ON WEDNESDAY night, when Hibernian welcome Heart of Midlothian to Easter Road for a League Cup quarter-final tie, we can expect some crunching tackles.
But none are likely to make the very foundations of the capital city shake the way they did when Erich Schaedler slid into Dave Clunie on New Year’s Day, 1973.
Hibs were already six goals up against their rivals and so it would be understandable if Clunie believed he had time to clear the ball away from danger on the Hearts right flank. A six-goal win was what had been required beforehand to take Hibs above Celtic at the top of the league. Wasn’t that enough of an achievement with which to celebrate the new year?
Clunie had not counted on Schaedler’s endless determination and superior fitness levels, however.
The left-back – whose run towards the McLeod Street end at Tynecastle had started the move – came crashing into Clunie, winning the ball at odds of around 70/30 against. Such was the force of the challenge, Schaedler almost did a somersault over Clunie’s left shoulder. The ball broke to Arthur Duncan, who floated a cross into the back post area for Alan Gordon to head home goal No 7. Without Schaedler’s drive and desire, the most significant scoreline in Hibs’ annals might have remained six rather than seven nil. The course of events might have been altered. In one particular way, Schaedler’s former team-mates now wish that they were.
The moment when Schaedler came crunching into Clunie is described in detail in Scotsman sports editor Colin Leslie’s revealing and yet respectful book on the late Hibs player, which is published by Black & White next month. “In all the years of him playing and what he achieved, that one moment summed it up,” says Pat Stanton of Schaedler, who had already announced himself as someone who, to use that expressive phrase, ‘liked a tackle’.
Indeed, his very first contribution as a Hibs player led to a stretcher being called. Unpromisingly as far as Schaedler’s nascent Hibs career was concerned, it was needed to carry a teammate from the field. According to the report in The Scotsman, Schaedler had gone in “overanxiously” on an opponent during a so-called friendly match against the Polish side Gornik Zabrze and taken out Peter Cormack, standing nearby, instead. The Polish players quickly formed the opinion that a lunatic had entered the fray and was to be best avoided for the rest of the second half. “He was raw when he first came from Stirling Albion,” recalls Stanton.
The former Hibs captain also depicts Schaedler as someone who liked to cut a dash as he drove him into training from East Lothian, where they both lived at the time. Alex Edwards, another former team-mate at Hibs, recalls coming into the dressing room and quite proudly announcing he had purchased a 3 litre Rover. “The next day Erich came in with a 3 and half litre Capri,” he laughs. Of course, it was not only his choice in cars that made Schaedler stand out. In the current game where foreign players are so common as to seem passe, someone by the name of Erich Schaedler might not even inspire comment. But back in the 1970s, Scottish football was a defiantly non-exotic environment.
Yet Schaedler was from Scotland. He was born in Peebles in 1949, the son of a German prisoner of war who married a Scottish girl. However, it is the year of Schaedler’s death – 1985 – that provides those who are not aware of his story with the clue that it ends in tragedy. He was only 36 years old when he died. Perusing the career statistics that are included at the end of the book is an unexpectedly unsettling experience. Included are half a season’s worth of games with Dumbarton. Schaedler’s final match was a 2-2 draw against Montrose in mid November. On Christmas Eve that year he was reported missing.
“Things happen, and you don’t know why,” reflects Stanton. “You find that players find it hard to adjust to normal life again after being at a certain level.” Stanton remembers receiving a call on Christmas Day asking if he had any idea where Schaedler, a keen shot, might be. He racked his brain for places where Hibs used to go on pre-season tours, such as Strathpeffer. Two days later word came through that Schaedler’s body had been found in his car. There was a single gunshot wound to his head. Rather than the Highlands, it was much closer to his Peebles birthplace where Erich had come to grief, near to a hill he and his brother John christened “Schaedler’s Hill” when they played there together as youngsters. Here, in the Tweed valley, is where the family later scattered his ashes.
‘Why?’ is the title of the penultimate chapter in the book. The reason remains a mystery. There was no suicide note. One theory is that Schaedler struggled to deal with his waning football career, as many do. “In those years, Hibs were a big club,” says Edwards. “It is not like now, when they are struggling a bit. If we were not the best team in Scotland for two or three years, we were second best.” According to Stanton, Schaedler’s very reason for being was hinged on making the best of himself. “He used everything he had to make himself better,” he says. “Be as good as you can be – he illustrated that philosophy.”
Schaedler left his mark on the Scottish game. The only time former Celtic player Davie Provan wore shin guards was when he knew he would be facing Schaedler. Edwards also recalls Jimmy Johnstone saying how he hated coming up against Schaedler. He wasn’t just there to defend or win the ball when the odds were stacked against him. No one gains a Scotland cap and is included in a Scotland World Cup squad, as Schaedler was in 1974, with only that to offer.
Stanton remembers a game at Partick Thistle when Schaedler took a long throw – his speciality – in a position almost level with the Thistle 18-yard line. When the ball was headed back out to him he stepped back on to the pitch and hit the ball first time. Goalkeeper Alan Rough was motionless as the ball sped past him into the net. “You are a left-back, you are not supposed to do things like that,” Stanton remembers telling him. “I wouldn’t like to fall out with him, though,” he adds.
“He wasn’t a drinker, but he was still one of the boys,” says former Dundee team-mate Billy Pirie. This is a curiously Scottish assessment that translates as the highest of compliments. Even without drink, he was fun to be around, which makes the way it ended seem all the more perplexing. However, those who played with him did detect a deeper character. “You got the feeling on one or two occasions that he just wanted to be alone,” says Ian Redford, another team-mate from his time with Dundee, where Schaedler won a First Division championship medal and League Cup runners-up medal.
He is, however, most readily associated with Hibs, where he enjoyed two spells. Since 1985 his former Easter Road team-mates have always been careful to leave an empty seat at the table when the League Cup winning side of 1972 gather for reunion dinners. There is now the need to leave one more chair unoccupied, sadly, following Alan Gordon’s death three years ago. But Schaedler was the first of the gang to go. “Too early, much too early,” says Stanton.
To a man, his former team-mates I spoke to this week are glad that a book about their friend has now been written. It has granted Erich Schaedler the recognition as a fine footballer that sometimes escaped him in life.