Thursday, 31 December 2009

Donald Park

Hearts may have struggled for much of the 1970s but one player still fondly remembered by older Jambos is Donald Park. The Invernesian signed for Hearts in the summer of 1972 and made his debut three months later, scoring in a 3-0 win over Arbroath at Tynecastle. Although just nineteen years old, Park was to make twenty other appearances in maroon that season as Hearts finished tenth in the First Division.

Parkie, as he was affectionately known, spent six years at Tynecastle during a difficult time for the club, a period when Hearts suffered relegation for the first time in their history. Hearts won promotion in 1978 after their first season downstairs and many saw Parkie’s experience as an important factor in Hearts chances of avoiding further demotion. However, in September 1978 manager Willie Ormond swapped the undoubted skills of Park for two Partick Thistle fringe players, Denis McQuade and John Craig, a move that angered many Hearts fans. Unsurprisingly, Park made an impact at Firhill and Thistle avoided relegation that season - at Hearts expense.
When Hearts finally stabilised under Chairman Wallace Mercer and won promotion to the Premier Division in 1983 - ending a six-year yo-yo syndrome - manager Alex MacDonald looked to experience to help Hearts remain in the top division and he wasted little time in bring Donald Park back to Tynecastle for the Highlander’s second stint in Gorgie. The wee man’s most memorable moment that season was when he scored Hearts equaliser against Hibernian in the New Year derby in torrential rain at Tynecastle.

Thanks to the experience of Park, MacDonald and others, Hearts established themselves as Premier Division club and began replacing the older players of the squad with youngsters. Park moved to Brechin City in the summer of 1985 before taking on a coaching role at Meadowbank Thistle. After a brief spell managing Arbroath, Parkie took on a coaching role at Hibernian before being appointed Assistant Manager to Franck Sauzee in 2001. However, the Frenchman’s reign as Hibs boss was short-lived and both he and Park left Easter Road in 2002.

Park joined his former Hearts team-mate John Robertson as part of the managerial team at Inverness Caledonian Thistle towards the end of 2002 and their partnership helped Caley Thistle to promotion to the SPL for the first time in 2004. It was inevitable that such success would link the pair to Hearts and they returned home to Tynecastle when Craig Levein left Hearts in November 2004. Sadly, things didn’t work out as hoped and Robbo and Parkie left Tynecastle at the end of the season.

Park was to return to Caley Thistle as assistant to Charlie Christie in January 2006 before returning to Edinburgh two years later as assistant to Mixu Paatelainen at Hibernian.

Last summer, Donald Park left Easter Road to take up the position of Head of Coach Education with the SFA in Glasgow.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Phil O'Donnell Remembered

It's two years today since the tragic passing of footballer Phil O'Donnell. The Motherwell player died on the pitch playing for the Fir Park club against Dundee United. His death, not unnaturally, stunned Scottish football. Motherwell played their first game following Phil's passing against Hearts at Tynecastle a couple of weeks later. Below is the tribute I wrote for the match programme at that time. It's not only Motherwell fans who still mourn a great man's passing.

Along with many other Hearts supporters, I had recently been bemoaning the fact that my team had been struggling of late, had not won a game for weeks and were now embroiled in a fight against relegation, a situation a club of the stature of Heart of Midlothian FC should never find itself in. After the last match of 2007 – another defeat at Falkirk – I was agonising over just what had gone wrong with the team I love and trying to come to terms with the fact we were in third bottom place of the SPL, just ten points ahead of fast-improving Gretna. My wife knew - as she always knows when Hearts lose a game – that I had the world’s woes on my shoulder and left me to muse. Then the news came in that Motherwell’s captain Phil O’Donnell had died after collapsing during the game against Dundee United…

The death of someone aged just 35 is shocking in any event. That it should happen to a fit sportsman whose name was known to every Scottish football fan intensified the shock and feelings of disbelief felt that Saturday night. My immediate thoughts were with his young family whose devastation could only be imagined. I have a friend who is a die-hard Motherwell fan and since the draw had been made for today’s Scottish Cup Fourth Round tie, he had been ribbing me mercilessly about what his exciting team were going to do to Hearts, particularly after their recent impressive win in the SPL at Tynecastle. But he found it difficult to put into words how he felt that Saturday night. Like many other Motherwell fans, he remembered O’Donnell as an outstanding young player during his first spell at Fir Park. O’Donnell was a youthful member of the Motherwell team that famously won the Scottish Cup in 1991 after defeating Dundee United in one of the most memorable cup finals in living memory. O’Donnell wrote himself into Motherwell folklore by scoring in that game. The midfield player moved to Celtic soon after and eventually headed to Sheffield Wednesday before returning to the club where he made his name.

Usually, fans ridicule opposing players although this is often seen as a grudging mark of respect. The reaction of fans throughout Scotland on the news of Phil O’Donnell’s passing was a clear indication that here was a player widely respected. Former Scotland manager Craig Brown called him the model professional while Motherwell owner John Boyle called him an inspiration. Hearts fans on internet messageboards such as Jambos Kickback, and The Talk O’ the Toun were quick to offer their condolences to his grieving family. His Celtic connections may have instigated the odd abusive comment when he played against Hearts but there was no doubt that he was an integral part of the Motherwell team that, under the tutelage of Mark McGhee, had taken Scottish football by storm this season. As captain, O’Donnell was McGhee’s commander on the field of play and the manager, like everyone associated with Motherwell Football Club, was clearly devastated by the events of the last Saturday of the year.

O’Donnell’s death brought to mind another player with Motherwell connections who died at such a tragically young age more than a decade ago. Davie Cooper was 39 when he collapsed on the training field and his death in 1995 was another that shocked Scottish football. Only a few weeks earlier, Cooper had been playing at Tynecastle for Clydebank against Hearts in a Scottish Cup tie and there were the usual wags in the stand offering comments regarding his Zimmer frame and walking stick and not forgetting to collect his old-age pension from the post office the following morning. Motherwell fans will mourn the fact that, tragically, two members of that relatively recent cup winning side are now no longer with us.

Such awful events underline that for all the problems we think we have – and Hearts fans have been in despair in recent weeks as the Jambos continue in freefall – football is only a game. The family of Phil O’Donnell will never get over the passing of a thoroughly decent and hugely respected man although they may learn to cope with his loss with the passing of time. Part of this family is Motherwell forward David Clarkson who was O’Donnell’s nephew. Football managers often talk of strength of character but young Clarkson will need to show this like never before and in circumstances that have nothing to do with how he performs on the field of play.

At the time of writing this piece, Hearts had still to face Dundee United and Kilmarnock in the SPL. Defeats in both those games will have intensified the already considerable pressure on Anatoly Korobochka, Stevie Frail and the Hearts players. But the events of two weeks ago must surely put this in perspective.

Some things – as the players and officials of Motherwell FC and the family of a man who was a Motherwell legend will testify – are infinitely more important.

Ralph Callachan

There aren’t many players who play significant roles for both Hearts and Hibernian. However, one who did three decades ago is still fondly remembered by supporters of both clubs.

Ralph Callachan grew up a Hibby but it was for Hearts that he signed as a sixteen year old in September 1971 from Tynecastle Boys Club. A precocious talent, the midfield player made his Hearts first team debut less than three years later. It was in season 1974-75 that Callachan made a big impression at Tynecastle despite the club struggling in the league and cups. He was a class act in a Hearts midfield that struggled at times but his subtle skills perfectly complemented the more aggressive talents of the likes of Drew Busby.

Hearts were fighting against relegation in April 1976 and I recall a sublime performance from the Edinburgh born youngster that was instrumental in Hearts recording a fine 3-0 victory at Pittodrie on a pleasant spring evening. Hearts escaped demotion due in no small part to this result but the following season were again involved in a relegation fight. However, fans could scarcely believe it when Callachan was sold to Newcastle United for £90,000 in February 1977. It was a decision that blew away Hearts chances of survival.

