Aidan Smith: Remembering the Famous Five

IT'S the Great January Transfer Window Showreel Splurge. All over the land, under-pressure managers are drowning in footage of players in action. Players who are available (very available). Players who can do the Ronaldo Chop. Players who might just save the bosses from getting the chop.

The Hibs Famous Five meet up at Easter Road in May 1979. L-r: Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull, Willie Ormond.

Now, the big move to turn them into superstars might not happen, and yet these players don’t know how lucky they are, and their children, not yet born, don’t know how how lucky they will be when they eventually view these Best Ofs, showing their dads to maximum advantage – “all killer, no filler”, as the pop industry would have it. But I have witnessed a Gordon Smith sclaff.

You will, too, if you watch tonight’s documentary The Famous Five (BBC Alba, 9pm)about the Prince of Wingers and his good chums in Hibernian’s Famous Five. He dashes in from the right flank, doubtless prompting all manner of discombobulation in the Aberdeen defence, but skews his shot.

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If the modern footballer is over-exposed – not just on the park but off it, where cameraphones will record downtime benders for screaming tabloid posterity – then the Famous Five are definitely under-exposed. Smith scored 364 goals for Hibs. Lawrie Reilly, last-minute specialist, bagged 232 including 18 hat-tricks. Eddie Turnbull hit 199 and many were thundercracks. Willie Ormond, all left foot so they said, netted 187 times. And Bobby Johnstone hardly stood back at inside-right to admire the finishing of the others – he scored 116. Yet unless I missed something at the premiere the other night, watching through tears of nostalgia for a glistening era I never knew, not one of these goals features in the film.

This is not the fault of producer/director Margot McCuaig; all previous attempts to bring the quintet jitteringly back to life on screen for any more than a few tantalising moments have failed. “If better, longer footage existed it surely would have turned up by now,” sighed Hibee historian Tom Wright after the applause had died. Still, the absence of any is hugely frustrating if you’ve been raised on tales of the Five, as I was, and longed to see how the green-and-white immortals won three titles in five seasons.

My father, last of the great romantics, went courting with my mother on the old high terracing at Easter Road. My favourite photograph of them was taken at a fancy-dress ball. The “clothes” they’re wearing have been cut out of newspaper. Mum is showing a fair bit of leg, being especially proud of pins honed at the Women’s League of Health & Beauty, an organisation which wasn’t quite as fascistic as it sounds, and Dad is sporting a tie clipped from a back-page headline: “Tip-top from Smith – Hibs go 1st.”

Dad was Gordon Smith, too, sharing a facial resemblance and the same black quiff. The greatest goal scored by the greatest player in the greatest forward-line of them all, according to the old man, followed a dream-like solo sashay in which Smith kept the ball in the air throughout. With Dad no longer around to verify, or embroider, I can’t remember if this was all done with the head or whether knees were involved, too. Possibly I’ve embroidered.

And who were the opposition that fantastical day? I thought Dad said it was Airdrie who were left following the bouncing ball, as in singalongs of the time, but when interviewing Hibee contemporaries including Tommy Preston and Roy Erskine, Andy Murray’s grandfather who ensured the tennis ace would support the Leith team, I seem to remember Clyde being nominated as the poor saps. In the film, though, Reilly in an interview says it was Third Lanark.

The goal has become my Rosebud. Not Roseburn as in the district of Edinburgh which is rather too close to Tynecastle, not Roselea as in Smith’s junior team when he lived in Montrose, but Rosebud as in Citizen Kane and the greatest quest. But if I’m desperately seeking solid evidence of Smith’s virtuoso act, what must his only son be like?

Tony Smith was born when his father was 41 and so missed his whole career. “It’s a shame but the Five were just that wee bit too early for TV,” he told me. “The first time I saw film of Dad was a Pathé newsreel shown at school and I must admit it gave me goosebumps.”

Learning about the legend was a slow process – for lots of reasons. “When I was a young teenager I must admit I got fed up hearing about him. I played football to a decent juvenile level but was always told: ‘You’ll never be as good as your dad’. I got as far as being signed as a schoolboy by Hibs – probably the wrong club for me – and then lost heart.” The family home in North Berwick didn’t echo to endless reminiscing – Smith didn’t want to put any more pressure on his laddie but in any case was an unassuming first Scottish footballing superstar. And it probably wasn’t until Tony was in his 20s that he properly appreciated his father’s brilliance.

“I’m a musician – Dad was good with his feet; I’m good with my fingers – and I remember a surreal night in Glasgow. Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream was there with his supermodel friend Kate Moss and his father Robert, a big union man. When Robert found out who my father was he almost burst into tears. He told me he loved watching Dad, loved seeing him run rings round his team Partick Thistle. Bobby – I don’t think he’s a football man – was a bit bemused. Goodness knows what Kate thought.”

It’s a cheering thought, isn’t it? The nation’s premier flibbertigibbet now knows a little bit about Gordon Smith. The thing is, Moss would love that he was a handsome fellow, knew the original sex kitten, Brigitte Bardot, and drove a Porsche. “When he took me to school in it aged 13 I got very self-conscious and made him park round the corner,” laughed Tony. “Now I love that he did it and of course I’m immensely proud of him.”

Meanwhile, the search for Rosebud – footage of that goal, of any goal scored by the Famous Five – goes on. Watch tonight’s film by all means. There’s a clip of Hibs at Ibrox – 115,000 saw them that day. There’s a clip of them playing St Mirren, a game they won 5-0 but which one? The Five achieved a nap hand of victories over the Buddies by that margin. One season’s final goals tally was 86 – the Five got 80 of them. But those who bore witness and many more who wished they had won’t give up hope.

Before disappearing into the night, Tom Wright told me: “For the 1953 tour of Brazil, Bobby Combe was given a cine-camera. He must have shot something. I’m going to try and find out what happened to it.”