Hibs legend Ivan Sproule on overcoming family tragedy to achieve Hampden glory and why hat-trick against Rangers beats Martin Boyle's

It’s 11 o’clock at night when I finally catch up with Ivan Sproule, once the fastest man in Scottish football. He’s back where he started as an engineer and the day’s endeavours have been hectic, topped off with rushing his three boys round the County Tyrone astro as they follow their dad’s dream. I have a question for him, and it’s one that will intrigue all fans of Hibernian …
Ivan Sproule rejoices with his Hibs team-mates after netting his third goal of the game against Rangers.Ivan Sproule rejoices with his Hibs team-mates after netting his third goal of the game against Rangers.
Ivan Sproule rejoices with his Hibs team-mates after netting his third goal of the game against Rangers.

Sprouler - League Cup hero, hat-trick destroyer of Rangers - if you were at the peak of your jet-propelled powers and Martin Boyle was the same - and there was a 100m track laid out along the Easter Road pitch - who would win?

“Oh that’s a tough one,” he says. “I’m a Hibs supporter now and Martin certainly catches the eye. When the ball comes to him there’s a crackle in the air, isn’t there? Right after his hat-trick against Rangers [League Cup semi-final, 2021] I sent him a text. That was spine-tingling for me watching on TV so imagine how he must have felt. I was very proud of him but should have said in my message that my hat-trick was slightly superior, having done it from the bench!

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“Listen, I was never beaten in sprints anywhere in my career. Who came second? Dunno, because I didn’t bother to look behind me. When I was at Bristol City this guy - can’t remember his name - turned up on loan from Reading and thought he was pretty fast.

“My team-mates were egging him on: ‘Yes, on you go, race him!’ He was a Flash Harry and he suggested a bet. I’m not a gambler but I was like: ‘If you really want to race for 500 quid, no problem at all.’ What happened? I won by ten clear yards. The boys were falling about the grass laughing. [Manager] Gary Johnson [son of current Hibees boss Lee] had a proper chuckle, too. Many tried but none succeeded. So Martin, I’m a big fan, but you’re not going to beat me, even at the age I am now.”

Sproule is 42 and has only just hung up his boots. This football story began in fairytale fashion and ended the same way with two goals and triumph in his national stadium. Fairytale or comic-strip because, no offence, that’s where Harryville Homers, the opposition in Northern Ireland’s Junior Cup final at Windsor Park, sound like they might belong. And who is Dergview Reserves’ winger but Billy Whizz?

“A few folk have said this could be a book, maybe even a film,” says Sproule, who in terms of fun, drama and wing-footed excitement must be the best £5,000 Hibs have ever spent. “I dunno about that, but Dergview are managed by my brother Andrew. They hail from Castlederg which is where I live with my wife Janet and our sons Sam, Alfie and Joey. We had 1,500 at the final, not quite as many as the Hibbies took to Hampden [2007’s League Cup success], but those from our little town all came back happy. It was a nice way for me to finish.”

Sproule is in his man-cave in Castlederg and in contrast to the night gloom outside his windows, the walls sparkle with lights bouncing off glass display cases. Here’s the yellow away shirt from the game which properly announced him - a 3-1 victory at Celtic Park in April 2005 and the defining result in Tony Mowbray’s exciting young team edging out Aberdeen on goal difference for third place and Europe. Bidding for the same prize, the Hibees and the Dons meet today.

He says: “I was playing for Institute, no Hibs fan had ever heard of them, and lifting steel off a truck when I got the call asking me over for a trial. Surely it was a wind-up? But no. Derry City were interested in me but [manager] Stephen Kenny said: ‘Go. Derry will always be here. Make your name.’ The next thing I’m on a plane, the first lad from our community to go across the water in a while and my first time in Edinburgh. Then I’m in an ordinary park - no fancy training complex in those days - and facing up to Murph [David Murphy] and telling myself: ‘The boys here are ahead of you in development but you’ve got this blistering pace going for you - use it.’

