H ibernian are toiling against St Mirren and seriously threatening to cock up sufficiently for the hapless, winless Buddies to grab their first victory in ages. The men in green and white cannot seem to pass the ball two hazard-free yards and a hero needs to be found from somewhere. Then the phone rings: it’s Ally Brazil.
As I duck under the stand to take the call, relieved at being spared a few minutes of thud and blunder, I think about asking if he can get himself down to Easter Road for the closing stages, but that would be unfair: he’s 59 now and he’s just finished a 12-hour stint on the buses. So I stick to the original plan which is to meet the one they called Benny, who these days drives the municipal charabancs, during a break in his next shift.
Ally Brazil, hero? Well, do you have any other nominations? He was a cult favourite down Leith way for being an honest striver with an eccentric lollop and a bubble perm. And the hero status is official, at least in his workplace, the Longstone depot of Lothian Buses, where he’s just won a company-wide award and can call himself the People’s Champion.
“It’s a nice honour,” says this modest fellow, “and, I suppose, the first thing I’ve ever won. In football I was always a runner-up. In the Scottish Cup and League Cup for Hibs reserves and the same for the big team. I got relegated with the Hibees too.”
Brazil also played with Hamilton Accies, who host Hibs in the Premiership today, and wouldn’t you know it, he was also demoted with them. But there were thrills along with the spills in his career and he was still entertaining, and occasionally amusing, right up until the age of 39.
“I didn’t think I would win,” he continues in the bustling canteen as his fellow drivers study the just-drawn-up Christmas rota, a colour-coded organisational triumph. “Maybe it was all Hibs fans who voted for me. I was sure the prize would go to Charmaine [Laurie].” This was the driver who swerved her 12-and-a-half ton double-decker to avoid a skidding car during last winter’s Beast from the East whiteout, footage of her nifty manoeuvre swiftly going viral. Brazil’s act was to rush to the aid of a passenger who’d collapsed, with our man being talked through emergency aid on the phone by ambulancemen racing to the scene.
“The man was slumped between the seats in front of him and he was blue. When the crew arrived I asked them if I was doing the CPR [cardiopulmonary resuscitation] right. They said I was, and to keep doing it while they got their gear ready. It was quite startling seeing them put the jump leads on him. I was just really sorry the poor guy couldn’t be saved.”
Brazil has been on the buses for 15 years and that’s definitely the most dramatic moment he’s experienced. Despite the perm being long gone, he still gets recognised from his ungainly but honest endeavours on the football field during the late 1970s and early 1980s. So how does it feel, after ten years as a Hibee, going to work in an official bus livery of maroon? “I think you’ll find it’s burgundy,” he says with a smile.
Brazil has a nice line in self-deprecation. As I struggle over a question regarding his abilities which might seem impolite, he helps me out. “Sometimes on my bus kids too young to have seen me play will go: ‘My dad remembers you.’ I’ll think that’s nice but then they’ll add: ‘Aye, he says you were rubbish!’” Let’s talk about your relationship with the Hibs faithful, I say, and Benny quips: “You mean the two fools who liked me?” Eddie Turnbull, his first manager, was a formidable character – was he scared of him? “No, I wasn’t. He seemed to like me, too, for some strange reason. And he was no fool.”
I mention mental health and Brazil says: “Is that what was wrong with the guys who used to boo me?” No, I mean it’s an out-in-the-open issue among footballers now, too much abuse from the stands is deemed to be bad for it. “Well, there was none of that in my day. Players just got on with the job, with everything: vicious tackles, terrible pitches, the lot.
“I never got down after a hard time from the fans. It didn’t affect me because I always played bad! Sometimes the shout would be ‘Get off!’ and other times it might not be so complimentary. And sometimes I’d get ‘Yer shite, Brazil!’ in the warm-up. Just as well I had crocodile skin.”
Benny is overdoing the understatement: he wasn’t always bad. He wasn’t the silkiest of players but Hibs had others who provided that element. And all his managers picked him – Turnbull, Willie Ormond, Bertie Auld, Pat Stanton and John Blackley – so he must have been doing something right, or not too wrong. Forfar Athletic were his last senior club before he wound down in the junior ranks. Their manager, Henry Hall, said of him: “Pound for pound he was my best-ever signing.” To which Brazil can’t resist adding today: “He got me for nothing, of course.”
He was certainly appreciated by his Hibs team-mates, not least centre-back pair Jackie McNamara and George Stewart. “If ever the abuse was too much – and, really, it never was – I’m sure these two would have been first over the terrace wall to sort it out. Do you know these two live in Spain now? Jackie’s just gone and they must have some rare nights when they get together. Me, I sometimes see Willie Jamieson on the routes. He’s a bus driver, too, and when we pass, me on a No 30 and him on a 49, we’ll give each other a Hibby wave.”
But Brazil could, and perhaps should, have been a Jambo. He was born in Currie on Edinburgh’s western fringes, something of a maroon stronghold, and used to get a “lift-over” at Tynecastle. “In the school playground everyone would shout: ‘I’m Donald Ford the day!’” He was at the game when it was Hearts 0, Hibs 7. “And I stayed right to the end, too. I’ve always believed in getting my money’s worth. Er, even though I got in for free.”
He signed an S-form with Hearts, the Gorgie club being keen to send him out to the juniors, presumably to toughen up the skinnymalink. He didn’t fancy that and, when the contract lapsed, Hibs snapped him up. “Hearts weren’t happy. John Haggart was the manager and the next time I bumped into him he tore me up.”
Brazil made his Hibs debut aged 18 away to Aberdeen at the end of the 1976/77 season. He would fill a few different roles for the club so he qualifies for the less-than-glamorous epithet of the utility man and is also dubbed a “players’ player”.
