Obituary: Eric Stevenson, Hibernian supporter who became club legend and Hall of Fame member

Hibs legend Eric Stevenson, who has died at the age of 74
Hibs legend Eric Stevenson, who has died at the age of 74
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Eric Stevenson, former footballer. Born: 25 December, 1942 in Eastfield, Lanarkshire. Died: 17 May, 2017 in Dalkeith, Midlothian, aged 74.

ERIC Stevenson, who has died aged 74 following a two-year fight against stomach cancer, was a Hibs fan who got to wear the famous green shirt with white sleeves and, in the process, became a club legend and Hall of Fame member.

His early years were difficult. He was born into a mining family in Eastfield, near Harthill. He never met his natural father and the circumstances of his birth, during the dark days of the Second World War meant a difficult time for the family to the extent that he was brought-up by his grandmother then, following her death, he was fostered out to an aunt and uncle in Bonnyrigg.

In the long run, this proved fortuitous, since his Uncle Tom, known as “Elk”, was a Hibs fanatic who co-founded the Bonnyrigg Hibs Supporters Club and, from a young age, he took Eric to Easter Road to marvel at the Famous Five in their pomp.

Leaving school at 15, Eric went down the pit at Lady Victoria in Newtongrange before his natural football talent brought him to the surface.

Hibbee he might have been, but it was Hearts who signed him. However, in their eagerness to secure him, they put him on a full professional contract – which he was too young to sign. The SFA found out, Hearts were fined £150, with manager Tommy Walker fined an additional £75, and the teenage Stevenson was a free agent.

Once Hibs came calling, he rejected the advances of Manchester United – imagine Stevenson and George Best in the same forward line – to fulfil his ambition and play at Easter Road. He would spend 11 years with his club, playing 390 games and scoring 79 goals.

He made his debut in a 2-0 loss to St Johnstone at Muirton on 8 October, 1960 and scored his first goal for the club, against Clyde, at the end of that season on 22 April, 1961.

Once he got into the team, his talent as a dribbler was soon evident and he was a key man for Hibs in some of their great European nights of the 1960s. He also delighted in beating Hearts, particularly relishing his brace in a 4-0 Tynecastle win in 1965 – when Jimmy O’Rourke also scored twice, while, in an interview with The Scotsman’s Aidan Smith, published to mark the publication of his memoir, Eric Stevenson – Hibs Through and Through, last year, he reflected gleefully on his part in Hibs crushing Hearts either 9-1 or 11-1, accounts vary, in a five-a-side tournament at Murrayfield Ice Rink.

Scottish football has a long history of extremely talented wingers who could beat an opponent on a sixpence and who would rouse the crowd with their trickery and dribbling skills.

Stevenson was just one of several around at the same time – Willie Henderson and Willie Johnston at Rangers, Jimmy Johnstone at Celtic, Charlie Cooke at Dundee, Aberdeen and Chelsea and the young Eddie Gray at Leeds United.

He was just as talented as these Scotland caps, but his only representative honour was a single appearance for the Scottish League XI which beat the Irish League 5-2 at Ibrox in 1969.

Hibs fans point to the supposed “West coast bias” of the Scottish football authorities, but maybe it was a suspicion that “Eric the Rebel”, the name he was given by the press during the dispute over his signing by Hearts, told against him.

In any case, he was living the dream, playing for the club he had supported all his life. However, that dream was to be crushed in 1971 when Eddie Turnbull sold him to Ayr United.

Being from mining stock, Eric had embraced the life-style whereby, if you were down the pit, even at 15, you were doing a man’s job and could have a drink when you came up the pit. He never had a problem handling drink, but he liked to enjoy himself socially and it has been suggested that, like another miner-turned-footballer of outrageous talent – Jim Baxter – he wasn’t the most assiduous of trainers.

Anyway, he did not fit the template Turnbull had for his players, so he was released into the care of former team-mate, fellow outside-left and free spirit Ally MacLeod at Ayr United.

At Somerset Park his continuing love affair with Hibs got in the way. He was supposed to be playing for United against Dumbarton in a First Division match at Somerset Park, on 9 September, 1972. Except Eric was elsewhere – he was at Hampden watching “Turnbull’s Tornadoes” demolish Celtic in the 1972 League Cup final.

Word got back to an unimpressed Ally, who fined him two weeks’ wages.

“I happily paid the fine, I would have paid four weeks’ wages, it was worth it to be there to see Hibs win”, was Eric’s response.

At the end of that season he hung up his boots to concentrate on the business he had opened in Dalkeith and, of course, follow Hibs.

Ally MacLeod and Eddie Turnbull were not the only managers to be convinced Eric failed to do his immense talent justice. Jock Wallace, driving back from Scotland’s win over Italy at Hampden in November, 1965, laid into fellow passenger Eric Stevenson, telling him in no uncertain terms: “Son, wi’ your talent, ye could hae been oot there the nicht. Ye need a richt guid kick up the f***ing erse, you’ve goat too much nonsense in yer heid.”

The Hibs family never forgot Eric. In 2012 he was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame and he was always popular with the fans at Easter Road as he continued to follow the club.

He battled his stomach cancer with resolution and dignity, but it was a battle he could not win.

He is survived by his wife, Agnes, daughters Sonya and Nadia and grandchildren Owen, Aidan, Connor, Lucy and Logan.

MATT VALLANCE