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!

The Determination of the Old Firm

Determination on the faces of two Old Firm defenders in the 1977 Scottish Cup Final. Rangers Colin Jackson and Celtic's Roddy McDonald who would go on to play for Heart of Midlothian.

An Andy Lynch penalty would be enough to give Celtic the trophy.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

What's the Score?

We live in an age where communication is instant. Indeed, we demand it to be so. Satellite technology and the advance of the internet and mobile phones means that no matter where you are in the world you can have almost instant access to any sporting event worth its salt. It’s a far cry from when I first began going to football back in the late 1960s.

Back then, satellite technology was in its infancy. Yes, the USA were putting men on the moon but life in Scotland was literally more down to earth. Football was different four decades ago. There were only two divisions, First and Second with eighteen teams in the top flight. Teams would play each other just twice a season in the league and if my team Hearts were playing away - always on a Saturday afternoon in the days before games were covered live on television - the reserve team would be playing our opponents reserve team at Tynecastle.

Hearts struggled throughout the 1970s and attendances at Tynecastle were about half what they are now. On cold winter afternoons with a biting wind and lashing rain fans would huddle in the old Tynecastle shed urging on the likes of Rab Prentice, Drew Busby and Donald Ford. Unless you had a transistor radio with you - it’s a seventies thing, younger readers - getting the half-time scores from other games usually meant forking out a shilling (five pence) for a programme (in the days before they were called match day magazines). The other fixtures would be printed with capital letters next to them and a man would climb the half-time scoreboard on the Gorgie Road terracing slotting numbers on the board. For example, next to the letter A he would place 1-1. A quick look at the programme would show Aberdeen were drawing at home to Hibernian…

I was living in Aberdeen in 1971 when Partick Thistle recorded their famous League Cup Final triumph over Celtic, who were then one of the best clubs in Europe. I was at Pittodrie with a friend and there were huge hoots of derision when the fella on the half-time scoreboard on the then wide open Pittodrie terracing put 4-0 next to the letter A. The silly man must have got the score the wrong way round we assumed. As if Thistle would be four nil up against Celtic at half time we chortled. Astonishingly, it was true…

Back in the 1970s, the term mobile phone meant someone picking up their old dialling contraption and throwing it across the living room on discovering on BBC1’s Grandstand results service that their team had lost at Arbroath. In fact, a good many households didn’t even have a telephone - we didn’t get one in our house until 1976. The internet was something connected with the space agency NASA. The radio was the main source of getting updated football scores and tuning into Radio Scotland was a challenge in itself. No digital radio then, of course. It was VHF and medium wave and I seem to recall Radio Scotland being an extension of BBC Radio Four. So much so, that Sportsound - or Sportsreel I think it was called back then - didn’t start until 3.30pm on a Saturday afternoon. When I lived in Aberdeen as a child I used to spend an anxious half an hour from three o-clock on a Saturday wondering how the mighty - okay this was the 1970s so not so mighty - Jambos were getting on. It was at this time my pessimistic streak developed and has remained with me to this day. Hearts away to Dumbarton? Ach, they’ll skoosh it. By half past three, we’re bound to be at least three goals ahead. Then the dulcet tones of presenter Brian Marjoriebanks would come on and after updating us on Celtic and Rangers first - some things never change - eventually he would advise ‘and the latest from Boghead is that Dumbarton lead Hearts by a goal to nil…’ I soon learned to accept crushing disappointment as a way of life. As my father used to say to me ‘well, son, you chose to follow Hearts…’

Those of us who grew up in the 1970s and were avid football fans will remember the magnificent David Francey as Radio Scotland’s commentator supreme. Francey sounded like a loveable grandad, someone who would offer you sweets when you were expressly forbidden to have anything to eat before supper. ‘Oh and there’s a drive from the edge of the penalty box which has just whistled past the left hand post of Jim Cruickshank’ - his commentary often gave us better pictures that Archie Macpherson did in the edited television highlights on Saturday evening. Having said that, taking a radio to the game to get the other scores was often fraught with danger. When Hearts needed just a point from that game at Dens Park on the final day of season 1985-86 and hoped Celtic wouldn’t get the avalanche of goals they needed at St. Mirren to address their inferior goal difference the fella standing in front of me at Dundee dared to relay the news that The Hoops were four nil ahead at half-time. He was either very brave or very stupid depending on your view…

When the dust had settled on a Saturday afternoon and all the results were in the Hearts result would determine whether I nipped down the road to the local newsagent for a copy of the Saturday sports paper which was rushed out shortly after five o’clock and had all the results and brief match reports from the top games. Nearly every city had one. In Edinburgh it was the Pink News, printed on horrendous pink paper; in Aberdeen it was the Green Final printed on - well, you get the picture. After scouring through the paper to get scores and reports your hands were usually black with newsprint. I still recall the air of anticipation waiting in the newsagents for the screeching sound of the delivery van whose driver would lob a freshly printed batch of papers toward the door of the shop with the accuracy of a Danny McGrain throw in.

