Hibs' League Cup triumph: Alex Edwards on how Onion, Sloop, Biffo, Cilla, Nijinksy and the rest won it 50 years ago

Fifty years ago next Friday, peak Hibee was achieved for a generation of Easter Road fans, and I’m trundling through the Fife boondocks in B-movie horror fog to meet one of the inspirations and learn how it was achieved.

Alex Edwards, midfield maestro for Turnbull's Tornadoes, looks back on Hibs' first League Cup triumph 50 years ago
Alex Edwards, midfield maestro for Turnbull's Tornadoes, looks back on Hibs' first League Cup triumph 50 years ago

“Peak?” you snigger. “The League Cup – the diddy trophy?” Maybe don’t call it that within earshot of Onion and Sloop, and certainly not in the company of Mickey – Alex Edwards – the mercurial midfield genius with the tippy-toes running style and the hot temper whose grand house in the village of Cairneyhill eventually looms out of the mist.

These three – for the uninitiated, Onion is John Brownlie and Sloop is John Blackley – are about to attend to some sad business: the funeral of Jimmy O’Rourke, known as Biffo. Was there ever a team for nicknames like Turnbull’s Tornadoes? The designated driver for the journey to the crematorium is Bimbo – Jim McArthur, who blew into Leith slightly later, the goalkeeping replacement for Jim Herriot who answered to Bob. “Because of his swagger, just like the movie guy, Robert Mitchum,” explains Edwards, “though that got changed to Cowky.” Meaning? “Ach, I cannae remember and I came up with both his nicknames.” So where did Mickey come from? “Cannae remember that either!”

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With O’Rourke scoring nine goals in the eight ties in which he played en route to the 1972 final, then the diving header which proved to be the Hampden winner against Jock Stein’s Celtic, the memories are bound to flow at his wake. I’m privileged to hear a sample of them in the 76-year-old Edwards’ front room. It’s split-level, with a cavernous fireplace and a well-stocked bar in the corner, and you could imagine an old crooner - Andy Williams, for instance - filming a Christmas TV special surrounded by all the warm wood. But this is the abode of an old footballer with career memorabilia spread over shelves and walls, and the winner’s medal from ’72 twinkling at your correspondent from an occasional table.

“The previous season Celtic had hammered us,” says Edwards of a 6-1 defeat in the Scottish Cup final, “but the scoreline flattered them. We reckoned we were just as good as Celtic, who were outstanding by the way, but there was talent right through our team. We just had to be brave on the day.

“Do you know that wee Jimmy, nearly every Friday, would come to me in a bit of a stew: ‘Alex, do you think the gaffer will pick me tomorrow?’ I’d say to him: ‘Jimmy, son, are you crackers? You’re scoring hat-tricks for fun. Of course he will.’ But that was Eddie Turnbull, or Muttley as I used to call him, because he laughed like the dug in the Dick Dastardly cartoons. Mind, I never said it to his face.”

Like a mad inventor, Turnbull was ceaseless in his efforts to alchemise Hibs into the team that would break the Old Firm stranglehold, but similar to many managers of his generation he was an old-school disciplinarian. Some of these guys, instead of arm around the shoulder, were hand around the throat. Mental health hadn’t been invented.

Look at bosses now with their multifarious assistants, hugging and squealing like fourth-form schoolgirls on exam results day whenever a goal is scored. The Tornadoes had a No 2 but while Turnbull, in common with his type, was impassive in the dugout, Wilson Humphries was pretty much invisible – though not to Edwards: “Wilson was a good guy – a gentleman – and an important guy. He’d say ‘Well done’ whereas Eddie never did. Eddie wasn’t a great man-manager but that’s not to say he wasn’t a genius – he undoubtedly was. He just had a gie funny way of going about it!”

We as fans hear a lot of talk and some considerable waffle from the managers of today who clearly like the sound of their own voices. Turnbull, if he ever spoke publicly, was gnomic and no more effusive in the dressing-room. “He wasn’t one for team-talks. All the work was done Monday-to-Friday at training so he didn’t feel the need. And to be fair we didn’t need motivating. Look at the sides we were beating in ’72. Rangers pretty much every time and Sporting Lisbon 6-1. We, the guys, were confident whenever we went onto the park. In that final we knew what we had to do.”

Bring home the club’s first major prize for 20 years. The League Cup may have lost some of its lustre with Hibs only requiring three ties to reach last year’s final, but in ’72 it was 11. They made a poor start, too, losing 4-1 to Aberdeen at the group stage, Edwards grabbing the consolation.

In the knockout rounds, though, they found their groove, winning 5-2 at Dundee United and 6-2 at Airdrie. Brownlie’s rampaging runs and rocket shots were the highlight of the latter contest and Onion would strike another from 25 yards to win the semi-final against Rangers.

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“John wasn’t really a full-back, was he? If I was a manager I’d have put three guys on him. I know it’s a big debate but he was better than Danny McGrain.” Edwards selects two Tornadoes as the true stars of the side – Brownlie and Alex “Sodjer” Cropley. “There was nothing of Crops but what a hardy wee soul he was, and so skilful.”

Running through the rest of the Tornadoes he says Herriot, a team-mate at previous club Dunfermline Athletic, was his best goalie. At left back, Erich Schaedler – Shades – was “the hardest of the hard, the guy you ran a mile from at the five-a-sides because he might have killed you.” Edwards positions Pat Stanton just below Brownlie and Cropley but Niddrie – after his Edinburgh housing scheme – was still “magnificent”. At centre-half was Jim Black: “Big Cilla was another that Eddie didn’t like but he was a solid guy, and next to him Sloop was class.”

