John ‘Onion’ Brownlie on injury, nicknames & Hibs

Former Hibs, Newcastle Utd and Scotland star John Brownlie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Former Hibs, Newcastle Utd and Scotland star John Brownlie. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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ON A cold, dark night in his trim maisonette in Polmont, some 41 years after the event, John Brownlie is rubbing his index fingers together to explain why his Hibernian team didn’t win the league.

“One of the bones didn’t heal as well as the other one,” he says. “The fib?” I say, meaning the fibula. “No, the tib,” he says, meaning the tibula. Such details are tremendously important to the many admirers of the brilliant, bucaneering full-back because they still ask him about the day he broke his leg.

“You mean they still blame me, more like,” he laughs. “What was I thinking about? I’d hit the ball too far ahead. I heard a shout for it and if I hadn’t maybe I wouldn’t have stretched to try and get it back. When I got clattered my leg went hot. Then it went numb.” Bad breaks, especially in the old days, were supposed to richotet around grounds. At Aston Villa, fans swear that when Brownlie’s old team-mate Alex Cropley snapped both tib and fib, the sound was clearly audible. Yes, the game was rougher in the 1970s and stands came with tin roofs, but were supporters with their love of melodrama not just imagining the noise? “Well, I couldn’t hear it,” says Brownlie of that fateful game against East Fife in January ’73, “but my dad was there and he always said the crack was quite loud.”

What a pleasure, though, to be able to report that Brownlie is in such fine fettle now, having greeted me with a wave from the bridge above the village station before offering the briefest of guided tours: “That’s my bowling club and over there’s where Sloop lives.” In Turnbull’s Tornadoes, Sloop was John Blackley. Cropley was Sodjer. Alex Edwards, who hollered to our man for the ball, was Mickey. Brownlie meanwhile was Onion, and I’ll exclusively reveal how he came by his nickname later.

As we’ve established, Brownlie has a past with Hibs that supporters of a certain age like to obsess about. “The day Onion broke his leg was the day the music died,” remarked one of my more melodramatic chums on learning I was meeting the player. But the 61-year-old has a present with the club and hopefully a future, too. As soon as Terry Butcher took charge at Easter Road, Brownlie was asked to continue the spy-work he’d done at Inverness Caley Thistle, compiling reports on upcoming opponents. Only in football and real espionage, it seems, do they talk of “dossiers”. Already there’s been speculation the role could be expanded into a full-time Hibees coaching position. Brownlie can’t as yet say anything about this but does add: “My football life began with the Hibs. There’s nothing I’d like more than for it to end there.”

In the front-room Brownlie’s wife Jean makes her excuses and leaves us to it. I feel bad about this but she says he’s heard his yarns before. “Make sure you smile for the photograph,” she tells him, depositing tea and cakes. There’s nothing in the room to indicate a footballer lives here. The sideboard photos are of the family: sons Paul and David, the former having followed his dad into the game before becoming a policeman, and granddaughters Anna and Lucy. Brownlie has worked for a catering firm for the past 12 years and remains a modest fellow, not least about his own talents. He’d never be the one to say his injury derailed Hibs, ending a dream.

Last weekend Brownlie watched Celtic for Butcher; tomorrow he’ll be at Easter Road to see if his dossier – or “dozy-er” as it’s sometimes called, though not by him – can help Hibs beat the champs. “It’s satisfying when the report has been useful and Terry is always ready to praise that. Mind you, he’s also quick to say: ‘Hey, you didn’t tell me about that trick at corner-kicks!’” For Hibs to succeed where others have failed this season, they’ll have to nullify Kris Commons. “They’ll also have to be brave. But, you know, they have a wee chance. The Celtic defence isn’t brilliant.”

