Every story Tommy Preston tells from his 11 years and 313 games with Hibernian seems to involve a friendship, and often a long and lasting one, which tells you something about football in his era and also the man himself.
“My first pal at the Hibs was Roy Erskine – Andy Murray’s grandfather,” he says. “We were young men there together and every Tuesday after training we’d go for fish suppers at Dom’s in Easter Road and we’d be laughing and joking and not quite believing our luck that we’d managed to get onto the books of the club that had produced Famous Five.”
Who was your hardest opponent, Tommy? “Probably Ian McMillan for both Airdrie and Rangers, a right clever player. The Wee Prime Minister at inside-right would be in direct opposition to me at left-half and we had some good tussles. But we became good friends, too.” So what about the Edinburgh derbies – with Hibs and Hearts used to winning trophies in the 1950s they must have been fiercely contested? “They were and you hated to lose, but Jimmy Murray was one of my biggest pals. He was my sidekick for the dancing – we used to go to the Palais together – and I still look forward to a phonecall from him.”
Another Tom – Finney – became a friend through Hibs’ “Floodlit Friendlies” with Preston North End and other English sides as football got illuminated. Our man was only sent off once in his career, but bore no grudge from the dust-up with Motherwell’s Gerry Mayes. “There was nothing in it; the ref just got a wee bit excited. Gerry had been at the Hibs earlier in his career and when we bumped into each other at the club’s cententary dinner in the NB [North British] Hotel we had a laugh about that day.”
Anyone else, Tommy? “Oh yes, Willie Woodburn. We grew up near each other in Edinburgh – me in Longstone and him in Slateford Village. There was a 1-1 draw at Ibrox I always liked reminding him about because the next week he was sine die [banned for life]. I was up front that day and scored our goal. I used to say: ‘Hey, Big Ben – that was his nickname -– who was the last great centre-forward you played against?’ He’d give me a wee dunt: ‘It wisnae you, was it?’ ”
As you can see, football has brought the 80-year-old Preston great companionship, which makes the passing of Lawrie Reilly that much sadder for him. “It was a privilege to play with Lawrie – and all of the Famous Five – and a privilege to call him a friend,” he says. “When I arrived at the Hibs, Lawrie was the only one I knew because like him I’d come from Edinburgh Thistle and he looked after me. And it was when he was injured that I got my chance. In recent years we were the oldest of the old boys, watching the current team. I used to look forward to his forthright views. One of them was: ‘Ach Tommy, our thirds would have beaten this lot’!”
Until recently, Preston helped Janet, his partner of 30 years, run the Annfield Bar in Newhaven and they lived above the pub. But Janet’s recent stroke forced them to move into a sheltered housing complex where the rooms are kept warm even on sultry days like this and the staff seem too young to know about Preston’s exploits in the green and white – how he scored home and away against the mighty Barcelona in a victory that’s still celebrated in song.
I run through the team for his Hibs debut in 1954. He’s pretty sure they’re all dead now. Then the line-up for the first British club to play in the European Cup, against Rot-Weiss Essen the following year. “All gone, too,” he says. “No, wait: I think Jackie Plenderleith’s still alive. Last I heard he was up in Aberdeen. Maybe he’ll make it to Lawrie’s funeral.” These are sad times for the Hibee Nation, but Preston’s story began with a sadness that was almost overwhelming.
“My father, also called Tommy, was killed in the Second World War. 1st July 1944 in Normandy. My mother Peggy found out in a letter because that was how these things were done back then. I was 11, the oldest of four, and I took it bad, really bad. I was lost completely.” Somehow, the lad managed to recover enough to end up dux of Longstone Primary and win a bursary to a good secondary, Boroughmuir, though he only had dreams of being a footballer. “My father was Hearts-daft and would have loved me to play for them. I supported them, too – as a boy, anyway.”
Preston has a scrapbook of his career. “Paul Kane borrowed it for six months when he was a wee boy and, according to his dad, read it every night in bed.” The book is being looked after by Preston’s sister following the downsizing but his recall is pretty good. “My first game was against Celtic with the half-back line of [Bobby] Evans, [Jock] Stein and [Bertie] Peacock. They became champs that day. My second was against Rangers with [Ian] McColl, Big Ben and [Sammy] Cox. And then I was off to Czechoslovakia. The summer tours were a big thing back then as Hibs were always being invited places. While I was still in the reserves they went all the way to Brazil for a tournament. Us guys left at home were told that Bobby Johnstone had played poorly so he could be back in time for the Selkirk Common Riding!
“Anyway, in Czechoslovakia, not really knowing the stars of the team that well, Eddie Turnbull said to me: ‘Are you an Edinburgh laddie, Tommy?’ ‘Aye.’ ‘Right then, you’re coming with [Willie] Ormond and me.’ We were going drinking, of course. ‘What’ll you have?’ said Eddie. ‘Stout, please.’ ‘No, you’ll have the same as us: whisky.’ They led me astray, these two, but they became probably my best pals. I learned the game from them.
Preston came along after the winning of three League flags in five seasons, and even after Johnstone had left for Manchester City, it was “still a no’ bad team” which helped pioneer continental football in that inaugural European Cup. He can say that again. Real Madrid vs Hibernian was the final the soccer aesthete craved, only for a Raymond Kopa-inspired Stade Reims to end Hibs’ dreams.