Callachan’s stay on Tyneside was a brief one and eighteen months later, he returned to Edinburgh to sign for the team he followed as a boy as part of a deal that took Hibernian legend John Brownlie to St. James Park. He was to enjoy eight impressive seasons at Easter Road and in 1979 played against Rangers in the Scottish Cup Final. Sadly, like his only other Scottish Cup Final appearance - for Hearts in 1976 also against Rangers - he was to end up with a loser’s medal. After a spell with Edinburgh’s third team in 1986 - Meadowbank Thistle - Callachan became player-manager of Berwick Rangers.

Callachan later ran a pub with Hibs team-mate Jackie McNamara and in 2006 was giving his opinion to the media as an Edinburgh taxi driver on that season’s Edinburgh derby Scottish Cup semi-final. He remains a frequent visitor to Easter Road.
Photo courtesy of London Hearts website

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Dniepr the Defeated

1990 – a new year, a new decade and a new era, not only for this writer but for Heart of Midlothian Football Club. After several years in Aberdeen, I had moved to Edinburgh, intent that my young family would enjoy a better way of life and the cultural experience that was living in the capital city. While I was moving in, the man who had rescued Hearts from oblivion, the man who took Hearts to minutes of the league championship, the man who took Hearts to the latter stages of European competition – Alex MacDonald – was moving out. The writing was on the wall for wee Doddy in March 1990 when a highly fancied Hearts team lost 4-1 at Aberdeen in the quarter-finals of the Scottish Cup. It was another season that ended in bitter disappointment for Hearts supporters who began to question just how many gut wrenching events they could stomach.

When Hearts began season 1990/91 with defeat at Dunfermline and then were again comprehensively beaten by Aberdeen in a League Cup tie at Pittodrie the knives were out - particularly when, during that cup-tie, MacDonald favoured bringing on Walter Kidd as a substitute instead of £750,000 signing Derek Ferguson at a time when Hearts were two goals down. A 3-1 defeat by Rangers at Tynecastle in the league three days later sealed Macdonald’s fate.

Former Scotland international Joe Jordan was the surprise choice as MacDonald’s replacement. One of the best strikers ever to play for Scotland, Jordan had been manager at Bristol City where his impressive style of management had not gone unnoticed by bigger clubs. Indeed, Jordan had turned down the opportunity to manage Aston Villa just months earlier so his appointment at Tynecastle was seen as a real coup. Although Jordan had no previous link with Hearts – unusually for a Gorgie boss - it was clear that chairman Wallace Mercer had looked at Ibrox where Graeme Souness had transformed Rangers and thought Jordan could emulate his international team mate. The difference was that Souness was given a blank chequebook – Jordan would have very little money as Hearts finances worsened. On paper, Hearts looked a strong team. With the much heralded defensive pairing of Craig Levein and Dave McPherson at last playing alongside each other for a decent run of games, the influential Derek Ferguson in midfield and the goal scoring prowess of John Robertson up front, Hearts looked good enough to give any team a run for their money. However, the full-backs positions were a worry with neither George Wright nor Jimmy Sandison having the consistency to make those positions their own.

In midfield it seemed too much was expected of Ferguson who found it difficult to gel with Gary Mackay and Davie Kirkwood while, up front, the goals seemed to dry up for John Robertson who went three months without scoring a league goal. Despite their troubles, Hearts were still good enough to beat Hibernian as a 3-0 win at Easter Road in September 1990 proved.

Two years after their memorable run which took them to the quarter-finals, Hearts were also looking forward to another run in the U.E.F.A. Cup. Now living in the capital city, I discussed with my mate Gordon the prospect of travelling to the continent to see the mighty JTs and we awaited the first round draw with relish, particularly when some of the clubs in the first round draw were Inter Milan, Real Sociedad, Bordeaux and Anderlecht. Our hearts sank however, when we saw Hearts being paired with…..Dniepr Dnepropetrovsk. It was the era of glasnost and the Soviet Union was about to come to an end but I still didn’t fancy a trip to a club who played just forty miles from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. ‘We’ll save our cash for the second round’ we quipped but, given Hearts struggling league form, I didn’t fancy our chances against the Russians. But on September 19 in the first leg ‘behind the iron curtain’ Hearts produced a marvellous display and secured a 1-1 draw with, inevitably, John Robertson scoring the crucial away goal. Nearly 19,000 Jambos packed Tynecastle a fortnight later to see Hearts try and finish the job. After another famous European night, they weren’t to be disappointed!

Hearts: Smith; McLaren; McKinlay; Levein; Kirkwood; McPherson; Colquhoun; Wright; Robertson; Iain Ferguson and Bannon. Subs: Derek Ferguson; Mackay.

The return of Dave McPherson to the side – Big Slim had missed the first leg through suspension – was welcome while European veteran Eammon Bannon was encouraged to make as much forward runs as possible and to deliver telling passes to John Robertson and Iain Ferguson. There was a feeling that Fergie and Robbo were too similar in style to play effectively together but the pair of them fairly rumbled the Ukrainians on a memorable October evening. The hero of the night, not for the first time, was John Robertson.

The game kick off with the big crowd urging Hearts to glory and within second of the start, a brilliant piece of skill by Robertson seemed to light the blue touch paper. He dummied a through ball from Tosh McKinlay which let Iain Ferguson through the former Dundee United striker lashed the ball beyond keeper Gorodov to seemingly give Hearts a dream start. But the linesman on the stand side dampened Hearts celebrations by signalling for offside and Dniepr were let off the hook. It was a close call, as Ferguson seemed onside to most onlookers. Thereafter Hearts began to look a bit unsure of themselves. The 1-1 draw in the Ukraine meant a goalless game in Gorgie would be enough to secure Hearts place in the second round and the maroons seemed to be in two minds as to whether to go on the offensive or play it tight. Dniepr sensed Hearts unease and looked menacing on the counter-attack. Sidelnikov forced Henry Smith into making a couple of saves and it was clear Hearts still had work to do to ensure their progression in the competition.

George Wright was being encouraged to get forward as often as possible and the midfield player had a chance after fifteen minutes when eh found himself with time and space on the edge of the Dniepr penalty box. However, Wright’s effort sailed high into the packed Tynecastle terracings. Joe Jordan signalled to Dave McPherson that he wanted to use the defender’s height in attack to unsettle Dniepr’s defence and the Ukrainians found the former Rangers man a handful. After twenty minutes Hearts were awarded a free kick on the edge of the penalty box. McKinlay, an astute crosser of the ball, delivered a fine ball into the danger area where confusion reigned among the Dniepr defenders. Keeper Gorodov completely missed the cross but big Dave McPherson didn’t and the Hearts man produced a superb diving header to nod Hearts in front both on the night and on aggregate. Big Slim’s delight was unrestrained particularly as he had been manhandled by the Ukrainians shortly before this and the tie had come to life. Two minutes later, Hearts came forward again. The ever-dangerous John Colquhoun crossed from the right towards Iain Ferguson who managed to flick the ball on to John Robertson. As Robbo was about to pull the trigger he was pushed off the ball by Gerashenko and the Norwegian referee had no hesitation in pointing to the penalty spot. Robertson picked himself up and fired his penalty past Gorodov to put Hearts 2-0 ahead and a step closer to the second round.

Dniepr seemed to lose the place for a brief spell after this and Hearts did their best to capitalise on their indiscipline. There was almost a third goal when keeper Gorodov fumbled the ball but Davie Kirkwood’s eagerness to punish this error saw him lunge in and he was booked for fouling the Dniepr custodian. The maroons game plan then suffered a set back after thirty-five minutes when George Wright hobbled off injured. But his replacement was a Tynecastle legend – Gary Mackay. The midfield player, a Hearts fanatic as well as long serving player, would ensure the maroons kept their focus. Henry Smith was thankfully keeping his when he produced a stunning save from Shakhov to keep the score at 2-0. But with just four minutes until the break Dniepr got the breakthrough that few could grudge them. Tosh McKinlay fouled Bagmut and now it was Dniepr’s turn for a penalty kick. Shakhov beat Henry Smith from the spot - the first goal Smith had conceded at Tynecastle in European competition in over 400 minutes – and the tie was back in the melting pot again. But not for long!

