Tony Higgins on George Best & Hibs’ cup heartbreak

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I’VE never told anyone this before but, as a boy, I used to be obsessed with bubblegum to the extent that when lacking the means to buy my own – if you’re squeamish, look away now – the school playground would be scoured for discarded blobs and, after a run under the tap to remove the grit, I would recycle them. So it’s an absolute pleasure today to be discussing bubblegum with Tony Higgins.

Chewing the gum even when the flavour was gone was the epitome of short-trousered cool and, while we could try and claim the cards depicting the American Civil War given away with our favourite confectionery were educational, what we really meant was they were pleasingly gruesome with soldiers spurting blood and horses being impaled on spikes.

Tony Higgins at Cathkin Park, former home of Third Lanark. Picture: John Devlin

Tony Higgins at Cathkin Park, former home of Third Lanark. Picture: John Devlin

Not as gruesome, perhaps, as the cards of 1970s footballers with their wild hair and wonky teeth, smiling grimly against a backdrop of empty, crumbling terraces and threatening clouds. Higgins got the chance of bubblegum immortality soon after breaking into the Hibernian first team. But it wasn’t this stark representation of Fitba Man which shocked him, rather the modest terms of the contract.

“I got a letter from A&BC, who produced the cards, offering me £5 for the use of my big ugly face,” he recalls. “This was to be the payment for five years. I said to some of the senior players: ‘I know I’m not Pele but this is a joke.’ They must have thought I was this impetuous laddie because I was told: ‘Do well and you’ll get a fiver every year.’”

Higgins wasn’t Edson Arantes and nor was he David Beckham who, in a different era can pocket £20,548 a day in casual exploitation of image rights, long after he’s stopped playing. Our man was a big, thunder-thighed honey monster of a midfielder-cum-striker with a droopy moustache and an even droopier style. Nevertheless, he was miffed at this commercial arrangement and took it up with football’s shop steward. “Alex Ferguson, when he was at Falkirk, got on my train through to Edinburgh from Glasgow. It might sound funny now, us two having an intense discussion about bubblegum, but, given the sums involved, I said to him it might be better if they came to the union. Later, when I took over from Fergie as PFA chairman, and Panini took over the card contract, that’s what happened and we put the money into education programmes.”

That was Higgins’ first success in the nebulous arena of footballers’ rights. Things have gotten a whole lot clearer, and better for players, because he’s stayed involved and committed. To some, he’s “Tony, Mr Africa” for having taken a key role in the formation of players’ unions there and his current preoccupation in match-fixing. It was his old Easter Road pal Jackie McNamara who passed me his phone number with this prediction: “I bet you get an international dial tone – he’s hardly ever in the country now.” But I’m in luck. The vice-president of the European division of FIFPro, which oversees unions worldwide, who could reasonably call Schiphol airport his office and reckons he has enough air miles to get him to “the Moon and back”, having visited ten countries already this year, has business closer to home for once, so we can meet up in an Edinburgh pub to discuss Hibs, Scottish Cup quarter-finals and the perils thrown up by Berwick Rangers.

Of course he liked the big games Best. His eyes would dance if we were playing Celtic or Rangers and it was a full house. Berwick definitely wasn’t one of those occasions.

Tony Higgins

Tomorrow, when the Wee Rangers come to Easter Road, it will be 35 years to the day since Higgins’ Hibees – including McNamara, Ally McLeod, Ralph Callachan, Peter Cormack in his second spell at the club and, as the match programme puts it “a man who needs absolutely no introduction”, George Best – crossed the border into England in a jittery mood.

They were a team in dire need of respite from toiling performances in the Premier League but were far from confident they’d find any at Shielfield.

In an eccentric-looking table, Morton were second behind Celtic while Hibs – who’d almost won the Scottish Cup the season before and were still managed by Eddie Turnbull – sat eight points adrift at the bottom. “That was one of those ties where you start to think about the bogeymen,” says Higgins. “‘We come from a higher league; we should win.’ But then our form was so bloody awful…

“It was a dismal day, really dank, and the park was horribly treacly with about five inches of mud covering it and my abiding memory of the game, which was as bruising as you’d expect, was of George out on the left wing, this thoroughly drookit figure, collar up, shoulders hunched, and no doubt he was thinking to himself: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’”

Best didn’t re-appear for the second half as Hibs held out for a goalless draw and didn’t figure in the replay, which they managed to win with a McLeod goal. Everything was a struggle for Hibs that season, including getting £2,000-a-match Best on to the park. “He didn’t turn up for the previous round of the cup against Ayr United. As usual, there was a big crowd to see him. When poor wee Willie Murray’s name was read out instead, everyone booed.”

That had been the game where, the night before, Best had gallivanted with two blonde bombshells – Debbie Harry, in town with Blondie, and France rugby captain Jean-Pierre Rives. He was immediately transfer-listed, only to earn another chance. The programme for the replay makes mention of some medication. “These might have been his anti-alcohol pills, from Sweden I think, which if he’d had a drink with them inside him would have knocked him out,” adds Higgins, who speaks wistfully of his former team-mate, an utterly beguiling rascal who didn’t act the superstar. “Of course he liked the big games Best. His eyes would dance if we were playing Celtic or Rangers and it was a full house. Berwick definitely wasn’t one of those occasions. But he was very humble in the dressing-room, despite having a different lifestyle to the rest of us. George would be jetting down to London to hook up with Rod Stewart or Roger Moore. We’d be up the Jinglin’ Geordie pub off the Royal Mile after training, for a bowl of soup and a shandy.

