Interview: Pat Stanton on growing up in Niddrie, how Aberdeen succeeded where Hibs failed and Fergie’s extensive collection of Bulgarian coat-hangers

Pat Stanton will be honoured at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Saturday night ahead of his 75th birthday. Picture: Greg Macvean
Pat Stanton will be honoured at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Saturday night ahead of his 75th birthday. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Pat Stanton gazes towards the beach at Portobello and says with a smile: “Just down there is where I saw Marilyn Monroe.” Not the silver screen goddess in person, you understand, but blown up 50 foot high in the movie River of No Return in a cinema long gone called the George.

There then follows some extended Porty reminiscing between one of Scotland’s classiest, cultured footballers and one of his hopelessly devoted fans. Stanton impersonates the wave-machine announcements at the open-air pool and recalls how at one time all of Central Scotland seemed to holiday on the sands. “No one went abroad, did they? Not until a neighbour of my folks, anyway. I was just a laddie and I’d never seen anyone with a suntan before. I’d never heard of Majorca, where this fellow had been. He used to walk about in short sleeves, showing off the last of the tan, even when the rain was lashing down.”

We seek shelter from today’s downpour in a cafe, which prompts another memory from the Hibernian godhead: “Next door to here used to be a shop selling novelty gifts. One day, me and some pals on our way to the pool spotted this sign in the window saying: ‘Direct from the contitent’. The cheekiest of us asked the shopkeeper: ‘Could we see this contitental stuff?’ We may have come from Niddrie but we could spell right. The guy chased us down the street.”

Niddrie, in Stanton’s youth, was a boisterous housing scheme in Edinburgh where just about every working man was employed by one of the four nearby breweries and just about every boy was a footballer being tutored by the city’s top juvenile teams. “I only knew one who wasn’t. When he called round my house and my dad asked him which was his club and he said he didn’t play football, the old man looked at him like he’d come down from Mars.”

Pretty soon Stanton was starring on the contitent no less than 36 times for his beloved Hibees when they were Scotland’s leading passport-flaunters after the Old Firm, and that doesn’t include the 1964 eclipsing of Real Madrid. So that was a challenge match but Stanton still had to mark Ferenc Puskas: “They were the best team in the world and didn’t like to lose, ever, and I’d had Puskas’ photo on my bedroom wall. He went over the ball that night and cut my ankle. I didn’t want the wound to heal. I wanted to walk up Niddrie Mains Road with it still bleeding through my sock. The wee white scar is there even now.”

Stanton was ineligible for Europe in the sweet final act of his career at Celtic but soon after moving into management found himself in Bulgaria, witnessing Alex Ferguson as he came out of the closet. I’m sorry, I’ll read that again: Stanton was Fergie’s first No 2 at Aberdeen and the pair were spying on Euro opponents, Marek Dimitrov. “In the hotel he was stuffing all these coat hangers in his bag. They were nice but they were just coat hangers. I guessed that must have been a Govan thing. He took home loads but I got one of them. I still have it, so maybe I’ll bring it along with me on Saturday, just for a laugh.”

Tonight at the Usher Hall in the capital, Patrick Gordon Stanton is being 
honoured by a gala charity night marking his 75th birthday, and Fergie will be there to pay warm tribute to his friend and former associate.

“I’m really chuffed,” says Stanton as he cradles his coffee after the waitress informs him that her father is a big admirer. “The Usher Hall, fancy that. The last time I was there must have been for the Hands off Hibs rally. It’s tremendous that Alex is coming. I went down to see him with the organisers of the event, telling them that if they got their answer to leave it at that as he’s a busy man. Right away he said: ‘Delighted.’ Then he had a wee go at me for not keeping in touch. ‘You never just phone me for a chat,’ he said. I said ‘You seem to have done no’ too bad without me’, meaning the rest of his long and glorious career. The truth is he’s always been the one to call – completely randomly, while I’m wandering about down the foot of [Leith] Walk or someplace – and I thought that arrangement worked best because if I called I might be bothering him. I did get in touch after his illness, having left it for a while, thinking he wouldn’t be short of well-wishers. But I’ve promised to give him a tinkle more often. He must be softening. Finally!”

Stanton was at Fergie’s side from the very beginning at Aberdeen, glimpsed the legend under construction and in 1980 stood quietly on the touchline as the boss cavorted with his players after they’d broken the Old Firm stranglehold and become champions. And where did this happen? Easter Road, where Stanton also returned as a Celt to win the first half of a league and Scottish Cup double.