Brownlie first worked with Butcher at Raith Rovers in the Nineties when they were part of Jimmy Nicholl’s set-up. “He had an aura about him, you knew he was going to be a manager and we hit it off from the start.” A manager later himself with Arbroath and Cowdenbeath among others, Brownlie’s assessments of Hibs when they could never win in the Highlands must have made interesting reading. “Sometimes they lacked experience, then when they got experience they lacked pace.” Right now Butcher is trying to make Hibs his team, just as Eddie Turnbull had to do, four decades ago, though Ned’s task was easier as eight of what would become the Tornadoes were already there, including the galloping young right-back.

Jean may be well-versed in her husband’s story, all the layers of the Onion if you like, but I didn’t know Brownlie had a footballing big brother. “Yes, Gardner was at Partick Thistle and Alloa. Our dad used to take me to Firhill to see him play for Thistle reserves.” Prior to that, young John watched his football at Airdrie, five miles from his home village of Caldercruix, Lanarkshire. What was it like growing up there?. “Like so many wee places in Scotland, every Saturday a Rangers bus would leave from Taylor’s pub on one side of the main road and a Celtic bus would leave from Forgy’s on the other side. Dad didn’t want me to have anything to do with all that so we went to Broomfield.”

As an Airdrie ballboy he gained privileged access to hallowed portals – the old ground’s corner pavilion. “One of my most treasured nights in football was when Hibs went to Broomfield in the League Cup and beat Airdrie 6-2 [the quarter-final the year they won the trophy, ’72]. Not because of the scoreline and not because I scored two of the goals but because my old school janitor, Dougie McDonald, was waiting for me next to the pavilion as the teams came off. ‘John,’ he said, ‘you’ve made me awfie proud the night.’”

The school was Glengowan Primary and the jannie ran the the team. Too small to have contributed to the fitma firmament? Well, apart from the Brownlie boys there was Jimmy Murray of Airdrie and Hearts. “And Billy McPheat who played for Sunderland and this lad from the next streets to ours who you might have heard about – Willie Henderson.” Caldercruix is small for sure, but it was big enough to have a barber’s shop. “And that’s where Onion came from. Aged 15, having just joined the Hibs groundstaff, I got a baldy there which wasn’t the best. It greatly amused [Easter Road right-back] Billy Simpson who travelled with me on the bus every day and at training he’d say to the rest of the guys: ‘Have you met Onion?’ I never went back to that barber’s but the name stuck all through my time at Hibs, and thanks to Sloop it even went with me to Newcastle.”

That bus, in Brownlie’s words, “stopped at every lampost” and he was on it for a while. He was still living with his parents, Alex and Meg, when he was being hailed as the best right-back in Britain. He talks with wide-eyed awe about making his Scotland debut aged 19 against the old USSR: “It was the Lenin Stadium, I got given new boots, me a country yokel from Caldercruix – absolutely fantastic.” And he paints a homely picture of life at Easter Road at that time, with Sloop hailing from Reddingmuirhead, Stirlingshire and Cilla – Jim Black – from Plains, Lanarkshire but the nucleus of the team being Edinburgh guys.

But we shouldn’t think of Brownlie or the rest of the Tornadoes as being small-thinking or meek. These may have been the afflictions of later Hibs sides but not, he says, in ’72-73. “After we beat Hearts 7-0 and went top of the league we really thought we could go on and win it. We’d won all the trophies going, the League Cup and the Drybrough Cup. We’d scored 100 goals before Christmas. We were playing great football. And that performance at Tynecastle ... I thought all the Edinburgh lads – Paddy [Stanton], Big Tosh [Alan Gordon], Alex [Cropley] and Jimmy [O’Rourke] – were exceptional. We didn’t fear anyone and certainly not Celtic or Rangers.”

If you saw him rampage down the old Easter Road slope, impersonating a winger and making real wingers contemplate alternative careers, you’ll know that Brownlie never suffered from much of an inferiority complex. “I respected wingers like Bobby Lennox and Willie Johnston, but while Bobby was tricky I thought I was just as fast. Bud I never had a problem with.” Maybe Brownlie’s best goal in eight years at Hibs was the screamer which beat Rangers in the Hampden semi en route to League Cup glory. (The cup-winning bonus for the Hibees, by the way, was £500 per Tornado, the weekly pay back then being £100). “Aye, that wasn’t a bad goal. Didn’t I start from the halfway line?” Indeed he did. “There wasn’t a pass to be made – my team-mates seem to be running away from me – so I just kept going. When I got to the ‘D’ I thought: ‘Maybe I’d better hit it.’”

