Keith Wright recalls Hibs’ ‘hellish’ play-off

Hibernian legend Keith Wright. Picture: Greg Macvean

Hibernian legend Keith Wright. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Former Hibs striker, who turns 50 tomorrow, recalls ‘hellish’ play-off games against Airdrie in 1997, his rivalry with John ‘Ceefax’ Robertson, and how his career took a while to get going

It happened all of 23-and-a-half years ago but still the faithful want to thank Keith Wright for a goal he banged past Andy Rhodes. “Every year almost without fail when I’m on my holidays I’ll be by the pool and there will be a guy in a Hibs top,” he says. “This has happened in Tenerife, Turkey, Majorca, you name it.

Keith Wright scoring against Dunfermline in the Skol Cup final in 1991. Picture: Jeff Mitchell

Keith Wright scoring against Dunfermline in the Skol Cup final in 1991. Picture: Jeff Mitchell

“I loved scoring that goal, loved what it meant to the club. These fans just want to tell me what they were doing in their lives when I scored it, shake my hand and get a photo. Maybe the funniest place this has happened, the least expected, was Doncaster racecourse – who’d have thought you’d bump into a Hibby down there? But I’m not complaining, it’s nice to be remembered.”

For Wright – he of the flaming red hair, the tackety boots-and-treacle running style and the “Keith, Keith, Keith” chant – the goal was the clincher against Dunfermline Athletic in the final of the 1991 League Cup, or as it was known back then, the Skol Cup, and the significance of the Hampden triumph down Leith way was not lost on Michael Buerk reading the nationwide news who noted that the club had almost died the year before. But I’ve come to Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, to talk to Wright about another goal he scored against Rhodes – at Airdrie five seasons later and pretty important, too – as it ended the torture of the league play-offs.

“Andy was some boy, wasn’t he?” the ex-striker smiles. “Fond of a save for the cameras. I scored a hat-trick against him once and he was so raging with himself afterwards that he got his goalie coach to put him through a right hard session. But if you’re telling me he was playing that night then I’m afraid I don’t remember it…”

Wright admits he hasn’t got the perfect recall of his old rival and great friend John Robertson. “Robbo can tell you about every goal he scored, what he had for lunch beforehand – that’s why he’s known as Ceefax.” More of the Hearts hero later but if Wright has erased the one he got at Broadwood from his mind then there’s a very good reason for that.

Wright and Darren Jackson celebrate Hibs' play-off win against Airdrie in 1997. Picture: Gordon Fraser

Wright and Darren Jackson celebrate Hibs' play-off win against Airdrie in 1997. Picture: Gordon Fraser

“Those were absolutely hellish games,” he says of May 1997’s two-legged showdown with Alex MacDonald’s awkward squad who were dead set on taking Hibs’ place in the old Premier Division. “Airdrie were the worst opponents we could have had: real scrappers who were niggly and in your face and determined to win their personal battles all over the pitch. And I’m sure if they could have hand-picked a team to meet in the play-offs it would have been us.”

The first game fell 18 years ago tomorrow, which just happens to be dad-of-four Wright’s 50th birthday, while the return was his last appearance in the green and white, rounded off with his final goal. Let’s go back there…

The play-offs had only come to Scotland the previous season and would last one more term after Hibs’ ordeal until their re-introduction for the top flight last year. Wright laughs when he hears them described as being like cup finals. “If you reach a cup final you’re doing well. One team in the play-offs usually can’t win for toffee and back then that was us.”

Jim Duffy, the Hibs manager, called for the play-offs to be scrapped – that was after his side had won the first leg at Easter Road, a game of much screaming and miscontrol. He said the stress had been intolerable, adding: “I wouldn’t wish the play-offs on my worst enemy.” A glance at the line-ups is both fascinating and poignant. Duffy, sacked as straight relegation became unavoidable the following season, has just won a promotion with Morton. Kenny Black currently holds the jumbo notepad for Stuart McCall at Rangers. John Hughes has just been named the Premiership’s Manager of the Year. But two from the Airdrie team are no longer with us.

Forbes Johnston took his own life in Australia in 2007 and three years before that Steve Cooper died in his sleep, unaware he’d cracked his skull in a fall. “Big Steve was a really fit lad, a gymnast, who caused mayhem in the first leg at Easter Road,” recalls Wright. Unfortunately for Airdrie, Cooper also scored the own goal which gave the Hibees a narrow lead.