“Mind you, George did come to the Jinglin’ with us once and ended up all over the newspapers. A photographer spotted him and sneakily arranged the shot so all of our pint glasses were sat in front of George and then we were cropped out of the picture so it looked like he was there on his own, drinking the place dry. The guy must have made a fortune from it. I could see this happening and told George. But he knew and just sighed. I can still see his smile.”

Very soon, Hibs were cropped out of the Premier League, the cup run – and a 5-0 battering by Celtic in the semi-finals – being no help at all in the battle to avoid relegation. But Higgins beat the drop. The Berwick game was his last for the club and then he was off to Partick Thistle. Hang on, though, I thought this passionate trade unionist believed in the collective – didn’t he feel like he was leaving his pals in the lurch? “Well, I didn’t want to go. Eddie said: ‘You know Bertie Auld’s always liked you.’ I felt sad. At first I thought, no, I’ll stay, but Eddie wasn’t exactly fighting to keep me. I think he reckoned the team were going down and this was a chance to get in some money, although it was only about £30,000.”

Higgins’ political education came at the family tea-table on Glasgow’s Milton estate. His engineer-father Daniel was a Labour Party activist who’d chair earnest debates about the issues of the day. “The whole family – and I’m the youngest of seven – were very political. We had a television but it was less imposing on life than it is now and it never got in the way of a good-going discussion. We’re all left-of-centre, although, back then, a couple of my brothers were Communists while another leaned more to the right. The debates were always long and lively.” Mum Mary would mediate.

“Dad was old-school. He’d come home from his shift at the Albion Motors, the traditional male, and expect to be waited on hand and foot. My sisters Veronica and Pat have always been committed feminists and they used to challenge him about that and even now, down in London, they never miss a march or demo about war, poverty or some cause or other.” With two daughters of his own, Higgins still gets round a table with his siblings every New Year. “We hire a house up north. Being older, we can’t keep going long into the night anymore, but we still give politics a good airing.”

His football education was on Milton’s ash and blaes pitches. Kenny Dalglish, a bit older, was the talk of the scheme as the one to watch. There was Frank McAvennie, too, while another local lad, Johnny Hamilton, got to Hibs before Higgins, who came home from school one day to find Manchester City’s chief scout in the kitchen, waiting his turn to try to sign him, but already at a severe disadvantage because, in the lounge, Turnbull was charming his folks.

“Eddie could be courteous when he wanted and extremely eloquent. A couple of months into my time at Hibs I was introduced to the effing and blinding version. I wasn’t surprised by that. Even though I was young, I think I understood that’s what football managers were like. I had a good relationship with Eddie, a fantastic coach. I wasn’t scared of him and liked to wind him up. If he seemed more grumpy than usual I’d go: ‘Hello, good morning, boss. I had four laughs yesterday. Have I used up my quota or could I get another today?’”

Higgins could amuse – though occasionally infuriate – with his lolloping runs, his gentle-giant demeanour, his skew-whiff headers. “Hey Tony – show us some of your magic!” an enthusiast of his style would shout, to which the more sceptical pal would add: “Aye, disappear!” Later, he contemplated trying to becoming an MP and maybe it is a shame he didn’t, given his grounding in merry abuse. He says: “Whenever I meet Hibs fans I still feel the need to apologise to them for fluffing a header which would have beaten Leeds United at Elland Road.” This was in the Uefa Cup, a tie eventually lost on penalties, Pat Stanton missing the crucial kick. “Pat could do that and the fans would still love him. Imagine if it had been me! But that was a good time for Hibs. Most of Turnbull’s Tornadoes were still there and some young lads were coming through. It was also a good time for the stature of our league. Leeds were considered the Best team in Britain but we outplayed them and we also ran Liverpool very close. A Scottish club would struggle to match that now.”

Unsurprisingly, he bonded with McNamara, who cared just as deeply about politics, having flogged the Soviet Weekly round Easterhouse as a boy and become a card-carrying Communist as soon as he could. “The train journey for the Hibees who stayed in the west could be quite lively. There would be Ally [McLeod], Joey [Harper], young Willie Jamieson and John Brownlie and John Blackley would get on at Polmont. Industrial relations were a big issue back then and, of course, we had to play games on weekday afternoons during the three-day week. Maybe on the way to training Ally would approve of a Daily Express headline and Jackie and I definitely wouldn’t. Jackie, though, was guerrilla warfare – ‘Out, brothers, out!’ I took the poncey academic approach, which was more tactical and would always involve further discussion. God, it must have been boring for the guys in the team who wanted the paper to look at the racing guide or the showbiz gossip!”

It seemed apt that such a quirky footballer should continue his career with Thistle and then Morton alongside Andy Ritchie, and Higgins tells a funny story about the pair not being selected for a game at Pittodrie and, at half-past two, kidding on the regulars at a nearby pub that they were on half-pints in case of getting the call. In the crowd later, the two chancers met up with the punters again. “So you’re no’ playing, big Andy?” said one. “Naw, big Tony’s a top union guy and he’s just negotiated me a winter week.”

But it is Hibs for whom he retains the most affection. Like many who’ve worn the green and white, his career can almost be distilled down to a cup of woes. He experienced devastating defeats at Hajduk Split and Montrose, in the Cup-Winners’ Cup and League Cup respectively, and, of course, there was the Scottish Cup with Higgins, even when he wasn’t playing regularly, usually always managing to turn up for the exits from the infernal tournament. The big heartbreak of course was the 1979 final, lost to Rangers in the second replay.

It was big Tony who finally opened the scoring when it seemed the whole of Hampden gasped in relief. “That’s probably the closest Hibs have come to winning the Scottish Cup. Every time they get to a final I’m asked about the goal. I’d love that to stop, because it would mean a new hero had emerged and they’d finally done it. That will happen, I’m sure of it.”

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