Interview: Maurice Malpas on what went wrong at Hibs

Maurice Malpas did not have his troubles to seek at Hibs as assistant manager to Terry Butcher. Picture: SNS
Maurice Malpas did not have his troubles to seek at Hibs as assistant manager to Terry Butcher. Picture: SNS
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Every Wednesday, Maurice Malpas and his very good pal Big Sash play golf together at the Alyth course in Perthshire and always, coming up right behind them, will be Hamish the Goalie. That’s McAlpine, of course, while Big Sash is David Narey and this happy trio of Dundee United legends will reminisce about “games, goals and bollockings”. Then every Sunday they’ll do it all over again.

On other days they’ll meet up with Heggie, Holty and Kirky – Paul Hegarty, John Holt and Billy Kirkwood – and the stories will start to get embroidered and exaggerated, especially the ones about the bollockings, because, after all, these guys are protégés of the incorrigible, inspirational, irascible Jim McLean. Sometimes, though, Malpas will have to duck out owing to some pressing business on the grandad front.

“Molly arrived three months ago and she’s a bundle of joy,” he says. “I tell my wife Maria that I’m living the dream right now. As well as my great group of ex-United bores I’ve got the wee yin. She’s my son Darren’s girl. Then there’s my daughter Zoe who’s just bought an old cottage which I’ve taken right back to the brick because as well as being a son of ‘Wee Jum’ I’m also the son of a joiner. Family for me has become massive again. I’m realising there’s more to life than football.”

But… and if you know Malpas like Big Sash does, you won’t be surprised there’s a but: he fancies getting back into football, despite everything. Despite being sacked by Hibernian after seven disastrous months in charge. Despite being made to run the gauntlet of angry Swindon Town fans, another posting which ended in his dismissal. Despite the sack from United, his big love, when he was given a black bin-liner and an hour to gather up his belongings after 23 years’ loyal service.

He sounds as incorrigible as Wee Jum, I say, as we sup lattes overlooking Dundee’s rapidly regenerating waterfront. He smiles a smile rarely seen in the port of Leith as the good ship Hibs sunk from the Premiership taking everyone down including Terry Butcher and his assistant Malpas. “I cannae help it,” says our man, “the game’s in my blood. And this might sound strange but there are times in football when you enjoy all the hassles.”

Let’s start with the hassles of Hibs because they have a relevance to the desperate plight of the Arabs. Early in his Tannadice tenure, after a 5-0 loss to Celtic, Mixu Paatelainen described his team’s performance as “rubbish with a capital R”. This set alarm bells ringing for Malpas, 53. He and Butcher made a similarly quick and damning judgment on the Hibs players, with disastrous consequences.

“I’ve been there, done it, got the T-shirt, am not proud of it, and if I had my time again I would do it a whole lot differently,” he says. Hibs are a massive club, a fantastic club and Terry and I thought we’d have a blank canvas, but we made a mistake by being too honest. We let it be known we were going to decimate the team and start again, as we’d done at Inverness before. In hindsight, we should have just pee-heed but we never thought we were going to be relegated.

“We should have cajoled the players to the end of the season. We thought we were being kind to those who were going to be in our plans. But what happened was that some of them put their tools away and there was a bad atmosphere. Looking back, you can understand why.

“They either couldn’t or didn’t want to find other clubs. That was their prerogative but they then sat in our dressing-room and caused mayhem. One or two of the senior players just couldn’t be bothered and some of the younger
ones copied them. But we got hit by injuries and we had to go back to these guys. After we’d shafted them they shafted us.”

Relegation was calamitous for Hibs, still battling to get out of the Championship, and didn’t do much for the reputations of the managerial duo either. Butcher retreated south, took a year to get back into the game but was sacked by Newport County after five months. Malpas, who had a spell of similar length as director of football at Raith Rovers, has applied for jobs, some in the Premiership, without success.

“When I’m given any feedback it’s that I’m too ‘old school’,” he says. “I don’t understand that, maybe someone could explain that to me.” Has he tried to reinvent himself? “No, I think you have to be true to yourself. I’m Maurice Malpas, I can’t be the in-manager right now, whoever that is. You either like me or you don’t.”