Brownlie had been an inside-left in his youth, like his brother. “The switch happened at Muirton. I was 12th man when Chris Shevlane got injured. I’d never played right-back in my life but I laid on two goals and that was it.” Before too long, Sportscene’s Alastair Alexander was drooling: “What a player – like Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard rolled into one.” Brownlie credits Eddie Turnbull with bringing his game to its fullest expression, re-arranging the crockery to illustrate how the Tornadoes’ axis of Stanton, Edwards and himself functioned. “Ned got us doing shadow-training, working out plays with no opposition. Tommy Docherty at Scotland was a fantastic man-manager, never walking by without asking about your folks or telling you how well you were going to play, whereas Ned off the park could be a bit cold. But the Doc tactically was quite poor while Ned was magnificent.”

At this time there was a great debate: who was better, Brownlie or Danny McGrain? “Don’t forget Sandy Jardine, he was a helluva player just like Danny. It was a good rivalry but just before my injury I thought with being picked for Scotland that I’d got ahead of them. I was playing well, Hibs were playing great, and come the next international I was going to be there. Then it happened …”

Hibs beat East Fife in the next game after 7-0 but their losses were great. On top of the leg-break, a booking for Alex Edwards triggered an eight-week suspension. When asked about the game – and he is – Brownlie still has to correct key details. Johnny Love didn’t make the tackle – the latter rarely left Edwards’ side in the pair’s recurring feud – but Ian Printy did and, no, it wasn’t malicious and he doesn’t blame the player. Just a few weeks ago, as a fansite discussed Brownlie’s possible return to Easter Road, there were mutterings about the aggressiveness of the challenge. He shakes his head. “Ian was a Hibs fan. He came to see me in hospital.”

Brownlie was ten months out, with the troublesome tibula having to be broken and re-set. What kind of patient was he? “Terrible, I drove my poor mum demented. It was a full stookie and being only 20, I couldn’t cope with the inactivity. There was no Sky Sports News in those days, no daytime telly at all, although eventually I did calm down and read books. I think I must have got through all the Alistair MacLeans – Where Eagles Dare, Fear is the Key, the lot.”

Once the confusion over the tackle has been cleared up, the next question he’s asked usually comes in a quiet voice accompanied by a sad expression: was he ever the same player? “Folk ask it probably because they don’t think I was. I can’t argue with them but I do believe I got back to a good standard with Hibs. I managed to win another Scotland cap and then I moved to Newcastle where, first season, I have to say I thought I was exceptional. Football’s full of ‘What ifs?’. Manchester United wanted to sign me but Ned wouldn’t sell, thinking it was too soon, and then the injury happened. What if I hadn’t broke my leg, would Hibs have won the league? I actually think Mickey getting banned for so long was worse for us.

“When I left Easter Road it was the right time because my team were just about all gone with only the Flyer [Arthur Duncan] left. We were all great pals. Ned, even though he could be gruff, ran the club like a family. We had some great nights in a pub called the White Cockade and Ken Buchanan’s old hotel – even the Flyer who never drank. And those of us who are still getting a kick at the ball down here are friends to this day.”

The day after our chat, Onion will be picking up Sloop to look up their old physio Tom McNiven. “He’s not in the best of health, sadly, but I’m always glad to see him. I can still hear him shouting: ‘Dinnae move, dinnae move!’ He ran onto the pitch as soon as I went down. And he got me back playing again so I owe him that. Maybe I didn’t achieve all I could but I loved every minute of being a footballer. All in all, no’ bad for a Caldercruix laddie and when I think back to what the place didnae have – gee whizz.”

Well, we know it had a barber’s ...