Although Hibernian threw away a two-goal lead on their last visit, Terry Butcher has good memories of Dundee, since that is where he first became united with Maurice Malpas. Many assume that Tel met Mo at Motherwell, where they worked together in the early 2000s.
It is an easy mistake to make. Not everyone recalls the time Butcher spent at Dundee United as a youth coach in the late 1990s – an association that it is worth recalling on the day Hibs host the Tannadice side in a televised Premiership fixture and when they will seek redress for that late collapse in early January.
It was at United that the former Rangers captain first crossed paths with Malpas in a meaningful sense, although they had, of course, been adversaries at club and international level over the years.
“That little bleep of a left back who stopped us doing things,” was how Butcher described his long-time assistant yesterday.
By the time he turned up at Tannadice in 1998, Butcher was falling back in love with football after a turbulent post-Ibrox career. Malpas, meanwhile, was winding up a glorious playing career with United, where he had already started to split his on-field duties with coaching.
Butcher’s footballing rehabilitation began at Raith Rovers when then manager Jimmy Nicholl invited him in to help coach the reserves, following two fairly bruising experiences as a manager in his own right at Sunderland and Coventry City. After those, Butcher retreated to Scotland, where he opened a hotel in Bridge of Allan.
Tommy McLean, who had a (very) short spell as Raith Rovers manager before being spirited away to Dundee United, recruited Butcher in 1998 as youth team coach at Tannadice. McLean didn’t hang around long again, resigning four league games into the 1998/99 season.
“He left a week later, that was a surprise!” added Butcher yesterday, as he reflected on the twist of fate that saw he and Malpas become friends as well as colleagues. “The great thing about going to United, though, was working with Maurice,” said Butcher. “That was where I first got to know him well.”
On the face of it, the two don’t seem like an obvious pairing, although it is true that the best managerial partnerships are often formed from contrasting personalities. There are some similarities too. Both were first-class defenders who had played in World Cups. But Malpas is often cast as dour and serious-minded. Butcher, meanwhile, was slightly more madcap, with an easy manner – something that had obviously helped when he was working in the hospitality industry. The pair formed a bond as they tackled the menial tasks often required of them. Malpas’s reluctance to trade on his status as club captain always impressed Butcher.
“Maurice was still playing,” he recalled. “He coached because we took the reserves together – and he was the kit man, as well. He even packed the hampers.
“So he was captain of the club, he still played for the team, but he packed the hampers, unpacked them, did all the kit on match days. It was a phenomenal attitude and effort. He worked his nuts off for that club.
“I would help him. We’d come in on a Monday morning and sort out all the laundry from the weekend, then he would go and train and play for the first team, captain the team. We then used to have afternoon training sessions with the reserves and the kids. He would be out there working as a coach.”
The phrase “better together” is an apt one when it is applied to the pair. When they have attempted to go their own ways it has not panned out as either would have hoped. Butcher left Motherwell to go to Australia and take over for a short time at Sydney FC. Malpas, who Butcher first recruited as his assistant in 2003, was then named manager at Fir Park, but lasted only a season. Butcher’s return to England with Brentford was not a success, and neither was Malpas’s own spell at Swindon Town, where he replaced former Dundee United team-mate Paul Sturrock. For whatever reason, they thrive together.
“I had been a manager twice and really hadn’t had a No 2 that I felt totally comfortable with, although Ian Atkins was great for me at Sunderland,” mused Butcher. “It was just different for Maurice. I was going back into management – he was edging towards that as well – and, when the opportunity came along to get him on board, it was perfect for me. He’s a great coach, a great guy and we have a great understanding about the game, together. He’s another defender, so we should understand roughly what we’re talking about defensively – hopefully.”
Butcher added that it would be typical if tonight ended up being a high-scoring free-for-all, something that few watching at home on television would complain about. According to Butcher, Friday night football has a good feel about it.
“As a player, I always preferred to play under the lights, even more than games on a Saturday,” he said. So far, he has calculated, these fixtures tend to fall in
favour of the home team. This was certainly true when Hibs travelled to face Aberdeen in January on what was their last Friday appointment, and when they lost 1-0 to a late goal.
That was the evening when Butcher signalled his intent to begin giving youth a chance at the club, sending on three teenagers as substitutes in the second half. He admits that Hibs’ youngsters have not been as lauded
as those at Dundee United, and neither do they deserve to be. Not yet, at least.
“We have been in the bottom six all season and we have not been in semi-finals or finals of cups, so you get talked about less than United, who are in
quarter-finals [of the Scottish Cup] and the top six,” he said. “To get the maximum publicity you have to get in the top six and win games and get into semi-finals and finals again.”
Butcher is not tempted to follow United’s example of granting Spanish holidays to their young stars in mid-season. “They want to be playing,” he said, with reference to the likes of Sam Stanton and Alex Harris. “In any case, I am not sure Mr Petrie would allow it.”