What about the charge Butcher/Malpas and Hibs were a stylistic mismatch? He sighs. “I heard about ‘the Hibs way’ but I think all fans first and foremost want a winning team. Early on, and especially after we won our first Edinburgh derby, the supporters were fantastic. If we’d said snow was black they’d have believed us. Later the results weren’t good. The performances weren’t good either but we just wanted results, a couple of points to be safe, but we couldn’t get them.”

The flair issue, he says, was “one of the barriers we had to knock down”. He thinks back to his Dundee United days when it was “all about winning”. Sometimes they produced silky football – “other times we couldn’t kick a backside”. At Hibs, Malpas and Butcher struggled to get the team to play at the high intensity desired. “We wanted them to get the ball up the park without shelling it. A lot of them wouldn’t buy into it. Some couldn’t do it. Others said: ‘That’s just shelling it’.”

And what about the charge that Malpas – rumoured to be the bad cop in the relationship – was too hard on the players or does he hold with the view expressed by many that Hibs are, or were, too soft? “Well, I remember one day, pissing with rain and windy, when I went on to the training pitch at 10am and found no one there. The players were all inside in what they called ‘the barn’. The Hibs philosophy, call it what you want, seemed to be that they didn’t train in such conditions. Coming from Inverness that was a nice day as far as I was concerned! I told them: ‘Get your arses out there’.

“At Caley Thistle Terry and I had guys who maybe weren’t the best players but they had great attitude. I wished the Hibs boys, all good footballers, had had that but their attitude stank.

“I was supposed to have had a fight with Kevin Thomson. Well, Thommo was never on the training pitch long enough for that to have happened. The younger ones, they were just playing at being footballers. They all had their socks rolled up over their knees – what’s that about? I definitely bollocked those who weren’t working hard enough. But if the Hibs boys thought I was bad they should have seen me ten years before. I happen to think I’ve mellowed.”

Maurice Daniel Robert Malpas, doughty left-back and one-club man, won the Premier League and Scottish Cup with United, the Player of the Year prize from Scotland’s football scribes and 55 Scotland caps. His story began in the Fife village of Townhill and three generations of the family used to venture into the teeming metropolis – Dunfermline – to support the Pars. “I was thrilled to get a trial with them. But [manager] George Miller told 
me: ‘You’re too small to be a footballer. Forget it, son’.”

He’s a proud Fifer – “even if that means I’m dour”. His kids call him crabbit. “If I’m getting on at them they’ll say: ‘Is that Fife Dad?’ ” When he began coaching at United, it seemed you had to shout and bawl, and McLean was no slouch at either. “I remember taking the United reserves at Arbroath, banging my head off one of those old dug-outs with the concrete roofs as I roared at David Hannah who was mucking about at the back. The next day Jim called me in: ‘We’ve got a problem. There was f****n’ too much swearing last night’. ‘Pardon?’ I said. ‘You were swearing f****n’ too much’. The pot calling the half-time kettle black.”

Before the 16-year-old Malpas would sign his S-form with United, McLean had to agree to let him finish his studies. Dad Danny insisted on it, just in case he didn’t become a stalwart of the Scottish game, performing in European finals and semi-finals and two World Cups. “I think Jim thought this was going to a wee one-year college course but it was four years of electrical and electronic engineering. I was still part-time, training Tuesdays and Thursdays, when we won the league, when Roma diddled us out of the [1984] European Cup final – and when Jock Stein gave me my first cap.

“To be honest, up until that semi-final, I wasn’t sure about football. I liked being part-time. Jock was in Rome with us – he and Jim were really tight. Waiting to fly home I was having a coffee in the airport. Jock came up to me – I was a wee boy, petrified of him – and said: ‘You played well, son, and you’ll play for Scotland before the end of the season’. I was like: ‘Who, me?’