We forty something fans are often accused of looking at the past through rose-tinted - or in my case maroon-tinted spectacles. However, I can’t deny there were some truly awful games at Tynecastle three decades and more ago. Moreover, it’s difficult to imagine going to games now without having instant access to other scores through mobile phone and satellite technology.
However, there was an innocence about the days before mass technology I miss. The days before everything was sponsored, strips were emblazoned with names and most of us actually stood on the terracing for ninety minutes. On the other hand I don’t miss standing on the wide-open terracings in the middle of winter with the rain running down the back of your neck; the pissheads who stumbled through the turnstyles at 2.55pm having been in the pub for the past three hours and who would urinate down the back of your leg; or the ever present threat of violence that meant when you wore your team’s scarf walking down the road you were asking for a kicking.

Something I’ll hang on to next time Christian Nade’s attempt on goal knocks a Blackberry from the hands of a fan in row 25 of the Gorgie Stand…

Scottish Cup Final 1998

Heart of Midlothian 2 Rangers 1

In July 1995 Falkirk manager Jim Jefferies stood outside Brockville Park to tell the waiting media and anxious Bairns supporters - "I'm staying at Falkirk". The former Berwick Rangers manager had been given the opportunity to take the manager's post at Hearts and, being a former Hearts captain as well as a lifelong supporter, the temptation was keenly felt. Jefferies had worked a minor miracle at Falkirk, not only taking the club to the Premier Division but also earning a respectable mid-table position when many pundits were tipping The Bairns for relegation. But, within forty eight hours of stating his intention to stay put, Jefferies' uneasiness at turning down what may have been the opportunity of a lifetime intensified. When Hearts chairman Chris Robinson went back to try again, Jefferies changed his mind - and history was in the making.

Two years later Jefferies was beginning to make his mark at Tynecastle - but the Scottish media was obsessed with Rangers attempt to win the league championship for a record tenth season in succession. The other eight Premier Division clubs were written off even before a ball was kicked. But a new challenge was rising in the east. Hearts recovered from an opening day defeat at Ibrox to thrash Aberdeen 4-1 at Tynecastle and it was a taste of what was to come from Jim Jefferies' side. Rangers still led the way but defeat from Motherwell meant that a rapidly improving Celtic and a born again Hearts were soon snapping at their heels. The Jambos were producing highly impressive performances, particularly away from home as was evident in a 4-1 win at Motherwell and another 4-1 victory at Pittodrie.

At Christmas there was a three-way split at the top of the Premier Division with Celtic, Rangers and Hearts streets ahead of everyone else. When Rangers went to Tynecastle on 20 December many observers thought it would be the acid test of Hearts championship credentials. Walter Smith's side coasted to a 5-2 win and everyone waited for Hearts bubble to burst, a view reinforced on New Years Day when The Jambos let slip a 2-0 lead in the Edinburgh derby with Hibernian to end with a 2-2 draw. But Celtic's victory over Rangers twenty four hours later meant Hearts were still in the title race and would remain so until almost the last three weeks of the season.

When the Scottish Cup came around some commentators had been so impressed with Hearts displays that they thought the Tynecastle side were a good bet to take the trophy - even though it had been thirty six years since silverware last graced the west end of the capital city. The Old Firm, they reckoned, would be too involved with the championship but Jambos boss Jim Jefferies wasn't worried about that being an apparent backhanded compliment. Hearts were given a home draw against Second Division Clydebank in Round Three and were somewhat fortunate to win 2-0 given that The Bankies created the better chances in the game. It was Third Division opposition in Round Four when Albion Rovers visited Edinburgh and Angolan winger Jose Quitongo inspired Hearts to a 3-0 victory before their penchant for home ties was illustrated again in the quarter finals with a 4-1 win over Ayr United. Hearts eighth semi-final appearance in the Scottish Cup in twelve years had many people believing their name was on the trophy when they avoided both the Old Firm and drew First Division Falkirk. Hearts luck in the cup held firm. Despite their poorest display of the season during which The Bairns outplayed them, Hearts emerged 3-1 victors (two goals in the last two minutes sinking their lower league opponents) and their third cup final appearance in two years beckoned.

