Although his career might have come to a premature end, Alex Cropley has little time for those who say it was blighted by misfortune. He played for three top clubs and, by the age of 21, he had already won a Scottish League Cup winners’ medal. It was hardly downhill from there either. After Hibernian, he played for Arsenal and Aston Villa.
Now aged 62, that cup win with Hibs over Celtic in 1972 remains a vivid memory for Cropley. It is worth recalling as his former side prepare to entertain Hearts tomorrow night at Easter Road in the quarter final of the same competition.
Perhaps it all seems so fresh for him because of the recently completed task of compiling his memories for a book about his career, which is due out later this month. He has also been a taxi driver for a lot longer than he played football, and in his black cab the gift for storytelling is as vital as his knowledge of Edinburgh’s backstreets. Naturally, he was engaging company when we met yesterday at Easter Road, opposite where he once went to school.
“The League Cup final was held on a real dirty day,” he recalls. “The floodlights were on from the start. I had never known such a day, and it was a sodden pitch. We were very good that day – we took the initiative right from the start. Celtic came in and scored a goal but they were never in it. Confidence ran right through the team.”
Goals by Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke put Hibs into a commanding 2-0 lead and though Celtic pulled one back through Kenny Dalglish, Hibs prevailed to win their first major trophy for 40 years. Cropley was a vital contributor to Turnbull’s Tornadoes, the side built by influential manager Eddie Turnbull. Small and wiry, he was a pocket dynamo in midfield. While he attracted the eye because of his ability to search out space in the middle of the park, he also seemed to attract bad luck. It is possible to wonder whether a medic might have been better qualified to handle ghost-writing duties on Crops: the Alex Cropley Story. Broken bones littered his career and meant he considers it to have ended as a top player at the age of just 27, although he struggled on for a few years more.
It is said the crack when he broke his ankle after a challenge by Alex Ferguson during a Falkirk v Hibs clash could be heard at the back of the Brockville main stand. While winning his first cap for Scotland in 1971, a Belgian opponent stepped on Cropley’s foot and broke his metatarsal bone. Kenny Dalglish replaced him to earn what was also his first cap for Scotland. Only one more came Cropley’s way, as much due to injury as anything else, while Dalglish made another 101 Scotland appearances. When Cropley was asked to attend the game in which Dalglish earned his 100th cap – against Romania, in 1986 – Ferguson was also there. Whether by accident or design, he ignored Cropley, who had come off so much the worse in their clash years earlier.
“He greeted Pat Stanton, who was in front of me,” says Cropley. “Ach, I am not sure he knows he broke my ankle. It was just one of those things.” Still, Turnbull felt so aggrieved about the injury he did not speak to Ferguson again, so the tale goes. In his autobiography, Turnbull writes: “It is the main reason why Fergie is not my favourite person in football”.
Ferguson also has a book out this month. “There are fewer scores to settle in mine,” says Cropley. However, it is not hard to form the opinion that the former Hibs player has earned the right to let off some steam. He appears remarkably at ease with the hand fate dealt him when it comes to injuries, perhaps the worst of which was a sickening leg-break in a derby match for Aston Villa against West Bromwich Albion in 1977.
He had become a crowd favourite at Villa Park but after this injury she never quite reached the heights he might have done, and also meant he missed out on the club’s run to European Cup glory in 1982, although he did win another League Cup medal. Interestingly, he says there were many similarities between Villa and the Hibs side he had left to join Arsenal in 1974. The Highbury side, by contrast, were “a poor team”. Cropley added: “However, they had youngsters coming through like David O’Leary, Frank Stapleton and Liam Brady. They were going for youth at the time.”
He clearly adored his time at Hibs, where he remembers the feeling of walking up and down Easter Road and “being treated like film stars”. Cropley laments the absence of such a buzz now. Perhaps this is why he cannot bring himself to be at Easter Road tomorrow night. He will watch on television instead before attending the launch of his book at the stadium the following night.
“The only time I came regularly was when Tony Mowbray was in charge,” he explains. “He played good football. He had a good bunch of lads. It was worth watching. I am not sure if his record tells you that. But it was a good time. I enjoyed that.
“My son, Jordan, plays football on a Saturday for Newtongrange Star and I go and see him, and I thoroughly enjoy it. He used to play for Hibs. He is a good wee player when his heart is in it. I enjoy watching him.
“The last Hibs game I watched on television was v Partick Thistle. Oh dear. That was tough.”
Cropley prefers to linger in the past, and with his career, why not?