Hearts immediately raced to the other end of the park and forced a corner kick. Colquhoun’s cross was headed goalwards by Alan McLaren for the towering figure of John Robertson to nod past Gorodov. As the half-time whistle blew Hearts were, remarkably, 3-1 ahead on the night, 4-2 on aggregate.

It was all or nothing for Dniepr in the second half and there were some anxious moments, particularly when Kudritsky’s effort flew just inches over the crossbar and Gudimenko was denied by the alertness of keeper Henry Smith who dived at the forward’s feet. Hearts, though, weren’t averse to trying to secure the fourth goal that would put the tie beyond the Ukrainians and Gorodov who seemed to go down in instalments eventually saved Iain Ferguson’s effort. John Colquhoun’s effort towards the end of the game was also close to settling the game but it seemed Dniepr, sensing the game ebbing away from them, had resorted to some tough tackling. Colquhoun, Ferguson, and Neil Berry were all the victims of some crude challenges but despite this Hearts saw the game out and there were no further goals.

Hearts won 3-1 to go through 4-2 on aggregate and it was one of the more impressive European results for the Gorgie Boys. Along with 19,000 other Jambos, I celebrated a fine win that evening.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

East Stirlingshire 1 Montrose 0

Irn Bru Scottish Third Division - Sunday, 6 December 2009 - Ochilview

Tired of the circus that Heart of Midlothian FC has become, my affection for East Stirlingshire has intensified in the last couple of years. I have gone to the now abandoned Firs Park on a few occasions and recently have gone to see The Shire at their new abode, Ochilview Park, Larbert which they share with Stenhousemuir. Earlier this season I witnessed a hugely enjoyable League Cup tie there when The Shire stormed back from three goals down to level the game with SPL side St. Mirren - only for the Paisley team's fitness to prove crucial as they ran out 6-3 winners.

Today I chose not to go and see Hearts latest shambolic performance and opted to see a bunch of hard-working lads who may not be the most talented in the land - they wouldn't be playing in the Third Division otherwise - but who will give their all.

And so it proved as East Stirlingshire maintained their promotion push with a hard-fought win over basement side Montrose. In difficult conditions it was a credit to both teams that they tried to play a passing game. The only goal came from the outstanding Paul Weaver who fired in a great effort after sixty-two minutes leaving the Gable Endies keeper with no chance.

I was impressed by not only Weaver but Craig Donaldson, Derek Ure, Eddie Forrest and substitute Marc McKenzie. The home support were vociferous, humourous and hugely entertaining throughout and despite the freezing cold weather - what else does one expect three weeks before Christmas - it was a very enjoyable afternoon.

I have a feeling I may soon become a conscript of McInally's Black and White Army!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Eammon Bannon

There aren’t many players who spend two different spells at the good ship Heart of Midlothian but one who was a success on both occasions was midfield maestro Eammon Bannon.

The Edinburgh born player joined Hearts as an eighteen year old in 1976 and made his debut by coming on as a substitute against Ayr United in the doomed season of 1976-77, a campaign that ultimately saw Hearts relegated for the first time in their history. Bannon’s subtle but effective skills in midfield meant he was pressed into action even at such a young age but even his skills couldn’t prevent Hearts demotion. Former Scotland manager Willie Ormond was charged with taking Hearts back to the top flight at the first time of asking and with no money to rebuild the team, the former member of the Hibernian Famous Five forward line of the 1950s relied heavily on the skills of his teenage protégé. Bannon didn’t let him down and scored an impressive thirteen goals - including a hat-trick against Kilmarnock at Tynecastle on Hogmanay 1977 - as Hearts duly secured promotion.

However, Ormond’s hopes of building a Hearts team to challenge for honours were left in tatters as Hearts sold Eammon Bannon to Chelsea in January 1979 for a club record fee of £200,000. The money kept the financial wolves from the door - temporarily - but Hearts struggled badly without their star player. Inevitably, they were relegated again at the end of season 1978-79.
Bannon, though, was hoping for big things at Chelsea under their ebullient manager Danny Blanchflower who saw him as a potential replacement for the departed Ray Wikins. Sadly, Blanchflower was sacked as Chelsea manager later that year and his replacement, England World Cup hero Geoff Hurst, allowed Bannon to return to Scotland and Dundee United just ten months after he left Gorgie.

Bannon became an integral part of Dundee United’s most successful team ever in the early 1980s. He was to win League Cup Winner’s medals and, memorably, a Premier Division championship medal when Jim McLean’s team won the league title in 1983. Bannon was part of United’s equally memorable run in the European Cup the following season when the Tannadice side reached the semi-final only to lose narrowly to Italian champions Roma. In 1987, he appeared for United in the UEFA Cup Final where they lost to IFK Gothenberg.
A year later Bannon returned to his first love - Hearts.
By now, Chairman Wallace Mercer had stabilised the club and was keen to build on the progress that had seen the maroons challenge the Old Firm - the signing of Bannon alongside United team-mate striker Iain Ferguson was seen as key moves. Bannon was to spend another five happy years at Tynecastle and while the club didn’t make the breakthrough in acquiring silverware as hoped, Bannon’s influence on the younger players breaking through such as Alan McLaren and Scott Crabbe was invaluable.

In May 1993, Bannon left Tynecastle for a brief spell at Hibernian - his only game for the Easter Road team coming against Hearts - but was back in Gorgie in July 1994 when Tommy McLean appointed him to the coaching staff. When McLean left Tynecastle, Bannon went too and ended his playing career at Stenhousemuir. His spell at Ochilview was triumphant - he was part of the Stenny team that lifted the Scottish Challenge Cup in 1995 - ironically defeating Dundee United in the final!

After a spell as manager of Falkirk, Bannon brought his boots back on to play for Edinburgh’s non-league Spartans in 1996 before finally retiring two years later to run Strathallan guest house in Edinburgh which he does to this day. He also does work for the Press Association in Scotland through the PFA.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Tottenham Hotspur v Rangers 1962

Tottenham v Glasgow Rangers - European Cup-Winners Cup 1962

The magical Hungarian side of the 1950's and the spellbinding quality of Real Madrid in the early 1960's opened the eyes of football supporters in Britain to just how fast the game was changing at the beginning of the swinging sixties. The emergence of the three European club competitions at this time was a mouth watering addition to the menu of a game already enjoying a post-war boom in popularity and the likes of Benfica, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich were about to become as equally famous as the Spanish giants from Madrid. Whilst the drawing of a big name from the continent would stir great excitement, equally as enthralling would be the pairing of two British teams in European competition. In the autumn of 1962 the names of Tottenham Hotspur and Glasgow Rangers came out of the hat for the second round of the European Cup Winners Cup and, with the Sixties still in their relative infancy, the tie was being touted as the match of the decade.

Tottenham Hotspur, suave and sophisticated, had a team oozing with class. Players like Jimmy Greaves, John White and Danny Blanchflower were already part of White Hart Lane folklore as was that redoubtable Scot Dave Mackay. The team which had created history by winning the League and Cup double eighteen months previously was regarded as one of the finest Spurs teams of all time and, although they were no longer League champions, they were hot favourites to make further progress in the competition.

Glasgow Rangers had also seen their League championship flag taken away from them by Dundee but they had fine players of their own such as Scottish internationals Jim Baxter, Ronnie McKinnon, Eric Caldow and Davie Wilson. Many observers, however, believed that Spurs - with some of their top stars earning a reputed £5,000 a year, more than double the top salary at Ibrox -had too much quality to be troubled by their Scots counterparts and the first leg at White Hart Lane kicked off on Halloween 1962 with the Londoners favourites to take a lead up to Glasgow.

Tottenham: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, Mackay, Medwin, White, Allen, Greaves and Jones.

