Interview: Jim Hermiston on Cup glory and an Aussie robber

Jim Hermiston in his pomp as an Aberdeen defender of the early 1970s. Picture: SNS
Jim Hermiston in his pomp as an Aberdeen defender of the early 1970s. Picture: SNS
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It is 8am on the far side of the world and Jim Hermiston has just finished hammering a boxer’s punchbag. It’s part of the early-morning fitness routine of this doughty Dons hero of 1970, a formidable opponent on the park and also when he was minding his own business the day a Brisbane shopping mall was the target for an armed raid.

The player they nicknamed Hermit, who swapped football for the police force and then traded the Granite City for Queensland, was off-duty and with his family. “Funnily enough, there had been a hold-up at the local Medicare the previous week. I’d raced over in the police car but just missed the robbers by ten seconds,” he recalls of the 1999 drama. “This time as we were passing and really just as a joke I said to my wife and daughter: ‘I wonder if there’s a guy in a balaclava carrying a gun in 
Medicare today.’ My daughter looked in and came straight back out. ‘You’ll never guess, Dad… ’ she said.

“I had a peek and right enough there was the gun, the mask and a bag of money. The guy pushed an old dear out of the way as he ran for the door. I had no gun and no back-up and my first thought was: ‘Nothing to do with me’, and I took a step back. But then I thought: ‘Bugger it, here we go’, and went after him.”

“We had a big blue,” adds Hermiston, this being Aussie slang for a fight. “It went on for quite a few minutes. He was a massive bloke, 6ft 3ins, but I was really fit back then. When I entered the Australian police force it was first of all in physical education. I taught judo, jujutsu and devised these tough training programmes.” But Jim, I say, this bushranger was packing a pistol. “I know,” he says. “But maybe it was that old determination coming in useful again.”

That old determination would serve Hermiston well during 271 games for Aberdeen – none more so than in the Scottish Cup final when the team in red, given little chance against a Celtic side chasing a treble, won 3-1 and took the trophy north for only the second time in the club’s history.

Okay Jim, what was the bigger ask – nabbing the robber or neutralising Bobby Murdoch? “Stopping Bobby without a doubt,” he says. “He was a fantastic player, the best midfielder in Britain and the man who really made Celtic tick.”

Others in the Dons line-up might have been more eye-catching performers, including the goalscorers Joe Harper and Derek “Cup-tie” McKay, while young captain Martin Buchan and 17-year-old Arthur Graham would go on to become stars in England. But manager Eddie Turnbull insisted on recognition for Hermiston’s marking job in his memoirs, writing: “Jim had the game of his life.”

I’ve always been intrigued by Hermiston’s story. He was the best uncapped defender in the country, according to many, and actually the Dons skipper in 1975 when he stunned football and walked out of Pittodrie to begin his new career. With Celtic big favourites today to complete the domestic hat-trick again, it seems like a good time to give him a call.

That drive, for as long as he possessed it as a player, was probably down to his spartan upbringing as a shale miner’s son in the West Lothian village of East Calder. “It was humble, it was tough,” he says. “There wasn’t much money around for miners in the 1950s. Christmas was just another day. My brother and I would get a sweetie in a sock, not much more, and we had to make our own fun. When you come from that world you don’t take anything for granted. If you’re lucky enough to get the chance to play football you grab it. So I was determined. And then there was Eddie Turnbull, who would never have stood for you being anything less than doubly determined.”

Bright spots for Hermiston, a Hibernian fan in his youth, came in trips to Easter Road with his maternal grandfather. “He had a boiler-making business at Leith Docks and he’d buy me winkles in vinegar at the street-corner just before the ground and then we’d watch Joe Baker score loads of goals.” The same Baker boy, in his first game of his second spell at Hibs, would help break the granite-strong backline 
featuring Hermiston to end Aberdeen’s 15-game unbeaten run as they tried to follow up the cup with the old First Division title. “Don’t remind me,” he groans.