Their opponents were the side that had thrashed them 5-1 in the Scottish Cup final of 1996 - Rangers. Ibrox boss Walter Smith conceded that Hearts were a much improved team from the one that capitulated two years earlier but the Govan men were still firm favourites for the trophy. More than 48,000 supporters headed for Celtic Park on a warm May afternoon to witness one of the most emotional cup finals in recent years.

Hearts: Rousset; McPherson; Naysmith; Weir; Salvatori; Ritchie; McCann; Fulton; Adam; Cameron; Flogel. Substitutes: Hamilton, Robertson; Murray.
Referee: W. Young

It was a sign of the cosmopolitan times that, of the Rangers side, only Gordon Durie and Ian Ferguson were born in Scotland (Gough was born in Stockholm while Goram and McCall were born in England of Scottish parentage). Even the Hearts side contained two Frenchman, an Italian and an Austrian.

Both sides were affected by pre-match blows. Rangers influential German, Jorg Albertz was sent off for violent conduct the previous week at Tannadice while injury ruled out Swede Jonas Thern. Hearts captain Gary Locke, who was stretchered off injured after just seven minutes during the 1996 final, missed the '98 final because of a hamstring injury and, being a Hearts daft youngster, his anguish was felt by every Hearts supporter.

Rangers-Hearts Scottish Cup finals have a history of having remarkable beginnings. The 1976 final between the pair began at two minutes to three, Rangers scored within eighty seconds, and so Hearts were a goal behind before the official kick-off time! Astonishingly, the 1996 final kicked off at a minute to three and Hearts lost their captain within seven minutes. The fans wondered what the 1998 final would have in store - they got their answer after just thirty three seconds!
From the kick-off Hearts stormed upfield. Stand-in captain Steve Fulton burst into the Rangers penalty box only to be halted by Ian Ferguson. Halted illegally said referee Young and he awarded a penalty to Hearts. It looked initially like the foul had been committed outside the penalty box but, tellingly, few Rangers players protested. Colin Cameron stepped up to slot the penalty kick beyond goalkeeper Andy Goram and Hearts had a sensational lead after just eighty seconds. Maroon clad supporters erupted in the Celtic Park cauldron and it was certainly a start to the match few people - even in Edinburgh - had predicted.

Rangers, although stung by such an early setback, responded. Rino Gattuso embarked on a powerful run from midfield, which ended with a shot, which was comfortably saved by Rousset. Then Brian Laudrup had an effort which was blocked by nineteen year old Gary Naysmith. Hearts, however, weren't just sitting back. Despite a significant change in tactics by manager Jim Jefferies which saw the team adapt a more rigid 4-4-2 formation rather than their normal swashbuckling style of 4-4-3, the maroons were still capable of lightening raids on the break, epitomised by young Naysmith who was having an outstanding game at full back. The Scotland Under 21 star had just been named Young Player of the Year and his assured defending and attacking abilities were there for all to see at Celtic Park.

After half an hour Rangers Ian Ferguson - a veteran of St. Mirren's cup triumph in 1987 - was put through by Laudrup but pulled his effort wide. Then came Rangers best effort thus far. Accepting a short free kick some thirty five yards out, Lorenzo Amoruso fired in a magnificent shot which appeared to be heading for the top left hand corner of the net. But as Rangers prepared to celebrate the equaliser Hearts keeper Gilles Rousset leapt majestically to palm the ball past the post. It was a fantastic save and a defining moment. In the 1996 final, the big Frenchman let a shot slip through his fingers to give Rangers a two goal advantage from which they never looked back. It was a schoolboy error and Rousset hid his face behind his hands at the realisation at what he had done. But now, two years later, he produced one of the great stops and the twenty three thousand Hearts supporters stood to acclaim the moment. Half-time arrived with Hearts still ahead and one wondered if history was about to be made.

At the start of the second half Rangers replaced the unhappy Stensaas with the veteran campaigner that was Ally McCoist. It signalled an all-out attacking policy by Walter Smith and for the opening five minutes of the second period Hearts were pinned back in their own half. Within minutes McCoist received a pass from the tireless Brian Laudrup but his effort went into the side net. Urged on by captain Richard Gough -playing his last game for the Ibrox club - Rangers swept forward and one wondered if Hearts could hold out. But, on fifty three minutes, the Hearts support erupted once more. Gilles Rousset launched a long ball down field from a free-kick and it seemed that Rangers Amoruso would clear the danger. But the Italian dithered as he went to strike the ball and Frenchman Stephane Adam nipped in behind him. Taking the ball into the penalty box, Adam fired in a powerful shot which goalkeeper Goram could only parry into the net. 2-0 to Hearts and Adam ran with outstretched arms to an ecstatic Jambos support to milk the celebrations.

