Interview: Alex Cropley on his jousts with Rangers

Alex Cropley is now a taxi driver in his native Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Alex Cropley is now a taxi driver in his native Edinburgh. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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Alex Cropley, Hibs’ glamour boy of the 1970s, looks back on fiery clashes at Ibrox and the day he broke John Greig’s toe

Alex Cropley, the cool and classy inside-left in Eddie Turnbull’s fine Hibernian team, suffered a stroke a few years ago which has affected his memory of the recent past, although only that. “I might struggle to remember what I was doing last week,” he says, “but trips we made to Ibrox in the 1970s are still crystal clear. Funny that…”

Cropley with Arsenal manager Bertie Mee in 1974. Picture: Getty

Cropley with Arsenal manager Bertie Mee in 1974. Picture: Getty

He has excellent recall of the fine detail, for instance: “When the team coach got to Glasgow we always had our pre-match lunch in the North British Station Hotel in George Square and we always had the same meal: steak – and it was fillet – followed by toast and ice cream.” The Hibees based in the west would meet the main contingent at the hotel and they numbered Johnny Hamilton, a Rangers fan who would later play for his boyhood idols, and was the joker in the Easter Road camp. “Hammy gave me my nickname, Sodjer, because I was born in 
Aldershot where my father worked at the time but it was a myth that Dad was a squaddie.

“Hammy was a real comedian, so quick with the one-liners. Maybe his funniest came in Portugal, away to Sporting Lisbon in the Cup-Winners’ Cup. When we got back to the dressing room there was a tray laden of watches – gifts for us – only Ned [Turnbull] knocked it over. Hammy quipped: ‘Time flies, eh boss?’ ”

But let’s return to Ibrox, where the current Hibs team are due tomorrow. Gers vs Hibs is a mighty fixture again because in the Championship the clubs cannot seem to escape each other. Last season they clashed no less than seven times. This campaign is still young and yet tomorrow will be their second meeting already. The weekend’s hottest ticket, with the Rangers masses flocking back to the stadium and believing the renaissance to be coming at last, it promises to be a red-meat encounter in every respect, save what’s actually on the menu for the players. Hibs, as is traditional, are being challenged to show they have the stomach for such churningly intense affairs. Meanwhile, extra mustard has been dolloped onto the game by the tug-of-war over Scott Allan and a spat between the managers, with Alan Stubbs claiming Mark Warburton has a “very easy” job rebuilding Rangers and the latter telling the Hibs boss to “keep his mouth shut”.

Cropley smiles when I recount the recent rumpuses. Once upon a time he was the most coveted, diminutive No 10 in Scotland and when his Hibs played Rangers they were competing for the grandest prizes. The rivalry was often conducted against a backdrop of terrace trouble, on muddy pitches strewn with loo paper and the occasional discarded half-bottle of whisky, and continued to rage through power strikes, with cup replays being moved to midweek afternoons. It was fierce even before Turnbull came along to whip it up some more. “Under Dave Ewing there was a Scottish Cup semi-final, nil-nil, but we should have won,” he recalls. “Dave called Rangers ‘rubbish’, which was splashed all over the back pages. That gave the replay plenty of edge.”

Cropley in action for Hibs in 1973. Picture: SNS

Cropley in action for Hibs in 1973. Picture: SNS

Now 64, Cropley is a taxi driver in his native Edinburgh. “Who’s the most famous person you’ve had in the back of your cab?” I ask when he swings by for a chat. He thinks for a moment, mentions STV’s old Gateway Studios on Leith Walk, but can’t remember any of the names. Whoever these titans of tartan light entertainment were, they would have struggled to convince the discerning football fan they had the driver’s star quality.

Like Allan until earlier this month, Cropley was the glamour boy at Hibs, first pick for the posters when such things were rolled out back then, and whose running style with his hands tight to his chest, in an almost camp manner reminiscent of Larry Grayson, was much copied in the playgrounds of north and east Edinburgh. One of your correspondent’s most thrilling teenaged days was taking ownership of his first pair of Levis – not just for the gift of tremendous trousers but the cowboy-style saloon doors of the Jean Machine boutique being held open by the ever-trendy Cropley.