“I should add that most times in training Murph had me in his back pocket but suddenly I’m coming off the bench at Parkhead, first touch hitting it straight out of play, then sprinting into the box and hammering the ball past David Marshall. Some boys take opportunities in football for granted and waste them. As soon as I stepped off the plane I knew I wasn’t going to do that. I ran to the Hibs fans in the away corner. This was professional football and that goal lit a fire for the rest of my career. I vowed to myself there would be more like it.”

What was his motivation? That’s simple, but for Sproule it was tragic. When he was 11 his brother Keith, 18, was killed in a car crash. The following year his father Ivan Snr died of a heart attack. “It was a crushing time for my brothers and sisters and our mother. Dad had been making his way through life and was probably at the stage where he could start to enjoy himself. Keith was a promising player who’d just won the Budweiser Cup with Omagh Town. But while it might sound crazy to say this I don’t think I would have had the career I did if these two things hadn’t happened. Football was my saviour.

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“Sure, as a boy who was having to grow up quick there was sulking and tears and grieving, but Mum was a tower of strength and our brilliant town rallied round to help the family and make sure I kept going with my football. I had the determination, the desire and maybe anger played a part as well to get somewhere in the game and make Dad and Keith proud.”

Sproule had joined the Hibs of Scott Brown, Kevin Thomson, Derek Riordan, Garry O’Connor and Steven Whittaker, fizzy, flair-packed Scots alongside the artful Frenchman Guillaume Beuzelin. Steven Fletcher would soon break through, Michael Stewart arrived, then the Moroccans, Abdessalam Benjelloun and Merouane Zemmama and a towering English captain, Rob Jones, would hoist the League Cup.

Could a raw Irishman, speedy but just as quick with his temper, who having been born in a village with a population of just 300 felt “like Crocodile Dundee” in these first few weeks and months in glamorous Edinburgh, break on through? “At first it was tough. Despite that goal against Celtic I was always on the bench. I was going to have to dislodge someone, only how? We had an exciting, crazy, fun, mad dressing-room - but daunting, too, for a boy like me.

“Thankfully we had a genius of a manager. Tony Mowbray was a father-figure. [Assistant] Mark Venus was great, too. Tony knew my story, what had happened in my life, and was a lovely, patient, kind guy. Football-wise, he educated me. He had to do that because I knew very little. And if he’d told me to run up Arthur’s Seat and back ten times I would have done it. Actually, he once did tell me to do it - right after I’d late-tackled wee Zemmama in training!

“I had a fiery temper. There were many days when I had sparks with Scotty, Tommo and others. Maybe that temper was a flaw in my game [in 147 matches for Hibs there were four red cards and 29 yellow] but it was part of who I was that I wouldn’t give an inch. At Parkhead and Ibrox and Tynecastle you had to play without fear.”

The biggest bust-up almost ended his Easter Road career after a handful of sub’s appearances and that one goal when on a player’s night out that got a bit wild and he head-butted Beuzelin. “Ach, footballers do stupid things, especially footballers who’ve been bevvying. I wasn’t proud of that and the next day, in floods of tears, my bags were packed - I was for home. I was frustrated at not starting games and decided Hibs were the wrong club at the wrong time. Also, after what had happened, me nutting one of my team-mates, I thought it would make life easier for the manager if I went back to Ireland.

“Tony called me into Easter Road, sat me up the top of the main stand and we had a heart-to-heart. I wasn’t the easiest player to manage but he knew what kind of boy I was and probably reckoned that the wee bit a devilment in me, if harnessed right, could probably do some damage on the pitch. After that I gave him a big hug.”

How right Mowbray was. The upcoming match just a few days later - 27 August, 2005 - was Rangers away. Sproule could have been back in Castlederg licking his wounds but instead was ripping up Govan and writing himself into Hibee folklore. Rampaging Brown breaks assisted in a sensational hat-trick. “At 0-0 I came on for Gaz [O’Connor] who said to the bench: ‘What’s he gonna do?’ The big man was lucky I didn’t nut him as well!’

