SIXTY years ago today, on 29 January, 1955, the greatest forward line in the history of Scottish football played together, as a forward line, for the last time – when Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond formed the Hibs attack, against Clyde, at Easter Road.
They were the ‘Famous Five’, but, as they ran-out to face the Bully Wee that dreich January Saturday afternoon, none of them, or any of the 15,000 fans inside the ground knew they were about to witness history – the 187th and last appearance together as a complete forward unit of the legendary quintet.
The admittedly unknown significance of the occasion called for a glorious Hibs triumph, with each of the five scoring.
Hibs needed such a boost; they went into the match sitting in mid-table, 14 points adrift of league leaders Aberdeen, who would go on to win their first title. But, there was no happy ending, the forward line which still today stands supreme, went out with a whimper, as Hibs lost by the odd goal in five.
There would be one final outing of all five in the same Hibs team, the following Saturday, in a Scottish Cup tie at Tynecastle. Whisper it not around Easter Road, but Hearts won that one 5-0.
The Famous Five were all in that humbled Hibs team, but, with Turnbull wearing the number four jersey, and Bobby Combe wearing ten – the Famous Five forward line didn’t actually appear as such.
Injuries, and a spell of terrible weather then intervened.
The era comes to an end
By the time football returned in early March, Johnstone had been sold to Manchester City for £22,000 and the era of the Five was over.
But, what an era that was. They first appeared together, in April, 1949, in a game at Sanquhar, against junior side Nithsdale Wanderers. Wanderers’ ground is now an industrial estate and perhaps it would be fitting if some sort of plaque was placed there, to mark its place in Scottish football history.
The idea of playing all five in the same forward line was then put into cold storage, before, at Easter Road, on 15 October, 1949, manager Hugh Shaw unleashed the Five on unsuspecting Queen of the South. Hibs had been surprisingly beaten by Dunfermline Athletic in their last game, a League Cup semi-final. Shaw made four changes to the beaten team, the most significant of which saw Gordon Smith return from injury and the 20-year-old Bobby Johnstone included in a new-look right-wing pairing.
Goals from Smith and Reilly sent the Hibs’ fans in the 25,000 crowd home happy. The victory marked the start of a 12-game unbeaten run, Hibs would not lose again in 1949, and, during that run, they scored 31 goals – the Five sharing 28 of them, conceding just nine.
Unfortunately for Hibs, match 13 for the quintet saw Hearts end their winning run when they won the Edinburgh Ne’erday Derby 2-1, but, as the new-look forward line gelled, Hibs would lose only one further league game that season, at to Third Lanark on 4 March, on an afternoon when Turnbull was absent.
Their mythical status in Hibs’ history is such, it sometimes seems, to those who weren’t around to see the Five in their pomp – if they played as a unit, Hibs won: if they weren’t all there, Hibs lost.
This is not the case, indeed, in some of the seasons when the Five were in situ, Hibs did statistically better without them than with them. What cannot be denied, however, is, football was more-entertaining when they were together as a five-man unit. In a contemporary interview, the great Rangers centre-forward, Willie Thornton said of the Hibs forward line: “They are like a swarm of wasps, the way they buzz around you, inter-changing at will.”
And, like Wasps, they stung, as they played a form of Total Football, some 20-years before the Dutch allegedly invented it. The numbers on the back of their jerseys sometimes bore no relationship to where they played, with Reilly popping-up on the wing, while Smith foraged through the centre or Ormond switched from left to right.
Facts arte chiels that wanna ding, and the fact is, historical records prove the Five’s collective greatness. They claim five of the places in the list of Hibs’ top ten all-time scorers. Smith leads the way with 303 competitive goals, next comes Reilly, with 238, Turnbull is third with 202, Ormond is fourth with 189, while Johnstone is seventh with 142.
Joe Baker, Hibs’ fifth all-time scorer with 158 goals is the only post-Famous Five player to out-score even one of them, while sixth place is held by 1920s stalwart Jimmy McColl, who scored one goal more than Johnstone.
To hand all the glory to the Famous Five would be wrong – the “Unknown Six” behind them, including as they did several Scottish internationalists, were also very good players.The Famous Five era was undoubtedly the club’s most-successful: with League Championships won in 1948 (before Johnstone was signed), 1951 and 1952.
Hibs’ league record in the first decade after the end of World War II – the period during which the Five were recruited and played, is impressive. Second to Rangers in 1946 and 1947, Hibs won the league in 1948, were third in 1949, second in 1950, winners in 1951 and 1952, second in 1953, fifth in 1954 and fifth again in 1955, when Johnstone was transferred before the end of the season. They were the Ibrox club’s principal challengers over that decade.
Old Firm encounters
The fact is, Hibs fielded the Famous Five in 19 encounters with the Old Firm, between 1949 and 1955. Of these, Hibs won nine matches, drew a further nine and lost just once, when Celtic beat them 2-0 in the Coronation Cup final, at Hampden in 1953.
Surprisingly, their record against Hearts in Edinburgh Derbies is undistinguished. If we include that last-ever appearance together, with Turnbull at right-half, they played together against Hearts six times, winning just twice - both league games in 1952-53 - drawing twice and losing three times.
The public knew they would be entertained at Hibs’ matches. How else can you explain the legendary Aberdeen v Hibs League Cup quarter-final tie of season 1950-51. This two-legged tie took seven hours to settle.