He was capped at 20 by Tommy Docherty who exploited changes to the eligibility rules which would previously have debarred him from playing for Scotland. He was a big-money signing for Arsenal, then moved on to Aston Villa where he won a League Cup medal to match the one gained at Hibs. His career was ended prematurely by the fourth and most shocking of his leg breaks but he is fondly remembered, especially in Leith and Birmingham, for his silkiness, his bravery and the sweetest of left feet.

Really, there was nothing camp about Sodjer. He was small, slight and much concerned with art, but he didn’t shy away from the physical. “In my day, no one could,” he says. Certainly not against Rangers. You might assume it’s only in the era of smaller-sized divisions that clubs can play each other half a dozen times or more in a season but Hibs and Rangers regularly did this in Cropley’s time, thanks to those interminable cup pairings. Turnbull who was desperate to smash the Old Firm duopoly, relished these jousts. John Stein’s Celtic presented a bigger challenge but under Willie Waddell, then Jock Wallace, Rangers were regarded as beatable.

“We got a lot of pleasure from our games against them,” says Cropley of the Hibs side captained by Pat Stanton and featuring Alex Edwards, John Brownlie, Alan Gordon and the rest of Turnbull’s Tornadoes. “Celtic were the top side in the land, but we were the second side, in our opinion anyway.

“Ned used to say to us: ‘Get out on that bloody park and express yourself.’ Sometimes against Rangers we did, other times we didn’t. We were more skilful than them but they were a big, rugged team who weren’t going to stand back and clap us. Were they dirty? Some of their guys could put their foot in, all right. We had guys who could do that, too, but not as many.”

He remembers an X-rated tackle by Willie Johnston on John Brownlie and in another bruising and bone-juddering encounter the fiery winger being sent off for punching Jim Blair. That Ibrox tussle was watched by Bill Shankly and described as “brutal but interesting” by the Liverpool manager, spying on Hibs ahead of an upcoming Fairs Cup tie. Cropley wasn’t over-enamoured either by Alex MacDonald. “He could be nasty. Quite a clever inside-forward at St Johnstone but when he went to Rangers he turned into a keelie who’d kick you from behind. Mind you, so did Alex Edwards.”

Who was the Hibby, though, who broke John Greig’s toe? Cropley, the tiny dancer of Easter Road, did this, and he says: “It was a block tackle which today would have got me sent off.” Cropley had big respect for Greig, usually his direct opponent. “John was a powerful player – like many in their team, which was a quality you had to admire – and he carried Rangers for many years. I got on well with him and also Sandy Jardine. Of course they were both Edinburgh boys.”

Was Ibrox itself a formidable opponent which had to be overcome? “I played against 50,000 there and the crowds didn’t bother me because I saw it as a challenge to try and silence them but the place was daunting, no doubt about it.”

Cropley’s first time was a game just after the Ibrox disaster with stairway 13 still a hideous tangle of buckled stanchions. “I remember, in the away dressing room, being struck by how high the pegs were. Was that deliberate to make us feel small? The Rangers team, in those shirts with that badge on it, always seemed big anyway.

“When you came out of the dressing room you walked past this training area where the police would be being briefed for no doubt another busy afternoon. And I’ll never forget what I saw down there: a big cut-out like thing of the Pope with his arms outstretched. There were marks on it where balls had hit, so presumably His Holiness was used for target practice!”

Cropley’s dad John was working as a moulder in an Aldershot foundry. Although John and his mum, Margaret, both Leithers, had rushed back over the Border to ensure Cropley’s older brother Tam arrived in the world a Scot, they didn’t bother for their second son. The old man played part-time for Aldershot before the family returned to Edinburgh, initially living with the boys’ granny a goal kick from Easter Road.

Cropley was schooled even closer to the stadium, across the road at Norton Park, although the young Alex was probably more obsessed with speedway than football. A Friday night regular at Edinburgh Monarchs meets, he and some pals made a Wembley pilgrimage in 1967 – not for Scotland becoming unofficial world champs at football but to see their favourite rider Bernie Persson take on the “Flying Fox” of Sweden.

When he played football on Edinburgh’s public parks his favourite socks were Rangers ones. “Red and black – I really liked them. For a while I also wore Hearts socks but stopped when they got me a doing!” On football, his father’s advice was clear to both boys: “Dad told us, because we were on the wee side, to always try and get to the ball first and that the harder we tackled the less chance there was of getting hurt. It was good advice, although I’m sure that if I hadn’t been so committed I could have played for longer.”