Rangers: Ritchie, Shearer, Caldow, Davis, McKinnon, Baxter, Henderson, McMillan, Millar, Brand and Wilson.

Predictably, thousands of Rangers supporters flocked to the capital to lend their heroes support and they were in good voice as the game kicked off. However, the pre-match predictions of a Spurs win seemed to be coming true with less than ten minutes on the clock. From a Greaves corner, White rose unchallenged above a transfixed Rangers defence to head Spurs into the lead.

The Ibrox men were stunned and more slack defensive play almost cost another goal shortly after. But, with Spurs threatening to run riot, Rangers winger Ralph Brand sent a sweeping pass to Davie Wilson 'who crossed for Willie Henderson to scramble the ball past Spurs Scottish goalkeeper Bill Brown. 1-1.

The match seemed to be living up to its billing as the game of the decade and in twenty-two minutes an audacious piece of skill by the ebullient Jimmy Greaves put Spurs back in front. With the Rangers defence remembering what John White had achieved from a previous corner kick, the Scotland star was tightly marked, but Greaves, the master showman, put such a curve on this corner that the ball sailed directly into the net past a startled Bill Ritchie in the Rangers goal.

This was the signal for all out Spurs pressure and the only surprise was that it took them until thirty-seven minutes to add to their score when Les Allen headed a Medwin cross powerfully home. Minutes later Allen added a fourth as the Ibrox defence began to crumble, although goalkeeper Ritchie kept the Glasgow side in the game with a string of fine saves. Yet, before the first half was over, the brave Scots had pulled another goal back - and it was a goal straight from the Spurs text book. A cross from Henderson on the right was headed gleefully into the net by Jimmy Millar. A breathtaking first half ended with Spurs 4-2 ahead.

The second strike had given Rangers heart and they started the second half on top, mounting a series of attacks on the Spurs goal. But, despite the pressure, they could not get the further breakthrough they needed and there were palpitations for the massed ranks of the Rangers support when Spurs won another corner with barely twelve minutes left. Inevitably Jimmy Greaves took it and Rangers worst fears were confirmed when Spurs centre half Maurice Norman guided the resultant cross past keeper Ritchie to make the final score 5-2 to the Londoners.

On the night of the original date for the second leg at Ibrox, Glasgow was enveloped in dense fog and so the game was put back. A massive crowd of more than 80,000 packed into Ibrox for the re-scheduled second leg on December 11th 1962 - a remarkable show of loyalty given that few people believed Rangers could beat Spurs from scratch, never mind three goals down. Rangers had controversially dropped midfield star Jim Baxter following the first leg at White Hart Lane but, wisely, had reinstated the international genius for the return game. Indeed the Rangers team was the same that lost heavily in London. Spurs only alteration was to replace Les Allen with Bobby Smith and the game kicked off in a cacophony of noise with both teams making early attacks.

With Rangers looking for the early breakthrough that would raise hopes of an unprecedented comeback, their aspirations were dealt a fatal blow from the man who was tormentor-in-chief in the first leg. As in that first game there were barely ten minutes gone. And, as in the first, it was Jimmy Greaves who was the hammer of the Scots. On a mesmerising run he went past one, two, three Rangers players as if they were not there. As goalkeeper Ritchie raced out, Greaves slipped the ball past him to put Spurs in front on the night and 6-2 ahead on aggregate.

You could have heard a pin drop at Ibrox. Rangers huffed and puffed for the rest of that first half but the class of this Spurs team was all too evident and they coped comfortably with anything that the Ibrox men could throw at them. In fact the closest to another goal came when Greaves nearly added a second after almost half an hour.Rangers did find a way through two minutes into the second half when Ralph Brand headed home a Willie Henderson cross and Ibrox erupted once more into a frenzy. However the joy was short-lived. Spurs merely moved up a gear once more when Bobby Smith made up for his absence in the first game by rocketing a shot past a bewildered Billy Ritchie to put his side 2-1 ahead on the night. It was a classic counter-attack and illustrated how much this Tottenham side had learned in such a short period of time about how to play the European way.

Rangers threw everything into attack once more, hoping to salvage some pride with an equaliser - for everyone knew the tie itself had been lost weeks earlier in London. With fifteen minutes to go Davie Wilson powered the ball past Bill Brown and it seemed that some respect was to be restored to the Scottish game with a 2-2 draw. But, being the true professionals they were, Spurs came forward again with just two minutes left. Again the Rangers defence got in a tangle and Bobby Smith got his second goal of the night to make the final score 3-2 for Spurs and a remarkable 8-4 on aggregate.The ovation given to both teams from a disappointed but appreciative Ibrox crowd told its own story.

Any Scotland v England clash, whether it be an international or a club match, raises the passion in any Scot but they knew by the way Tottenham had dismantled a Rangers side on its way to yet another League championship, they had witnessed an exceptional team in action. Tottenham, of course went on to destroy Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the Cup Winners Cup final in Rotterdam - but players and supporters alike would look back on the "Battle of Britain" with more than a little satisfaction.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Darren Fletcher - Heart of Midlothian!

It was the summer of 2001. Any father of teenage daughters will tell you the phone rings incessantly for their offspring and this was a time when mobile phones were not quite yet the mass production must have item they are now. Answering the phone for what seemed like the three hundredth time that day, my patience was at breaking point.

Yes?!’ I snapped, my telephone protocol long since discarded.

Oh, hello Mr Smith. I’m sorry to trouble you but I was wondering if Laura was around?’

Daughter Laura was fifteen years old then and being a teenager in Dalkeith her circle of friends were normally of the grunting, sniggering variety. Therefore, this well-spoken, polite young lad had me immediately on my guard.

Eh, no’ I replied somewhat hesitantly, ‘she’s not here’

Oh, that’s okay’ the young man responded, ‘would you mind telling her that Darren called?’

Darren?’ I sniped. ‘Any message?’

No, it‘s okay Mr Smith. I’m sorry to have bothered you. Thanks for your time’.

Said daughter duly arrived some time later and my inquisitiveness got the better of me. ‘Some laddo called for you earlier. Says his name is Darren but he doesn’t sound like he’s from round here’ I said, hoping to extract further information on this mysterious and, for all I knew, potential chaperon to my elder daughter.

Darren?’ my daughter asked with eyes alight. ‘That’ll be Darren Fletcher. I knew he was back in Dalkeith - I’ll call him later

At that, I threw an inquisitive look towards my daughter. ‘Darren Fletcher? The laddie whose folks live down the road? The laddie who has signed for Manchester United?’ I asked.

Aye, that’s him’ came the almost nonchalant reply.

Daughter Laura went to the same St. David’s High School as Darren Fletcher and even though there were a couple of years between them, they were friends. But then Darren Fletcher had lots of friends. He was polite, courteous, approachable and as was evident at even that early age, had immense skill as a footballer. It was little wonder that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson made the journey north to Mayfield, Dalkeith in July 2000 to make a personal visit to Darren Fletcher’s family in order to persuade their gifted son to join the Red Devils. Not that he would need much persuasion to join arguably the biggest club in the world. Fletcher’s family knew their boy was going to make it as a professional footballer but they harboured concerns that he might not get his chance to do so at Old Trafford. After all, a year earlier United had been crowned champions of Europe and with likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes were destined to add to the multitude of honours. What chance would young Darren Fletcher have of breaking through into this team? Ferguson merely placed his hand on their shoulders and said ‘trust me’. Fletcher joined United as a trainee in the summer of 2000 and signed professional terms six months later. Nearly a decade on that trust that Sir Alex Ferguson asked for has never been questioned.