Smith was injured and missed the first leg, at Pittodrie, which Aberdeen won 4-1. Four days later, at Easter Road, with the Five reunited, Hibs reversed the score, to force a replay. The good sense and thought for the fans for which Scottish football has long been admired was all-too-obvious, when the Scottish League, ignoring the obvious neutral venue of Dundee’s Dens Park, ordered the replay to take place at Ibrox, on a Monday afternoon. For all, that, such was the drawing power of the Famous Five, 52,000 fans rolled-up to see a 1-1 draw.
With the winner due to play the semi-final against Queen of the South on the Saturday, the sides had it all to do again, 24-hours later, this time at Hampden. The attendance here was a mere 22,803, who witnessed the Five run riot. Johnstone scored two, Smith, Reilly and Turnbull one each, in a 5-1 triumph.
On the Saturday, a Turnbull hat-trick saw the Doonhamers beaten 3-1. Next up were Motherwell, in a League Cup final rehearsal, at Fir Park, in front of 25,000 fans. Ormond and Johnstone both bagged braces, Reilly and Turnbull, from the penalty spot, also scored in a 6-2 win – advantage Hibs for the League Cup Final, back at Hampden, the following Saturday.
Injury kept Ormond out of the team in the final, which Motherwell won 3-0. This was disappointing for everyone at Easter Road, however, in that calendar month of October, 1950, Hibs played five games, all away from Easter Road, in front of a total of 200, 984 fans. Such was the drawing power of the Famous Five.
Together they won a total of 88 Scotland caps.
They ought to have won far-more.
Smith suffered from the SFA’s Glasgow-bias; all-too-often, the outside right slot was given to his great rival, Willie Waddell of Rangers. The suggestion was: Smith could never reproduce his stellar club form in a Scotland jersey. Yet, in spite of this, he was still winning Scotland caps, aged 33, three years after Waddell had retired, while he twice captained his country. He was also selected for a ‘Rest of Britain XI’ to face the Welsh in their 75th anniversary match.
Controversially freed by Hibs the year after his final cap, Smith crossed Edinburgh to join Hearts, from under whose noses Hibs had snatched him 16-years earlier, and win a Scottish League Championship medal in 1958. He then returned to his native Tayside, where, in 1962, aged 38, he won a fifth League Championship-winner’s medal with the great Dundee team built by Bob Shankly. He then, a year later, played for the ‘Dee in a European Cup semi-final, seven years after so-doing with Hibs.
Johnstone, who enjoyed two separate spells with Hibs, is perhaps, the least-appreciated of the quintet. However, his Scotland scoring record of nine goals in 17 games – when playing as what would be today regarded as a midfielder’s role – is exceptional; 0.53 goals per game – a fraction behind the 0.55 gpg of Denis Law and the 0.58 gpg of Reilly, Scotland’s two best post-World War II strikers.
Johnstone enters history books
Also, as the only member of the Famous Five to play in England, Johnstone made history, as the first player to score in successive FA Cup finals, against Newcastle United in 1955 and Birmingham City in 1956. He remains an iconic figure at his two English clubs, Manchester City and Oldham Athletic. He was also selected for a Great Britain XI to face Northern Ireland in 1955.
“Last-Minute” Reilly, scorer of memorable and very-late goals, was the most-capped of the quintet, with 38 caps. Again, he might have had more. He had one lengthy spell out with injury, and as with Smith and Waddell on the right wing, he was involved in a career-long battle for the Scotland number nine shirt, with Willie Bauld of Hearts. However, whereas Smith usually lost-out in his battle on the right wing, Reilly was the SFA selectors’ favourite in the middle, justifying that status with his 22 international goals – only Law and Kenny Dalglish have scored more for Scotland since the end of the Second World War.
Turnbull’s paltry nine caps are a reflection on the pettiness of Scottish football. Legend has it, after Scotland lost, for the first time at home, to a European country; when going down 0-1 to Austria, at Hampden in December, 1950, Turnbull had a heated altercation with one of the selectors.
A master of Anglo-Saxon invective, Turnbull did not miss the “blazer” and hit the wall.
He was banished to the international wilderness, before, after a near eight-year exile, he was recalled aged 35, to make a telling contribution to Scotland’s ill-fated 1958 World Cup final campaign in Sweden.
Ormond suffered from injuries at the wrong time. He sustained three broken legs during his career and these injuries contributed to the fact, he wasn’t capped for Scotland until 1954, when he played in the disastrous 1954 World Cup finals campaign in Switzerland. He was then left-out until re-called to face England in 1959, the last of the Five to play in an international.
Only Ormond, who enjoyed a successful spell as Scotland boss, leading them to the 1974 World Cup Finals in West Germany, and Turnbull, whose “Turnbull’s Tornadoes” are revered at both Aberdeen and Hibs, went into management, the Five were players first and foremost.
Individually, they were wonderful players. All five have, rightly, been inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame, with Smith one of the inaugural inductees.
Collectively, however, they were simply magical , bringing colour and panache to the monochrome days of the 1950s. They were popular not just in Scotland, regular close season European tours made them a hit across the continent, while, visiting Brazil in 1953, the Five, and in particular Smith, wowed the Maracana. Today, 60-years after their farewell appearance together, they are still lauded by Hibs fans, many of whom never saw them play, but, have been brought-up on the tales of their greatness.
Times were different then, Hibs could fend-off big-money, name-your-price approaches for Smith and Reilly, before agreeing to sell Johnstone to Manchester City. It would be harder for the club to hold onto a modern-day Famous Five, but, this has to be asked: what would they be worth in today’s football transfer market?
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