He says: “It was strange being in the away dressing-room both times. I would have loved to have been celebrating in the home dressing-room but it just wasn’t to be for me and the Hibs. I didn’t chase Alex on to the park; that was his moment. But I was delighted for the players who’d all worked so incredibly hard for their success.”

The Dons triumphed in style – 5-0 with Ian Scanlon netting a double – and Stanton laughs at mention of the mysterious winger who or may not now be a millionaire. “Ian was a terror in the opposition box but a nightmare in Aberdeen’s. When he went off on one of his dauners in the wrong direction, Alex would put his head in his hands and wail: ‘Tell me when it’s all over.’”

Three key Pittodrie men with strong Hibs connections – Gordon Strachan, 
Steve Archibald and Alex McLeish – will also speak about Stanton’s contribution to that team and the game in general. “I remember big Eck getting a bollocking from Alex for dawdling late into training. Afterwards I had a word with him, told him the boss was right – he was rarely wrong, of course – and that within a group that kind of discipline was essential. Big Eck told me later – and more than once – ‘I see what he meant.’

“Alex did most of the talking when I was with him and he could sometimes say stuff which would upset fellows if they were thin-skinned because football can be a tough old world. But one thing that Aberdeen team had in common: there was a helluva lot of intelligence around. Stuart Kennedy and Willie Miller were smart guys, as were Steve and wee Gordon. I played against Steve – Celtic vs Clyde in the Glasgow Cup – and thought as a kid he was really going places. At Aberdeen, where he often went of course, was direct to the manager’s office. He was always in there complaining about something. And wee Gordon wasn’t short of an opinion either but Alex liked that, he enjoyed a debate.” Strachan, by the way, addresses Stanton as “Niddrie”, the former being a son of the city’s Muirhouse.

Fergie’s Dons succeeded where Eddie Turnbull’s Hibs failed, even with Stanton as their captain, power and grace, surging down the old Easter Road slope in the direction of a roaring Cowshed. It’s daft, really, and perhaps semi-tragic, but putting aside the frequent prog-rock allusions, the recurring theme of my entire journalistic career can sometimes seem to be a single, plaintive inquiry: why did Turnbull’s Tornadoes blow out, winning no more than one League Cup?

There were many reasons why Aberdeen achieved the glory – and a weakening of Old Firm supremacy and Fergie’s skill at team regeneration are two. Stanton comes up with another: “The atmosphere before big games was different. At Hibs Eddie couldn’t stop there being this extra layer of pressure whereas Alex was able to remove it. He was very impressed by something Brian Clough said as a telly pundit. Cloughie was asked what advice he’d give a manager before a big final. He said he wouldn’t be so presumptuous but he might make one suggestion: 
‘Fifteen minutes before kick-off I’d have my players smiling.’”

If the Dons were a vibrant debating society, Stanton portrays at least one of his Hibs team-mates as a taciturn cove given to gloomy, comic asides. Jimmy O’Rourke, the Weeble-shaped goal demon, graduated from Holy Cross Academy with our man. On a North American tour in 1967, at a busy intersection in downtown Dallas, O’Rourke turned to Stanton and quipped: “Christ Pat, we’re no’ in the West Port now.” This was a reference to the pair’s Edinburgh Old Town roots and indeed those of the Hibees themselves, Stanton being the great-great-nephew of club founder Michael Whelahan.

These two were the scorers when that League Cup was won in 1972. Says Stanton: “I told Jimmy on the team bus that if we had our noses in front of Celtic at the final whistle we’d run straight over to the fans who’d suffered a lot of disappointments because we knew that after some trouble previously laps of honour at Hampden were banned.”

The Tornadoes were ordinary heroes who trained on public parks, were sometimes chased by the parkie, and had to join schoolkids in the queue at an uptown sports shop to buy their boots. “We got given chitties, maximum spend: £10. But the top-of-the-range were Adidas 2000s which cost £13 so you had to pay the difference yourself. Jimmy’s quip was always: ‘You know, Pat, you can play crap in anything.’”

In 680 games for Hibs, Stanton was rarely that, and for a fleeting couple of seasons which unfolded like a dream he was the heartbeat of what the old song hailed “a bonnie fitba team”. He adds: “Aged 16 I turned up at Easter Road in a brand new raincoat, my mum thinking I should be nice and smart on my first day, and must have looked a bit lost until Tommy Preston said to me: ‘Take that peg there, son.’” Now, in his ambassador’s role, he likes to give away his club tie. “There’s sometimes an old boy in hospitality whose family have bought him a table for his 80th birthday. If he’s that vintage then he’ll have stood in the rain and seen his hopes dashed many times. They can have my tie as a wee thank-you, although I don’t know if the club are too happy that I’m always having to ask for a new one!”