I try and winkle out more memories. “The crowd were nervous, the players were nervous and we just kept making each other worse all afternoon. No one in the team wanted to be responsible for getting Hibs relegated and certainly not Geebsie [Gordon Hunter] and myself. We’d grown up supporting the club. We were local lads who bumped into fans every day. But it all got too much for Geebsie who was sent off for kicking one of their guys and I don’t think we thought one goal would be enough.”

Five days later, and after just 60 seconds of the second leg, Airdrie had wiped out the lead. Then they were awarded a penalty only for the luckless Cooper to balloon it over the bar. “That was the turning-point. If he’d scored I think we would have been sunk,” says Wright, who’d begun the return on the bench. Watching was even more horrible than playing, until he could get on the park and score. The mayhem level had been maintained through eight yellow cards, one red (Jimmy Sandison), a broken ankle (Gary Mackay) and four penalties, but the crucial two were converted by Darren Jackson as Hibs won 4-2 to preserve their status, at least for another 12 months.

Wright is Football Development Officer for Midlothian. He’s getting more kids playing the game, and playing it in their little towns without having to move, the full service from three years old to 50-plus. This used to be proud mining heartland, and even though the pits have gone the rivalries remain, and in ten years in the job he’s pleased to have been able to bring about unlikely team mergers for the common good. And of course he’s also trying to find the next Darren Fletcher. “Darren, being a Midlothian boy, is our role model and his face is on every flyer. His mum and dad still live in Mayfield, so he’s back all the time. He comes to the gala days and is great with the local teams, donating goals. Everyone’s very proud of him.”

For the 222-goal, seven-club former hitman, the current job has echoes with the old one, some strange and others telling. Mention of unlikely team mergers makes him think back to Hearts’ abortive attempt to take over Hibs, straight after which he finally got the chance to play for his boyhood heroes. Meanwhile, any youngster from Dalkeith or Penicuik who dreams of becoming a footballer would do well to heed his tale. Here sits an old pro told at 16 by one Hibs manager he wasn’t good enough; who bowled over another Hibs manager with his unquenchable desire for the game.

“Alex Miller used to say: ‘The thing about you is you love playing football.’” That may seem like an obvious remark but perhaps it’s not. “I’d have played Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday if I could and only a serious injury would have kept me out, but these days players complain about a schedule like that.” For Wright, playing football for a living was a privilege and an old quote from 1994, about how lucky he felt being paid to do it, bears this out. “I don’t think that’s the attitude any more. Now guys have their basic wage, so they almost don’t have to play. I left school just with O-grade arithmetic and woodwork. I look at my own kids with their degrees – their brains having come from their mother, obviously – and think as I’ve always done that I was incredibly fortunate.”

Wright hails from Edinburgh’s Craigmillar, an estate which struggled with a poor image during his 1970s boyhood although he won’t hear a bad word against it. “Alan McLaren went from Castlebrae High to Hearts and I went to Hibs. Some guys from Craigmillar did well in business. It’s a place that was very proud of its own.”

His father, Harry, was a pipe-fitter and an Easter Road diehard who joined in the Hands off Hibs protests. “And my mum Doreen worked 20 years as bar stewardess at Craigmillar Hearts Supporters’ Club and used to get teased rotten when the Jambos beat us, which tended to happen. I’d pick her up after games and get it too.” Doreen is still around – “She’s football-mad and when I phone her she’ll say: ‘You’ll have to call back, son, the Barcelona game’s just started’” – but Harry died last year, having been an important influence on his laddie’s career and a big help to another.

“Dad was pals with Robbo’s dad John, a heating engineer. They worked on jobs together, have a couple of pints, then come watch the pair of us play for Edina Hibs. And when John took ill, Dad would ferry him and Robbo to the matches. He died when Robbo was 14. That night the wee man stayed at our house. And Dad continued to take Robbo to football, not wanting the routine to be disrupted and knowing John would have wanted him to keep playing. Robbo came to Dad’s funeral. He’s never forgotten what my father did for him.”