“Granda was a wonderful man. When I went for a job, aged 15, at a shoe warehouse in Leith there were 25 of us being interviewed and he told me: ‘Make sure your heels are clean.’ That got me the job. Then he bought me my first pair of football boots but, sadly, he died the week before I signed for Aberdeen so he never saw me play in them.”

Just two games for Bonnyrigg Rose had secured Hermiston a move to Pittodrie and he was pitched into a pre-season bounce match, first team against the reserves. “It was over at Banchory and this young lad [Hermiston] tried to make an immediate impression with an overlapping run but Ally Shewan was having none of it. He was the club’s hard man and he dealt with me severely. But Eddie [Turnbull] didn’t blow for a foul, the b*****d! He told me this was my introduction to the professional game and asked what I was going to do about being cemented like that. In the second half I had the chance to get my own back and caught Ally a real beauty. This time Eddie blew. I realised then that to survive you had to play hard and also train hard. Ally shook hands with me afterwards and we became great friends. I keep up with on Facebook now, him and wee Joe [Harper].”

Hermiston would succeed Shewan as Aberdeen’s left-back but not before the latter had played in the 1967 Scottish Cup final, the Dons losing in what was Celtic’s all-conquering Lisbon year. Willie Wallace scored both Celtic’s goals and he and Hermiston would later hook up in Oz as exiles. Married to Maureen with three children and ten grandchildren, Hermit loves his life there. “I don’t miss much about the old country,” he says. “Maybe getting away for the weekend after a game to Banff where we had a caravan and soaking in the atmosphere of the hills. Maybe 
dipping my feet in the lovely, cold North Sea. But that’s all.”

That ’67 final featured two Jinkys – Jimmy Johnstone at Celtic and Jimmy Smith for the Dons. “Our Jinky had wonderful skill, could never resist a nutmeg but was a right lazy b*****d. I had some rare tussles with their Jinky. He was a fantastic player and you really had to be on your game against him. But when he beat you he loved to come back and try to do it again so you always got a second chance.”

Hermiston reckons he was only sent off once and that this was after a flare-up with Johnstone. The records show that the latter was dismissed in a 1973 Scottish Cup quarter-final but if this is the match our man means then his punishment was merely to be booked. What is more certain is that the the incident sparked terracing trouble which continued after the match in the Parkhead car park with Celtic fans keen to debate the niceties of the tie with referee Bobby Davidson, who needed the police to clear a path through the mob, then an escort to the Glasgow boundary.

Hermiston insists he was “hard but fair” when I bring up the namecheck he receives on a Rangers fansite asking supporters for their memories of Scotland’s “dirtiest”. “Anyone remember a guy Aberdeen had in the 1970s called Hermiston?” asks one. “Compared to him [Doug] Rougvie was a kitten!” Well, he was schooled by Turnbull, disciplinarian supreme. Back then, as in Sir Alex Ferguson’s time at Pittodrie and right now for Derek McInnes, the trick was to beat the Old Firm in Glasgow. “Eddie was a hard, hard man but I liked that about him,” adds Hermiston. “When he didn’t come over and smack you across the head, you knew you’d done all right. And even when you’d done all right you were made to feel you could always improve some more. I used to go back after training three afternoons a week and work on my own. When I started at Aberdeen I could barely complete two 100-yarders and thought I might as well head back down the road. By the end I felt I could run all day.”

But for large parts of the charge to glory in ’70 he couldn’t run at all. “I got a bad ankle injury in the league down at Cappielow. Stan Rankin went over the ball and split my foot right open. As I was being stretchered off Eddie said to me: ‘I thought you were tough?’” All the more remarkable, then, that he would go on to become the Dons’ secret weapon in the competition.

Hermiston missed the early rounds including a fortunate home victory over Clydebank when the team were booed off the park. Turnbull decided to use Hermiston sparingly, and to experiment with a midfield role. “I played in the quarter-final away to Falkirk but got injured on the same ankle. Eddie didn’t tell me what he was doing but I reckon he was preparing for a big game, maybe the final and maybe against Celtic when Bobby Murdoch would definitely need to be man-marked.