Up front was Alan Gordon, nicknamed Tosh. “The brainy one, aye with a fancy book. He was an accountant and, well, the rest of us wirnae!” And far out on the left was winger Arthur Duncan – Nijinsky, after the racehorse not the ballet dancer – who upon retirement, kept on running all the way to the antipodes and hasn’t been heard of since. “We’re all still good pals,” says Edwards. “Some of us aren’t in the best of health so we hope Arthur’s doing okay. It would be great to catch up with him again before it’s too late.”

In ’72 for Hibs there was no talk of Hampden hoodoos – that hadn’t been invented either. Three times at the national stadium that year Rangers were vanquished in semi-finals. The challenge was overcoming Celtic. Hibs had done it to win the season-opening Drybrough Cup in the sunshine - could they do it again in the dead of winter?

The year before, Edwards arrived at Easter Road with zero inferiority complex, having helped beat Celtic with Dunfermline en route to the Pars’ Scottish Cup triumph of 1968. The best £12,000 Hibs ever spent, I say. “Thirteen thousand, actually,” he corrects.

He’s always had a keen sense of his own worth. Possibly this dates from Jock Stein, then boss at East End Park, signing him as a 13-year-old, having charmed his parents and headed off keen interest from England with £1,000, a TV set, a paint job for the house in Rosyth – and a Ford Classic for Edwards as soon as he’d passed his driving test.

“I was on a private wage at Dunfermline thanks to Leonard Jack, a millionaire lawyer who was the club chairman. But when he died George Farm, who’d taken over as manager, said I’d have to be paid the same as everyone else. I couldn’t afford that so I kind of went on strike, trained by myself in the hills, and then Eddie got in touch. ‘Sit tight,’ he said. Don Revie at Leeds United was interested in me and so was Jock at Celtic, Rangers too. But I fancied being part of something new and exciting. I knew Paddy [Stanton] and some of the others at Hibs – knew how good they already were. Eddie said I’d complete the team.”

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The boss was right. The Edwards-Brownlie-Stanton triangle quickly became key to the Tornadoes’ flair game, a signature play leading to many goals. Five were scored against Celtic in the final of the Drybrough, followed by those sixes against Sporting and Airdrie. Besa Kavaje were hit for seven and Ayr United eight. The Hibees achieved the ton before Christmas, and 1973 would begin with seven more at Tynecastle.

Besa were Albanian, the away leg in the Cup Winners’ Cup proving a formality, though the trip to what was then a mysterious, closed, angry Balkan land was a real eye-opener. “As soon as we got off the plane these kids were crawling around our feet, begging and crying for the sweets we’d been given by the stewardesses. The houses were shacks, the roads were full of horses and carts. Our coach had been immediately surrounded by five tanks. They escorted us to our hotel which was like an oasis in the desert, draped in red Commie flags.”

As he shone at Hibs, Edwards continued to interest both halves of the Old Firm. “Jock tried to sign me again and wee Bud [Johnston], one of my best pals in football, would say: ‘Alex, do you fancy coming to Ibrox?’ ‘I’d reply: ‘No thanks, I’m fine where I am. After all, we can’t stop beating you!’”

But Edwards’ playmaking skills came at a price. He was – euphemism alert – well-known to referees, and if he didn’t start the trouble then, easily wound up by the opposition, he often ended it.

“Aye I was fiery,” he admits. “It was just my nature. I wasn’t brought up in a posh area. My dad, who played Juniors for Scotland, operated a crane down at the docks in Rosyth and we lived in the ‘Dolly Town’ houses. Once I started to make it I was like: ‘Right, no one is taking this away from me.’” The fieryness has occasionally flickered since. Last year an altercation outside a pub – “I got called a has-been” – brought him a fine. He’d not long lost his wife Eleanor who suffered from asbestosis. The plaque at the front door of the house still reads: “Here lives a lovely woman and a grumpy old man.” Dad to three and grandfather to six, Edwards says: “Hopefully I’ve finally calmed down.”

One such piece of provocation on the pitch – against East Fife at the dawn of ’73, right after the 7-0 hammering of Hearts when Hibs were top of the league – is remembered for happening on what sentimental old Hibbies call the day the music died. After Brownlie had been stretchered off with a broken leg, Edwards threw the ball at John Love following one niggle too many by his Nemesis, and the booking triggered an eight-week ban, Mickey’s reputation having gone before him.

It says everything about the seriousness of Hibs’ championship challenge that, in the moment, the gloom almost caused fans to forget they’d just claimed the League Cup. Not any more, so how was it won?

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If we start early that morning when the team coach swung out of Easter Easter Road, almost immediately a brick was flung through one of the windows. “Clearly not everyone wanted us to bring home the trophy!” laughs Edwards. “But those journeys to games in winter when the heating was full pelt could make us sleepy. That day we were fresh and ready.”

Lunch in Glasgow’s North British Hotel was fillet steak or fish but with none of the trimmings. There would be toast, though, an absolute essential, like the ball.

“At Hampden [chairman] Tom Hart wished us good luck. Eddie only ever allowed to pop his head through the dressing-room door for a few seconds. We played well in the first half without scoring but the fans were right behind us and shouting ‘Hibees, Hibees!’ as we came off the park. I don’t remember Eddie saying anything to us at the break, nor us among ourselves. There could be a few ding-dongs between the guys if things weren’t going well, but not then. We all thought it was going to be a great day.”

Early in the second half, Hibs won a free-kick on the edge of the Celtic box. “I dinked it over their wall to Paddy who put us ahead.” The move was straight from the training ground. Then, telepathically and geometrically, Stanton and our man combined down the right for O’Rourke. “And what a lovely header that was. Rest easy, wee man … ”

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