Now 25 years old, Fletcher is approaching the years when a footballer hits the peak form of his career. Last month Manchester United lost 1-0 to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. To most observers, United were unlucky to lose the game and only a controversial refereeing decision cost them three points. The Reds had chances before John Terry’s late winner to take the lead and this added to Ferguson’s bitter frustration that his team left the west end of London empty-handed. Particularly when you consider the guilt-edged chances for Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs were set up by the subtle skills of Darren Fletcher. The joust between the Scot and the home team’s Frank Lampard was one of the highlights of the afternoon and, as always, Fletcher did not let anyone down. The Dalkeith boy - and despite fatherhood and the responsibilities of having twin boys brings he still looks a young laddie himself - has matured from a gangly, enthusiastic squad player to one of the first names Sir Alex Ferguson puts on the United team sheet. Fletcher’s absence from the United team that lost to Barcelona in the Champions League Final earlier this year was, in my view, one of the reasons the Old Trafford side relinquished their hard-earned title from twelve months earlier. Fletcher was sent off in the semi-final victory over Arsenal by a referee who got the decision badly wrong. Fletcher made a magnificent tackle on Cesc Fabregas but referee inexplicably decreed it was an illegal challenge and sent off the young Scot thus depriving him of a place in the Champions League final. As he trudged dejectedly from the Emirates pitch, Fletcher displayed the dignity and professionalism with which he has become associated; in fact, the same good grace and excellent manners he displayed while trying to locate my daughter all those years ago.

Fletcher’s obvious ability to support the front players with runs into the box and also provide exquisite passes to his highly-priced team mates mark him out as a special talent, one of the most gifted players to emerge in Scotland in recent years. It’s not just his ability to pass the ball that makes him special; his extraordinary vision of where the passage of play will take place next is something we more mature fans used to associate with the likes of Alex Young of Everton, Hearts and Scotland - a man they called the Golden Vision.

Mention of Scotland, of course, brings the quite ridiculous criticism that Fletcher isn’t the same player in the dark blue as he is in the red of United. The award for Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious should go to those critics; the national team are hardly world beaters and what is often seen as a poor pass from Fletcher is, in reality, a great pass - it’s just not seen by his colleagues. I recall Fletcher scoring his first international goal against Lithuania at Hampden in October 2003. I said to my mate at the game I thought Fletcher was actually too good for the Scotland team - his team mates in dark blue just didn’t seem to share his vision and passage of play. Fletcher’s winning strike that afternoon took Scotland to the play-offs for the finals of Euro 2004. Little wonder, then, that Scotland manager George Burley has appointed Fletcher captain in the absence of Barry Ferguson.

It is the fervent hope of every Scot that Darren Fletcher doesn’t end on the same trail as his United team mate, the equally gifted Ryan Giggs. The Welshman, despite being one of the best players ever to play for Manchester United, has never played for his country at the World Cup or European Championship finals. At 25, Fletcher still has plenty of time on his side to achieve this.

At a time when the standard of Scottish football has slipped alarmingly, we should be thankful that evidence that this country can still produce gifted footballers remains. Darren Fletcher is one those rare breed; a immensely talented football player who never causes any trouble for his managers either for club or country. His sublime goal against Everton today brought the house down at Old Trafford. His name is the first to be considered for both Manchester United and Scotland. For that, we should be hugely appreciative.

Monday, 16 November 2009

George Burley - Exit the Quiet Man

We’ve been here before. Far too many times. Scottish football in crisis, our clubs being outclassed in Europe, our national team shamed on the international stage. We’ve tended to bounce back before. The usual clichés about us being a small country punching above our weight and those good and bad times alternate in cycles are usually trotted out by those in power in the corridors of power at Hampden Park. This time, however, the feeling of despondency goes deeper. Scots clubs have been nothing less than shambolic in Europe this season and they will soon resort to type by being eliminated from the Champions League and Europa League by Christmas. As for Scotland, an inept World Cup qualifying campaign was followed by a hapless display in a friendly against those giants of world football - Wales.
Not since the dark days immediately following the debacle that was the World Cup Finals in Argentina in 1978 has Scottish football been at such low ebb.

The financial crisis affecting the game in Scotland - intensified by the collapse of the television deal with failed Irish broadcaster Setanta in the summer - has affected the Old Firm’s attempt to dine at the top table of European football. The fallout of the financial explosion hasn’t affected the national team in the same way. However, there appeared to be an alarming trait during George Burley’s time in charge - that of a lack of commitment from certain players.

In the immediate aftermath of Scotland’s woeful display and subsequent 3-0 defeat in Cardiff last Saturday, BBC Radio Scotland’s Chick Young - for it was he - said he had been told off the record by a player that he didn’t want to play for Scotland that day as it was a meaningless game. Pressed for the name of this player the not so bold Chick wouldn’t divulge the information using the excuse that it was off the record. Which begged the question if it were off the record why did Chick mention it at all? However, it also begged another question - was the player's apparent disinterest designed to put George Burley literally in a can’t win situation? It wouldn’t be the first time ‘player power’ has influenced the fate of a manager.

Back in May 1993, a Hearts team playing out the dying embers of a disappointing season faced a soon to be relegated Falkirk at Brockville Park. The maroons had little to play for having lost four league games in succession since losing their Scottish Cup semi-final to Rangers the previous month. Hearts were two goals down at half time and manager Joe Jordan’s team-talk at the interval clearly went collectively in one ear and right out the other. Hearts lost three goals within the first few minutes of the second half and eventually lost the game 6-0 to a team then managed by Jim Jefferies. It was a pitiful performance, which beggared belief among the travelling support. A few years later, I was at a Hearts shareholders dinner where striker John Robertson was a guest speaker. He ‘confessed’ that evening that once Hearts lost the third goal in that game and knew they weren’t going to get anything from it the team made a collective decision to ‘down tools’ and conceded three more. Robbo admitted few of the players liked manager Joe Jordan or his methods and they felt an embarrassing result would give then chairman Wallace Mercer little option but to dispense with the services of the former Scotland striker. And so it was less than forty-eight hours later that Jordan was given his marching orders.

I thought of that game when I heard the reports of Scotland’s loss in Cardiff last Saturday. And again today when I heard that George Burley had been sacked as Scotland manager. The quiet man had fallen on his sword.

Burley has, of course, crossed swords with more than one Scotland player since his appointment in January 2008. And it doesn’t take a genius to see there’s a common thread. Firstly, Rangers striker Kris Boyd took exception to merely being on the substitute’s bench during Scotland’s World Cup qualifier against Norway at Hampden in October 2008. He took even more offence at seeing Chris Ilewumo being brought on instead of him in the second half and seethed as he and the nation witnessed the Wolves striker being guilty of one of the most glaring misses in front of goal ever by a Scotland player. The game ended goalless and the end was already in sight for the Scots chances of going to the finals in South Africa next year. Boyd went in the huff and refused to play for Scotland again under Burley’s tutelage.

Six months later after a miserable but entirely predictable 3-0 defeat by The Netherlands in Amsterdam there was the infamous ‘Boozegate Episode’ (© all newspapers) Captain Barry Ferguson and goalkeeper Alan McGregor were dropped from the starting eleven to play Iceland four days later following their late night drinking session when the team returned from Amsterdam. As they took their places on the substitute’s bench, the pair made offensive gestures to the media. This sealed their fate as far as Burley was concerned and, like their Rangers team mate Boyd, their international careers were finished - under Burley at least.
The feeling that some players no longer wished to play for Scotland under the former Ayr United, Ipswich Town and Hearts manager intensified during the shockingly poor performance in Cardiff last weekend. Steven Naismith and Kenny Miller - both Rangers players - looked lethargic. Gary Caldwell struggled as he has for much of this season while Stephen McManus looked less than fit. Captain Darren Fletcher - so impressive for Manchester United this season - looked like a fish out of water although he publicly backed the manager after the game. Then you would expect your captain to do so. However, you might also expect the captain to be the man who disgruntled players go to vent their feelings.