He has a foolproof tactic for dealing with Hearts supporters should they get too rowdy in the back of his taxi. If they haven’t already recognised him – and he has not changed much from his playing days – he just reminds them who he is, and that he played and scored in a certain New Year’s game. But the intense rivalry was never something he fully understood.
“The area where I was from meant I should have been a Hibs fan but it did not bother me. If I was on the other side of town I would probably watch Hearts. I will always be Hibs now. But I used to play in Rangers socks when I played football in the park.”
This insouciance combined with youthfulness helped him take the aforementioned 7-0 victory over Hearts in his stride.
“Pat [Stanton], Jimmy [O’Rourke] and Alan [Gordon] knew what it was all about but to me it was just a great win, something to laugh about. I just went out for a pint at night. It was no big deal to me.”
Tough defender recalls draining battle to see off Kilmarnock in final
Roy Barry is the first to admit that despite spending six seasons with Hearts at the start of his career and one with Hibernian at the end, it is Dunfermline who occupy his thoughts most often. Despite having spent his formative years in Edinburgh he has recently returned from England to live in the Fife town, and was active in the successful recent fans’ buy out of the East End Park club.
It means he truly is able to sit back and hopefully enjoy the action from Easter Road tomorrow night, when Hibs and Hearts again engage with each other on League Cup duty. He has genuinely fond memories of both clubs although winning the League Cup with the Tynecastle side in 1962 was a “pivotal” moment in his career.
An uncompromising defender who was still only 20, Barry helped his side keep a clean sheet in the 1-0 victory over Kilmarnock at Hampden Park. There was, however, an element of fortune involved, since the Ayrshire side had looked to have finally cancelled out Norrie Davidson’s first half opener with only 30 seconds left, when Frank Beattie placed a header past Gordon Marshall.
“I remember it vividly at the end because Kilmarnock scored a perfectly good goal,” says Barry, who is now 71. “But referee ‘Tiny’ Wharton chopped it off for whatever reason. He has spotted an infringement of some sort.
“I was physically and emotionally drained at the end,” he adds. “I saw a a photograph last year when they were celebrating the 50th anniversary and there is a picture of myself and Gordon Marshall. It was just after the final whistle had sounded and I was leaning against Gordon. I was absolutely out for the count.”
Marshall and Barry were recently reunited at a 50th anniversary function at Tynecastle and were struck by how many of their teammates from that day had since passed away – six. So they ordered the best bottle of wine on offer and toasted themselves as well as those who had departed, including skipper John Cumming. “We are running out of people to play up front,” says Barry. “We’d be a decent five a side team, though.”
“I was very fortunate in my career, and met lots of lovely people at both Hibs and Hearts. I am particularly interested in Hearts’ situation at the moment because Dunfermline have been through a similar situation in terms of finance. I am hoping Hearts can get out of that and make it through this difficult time.
“I will always be grateful for Hearts for giving me a start and I won a League Cup medal there. Dunfermline was all about Europe, where my memories are fresher!”
Barry did, though, travel with the Hearts squad to face Inter Milan in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup the season before the Tynecastle side lifted the League Cup. “We all got a gold watch with Internazionale written on it,” he recalls. “Hearts introduced me to European football, although I did not play in Milan.”
Regarding tomorrow night’s clash, he says his “loyalies are split”. Even though he played only 36 games for Hibs, he cannot say he favours one or the other. “I am just looking forward to seeing a bloody good cup tie. It’s a local derby. It will have something, even if the football is not of the highest quality.”
Barry was one of many players influenced by Eddie Turnbull, who signed him for Hibs from Crystal Palace in 1975. By now in his mid-thirties, Barry’s thoughts were turning towards coaching and management. “It is amazing the amount of senior players who spent time with Eddie Turnbull, and who say he inspired them.” At the funeral for legendary Dunfermline striker Charlie Dickson last week, Barry met Harry Melrose, the former Aberdeen and Dunfermline player. “He said Eddie Turnbull was the best coach he ever played under. Eddie was away ahead of his time.
“He encouraged me to go into coaching and management, which I did briefly at East Fife and Oxford United, under chairman Robert Maxwell, which was interesting.
“I had just come up from Crystal Palace where Malcolm Allison was manager, and who at the time was meant to be one of the best coaches in the world. I came up to Scotland and Eddie Turnbull was doing things I had never seen before.
“It was an amazing Hibs side when I arrived. A really terrific team. Someone recently showed me a picture of us beating Hearts 3-0 on New Year’s day 1976 and Jim Jefferies, who I see often at Dunfermline now, was playing for Hearts. He was a young lad and I was finishing my career.
“By the same token, when I joined Hearts I was only 19. I could not have asked for better places to begin and end my career.”