Ivan Sproule tells Graham Ruthven just what it means to be defined by an unforgettable 23 minutes in Govan
Few football players are eponymously tagged to a single game like Ivan Sproule is. Wherever the Northern Irishman plays, whatever he does, he will always be the guy who scored a hat-trick for Hibernian at Ibrox. The Rangers fan who, as a second-half substitute, single-handedly dismantled his boyhood team in the space of 23 minutes.
Indeed, The Ivan Sproule Match ranks alongside The Andrei Arshavin Match [four goals against Liverpool at Anfield in 2009] and The Oleg Salenko Match [five goals against Cameroon in the 1994 World Cup] as a contest which became so overwhelmingly about one player the fixture will forever bear his name. And ten years – almost to the day – have since passed when Hibs and Rangers face each other once again today.
“Ten years have been quick in flying in,” exhales Sproule, now back in his homeland with Linfield. “People seem to forget that I actually scored my first goal for Hibs at Parkhead, but I suppose the hat-trick at Ibrox was what really sent me into the limelight. My career kind of spiralled from there. It was a magic moment and Tony Mowbray told me at the time that it would basically change my life – he was right. It’s something that I can fondly look back at, especially because it was such a strong Rangers team back then.”
Sproule became the first opposition player to have scored a hat-trick against Rangers at Ibrox since Allan Johnston’s for Hearts in January 1996, but what is perhaps most remarkable about the tale of his feat all those years ago is that it very nearly never happened. With the winger struggling to settle in Edinburgh, he had plotted a return to Northern Ireland – Linfield the proposed destination – only for Hibs manager Mowbray to talk Sproule into staying.
“The conversation took place on the Thursday and I went back and unpacked my bags,” he says. “It just so happened that on the Saturday – just a few days later – I banged in the hat-trick, so that’s how quickly football can turn for you. I owe so much to Tony Mowbray for my career because he started it off and my career really took off after that game. If he hadn’t talked me around the hat-trick would never have happened.”
Signed for just £5,000 by Mowbray from Northern Irish part-time outfit Institute, Sproule – a fabrication engineer by day before joining Hibs – became something of a cult figure at Easter Road. “People would come up asking for autographs and pictures, which doesn’t happen back home,” he explains, speaking about how the city he initially struggled to settle in soon embraced him.
But it wasn’t just his goalscoring exploits against Rangers that endeared him to the Leith support – although that no doubt helped. Sproule garnered a reputation for running faster and for longer than anyone else on the Hibs team of that time, eventually placating Mowbray’s initial concerns over his fitness. “I don’t think I was a magician of a footballer or anything like that, but I always gave it my all,” he says. “I wore my heart on my sleeve and I think for the fans that is the minimum requirement of a player. Maybe that’s why they seemed to like me so much there.”
Of course, Hibs now find themselves in a very different place ten years on from Sproule’s hat-trick. The win over Rangers on 27 August 2005 came just a few months after Mowbray’s side had sealed a third place finish – in the top-flight, of course. With Scott Brown, Gary Caldwell, Steven Whittaker, Kevin Thomson, Steven Fletcher, Garry O’Connor and Derek Riordan all first-team figures, Hibernian had their best team in a generation. “Back then we were a force to be reckoned with,” says Sproule.
Now however – after the demise of both clubs, in very different circumstances – Scotland’s second tier is home to the fixture that defines the Northern Irishman. “I think Hibs have made a few wrong decisions in the last few years,” admits Sproule.
“But I feel like they’ve learned from their mistakes and I think they have a good man in place there now and a lot of good, young players.”
Although Alan Stubbs has recently signed Liam Henderson and Dylan McGeouch, he lost his most prized asset just over a week ago. Scott Allan, a boyhood Rangers fan like Sproule, has now swapped Easter Road for Celtic, despite Rangers’ well-documented interest over the summer.
“I couldn’t have done that,” says the Linfield winger. “For me, growing up as a Rangers fan it would have been a dream of mine to go and sign for them.
“So if there was the chance for me to go to Rangers – which it seems like there was for him – I couldn’t have turned them down for Celtic. I don’t knock him for his choice – that’s his prerogative – but I couldn’t have done what he did.”
For someone who, as a child, regularly took the ferry across the Irish Sea on match-day trips to Ibrox, such sentiments are perhaps unsurprising.
Nonetheless, Sproule believes Hibs have improved as a team under Stubbs and expects today’s clash against Rangers to be a distinctly tighter affair than it was just a few weeks ago, when Mark Warburton’s side ran out 6-2 winners in the Petrofac Training Cup.
“Rangers are a better side this year than they were last year and have made some really good additions to their squad,” Sproule says. “But the Hibs players will want to put right what happened at the start of the season. They’ll give Rangers a much better game.”
Now 34, Sproule’s career is, by his own admission, now winding down, with the winger joining Linfield last year in order to be closer to his young family. “Playing in play-off finals with Bristol City, winning the CIS Cup with Hibs, collecting international caps… I’ve basically done it all,” he says.
“But the only time you’ll see me back in Scotland is with my Hibs scarf on watching a game with my kids.”
He might even tell them what he once did there.