TWENTY years ago yesterday, Eric Cantona flew feet first into the crowd. But 30 years ago today, something perhaps more remarkable occurred: Ally ‘Benny’ Brazil scored a hat-trick.
Even though the goals came in an eye-opening 6-3 romp against Celtic, the achievement did not merit headlines around the world, as Cantona’s assault on a Crystal Palace supporter did. But it did prompt one in The Scotsman: “Ally Brazil is the hero, for once”.
For Once. These two words make it slightly awkward when, contact having been established with the man himself, you are kindly invited to Brazil’s house to discuss the feat. “I’ll bring a match report, help jog your memory,” you inform him, breezily, before remembering the sting in the tail of the headline. “Maybe we can crop them out?” the sports editor wonders, unhelpfully.
“Ach, dinnae worry about it, I’ve had a lot worse than that in my career, I can assure you,” says the genial Brazil, upon seeing the offending, un-cropped headline.
He has only one complaint as his house guest sits sipping tea and munching a mini Twix bar. The report mentions Brazil sealing the hat-trick with a penalty that he “slotted to [Pat] Bonner’s right”. Not true, apparently. “I didnae, I put it to his left, my right. I always put my penalties that way, not that I took too many of them.”
We are sitting together in Brazil’s front room during a few days’ break he has from work. 2, 20, 30, 38, 63. Not the minutes in which Hibs scored their first five goals v Celtic on that chilly afternoon, 30 years ago. Rather, these are the numbers of the buses Brazil now drives. Famously, he was meant to drive the Hibs League Cup-winning team from 2004 down Easter Road.
He did still drive the open-topped bus; it’s just that the route veered dramatically off-piste. Livingston’s surprise victory meant the former Hibs player was forced to cart these bloody Livi killjoys through West Lothian. On the occasion of the Edinburgh derby Scottish Cup final three years ago, Lothian Buses decided to draw the lucky driver’s name out of a hat. Brazil’s wasn’t chosen. “Just as well,” he says now, his boyhood love for the Tynecastle club having long since evaporated.
However, we are not here to talk about cup final losses, even if he knew his fair share as a player; he played in all three games of the never-ending Scottish Cup final of 1979 versus Rangers as well as the Skol Cup final in 1985, against Alex Ferguson’s all-conquering Aberdeen side. We are here to speak of more cheerful things. And how much more cheerful can it get than recalling not just a hat-trick, but a perfect one; left foot, header, right foot.
“It’s something to remember, eh?” smiles Brazil. Surprisingly since he has kept precious little else from his career, he still has the ball. “The first goal was a volley from our own bye-line. As the years have gone on, you see, the distance has increased!” The second was the header, from a rebounded Gordon Durie shot. He completed the scoring from the penalty spot, willed on by his team-mates. Ok, so it wasn’t a competitive fixture. On a day when the Scottish fixture calendar was disrupted by frost and snow – it was Scottish Cup third-round weekend, Celtic were due to play Inverness Thistle, and Hibs were supposed to be at Dundee United – the Easter Road club held an ace card: under-soil heating. So at short notice, Celtic were invited to play, attended, given its hasty arrangment, by an impressive 5,000 fans. Not even the Hibs manager John Blackley was there, which seems typical: Brazil scores the only hat-trick of his career and doesn’t even impress the manager, who, Mike Aitken’s match report in The Scotsman revealed, was in England on scouting business.
A quick call to Blackley last week confirms this was so. He was at Sheffield Wednesday v Oldham Athletic, who as well as fielding Joe McBride, the reason for Blackley’s journey south and who joined Hibs shortly afterwards, also had a certain Andy Goram in goal. (Even though they lost 5-1, Blackley recalls Goram having a magnificent game). Afterwards, Blackley called Easter Road to speak to Tommy Craig, his assistant.
“How’d we get on?” he asked.
“You’ll never believe it, we won 6-3,” replied Craig. “And guess what?” the assistant added.
“Benny scored three of them.”
Not that Blackley needed to see Brazil scoring a hat-trick to be impressed – he already adored him. “You could always count on him to give you 100 per cent, wherever you played him,” he says. Although sometimes used in midfield, Brazil was defending that day, rendering his feat even more impressive.
Of course, not everyone appreciated Benny, despite his versatility. “At the end of the day, the fans pay their money,” Brazil shrugs. “It is up to them. It is up to them what they say and think. The biggest problem is that they must have known I was a Hearts fan. Obviously, there was a minority I got stick from all the time. On the whole, most of them were really good to me.
“I still get recognised now,” he adds. “A lot of them say: ‘Didn’t you play for Hibs?’ A few say: ‘Hi, how you doing Benny’. They all call me Benny still. The only place I don’t get called Benny is at the buses. They know I played football but they didn’t ken my nickname. Everywhere else it is Benny. I am quite happy with that.
“My older brother gave us all nicknames when we were younger,” he explains. John christened me Benny.
“I had it before him!” Brazil, now 56, protests, when the character Benny from the ITV soap opera Crossroads is mentioned as possible inspiration. “But no, I don’t know how it came about.”
Later the same year, Hibs faced Celtic in a Skol Cup tie that went to penalties after a pulsating 4-4 draw at Easter Road. In the shoot-out, Hibs quickly went 2-0 up. Although Celtic staged a mini-comeback, it was left to Hibs’ fifth penalty taker to score to put Hibs through. Up stepped Benny, emboldened by having scored past the same goalkeeper just nine months earlier.
He hit it to Bonner’s left, again. Bad move. Bonner, possibly remembering their last duel, went the right way and saved. However, this story deserves a kinder ending. Happily, it has one. After Tommy Burns and Steve Cowan both scored with their next kicks Pearce O’Leary sent his effort high over the bar to seal Hibs’ place in the semi-final.
“No harm done,” smiles Benny.