For an example of how tough and unforgiving the game could be in the 1970s, take this Falkirk-Hibs match at Brockville: “I got done by Alex Ferguson,” he explains. “Ned reckoned it was an outrageous tackle and wouldn’t speak to Fergie for a long time afterwards. But the referee didn’t think it was that bad – he was telling me to get up. I had to be stretchered off and going past the home fans I was spat upon. The Hibs director Sir John Bruce, a top surgeon, thought I’d only hurt the ligaments and strapped my ankle. But that night I was in absolute agony – even the weight of my blanket was unbearable. In the morning Dad had to give me a fireman’s lift down the stairs to take me to hospital. The ankle was broken and when I was told I needed a screw put in I thought my career was over.”

But Cropley battled back to fulfil the promise he’d first shown Hibs fans under Willie McFarlane, helping them get over the departure of Peter Cormack. About football management, he says he means no disrespect to McFarlane and Ewing, but compared to Turnbull and his brilliant stratagems, these two had been “playing at it”.

The same could be said for Arsenal. At Highbury, Cropley found the training mundane and uninspiring. “Ned was revolutionary but unfortunately after about two years that Hibs team just fizzled out. We lacked the strength in depth and it’s Paddy’s [Stanton] opinion that Ned didn’t tell us enough how good we were.”

If man-management wasn’t Turnbull’s greatest attribute, Cropley appreciates it is a valuable skill. The father of four children by three different partners, he saw his youngest son Jordan make it on to Hibs’ books. “I didn’t think he had quite as big a heart as I did and maybe, trying to encourage him, I could have chosen my words better. He’s at Newtongrange Star now and I prefer watching his games to senior football. Guys who call themselves midfielders are earning fortunes for passing the ball sideways. What’s that about? If he was still with us, Ned would be appalled.”

Because of injuries, Cropley didn’t figure in a victorious Hibs team at Ibrox until his final season, 1974-75, when he managed the feat twice. In the League Cup he scored the only goal. “I remember glancing up at Peter McCloy who seemed ten feet tall but thankfully my shot – always with the left – went in.” Then the same result in the league turned out to be his penultimate game in the green and white.

Hugely expressive on the pitch, Cropley was a quiet soul off it. Famously, when asked how he celebrated the 7-0 thumping of Hearts – in which he scored a peach of a volley – he replied: “Oh, you know, I went to my granny’s for my tea.” Now he’s laughing because he is remembering the day he plucked up the courage to request a wage rise. “That was classic. I’m surprised Ned heard the knock because I rapped the door so softly. I was sat there for an eternity, trying to get the words out. ‘Just take your time’, he said, which only made it worse. When I asked him if the club could see their way to giving me a few more bob, he said: ‘Right, I’ll go and see the chairman’.”

Hibs couldn’t hold onto his talents and a new football public got to appreciate them, resulting in a new nickname – Studs. “At Villa, playing Queens Park Rangers on the way to winning the League Cup, I caught Frank McLintock on his shin when a ball I tried to trap didn’t bounce in the mud. His sock was ripped and he went mad. There was a rammy on the pitch and later another one in the players’ lounge. Then in the car park David Webb shouted over that he would be posting me the stud I’d left in Frank’s leg. Imagine that, coming from one of the game’s big hard men! I’m still waiting for my stud, mind.”

Villa’s Holte End would sing: “Five foot eight, not much weight, Alex Cropley’s f*****g great, la-la-la-la-la.” But a few months after the club’s Wembley triumph his career was effectively over at 26 following a Midlands derby against West Bromwich Albion. “Ally Brown came in late and high and went right through me. When I go back to Villa, fans still tell me the crack of my leg breaking went right round the ground.”

Even though Brown didn’t visit him in hospital and made his excuses when spotting him in plaster later, Cropley bears his opponent no grudge and carries no bitterness about the abrupt and agonising denouement as he trundles round in his taxi. Like all old soldiers, this Sodjer was glad to have got a kick at the ball, and to have played the game when he did.

It didn’t quite end there, for after he gave Edinburgh’s Liberton Cropley his blessing to use his name he regained his amateur status to turn out for them. “There I was, back on the public parks where it had all begun. Dad came to watch and he saw me lunging into challenges like a daft bugger, still trying to get to the ball first.” Never mind Cropley’s great guile, Hibs could do with some of his gutsiness at Ibrox tomorrow.