Those players who could see things in Benny’s game not discernible to others included surviving members of the Turnbull’s Tornadoes side such as Blackley, John Brownlie, Erich Schaedler and Arthur Duncan. The Tornadoes were blowing out. At Pittodrie Brazil took the berth normally occupied by Alex Edwards, who would leave the following season.
“A tough act to follow. I was no midfield genius. These guys were all fantastic players but I wasn’t in awe of them because I had my job to do. They helped me do it because they were fantastic people, too. My wife, Linda, and our three kids have been the best things that have ever happened to me but Hibs come right after them.”
Being one of the new boys was easier, he says, if you possessed the mercurial skills of Ally MacLeod. “Ally was the most gifted I ever played with.” What, better than George Best? “George was in the twilight of his career when he came to us but what a lovely guy. He was megastar with no airs and graces. He used to join in these three-a-side free-for-alls in the wee gym under the old main stand at Easter Road before training properly began.
“At first we weren’t too happy that he was on £2,000 a week and we were only getting £120. Jackie McNamara, being an up-the-workers guy, went to see the chairman, Tom Hart, who told him he was paying George from his own pocket. I know Hibs got relegated that season [’79-’80] but I think the fans remember it more for Bestie and how he tripled the gate, scored a fantastic goal against Celtic and drunk from a can of lager chucked at him by Rangers fans.”
The campaign before Hibs almost won the Scottish Cup. “Should have won it. We were better than Rangers in all three games,” Brazil says of the twice-replayed final eventually settled by Arthur Duncan’s own goal. “We were gutted. I think I’ve managed to erase the whole bloody thing from my mind because I don’t even remember going up to collect my losers’ medal. The final went on so long and continued after the Home Internationals. I had a ticket to see Scotland play at Wembley but had to give it up.”
And still Hibs weren’t finished with Rangers, with a held-over league game requiring to be played. “I don’t remember that,” he says. Hibs won and he scored. “Me? Against Rangers? I certainly don’t remember that!”
In 258 games Brazil netted ten times, a modest tally bookended by strikes against Clydebank. “I remember my first goal. I fell to the ground, absolutely astonished. Jackie picked me up. ‘What just happened?’ he said.” Almost a third of the goals – a dream-like perfect hat-trick – came against Celtic early in ’85 but, typical of his luck, the game which ended 6-3 to the Hibees was only a friendly. Nevertheless it’s an achievement of which he’s proud.
“Just about every pitch in the country was frozen that weekend but Hibs had undersoil heating. The terraces on three sides were covered in snow so both sets of fans were together in the stand and enclosure. It might have been a friendly but Celtic played their top team. Their scorers were Mo Johnston, Brian McClair and Paul McStay. Their fans were pretty angry at the end, not being used to six goals flying into their net.” Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, as Monty Python used to say, and even fewer could have anticipated a left-foot-right foot-diving header flourish from Benny Brazil.
Another frost-beating encounter in Leith had been the Boxing Day draw with Manchester United in ’81. Brazil’s memories of that friendly are dominated by Frank Stapleton’s shoulders – “The biggest ever, I couldn’t see beyond them” – though he concedes that, physique-wise, he didn’t put up much of a challenge. “I was as thin as a butcher’s pencil, wasn’t I? Eddie Turnbull was always trying to get me to fill out. He put me on Complan [food supplement for those at risk of malnutrition]. He made me eat lots of steak which I had to pay for. He sent me and Ralph Callachan and Willie Murray, both pretty skinny themselves, to speedball sessions with [sprinter] Drew McMaster in our club doctor’s garage.”
The nickname, by the way, was given him by his brother back in boyhood. “Everyone calls me Benny, even my grandkids. Some folk thought the name came from Crossroads, the odd-job guy in the woolly hat. That Benny was a bit soft in the head, wasn’t he? Maybe we did have something in common!”
Though Brazil was only at Hamilton for a season and it ended in the drop, one game is enshrined in Accies history. In ’87 a raggle-taggle band of free transfers mustered by John Lambie embarrassed Graeme Souness’ expensive Rangers side for one of the all-time great Scottish Cup shocks.
“We’d been to Ibrox a few weeks before in the league,” he recalls. “Graham Roberts and Ian Durrant got sent off and Bobby Barr in our team broke his leg. The cup-tie back there looked like it could be spicy but everyone assumed Rangers would win it easily.
“Me, I thought we could win. I mean, I thought that going into every game I played, otherwise what was the point? John Lambie was a maniac but a great motivator. Before the cup-tie he organised a trip down to Blackpool. He was a big pigeon fancier and maybe there was a doo show in the Tower. Our captain, Gerry Collins, was driving the minibus but first he had to find a contact lens he’d lost in the mud at Love Street. Then on the journey he told this joke which went on for ever. He could still be telling it now.
“The trip was good. Bonding, you’d call it now. During the game Chris Woods broke a shut-out record midway through the first half. This was announced over the Tannoy and the Rangers fans applauded and waited for the goals to go in.” But they didn’t come. “Our goalie, Dave McKellar, was sensational. The big man caught everything. I was sweeper – in fact, I think I played behind Dave. That day was like the Alamo. And then Adrian Sprott scored our winner.”
Accies were in Dreamland and surely their hardest-to-please fan, the notoriously grumpy Ian “Fergie” Russell, must have at least broken into a smile?
“He probably did. He was on our coach going back to Hamilton. But then he started shouting at the Rangers fans and I think we had to chuck him off.”
Now it’s time for Benny Brazil to get back behind the wheel, a quiet hero hoping for a quiet afternoon on the buses.