So what was it like playing with the Famous Five? “I wasn’t overawed; on the field I was always quite calm. But they were fantastic footballers. It was so easy alongside them; they played the game for you.” And Reilly’s special gifts? “Lawrie was so nippy in the danger area, always looking for half-chances or even quarter-chances. He was brave despite not being the biggest, although none of the Five was. Gordon [Smith] was the tallest at only 5ft 8 and a half inches.”
These were £14-a-week superstars of the game although Preston was only on £12. “Eddie and Willie – these two again – egged me on to ask [manager] Hugh Shaw for a rise. Shuggie didn’t waste any time telling me: ‘Get back down those stairs!’ ” Footballers packed terraces right up to the clouds in those days but weren’t well-rewarded. During one summer, though, Preston found himself a nice little earner – as a male model. “Shelley Paterson, sister of our centre-half John, was a models’ agent. She needed a mannequin for a clothes show at the Ideal Homes Exhibition at the old Waverley Market. John was too bandy-legged so I got the job. When the new season began there were a few shouts of ‘Ya big poof!’ but I didn’t mind. The modelling was better-paid than football and I got given some nice suits!”
When the team excelled Hibs did come up with decent bonuses. “Our chairman Harry Swan was good that way,” adds Preston. In 1957-58 the Hibees triumphed in a seven-goal Scottish Cup quarter-final thriller at Tynecastle with their four goals coming from young Joe Baker – “We were lucky to have him after Lawrie” – and Tommy scored in the semi against Rangers that was eventually won with a replay. “For reaching the final against Clyde we each got £300. We were big favourites but, typical Hibs I’m afraid, it just didn’t happen for us. The next week we had to go to Shawfield in the League. The Clyde boys told us they got £100 for winning the cup.”
Season ’59-’60 was one of those eccentric campaigns for Hibs – 106 goals scored, the highest in the League, and only a seventh-place finish. It featured their record away win – 11-1 at Airdrie’s Broomfield with Preston out-shooting Baker and grabbing four. “And a couple of weeks later we beat Partick Thistle 10-2 at Firhill. We just couldn’t stop scoring back then.” Unfortunately, Hibs have just been on the wrong end of a record scoreline – 0-7 against Malmo in the Europa League qualifiers was their worst defeat at Easter Road and the 0-9 aggregate was the heaviest loss for a Scottish club in continental competition. On the night they remembered Lawrie Reilly as well.
As Euro thrashings went, it eclipsed the 6-0 achieved by Roma in a third match to decide what was Hibs’ second Euro semi in five seasons, in the ’60-’61 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup. Preston played in the 2-2 draw at Easter Road but missed the 3-3 game in Rome which, if away goals had applied, would have sent Hibs to the final. “I didn’t play in the decider either. It was back in Rome, at the Olympic Stadium, a huge venue, with a 50-50 split of the gate. Eddie always reckoned that was why Hibs didn’t insist on a toss of a coin to pick the ground.”
That same season featured Hibs’ biggest-ever win – 15-1 against Peebles Rovers in the Scottish Cup. How come you failed to score that day, Tommy? “Aye I know,” he laughs. “I took stick off the fans but I was trying to lay on goals for Joe so he could beat his brother Gerry’s Cup record [ten for St Mirren against Glasgow University the previous year].” Hibs’ fabulous Baker boy had to settle for nine.
The pummelling of Peebles came in between the never-to-be-forgotten triumph over Barcelona in the Inter-Cities. Barca were trophy holders and also competed in the Euoropean Cup that season. “They’d beaten us 5-1 on a tour of Spain a couple of years before and we probably expected another hammering,” recalls Preston. But incredibly Hibs led 2-0 in the Nou Camp and then 4-2, with Tommy scoring their third. “It was a pretty good left-foot shot which went in off the post. Their guy was catching up with me so I thought I’d better just hit it!” Barcelona scored two late goals but the 4-4 scoreline still shocked the Catalan crowd. “I remember them all waving their white hankies.”
For the return leg, 50,000 packed into Easter Road. Baker, who’d scored two in the Nou Camp, soon put Hibs ahead but the Spaniards surged back into the tie to lead 6-5 on aggregate. “Then I scored with a header at the bottom end – it was always great playing down the slope in the second-half.” The drama wasn’t over yet. “We got awarded a penalty and they went mental. Ten minutes the game was held up, with their guys jostling the referee. Sammy Baird should have taken the kick but he chickened out. Up stepped Bobby Kinloch, cool as you like, and he scored.” The ref made sure he was close to the tunnel when he blew the final whistle so he could sprint down it. “Even so, the Barca players tried to kick down the door to his room.” Legend has it the stud marks were still visible until the old main stand was knocked down.
The ground isn’t as imposing as it was and neither are Hibs. “That was a terrible performance on Thursday night,” adds Preston, “and I’m afraid this team might be the poorest I’ve seen.” His commitment is unchanged – just. “I’ll keep going. Hopefully I’m good for a few more seasons.” Not surprisingly, though, his thoughts right now are for his dear, departed friend. “The tribute to Lawrie before the game was just lovely. In a way I’m glad he didn’t have to witness that performance but of course I’d rather he was still with us.”