The noise from the Hearts end was deafening. Was the dream about to come true? Was thirty six years of anguish about to end? The supporters, so often kicked in the teeth by countless near misses from their side, could scarcely believe it. But there were still thirty five minutes to go. And a wounded Rangers side is when they are at their most dangerous. Seconds later Hearts almost ended the argument when Austrian Thomas Flogel headed a Steve Fulton free-kick powerfully towards goal but his effort was well saved by Goram. But, inevitably, Rangers stormed back.

Ally McCoist, despite being written off by some people at 35 years of age, was proving a real handful for the youthful Hearts defence. A snap shot from the striker from just six yards out was well saved by Rousset before the former Sunderland player appeared to be fouled by Dave McPherson. Time was running out for Rangers but, with nine minutes to go, McCoist finally got the goal both he and his side deserved. Ferguson played the ball forward to Gattuso. The Italian slipped it to McCoist who drove the ball past Rousset and into the net from eighteen yards.
The last few minutes of the 1998 Scottish Cup final were tense, nervous and fraught for supporters of both sides. Rangers threw everything at the Hearts defence but the Jim Jefferies’ side scented glory. But there was still time for more drama in this epic cup final. With two minutes to go, McCoist went down in the penalty box after a foul by David Weir. Referee Young immediately blew his whistle. For a moment it looked like a penalty to Rangers and Hearts hopes appeared to be cruelly dashed once more. But, after a nod from the assistant referee, Young awarded a free-kick on the edge of the penalty box much to the disgust of McCoist. Brian Laudrup's free-kick was deflected wide and Hearts and their supporters breathed a huge sigh of relief. The period of injury time seemed to last forever. Fully four minutes stoppage time had been played when, at last, referee Young blew for the end of the match. The Hearts support roared themselves hoarse and danced for joy. Jim Jefferies almost crushed his assistant Billy Brown with a hug of delight. Hearts had won the cup for the first time since 1956 and four decades of heartbreak had come to an end.

The scenes which followed at Celtic Park were remarkable. Grown men wept and the tide of emotion that washed over those in maroon seemed almost to overpower them. Veteran striker John Robertson, a substitute but who never came on, was clearly overcome. 'Robbo' had been at the club for seventeen years but had yet to win a medal with the club he loved. Now, in his last season at Tynecastle, his dream had come true as it had for the thousands of jubilant supporters who found it difficult to comprehend just what had happened. When Steve Fulton went to collect the trophy he invited club captain Gary Locke to go up with him. The injured Locke - a dyed in the wool Hearts fan if ever there was one - didn't need to be asked twice and the two players held the cup aloft to a huge ovation from the Hearts support.

Edinburgh partied all weekend as the players paraded the cup through the streets of the famous old city and on to Tynecastle Stadium for a truly emotional homecoming. An estimated one hundred thousand people welcomed them home and Edinburgh let down its collective hair. Manager Jim Jefferies had said before the game that the players could become legends if they won the cup and there's little doubt that the Hearts support treated their heroes in a way befitting such a status.

It was an emotional end to an emotional season. In the last quarter of the league season Hearts championship challenge, admirable though it was, faded as the side dropped points to Motherwell, St. Johnstone and Aberdeen. The final nail in their title coffin was, ironically, driven in by city rivals Hibernian who recorded a rare win in the Edinburgh derby by 2-1 at Easter Road in April. It was, however, Hibernian's last hurrah – they were relegated at the end of the season.

Such upheavals meant little to those connected with Heart of Midlothian, however. It's true to say that the club had become something of a laughing stock in Scottish football as a result of their lack of success and their almost constant failure to produce the goods when it really mattered. Season 1997-98 changed all that. Throughout the season Hearts had consistently produced a sparkling brand of fluent, attacking football which delighted the purists. They had given the Old Firm the fright of their lives in the race for the league title.

And, after thirty-six years of hurt, they had finally brought silverware back to Tynecastle.


Welcome to what I hope will become an on-going blog about football. As someone who is a keen historian - and who many people will tell you harks back to the old days of the terracings whilst wearing rose-tinted spectacles - the main content of this blog is likely to be a fond recollection of football from a by-gone age.

Nonetheless, this won't prevent the odd comment or two about the state of the game today!