What a pulsating scene the Edinburgh juveniles were. John Hughes was a team-mate at Edina and then a rival at Hutchison Vale, scarily trying to unnerve Wright minutes before a cup final – “He produced something from his bag; I’d better not say what!” Wright compares Robbo’s switch from Salvesen to Edina to crossing the Old Firm divide. The future maroons legend and another likely lad Stewart Rae were the hottest public-park talents around, but big English clubs like Manchester City and Nottingham Forest were told: “You can come and watch them, but you have to invite the whole team down to one of your matches.” So what became of Rae? “He played in that famous schoolboys international when Scotland beat England 5-4, signed for Hibs and probably thought he’s made it, as a lot of kids do. Last I heard he was somewhere in South Africa.”

That clompy running style made Wright look like he was weighed down by the heavy footwear and pitches of the Golden Gordon era. “It wasn’t elegant, was it? My kids just laugh when I show them old footage on YouTube.” And you could argue he was always in the slipstream of his strike partners: Robbo first, then Tommy Coyne at Dundee and Darren Jackson at Hibs. But he’s an extremely modest fellow and you cannot insult him. “I tell these guys I made them look good, helped some of them get their moves to the Old Firm!”

Bertie Auld was boss when Wright was knocked back in Leith, the bad news being all the worse for coming from his own goal hero as a terrace kid – Jimmy O’Rourke, then a coach. Later, Wright would be required to make judgments on two Hibee prospects, Derek Riordan and Scott Brown. “I was helping with the under-13s at Hibs and some of the other coaches thought Scott should be let go as he was too wee, stuck out on the right wing, but I wanted him to get another chance. Hibs obviously kept him and then when I became manager of Cowdenbeath I used to have to chase him off our pitch where he was having a kickabout with his mates. He’d already done a day’s training but he just loved his football. ‘Next goal the winner,’ he’d say. That was me at his age.

“Derek I got on loan at Cowdenbeath when he wasn’t figuring at Hibs. His goals – a hat-trick in a 7-5 win at Brechin – looked like they could save us from relegation but then he was called back. He was a great talent but I’m sure he’ll look back on his career and think he should have done better.”

Wright – who can only ever remember scoring one goal from outside the box and usually bundled them in – was determined to make the most of his lesser gifts. There were plenty more failed auditions and you might wonder how many times a lad can be rejected by Arbroath before he eventually gives up. But, with his father’s encouragement, Wright didn’t. On his third attempt at Raith Rovers, Gordon Wallace took a chance. “I was a late developer. At 16 Robbo and Stewart Rae were starring for the Edinburgh juvenile select and I wasn’t anywhere near it. But ten years later I was winning a full Scotland cap, even though the little Jambo toerag replaced me in the second half.”

Did he ever wish he could have continued his partnership with Robbo at senior level? “Well, funnily enough, it might have happened. When I was at Raith [Hearts coach] Walter Borthwick looked at me and there was a £25,000 bid, but Rovers wanted £35,000 and it never happened.” How would he have felt playing for Hearts, given that at that time they had the Indian sign over Hibs? “Ha ha, be careful how you write this but I would have done it. I wouldn’t have liked seeing Hibs get beat but I was a part-time player, working the rest of the week in an estate agent’s, who was desperate to make the step-up. Sometimes footballers can’t choose their clubs!”

That hex amounted to 22 games unbeaten and all told in the fixture Robbo netted 27 times. “He’s such a big kid,” says Wright. “I’ll get e-mails from him where he’ll sign off: ‘See you on the 27th’ I’ll say: ‘Robbo, we’re meeting on the 24th.’ He’ll come back: ‘Ach sorry, I don’t know why 27 sticks in my mind.’ He’s also got a habit of sending me messages at exactly 12.55 – five to one. I guess that refers to some Hearts victory or other … ”

Before and after Hibs, Wright travelled up and down the country in search of goals. One of his companions in “the Edinburgh car” for trips over to Raith, first time round, was Jocky Hill, a punk rocker, and sometimes Wright, more of a Spandau Ballet man, would tag along to gigs. “Jocky would be wearing his bondage trousers and I’d still be in my Raith tie. But I pogo-ed.” The Edinburgh car for the journeys to Morton was much less fun. “I had a bad back by then – so bad I’d have to lie across the knees of the other guys. By the time we got to Cappielow I was like a cardboard cutout.”

He didn’t think he did very well there but recently a Morton fan was very keen to shake his hand. “We beat St Mirren 5-1 in a derby and I scored a hat-trick. I’d completely forgotten about that and he just wanted to thank me … ”

Keith-Keith-Keith Wright took his time to get going but long after he stopped the gratitude just keeps coming.

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