“Dad said: ‘You’re going to get capped – you have to give football a shot’. After that my life moved so fast. Maria and I got married and we bought a house. We were school sweethearts. Her job was helping kids with learning 
difficulties, although I reckon she’s a saint just for looking after me. Then suddenly there I was, standing for our anthem before a friendly against France, Michel Platini, Alain Giresse and all. The hairs were up on the back of my neck and I thought I was going to burst into tears.”

How would he describe his relationship with McLean? A wry smile: “I think I went from being loved to hated, back to loved and then hated again.” Was it love all the way for any of the Tangerine Terrors? “Oh, Luggie [Paul Sturrock] got that. It’s funny, Dad used to say to me, if I reckoned I’d played well: ‘Dinnae kid yersel’ on’. But he would pick me up if I thought I’d been crap. With Jim it was either ‘No’ bad’ or ‘Absolute shite’!”

But, as they say in romcoms, it’s complicated. Any association with McLean cannot be summed up in a hurry, which is why they’re still being debated twice a week at the 19th hole. Obviously Malpas did plenty right to amass 617 appearances. He was in awe of the manager’s methods. “Plyometrics is a big thing now – we were doing it donkeys ago. Jim was a real visionary.” But the pair fell out often and a row just before the 1995 Scottish Cup final was never patched up.

“I said some harsh things in a newspaper article and Jim, who’d moved upstairs to become a director by then, wanted me dropped but Ivan [Golac, the manager] refused.” Malpas 
captained United to their first-ever triumph, ruining Rangers’ dream of the double treble. The Yugoslav with the “Smell the flowers” dictum was nothing like Wee Jum. “I’ve never met anyone more horizontal,” laughs Malpas.

Now McLean is battling ill health. “That’s a terrible shame for Jim and his family. I wish I could have tapped into his knowledge because he was miles ahead of the world and now I can’t.” A few wise words from the old fox would surely have been useful in Malpas’s bust-ups with club owners, his difficulties at Motherwell after becoming unshackled from his buddy Butcher – and that bruising spell on his own at Swindon. “We got dumped out of the FA Cup by a non-league team. The fans were spitting blood and it was a 600-yard walk to my car. Maria got abuse, too. Like at Hibs I was desperately wanting the end of the season so I could change everything but I never made it.”

Malpas thinks about what he’d like to do next. “I’m not scared of being the main man again. Equally, I don’t need to work right at the coalface and would be happy coaching, although maybe not back to schoolboy level with my manner being what it is.” A reunion with Butcher? “Who knows? I miss our banter. It’s funny how we ended up working together. When I used to see him strutting about the pitch in old Scotland-England games, then turning up at Rangers as one of those pop stars and arseholes, that never looked like it would happen.”

They hooked up in 2003, a few weeks after Malpas was sacked by United as Paul Hegarty’s assistant. That had been a gruesome end to his epic Tannadice saga, with his family learning about it first, tears in the school playground and his father quipping after seeing him on TV with his bin-liner: “You had your golf club with you so things can’t have been all that bad in there.” Bitterness remains – he still won’t go anywhere near the boardroom. So what if, at some future time, he got offered the manager’s job? “Ah well,” he says, “I’d accept in a flash.”

That’s Paatelainen’s gig for now and Malpas wishes his former team-mate nothing but luck in the battle to avoid relegation. The last time that happened was the season after the Scottish Cup triumph and Malpas winces at the memory. “The cup meant so much to people. In Tesco’s with Maria this old guy – who was in bits – hugged me and said: ‘I’ll die a happy man’.

“But we suffered a hangover. Pre-season in Malaysia was too hot and we came back looking like store dogs. We began woefully and never really recovered.

“Then, unfortunately, three or four guys downed tools. They were going to be moving on.

“When the end came I was in bits. The players who were leaving collected their boots looking like they didn’t have a care in the world. I was heartbroken.

“So when I hear that some in the current team are signing pre-contract agreements, I think: ‘How’s that going to pan out?’ It’s just wrong.”

Old-school? There’s much about the modern game Maurice Malpas doesn’t like but he still loves football. Right now, though, he must be going. It’s as wet and windy as a Hibs training-day and he’s completely 
undeterred.

“Cannae keep the grand-daughter waiting,” he says with a smile.