Death of Cruickshank stuns fans who adored Hearts goalkeeper

IF a footballer's career can be measured by the esteem in which he was held by supporters, rather than simply through the accumulation of medals and caps, then Jim Cruickshank was undoubtedly one of the most successful players of his generation.

The former Hearts and Scotland goalkeeper, who has died at the age of 69, had little in the way of material rewards from his 19 years in the game which saw his sterling service at Tynecastle bookended by brief spells with Queen's Park and Dumbarton.

But there have been few men who have enjoyed the level of adoration which Cruickshank received from the followers of Hearts, many of whom will be in mourning today.

He made 528 competitive first-team appearances for the Gorgie club, the fourth-highest tally in the club's history, and is still regarded by many who saw him in action as the finest goalkeeper to play for Hearts.

Donald Ford, the former Hearts and Scotland striker, who was Cruickshank's team-mate for more than a decade, has no doubt that is an accolade he merits.

"I think any supporter you spoke to about Jim would struggle to remember a goal he conceded which was as a result of a glaring mistake on his part," Ford told The Scotsman.

"Hearts have been fortunate through the years with some very fine goalkeepers. But I don't think Hearts have had a better goalkeeper than Jim. He was quick off his line, brilliant at getting his angles right and an absolutely fantastic shot-stopper. He commanded his penalty area. His attitude was that if the ball was within 10 or 12 yards of his line, then it was his. He would knock all and sundry, including his own defenders, out of the way to get it."

A schoolboy international, whose goalkeeping development was assisted by his talent as a gymnast, Cruickshank played for Drumchapel Amateurs in his native Glasgow before signing for Queen's Park in 1959. He made 30 first- team appearances for the Hampden club before legendary Hearts manager Tommy Walker signed him on professional forms in May 1960.

Cruickshank made his first-team debut at the age of 19 in a 1-0 league defeat at Ayr United five months later but initially had to remain as understudy to Gordon Marshall. He played for Hearts in the 1961 League Cup final replay, when Marshall was injured during the build-up, but the then 20-year-old could not prevent a 3-1 defeat to Rangers.

A player with a firm appreciation of his own ability, Cruickshank quickly grew unhappy at playing second fiddle to Marshall and in 1963 actually walked out of the club, threatening never to return, when the older man was restored to the first team at his expense for a Scottish Cup tie against Celtic.

Assistant manager Johnny Harvey persuaded Cruickshank to change his mind and, following Marshall's move to Newcastle United, he established himself as Hearts' No 1.

He made his Scotland debut in a 2-2 draw against West Germany in 1964 but did not play for his country again for another six years. He won six caps in total, which included keeping a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw with England at Hampden in front of more than 137,000 spectators in 1970.

"Jim never got the international recognition he deserved," added Ford. "Some people said he was too small, but that was just nonsense. He should have won scores of caps for Scotland."

Cruickshank's quest for a major honour with Hearts met only with frustration. He played in the 2-0 defeat by Kilmarnock which decided the outcome of the league championship in 1965 and earned runners-up medals in the Scottish Cup finals of 1968 and 1976.

Sadly, he left Tynecastle under a cloud in 1977 when the club's relegation from the Premier Division saw him released and a promised testimonial match fail to materialise. Cruickshank, who played three league games for Dumbarton the following season before retiring, remained bitter towards Hearts and, despite several invitations and requests, never set foot at Tynecastle again.

"That was dreadfully unfortunate," said Ford. "He really fell out with the club and never let it go. We had an annual golf day every year between former Hearts and Hibs players at Baberton, which Jim Brown and Dave Clunie tried regularly to get Jim along to, but he always refused. But that's the kind of person Jim was. He was never slow to say what he thought and was usually on firm ground when he did so.

"I'm sure a lot of Hearts fans will have memories of him charging out of his penalty area to berate any of his team-mates he believed were responsible for conceding a goal. Jim would even hold an inquest into losing a hand of cards on the team bus. It was that attitude which made him such a wonderful goalkeeper and a truly great Hearts player."