Whatever the rumblings of discontent among the players the least that is expected of them is that they give their all for their country. That they show the same commitment to their nation the always large numbers of the travelling Tartan Army do. In years gone by the likes of Billy Bremner, Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law, Dave Mackay and the aforementioned Joe Jordan would have run through a brick wall to play for their country. The huge swathes of money in the modern game nowadays mean some players don’t want to miss playing for their clubs through picking up an injury on international duty - particularly if it’s a meaningless friendly being played just weeks after failure to qualify for the World Cup Finals. However, no matter if they have important club games coming up and no matter what gripe they have with the manager, playing for Scotland should always be an honour and a privilege. If there are players who don’t want to do so - even in games like the one against Wales who, it should be said, have also failed to qualify for the World Cup but showed an enthusiasm and eagerness that just wasn’t there for the Scots - then they should be shown the door a la Ferguson and McGregor.

It was difficult to see how George Burley could have survived the crisis. It seemed to me that he had lost the support of much of the media, the fans and crucially some of the players. With Walter Smith’s future at Ibrox anything but certain I wouldn’t rule out a return to the international arena for the present Rangers manager. The irony of such a situation wouldn’t be lost on many.

Whatever happens the nation should come first before any personal vendetta against the manager. It’s the very least Scotland expects.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Scottish League Cup Final 1971

Scottish League Cup Final 1971
Partick Thistle 4 Celtic 1

Occasionally the eyes of the football world are widened with astonishment by a particular result or performance which, thankfully, reinforces the theory that anything can happen when eleven men face eleven men. Whilst, over an arduous League campaign, the cream invariably rises to the top, the fascination of cup competitions undoubtedly encourages the supporters of the so called lesser teams to think that this might just be their day. This theory has particular credence north of the border where the names of Celtic and Rangers are etched over much of the silverware. And so it proved in spectacular style on October 23rd 1971 for the die-hards of Partick Thistle - for in a sensational Scottish League Cup final this, in the words of Churchill, was to prove their finest hour.

Thistle were - some say still are - the great enigmas of Scottish football. That they started season 1971-72 rather tentatively was no great surprise - after all they had been newly-promoted from the Second Division where only a few months before they had sampled the delights of travelling to Brechin, Stranraer and Stenhousemuir. Now that they were back in the big time, there was the usual optimism at Firhill but, if the truth be told, consolidation would be the main objective. The League Cup draw for the new season, however, had created a stir because in the opening sectional round Celtic and Rangers had been drawn in the same group - and with only one team qualifying for the knock-out stages the opportunity was there for a provincial club to reach a Hampden Cup final. Partick Thistle were drawn with Arbroath, East Fife and Raith Rovers but, as unpredictable as ever, the Glasgow side stumbled across the finishing line rather than with the expected sprint.

Indeed Thistle had to beat Alloa Athletic in a play-off to claim their place in the last eight. When they lost the first leg of the quarter final 2-0 to an impressive St. Johnstone side -who had reached the final themselves two years earlier - it seemed the end of the road. But the fiery passion of the Maryhill club's support was rekindled again as the Jags won the return leg 5-1 to claim their place in the semi-finals. It was an odd looking last four in what had already been a remarkable League Cup - the semi-finalists were Thistle, Celtic, St Mirren and Falkirk.

Thistle manager Davie McParland knew if his side could avoid the green machine in the draw there may never be a greater chance of glory. His prayers were answered when Thistle's name came out of the hat with Falkirk and the Jags duly claimed their first cup final appearance for thirteen years by winning the Hampden semi-final 2-0.Predictably their opponents in the final were to be Celtic - League champions since 1965 and competing in a remarkable eighth successive League Cup final.

Not surprisingly the bookmakers made Celtic odds on while you could have named any price you wished for Thistle. It seemed that Jock Stein's men needed only to turn up at the national stadium to collect yet another trophy - but as the teams ran out before a crowd of nearly 63,000 on that late autumn day Thistle had other plans.

Celtic: Williams, Hay, Gemmell, Murdoch, Connelly, Brogan, Johnstone, Dalglish, Hood, Callaghan and Macari.

Partick Thistle: Rough, Hansen, Forsyth, Glavin, Campbell, Strachan, McQuade, Coulston, Bone, Rae and Lawrie.

The loss through injury of captain Billy McNeill was a blow to Celtic and his absence seemed to instill an uncertainty in the Parkhead defence. Jimmy Bone went close for Thistle in the opening minutes and this seemed to signal to the men from Maryhill that Celtic were there for the taking. In the ninth minute the Celtic defence failed to clear a corner and the ball fell to Thistle captain Alex Rae who struck a right foot shot from eighteen yards which screamed past goalkeeper Williams. 1-0 to Thistle! A start no one predicted but surely Celtic would wake up from their lethargy and strike back? Six minutes later there was another goal - and it was 2-0 to Thistle!

Bobby Lawrie collected the ball from Bone, ghosted past Davie Hay as if he was not there, and cracked a tremendous angled shot beyond Williams. Barely quarter of an hour gone and the crowd began to sense something remarkable was about to happen. Even more so when Celtic's mercurial winger Jimmy Johnstone had to leave the field with an ankle injury, to be replaced by full-back Jim Craig. This meant switching Davie Hay into midfield, and while Celtic were still sorting themselves out Thistle, remarkably, were launching wave after wave of attacks. When the ball swung into the box the Celtic defence staged their own version of "after you Claude". Dennis McQuade did not hang about and poked the ball home from six yards. 3-0 to Thistle!

The Hampden crowd were stunned. The Celtic players looked on in disbelief and their torment was not over yet. Six minutes later Thistle were awarded a free kick midway inside the Celtic half. Bobby Lawrie took it quickly and passed to Jimmy Bone. The big centre forward couldn't believe his luck as he was allowed the freedom of Hampden to direct the ball past an equally disbelieving Evan Williams. 4-0 to Thistle!

When the half time whistle sounded, the Thistle players marched off to a tumultuous reception from their outnumbered but vociferous support. The Celtic end stood in stunned silence as if collectively in a bad dream. Public address announcers at grounds throughout Scotland were the subject of ridicule as they read out the half-time score to supporters attending various League fixtures around the country. Partick Thistle 4 Celtic 0 was greeted with undisguised derision. When the second half kicked off, there -was only one option left for Celtic.

The rollicking they received from manager Jock Stein at the interval may -well have registered on the Richter Scale and they set about trying to repair the damage. Murdoch, Dalglish and Macari all had excellent chances - but a combination of bad luck and inspired goalkeeping from young Alan Rough kept the Celts out until the 70th minute when Kenny Dalglish finally found the net. The Celtic onslaught grew even more ferocious in the last twenty minutes but Thistle held on for a famous 4-1 victory over a side who were not only Scottish champions but also amongst the best in Europe.

Jock Stein was magnanimous in defeat afterwards. While admitting Celtic committed some shocking errors in defence, he acknowledged that, on the day, Thistle were the better team and played some sparkling football.Thistle's jubilant manager, Davie McParland, paid tribute to every one of his players and said it was the greatest day of his life. The Maryhill area of Glasgow came to a standstill that Saturday night as thousands of red and yellow bedecked Thistle fans thronged the streets to see their heroes come home with the cup - Partick's first major honour for precisely fifty years. In keeping with the clubs rather slapstick image, when the officials got back to the Firhill ground proudly clasping the League Cup there were a few minutes delay before they could enter the club offices. Someone, it transpired, had misplaced the key! Once the triumphant players gained admission to their own ground the celebrations went on well into the night.Indeed one wonders if the party lasted for seven nights - the following Saturday Thistle lost a League game 7-2 to Aberdeen...

The Thistle team that overwhelmed Celtic made such an impression that Alan Rough, John Hansen, Alex Forsyth, Ronnie Glavin and Jimmy Bone were all to make future appearances for Scotland, albeit that most of them had moved on to other clubs before international duty was to call. However Alan Rough was to become Thistle's most capped player of all time and John Hansen's younger brother was about to make his debut in Thistle colours - Alan Hansen esquire would certainly go on to make a name for himself. Jimmy Bone and Ronnie Glavin would, in time, sign for Celtic but no matter what else those eleven players would do with their careers, they would forever be remembered for that incredible day when Partick Thistle, butt of many a music hall joke, got the last laugh on the biggest stage of all...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

David McCreery

One of Northern Ireland’s most capped players, David McCreery’s distinguished career was heading to its twilight phase when he joined Hearts in the summer of 1989. The Belfast born utility man had started his career at Manchester United, the highlight of which was helping them lift the FA Cup in 1977, defeating Liverpool 2-1 in the final. However, it had been a decade since The Red Devils had won the league championship and in 1979, McCreery joined Queens Park Rangers. After a spell in the North American League, he joined the Kevin Keegan inspired revolution at Newcastle United, playing alongside the former England international to help secure promotion for the Magpies to the top tier of English football in 1984.