“That might sound far-fetched but he was so cunning and clever. I played the same position against Kilmarnock in the semi. I didn’t mind; I would have played anywhere for Eddie. But I ended up being carried off again.” Turnbull was saving Hermiston for the cup, hoping that cortisone injections could more or less keep his man in one piece. “He also had me in the North Sea 
every day. Then, four days before the final, he played me in the reserves. I was the only one who knew that if I came through that okay I’d be in the team for Hampden.” Hermiston flew under the radar and was possibly out of Celtic’s thoughts. Indeed the whole team went under the radar that year. “Aberdeen sneaked quietly into the cup final,” began The Scotsman’s semi-final report.

The Dons’ base was Gleneagles Hotel. “For a wee country boy like me that was amazing,” says Hermiston. A fortnight before Aberdeen had beaten Celtic at Parkhead to delay the title celebrations, Turnbull famously spotting a green-and-white bedecked crate of champagne outside the home dressing-room and asking his players if they were prepared to be patsies.

Come the final the Dons were still rank outsiders. “We were a bunch of young upstarts next to their seven internationalists,” adds Hermiston. The mood in the camp, though, was upbeat. George Murray asked Turnbull to repeat his champagne speech while Hermit, when given his instructions, pretended he didn’t know who Murdoch was. “I thought I could get away with that without Eddie thumping me,” he laughs.

The game was not without controversy. Bobby Davidson, never the Celtic fans’ favourite referee, enraged them by awarding Aberdeen a penalty and refusing their team one. Hermiston takes the opposite view of the incidents, plays down his own contribution – “I think I did okay” – and praises the rest of the defence: Murray, Buchan, great Dane Henning Boel and goalkeeper Bobby Clark.

Remarkably, Aberdeen won all four of their games against Celtic that year, three of them in Glasgow including a victory achieved by Hermiston’s long throw onto Harper’s head which sent the Dons to the top of the league and made us wonder if they might take the flag from Jock Stein’s men as well. Turnbull would quit Pittodrie for Hibernian the following season and Hermiston was devastated. “If he’d stayed and kept building the team I reckon we would have won a whole lot more.”

The next ambition was the 1974 World Cup. After playing for the Scottish League and the Under-23s he was desperate to make the squad, upping his extra afternoons on the training pitch to four, but would miss out. “I was gutted. I thought I needed to move to get a chance with Scotland and Tommy Docherty at Chelsea bid £75,000 for me but Aberdeen wanted an extra £5,000. I was really down and reckoned I’d gone as far as I could in football. With the family coming along I wanted a bit more security. And I wanted to see if there was more to life.” Hermiston was 27.

Ironically, when he resumed playing in Oz, those under-age appearances which couldn’t quite pave the way for a full cap would debar him from representing his adopted homeland. He shrugs and has no regrets, instead thanking Maureen for supporting those big decisions and moves. “When you come from nothing you can’t think about what you didn’t achieve.” And he did win the Scottish Cup, after all.

Before emigrating Hermiston was two years on the beat in Aberdeen. “That wasn’t strange and I didn’t feel wistful. Maybe I would have been if I hadn’t given the best of my best to football but I did. When the club won the League Cup [in 1976] I was proud to be on duty on Union Street, clearing the way for the open-top bus. Really I got treated like a celeb in the city, buns from every cake shop!

“But my funniest day as a policeman was the first match I worked at Pittodrie. It had to be Celtic, of course, but their fans were very obliging when I had to ask them to get rid of their cans of beer. Some of them did a double-take: ‘Hey, aren’t you that big, ugly full-back? … ‘Then I took up my position inside the ground.

“The match commander thought it would be a good idea if I was in the away end. As I climbed the terracing the Celtic supporters kept pointing up to the top. Lots of them had bought me a Bovril. There must have been 30 cups on the ledge!”