winners Nottingham Forest in the semi final. This became the first of five trips to Wembley for Tranmere in Steel`s time at Prenton Park.
Steel playing against Spurs
Tranmere won promotion as Fourth Division runners-up in 1989. In the same season Rovers knocked top division Middlesbrough out 1-0 in the League Cup. Top division Millwall were knocked out 3-2 of the same competition the season after. Steel scored with a looping header against the Tottenham Hotspur side of Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne in a 2-2 draw in the next round to earn a replay. In October 1991 another top flight team, Chelsea, took a league cup exit at Prenton Park when they lost 3-1.
Rovers in their first season in the third division, 1989-90, earned a place in the playoffs after finishing in fourth place. Notts County won 2–0 in the Playoff Final at Wembley Stadium. A week later at the Twin Towers Tranmere defeated Third Division Champions, Bristol Rovers, 2–1 in the final of the Leyland D.A.F Trophy. This was Tranmere`s first national piece of silverware. Club record scorer Ian Muir, his partnership with Steel flourished at Tranmere, gave Rovers an early lead with a volleyed strike. Devon White gave Bristol Rovers an equaliser early in the second half before Steel headed a late winner.
Jim Steel and Ian Muir with the Leyland DAF trophy.
Tranmere Rovers went one better in the 1990–91 season, winning the Third Division playoffs with a 1–0 win over Bolton Wanderers after Rovers finished in fifth place. Chris Malkin`s extra time goal helped the club to promotion to the Second Division for the first time since the 1930s. Once again, Rovers made an appearance in the Leyland D.A.F Trophy final, this time losing 3–2 to Birmingham City with Steel again scoring. The 1991 promotion meant Steel played his last season at the level at which he began his senior career, England`s second tier. Rovers finished their first season back at this level comfortably in mid table.
Jim Steel scored 29 goals in 174 Tranmere league games after which he cut his professional football career short at the age of 32. With his eye on the future he instead embarked upon a career in the Police force. He has been reported to be a Community Police Officer in Kirkby with a rank of sargeant.