Hearts manager Alex MacDonald grabbed the chance to sign the 67 times capped McCreery in 1989. Although he was by now 32 years old, the Ulsterman wasn’t at Tynecastle just to make up the numbers and played in 22 Premier League games that season as Hearts finished in third place in the league.

McCreery was to play a further two years in maroon - although Joe Jordan had replaced MacDonald as Hearts manager a year after McCreery’s arrival, the former Scotland striker quickly realised the important of his former Manchester United colleague.

McCreery’s final game for Hearts was in Gary Mackay’s testimonial game against Everton in May 1991. McCreery joined Hartlepool United before becoming manager of Carlisle United, leading the Cumbrians to a Third Division play-off place. Following a spell as manager at Hartlepool, McCreery headed back across the Atlantic to help develop the MLS league.
Today David McCreery is president of Weldmore Ltd a leading welding and engineering distributor in County Durham.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Scottish League Cup Final 1974

Celtic 6 Hibernian 3, Scottish League Cup Final 1974

The early part of the 1970's saw a "gang of four" dominate the competition for honours in Scottish football. Naturally this included the Old Firm - a rampant Celtic side in the midst of winning a record nine consecutive League championships and a Rangers team triumphant in the European Cup Winners Cup of 1972. But there were also a notable contribution from Hibernian and Aberdeen who won the League Cup and Scottish Cup respectively at the start of the decade. When Celtic and Hibernian met in the 1974 League Cup final at Hampden Park it was a re-run of the final two years previously which saw the Edinburgh club lift their first trophy since winning the Championship in 1952. The teams had also met in the 1972 Scottish Cup final but with calamitous consequences for Hibernian - they lost 6-1 (a record equalling reverse for a Scottish Cup final in Scotland). Despite the fact that this was probably the best Hibernian team in twenty years, it was Celtic who were clear favourites to lift the trophy for the eighth time since the competition's inception in 1946. After all, Jock Stein's men had inflicted a heavy League defeat on the Edinburgh greens just a week prior to the final and, even more disheartening for the team from the capital city, Hibernian were just back from Turin where they had seen their UEFA Cup hopes destroyed in a crushing defeat from Juventus.

Considering it was two of the top teams in the country contesting the final, there was a rather disappointing attendance of a little under 54,000 at Hampden on an admittedly cold October afternoon. There were the usual optimistic noises from both camps but there were those who thought that Celtic, for all their dominance in League championships since the mid sixties, might suffer from something of a psychological complex as far as the League Cup was concerned - it was an irritation to Jock Stein that they had lost the last four finals, most spectacularly to Partick Thistle to the tune of four goals to one in 1971. Would their recent failure in this competition prey on their minds? Certainly, despite the recent experiences which had beset them, there was a confident air in the Hibernian camp. So there was plenty of anticipation as the teams lined up as follows:

Celtic: Hunter; McGrain; Brogan; Murray; McNeill; McCluskey; Johnstone; Hood; Deans; Dalglish and Wilson.

Hibernian: McArthur; Brownlie; Bremner; Stanton; Spalding; Blackley; Edwards; Cropley; Harper; Munro and Duncan.

The opening minutes contained enough to suggest there was to be real drama, and indeed one of the most incredible Cup finals ever witnessed at the old stadium was about to unfold. After the customary early exchanges it was Hibernian who had the first real chance in the fifth minute but Alex Edwards ballooned the ball over the bar from close range. Celtic's reply to this was swift — and clinical. Jimmy Johnstone scored with a precise finish after an equally precise pass from young Dalglish for whom the occasion seemed tailor made. Johnstone was one of those frustrating players. On his day he could equal Best, Cruyff, some said even Pele — but on other days he was almost disinterested and it was clear that when Johnstone was on form, Celtic were on form and the combination could prove awesome. Sadly for Hibernian this proved to be one of those days when the little winger was at his best and he was in the mood to make them suffer as a consequence.

After a Steve Murray "goal" -was disallowed for offside, Celtic went two ahead ten minutes before half time when a long Pat McCluskey pass from defence found John "Dixie" Deans and the ex-Motherwell man ran through to slip the ball past goalkeeper McArthur. It seemed, at this stage, a question of how many? Dejected Hibernian supporters remembered with horror the Scottish Cup final of 1972 but, in forty three minutes, Joe Harper gave the Easter Road men a lifeline by finishing off some good work by Stanton and Cropley and so it was 2-1 for Celtic at half time. Remarkably the second half began almost as a carbon copy of the first. Joe Harper had a great chance to equalise seconds after the re-start but dithered at the last minute and the chance was gone. Typically, Celtic went straight up the field where Paul Wilson scored number three after being fed by Johnstone. Again Hibernian fought back. After an hour's play, Joe Harper — the little striker seemed to be everywhere — pounced on a loose ball, while a confused Celtic defence looked on, to make it 3-2.

The Hampden crowd roared its approval and four minutes later the Celtic support was making all the noise as Deans scored his second after getting the better of defender John Blackley. A further two minutes and Deans had scored an astonishing hat-trick — a curious goal as Deans knew little about it! A wayward cross from Johnstone smacked off his head and the ball could have ended anywhere - but it was indicative of Hibernian's day that it flew into their goal. 5-2 to Celtic.There had rarely been a final like it -and there was still more drama to come.

Steve Murray made it six after more fine play by Dalglish and Hibernian looked, by now, a sorry lot. But Joe Harper was determined to make a little bit of history for himself. With just over six minutes left he scored a third consolation goal - and so became the first man to score a hat-trick in a Cup final and end up on the losing side.The final score was 6-3 to Celtic and as captain Billy McNeill lifted the League Cup aloft he knew he had just taken part in one of the most remarkable Cup finals ever seen at Hampden. One hat-trick man, Dixie Deans, sportingly consoled another, a despondent Joe Harper, after the game. Deans himself had known the anguish of failure when he had missed a crucial spot kick during a penalty shoot-out in the European Cup semi-final against Inter Milan a couple of seasons before.

It was of little consolation for Hibernian that no other team in Scotland could have lived with Celtic that day — indeed not many in Europe could have done either. Manager Eddie Turnbull admitted as much afterwards when he said he was proud of his team - deep down he realised that Hibernian could not have played much better than they did. A couple of players from the final went on the achieve big things in England. Des Bremner went on to win a European Cup winners medal with Aston Villa in the early 1980's while a certain Mr Dalglish went on to Liverpool...

Season 1974-75 was to prove to be a disappointment for Celtic, however, despite the fact that they had also won the Scottish Cup in what was Billy McNeill's last appearance for the club. They had lost the League Championship for the first time since 1965 and, to make matters worse, it was their arch rivals Rangers who snatched it from them. So, consequently, the team who won one of the highest scoring Cup finals in history, was about to be broken up. Of the starting eleven only Danny McGrain was still around when Billy McNeill returned to the club as manager four years later.

For Hibernian, it was downhill from here until the club faced a hostile takeover bid from Hearts chairman Wallace Mercer in 1990 before eventually stabilising. Manager Eddie Turnbull left the club and, although there was a Scottish Cup final appearance in 1979 they lost to Rangers after two replays -the club suffered the ignominy of relegation the year after. Hat-trick man Joe Harper returned to his first love Aberdeen, in 1976 and, most bitterly of all in the eyes of the supporters, captain Pat Stanton left for Celtic a year later.