Stanton’s debut came at Motherwell in October 1963, just after he’d turned 19. He scored – “A miss-hit from four yards which confused the goalie” – but couldn’t prevent a Joe McBride hat-trick and a 4-3 defeat. The current team have just lost dismally at Fir Park – what does he think of them? “We’re losing too many goals. When confidence goes it can be hard to get back. Expectations are quite high, but then amongst the Hibs support they usually are. The manager is under pressure but I hope he can turn things around. I love seeing the club do well and haven’t really changed from the boy who stood on the terraces and watched them beat Barcelona.”

That’s typical Pat, the sunnily optimistic good guy whose autobiography was titled The Quiet Man and who doesn’t have an unkind word to say about anyone. He helped Hibs thrash Napoli and Sporting Lisbon and almost beat then-mighty Leeds United, his penalty bouncing back off a post – “I didn’t mean to miss it.” Tonight may be about him but, more importantly he says, the evening will benefit a number of good causes including Muirfield Riding Therapy in East Lothian, a facility enjoyed by his youngest grandson Oliver who’s partially sighted and in a wheelchair.

In 1970 he was the football writers’ choice for player of the year – “To think of the guys they could have picked,” says the ever-modest Stanton. He even tries to tell me that – in between Jock Stein, when he was Hibs manager, playing him in defence and then signing him for Celtic to resume that role – he was “just about able to get away with it” as a midfielder. But I’m not having that and I don’t think the rest of you will either. The best he played with? Probably Willie Hamilton, another quixotic character. “Willie’s party piece was 24 Hours from Tulsa. He once said: ‘Do you know, Pat, that Gene Pitney and me have something in common?’ Willie was from Airdrie, I couldn’t think what it might be, and he went: ‘Neither of us has won a Scottish cap.’”

Hammy earned one eventually but Stanton is still disappointed that another mercurial talent, fellow Tornado Alex Edwards, was never honoured. “I guess that might have been because of his disciplinary record. He was before the beaks so often that I hope that at least he got invited to the Park Gardens Christmas party.” Stanton played for his country 16 times, beginning with a 3-0 friendly defeat in Holland when Eddie Colquhoun turned to him despairingly: “Pat, did the referee actually come on to the park with a ball? Because I haven’t seen it yet.”

It didn’t get any easier in 1971 when Scotland lost in Portugal and Stanton put through his own net – “Eusebio tapped me on the back as if to say: ‘Bad luck, pal’” – or in Belgium, which brought another 3-0 loss. Same for the current team come Monday night, this was a Euros qualifier. “Paul Van Himst gave us the runaround,” Stanton admits, although the Scots would gain some revenge in the return fixture, John O’Hare scoring the only goal.

Must he go? Have we discussed the Tornadoes yet? With wife Margaret and the rest of his family, Stanton is looking forward to catching up with them tonight – all those guys who sent him a good-luck telegram as he was about to complete the set of domestic honours with Celtic, which softened the blow of a sad departure from Easter Road after a fall-out with Turnbull. Now he’s laughing having remembered a follow-up call from oldest chum O’Rourke: “All Jimmy said was ‘So you’ve won all three – great’ and then he slammed the phone down. What do you think: prime minister material?”

When Celtic won the league at Easter Road in 1977 Hibs chairman Tom Hart huffily banned the TV cameras but Fergie’s title jig-of-joy three years later was recorded for posterity. Stanton returns to the subject of his star-speaker, Britain’s all-time greatest boss, and recalls listening raptly to a conversation between Ferguson and trade union kingpin Jimmy Reid. “What were they talking about? The music of 
Billie Holliday.”

But hang on, I say, wasn’t there a game at Brockville, Falkirk vs Hibs, 1972, an epic rammy, where he put the heid on you and got sent off? “Aye, well, he might have done,” smiles Stanton, suggesting he should be the highest-ranked diplomat in any government formed by Jimmy O’Rourke. “But as everyone came to appreciate later, Alex has a will-to-win which is second to none. He might have forgotten that game but he remembers, when he was at Dunfermline, how Hibs won 6-5 at East End Park and he was ‘cheated’ out of a goal.

“He still talks about it. ‘The ball was over the line,’ he’ll say. ‘But Alex,’ I’ll say, ‘for a goal to be awarded it has to hit the net’!”