IT must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Fifty years ago this weekend, the Summer Cup was restored to the Scottish football calendar.
At a time when the season was traditionally concluded with the Scottish Cup final at the end of April, the game’s administrators decided the time was ripe to gauge the potential market for summer football.
It was an experiment which would last just two years. Handicapped from the outset by a complete lack of interest from both Celtic and Rangers, its first final was delayed by a typhoid epidemic to add to the sense it was a tournament which did not have an auspicious future.
“It’s fair to say the players weren’t that keen on it,” recalls Peter Cormack, then a prodigious teenager at Hibs who would make a telling impact in the tournament. “The married guys were especially unhappy, because it ate into their summer holidays. It wasn’t so bad for younger laddies like myself, who would have played every night of the week, but I don’t think it was ever going to catch on.”
Yet it remains notable for delivering an eye-catching addition to the early managerial CV of Jock Stein who led Cormack and his Hibs team-mates to success in the first reprise of the Summer Cup in May 1964.
It was appropriate that the Easter Road club should lift the silverware as it was at the instigation of their chairman Harry Swan that the Summer Cup was first introduced during the Second World War.
Encouraged by the Government as part of their Holidays at Home campaign to prevent widespread travel by the public during the summer, the tournament was played on a knockout basis from 1941 to 1945, inclusive, and produced five different winners in Hibs, Rangers, St Mirren, Motherwell and Partick Thistle.
With the public appetite for football all but insatiable at a time of austerity, attendances were healthy. But, when the war ended, it was shelved as Scottish football returned to its more traditional calendar.
There was plenty of scepticism around when the Summer Cup returned in 1964, the Old Firm clubs quickly declaring they would not be taking part. The Edinburgh clubs were initially more enthusiastic and the competition kicked off with a derby match at Tynecastle, which Hearts won 3-2.
The 16 clubs who entered faced each other on a round-robin basis in four groups of four teams and it appeared Stein’s Hibs side had been eliminated when Hearts topped their section. The Gorgie club, however, decided to withdraw at this stage as they took up an offer to tour North America.
It meant Hibs played off against Dunfermline, at Tynecastle, for the last semi-final slot. They won 3-1 then went on to defeat Kilmarnock over two legs in the last four to set up a final showdown with Aberdeen. But the outbreak of typhoid at the end of May 1964 in the Granite City, eventually traced to a tin of Fray Bentos corned beef sold in a William Low supermarket, forced the final to be postponed.
Aberdeen was effectively shut off from the rest of Scotland to prevent the spread of the disease. There were no fatalities, but it took a high-profile visit to the city by the Queen in July 1964 to help restore confidence that Aberdeen was safe once more.
The delayed Summer Cup final eventually went ahead in August, capturing substantial interest with an attendance of 27,000 at Easter Road for the second leg. With the teams level at 4-4 on aggregate, a third match was required. Aberdeen won the toss for choice of venue, but Hibs prevailed with a 3-1 win with goals from Cormack, Willie Hamilton and Jim Scott.
“That was a good Aberdeen team but we played really well in that game,” recalls Cormack. “I was lucky enough to go on and win major domestic and European trophies at Liverpool, so the Summer Cup isn’t high on my list of achievements. But it was great to be in a trophy-winning team under a manager like Jock Stein.
“He left for Celtic a few months later, of course, and the rest is history. But you can’t help wondering how much more Hibs would have won if he had stayed as manager for a longer period.”
Hibs were unable to defend the Summer Cup in 1965, losing out to eventual winners Motherwell in the semi-finals. Crowds slumped in the second year, typified by an attendance of just 216 at Cathkin Park when Third Lanark played their last Summer Cup tie, just two years before their own demise. Mike Jackson, the former Celtic midfielder, was among the scorers for Thirds in a 5-2 win over Airdrie.
“It’s a good job we weren’t on a percentage of the gate,” said Jackson with a smile. “Mind you, there were times when we didn’t get paid anyway!
“Players and supporters were used to the season finishing at the end of April with the Scottish Cup final and then not starting up again until August. So it wasn’t really the most popular idea from the players’ point of view and it never really caught the imagination of the punters.
“Traditions are hard to break. There’s a lot to be said for people going out to watch the football on a nice summer night, but people are entrenched in their habits when it comes to the game in Scotland.
“I’m not sure summer football will ever come at senior level but I do think there’s a strong case for it at youth level. I’ve got a nine-year-old grandson and when I watch my daughter take him to football training on a horrible night in December, January or February, I always wonder what he can possibly get out of it. So I’d like to see boys club football played in the summer.”
The Scottish Football League were keen to persist with the Summer Cup but were forced to give up the ghost when only 11 clubs entered in 1966. The trophy remains on permanent display at Easter Road, gifted to Hibs because of Harry Swan’s role in introducing the tournament, a relic of a bizarre but fascinating footnote to Scottish football history.