For the supporters of both clubs, however, the memory of a nine goal Cup final lingers on. And for Joe Harper, whose emotions during those ninety minutes endured more ups and downs than a liftman's nightmare, the memories of that hat-trick will leave more than a bitter taste...

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Walter Smith Flies Through the Air

The current Rangers manager enjoyed a long and distinguished playing career with Dundee United and Dumbarton. However, this is a moment he won't care to recall - scoring an own goal whilst playing for the Sons of the Rock against Hearts in the Scottish Cup Semi-Final replay of 1976.

Hearts won 3-0 and went on to face Rangers in the final.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Archie Baird - Aberdeen Legend

Archie Baird, a member of Aberdeen's legendary 1947 Scottish Cup winning team, has died at the age of 90. The Dons hero was the last surviving member of the first Aberdeen team to lift the famous old trophy.

Born in 1919, Baird signed for Aberdeen in 1938, but the outbreak of the Second World War meant he did not make his competitive debut until 1946. He made 104 league appearances for Aberdeen, scoring 26 goals. He left Aberdeen to join St Johnstone and then became a teacher and journalist.

Fittingly, Aberdeen meet St. Johnstone at Pittodrie on Saturday - Remembrance weekend - and a minute's silence will be held for the player still remembered fondly in the Granite City.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

A Question for the More Mature Hibbies...

It's nearly thirty years since George Best signed for Hibernian. But who are his new team-mates giving him such a warm welcome on a cold November day in 1979? I see John Blackley and, I think, Mike McDonald and a young Craig Paterson, now a BBC pundit. Any others?

The Humbling of Bayern Munich

The old cliché that there are no easy teams left in the quarter finals of a cup competition was trotted out on more than once occasion at the beginning of 1989. And so it proved when Hearts - the last of the Scottish hopefuls still left in Europe having enjoyed a memorable run by defeating St. Patrick‘s Athletic, Austria Vienna and Velez Mostar - were paired with Bayern Munich when the draw was made for the last eight of the U.E.F.A. Cup. In just six years, Hearts had progressed from playing the likes of Clydebank and Dumbarton to playing one of the biggest names in Europe in the latter stages of a major European competition. The first leg was played at Tynecastle on February 28th and more than 26,000 fans – including a smattering of expectant Germans – headed for Gorgie on a cold winter’s night.

Hearts: Smith; McLaren; McKinlay; McPherson; Berry; Levein; Galloway; Ferguson; Colquhoun; Black; Bannon. Subs: Mackay, Foster, Robertson, Sandison and McCloy.

Legendary striker John Robertson was only on the substitute bench as he was recovering from injury but it was a chance for Iain Ferguson to reproduce his goalscoring feat from two years earlier when he scored for Dundee United against Barcelona at the Nou Camp Stadium. Bayern were confident – the Germans are always confident – and the talk in the Munich camp before the game was of how much of a lead they were going to take back to Germany for the return leg. And as the game began in a tumultuous atmosphere it appeared Hearts had been listening a tad too closely to their more illustrious opponents. The maroons began cagily with the three Macs at the back – McLaren, McKinlay and McPherson – preferring to cautiously play the ball back to safety rather than incur the wrath of a Bayern team not unaccustomed to such occasions.

Further forward, John Colquhoun appeared to be sucked into a midfield role leaving Iain Ferguson as the lone striker but with Mike Galloway and veteran Eammon Bannon providing support. After thirteen minutes, a misplaced pass from Ferguson went to Thon who delivered a superb pass to the Swedish striker Johnny Ekstrom whose flick just went past the post. Shortly after Ekstrom fell down in the penalty box after a challenge form Craig Levein but the Austrian referee ignored German (and Swedish!) pleas for a penalty. Hearts, if truth were told, were struggling to make an impact. A highlight of their European campaign had been the strength of Mike Galloway up front but Bayern had clearly done their homework and Galloway was struggling to even touch the ball, far less maintain his impressive scoring record. However, after half an hour, Hearts finally threatened when Eammon Bannon delivered a tantalising cross which keeper Aumann could only punch out. Tosh McKinlay rattled the ball into the net but Hearts celebrations were soon muted when the referee blew for a foul on the German goalkeeper.

Bayern were clearly rattled by the physical nature of the game. Kenny Black, never averse to a challenge or two, lunged in on Reuter and the German reaction was not unexpected. Thon responded with a brutal tackle on John Colquhoun and as tempers frayed the game threatened to get out of hand. If the referee was loath to show anyone a yellow card he had little choice when Alan McLaren kept his foot high when he went for a fifty-fifty ball and the teenager was booked. Bayern had threatened on a couple of occasions in the first half but there was precious little incident around either penalty area. Manager Alex Macdonald had stressed before the game the importance of not conceding the dreaded away goal and when half-time arrived we hoped Hearts would at least look like scoring a goal in the second period.

Hearts did indeed throw off their shackles at the re-start. Just three minutes had gone of the second forty-five when Craig Levein sprayed a long pass to Mike Galloway. The former Halifax Town player turned the ball across goal, out of the reach of Iain Ferguson but towards Eammon Bannon whose effort cannoned off a Bayern defender. The 26,000 plus crowd roared their approval as hopes rose that the Jambos would make the breakthrough. After fifty four minutes, Ferguson rifled in a free-kick which brought a fine save from Aumann and the huge Jambo contingent sensed the breakthrough was imminent. It came barely two minutes later. Kenny Black was brought down on the edge of the penalty box, just in front of the Tynecastle shed. The practice put in on the training ground as about to pay off. The unlikely figure of Tosh McKinlay stood along side Iain Ferguson as the Germans tried to figure out the threat. Tosh discreetly rolled the ball to Fergie who let rip with a rasping shot which flew high into the net. Delirium at Tynecastle! Standing in the shed, I was hurtled several rows down the terracing as Hearts fans celebrated wildly.

Spurred on by a cacophony of noise from the home support, Hearts continued to drive forward with Ferguson and Colquhoun going close to extending the lead. But Bayern were dangerous on the counter-attack and the ever dangerous Thon seemed set to score a vital away goal only to be denied by a last gasp tackle from McKinlay. Thon’s frustration soon showed when he was booked for another crude challenge on Colquhoun who also took an arm in the face from Pfugler shortly afterwards - but the referee missed the incident. It was patently obvious that Bayern were rattled and their discomfort could and should have been increased eight minutes from the end when Dave McPherson found himself all alone in the Bayern penalty box – only to scoop the ball over the bar from ten yards out! The Germans didn’t know what hit them and they clearly took the option for damage limitation as the game drew to its close. When the referee blew his whistle for full-time, Hearts had secured their most memorable victory in European football. They had beaten the mighty Bayern Munich 1-0 and they headed for the Olympic Stadium a fortnight later in high spirits.

Of course, this wouldn’t be Hearts without a hard luck story. Wearing their away candy striped shirts, Hearts survived an edgy start in Munich to look the likelier team to score. Until Klaus Augenthaler smacked in a shot from thirty five yards which left keeper Henry Smith helpless. Alex MacDonald had warned his players beforehand about the threat of Augenthaler and was clearly annoyed that his players didn’t heed his words. The scores were now level on aggregate but still Hearts had chances to notch a priceless away goal. John Colquhoun in particular had two glorious chances – one of which clipped the post. Hearts were just inches away from a fantastic achievement – but, inevitably, the game’s second goal was scored by the home side. Bayern won 2-0 on the night and 2-1 on aggregate. While the Germans had criticised Hearts for their physical approach in the first game in Edinburgh, they were quick to praise Alex MacDonald’s side after the return game, saying Hearts were one of the best teams to play at the Olympic Stadium for some time. Hearts had done themselves - and Scotland - proud with their performances.

Whilst on holiday in Gran Canaria a couple of years back I was chatting to a Bayern supporter in a bar (as you do) and when I mentioned I was a Hearts fan he immediately replied ‘ah, yes, I was at the game in Edinburgh in 1989’. Clearly Hearts made a big impression on a memorable night!