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“One of those days, so it was. Dream-like. I don’t mind admitting I was a Rangers kid and some mates from home had come over on the ferry for my first game at Ibrox. For the third goal I gave Fernando Ricksen, God rest his soul, ten yards of a start then out-muscled him. I might have been a small, slight boy, and only ten stones dripping wet when I played in the Irish League, but being kicked all over the place meant I could look after myself. At the final whistle Tony said: ‘You’re not going home now.’ Then he added: ‘Your life is never going to be the same.’

“Look at that,” says Sproule pointing to a photograph: it’s Beuzelin hoisting him in the air to take the acclaim. “We kissed and made up!” Next to the snap is the match ball and the boots our man wore - silver Nike Mercurials. And next to them the shirt from his international debut.

“Exactly a week after the chat about the headbutt Tony got me back to Easter Road to tell me that [Northern Ireland manager] Lawrie Sanchez was calling me up for the World Cup qualifier against England. So there I was taking on Ashley Cole, checking inside and finding David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. We won 1-0 and it would have been two if only Warren Feeney had squared the ball to me.”

The hat-trick and the cap transformed him into a hometown superstar. “That was ridiculous. I was asked to open shops and stuff. But I’d never got the chance to play for Northern Ireland at youth level and always felt our wee place was overlooked in favour of the Belfast boys. Castlederg is close to the border and during the Troubles had suffered a lot of hurt so the international recognition and what I was doing at Hibs maybe gave the youngsters some hope.”

Sproule is big on community. How in tiny Spamount where he spent his early years he and his Protestant pals would play pool in the village hall with Catholic kids, board separate buses to school, then on their return resume their fun. And how Leith welcomed him, looked after him and Janet and remains one of his favourite places.

“This may sound funny but, bearing in mind where I’m from, I felt safe there. Our flat was in Springfield Street and maybe more footballers should live in the middle of their clubs’ heartland. I loved just mooching around. Leith Walk is a magic street. Rather than drive, I walked to training. Rather than Gaz and Deek’s [Riordan] fancy uptown salons, I got my hair cut at the local barbers. I had my favourite pubs, used the co-op, jumped on buses.”

While promenading at the foot of the Walk, Hibs fans would tell him he reminded them of Mickey Weir and old-style wingers from even further back. He investigated the club’s history, learned about the Famous Five, Turnbull’s Tornadoes, the abortive Hearts takeover.

“I loved the Edinburgh Derby. I even loved Hearts fans roating at me because that was them being passionate about their club. Some of their players I didn’t like, and probably they didn’t like me, but in the context of a local rivalry that was fine.” Though he sometimes won, two defeats in the fixture remain notorious. In the 2006 Scottish Cup semi-final - 4-0 to the Jambos - he was sent off after stamping on Saulius Mikoliunas. “I didn’t really touch him, you know, and could have gone in harder. It was pure frustration but the stupidest thing I ever did in a game and I deserved their fans laughing at me as I walked off.” Then, after four enjoyable years at Bristol City, winning the club’s best goal poll every season and almost achieving promotion to the Premier League, he returned to Easter Road hoping to help spark a revival only to suffer the ignominy of 5-1.

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Sproule did not start the 2012 Scottish Cup final - a sore point. “I’d played in every round and then [manager] Pat Fenlon dropped me. That was a horrible day, but we had too many loan guys in our team and not enough who bleed the club. If I’d started and if Ian Murray had played maybe we wouldn’t have won but they wouldn’t have smashed us.”

Still, under John Collins he won the League Cup with mum Joyce among the Hampden crowd for a more gratifying 5-1 scoreline and “Sunshine on Leith” sung in the snow. Sproule cried that day as he remembered Ivan Snr and Keith. And there were tears again in Castlederg in 2016 when Hibs finally smashed their 114-year hoodoo. “I watched the final in our social club. Everyone else was supporting Rangers and I was in my Hibs shirt, causing the usual riots!”

Sproule’s sons are growing up Hibbies. Eldest Sam has been over for games and his brothers are eagerly awaiting their turns. “Every time I come back the banter is good,” he says. “I’ll have just stepped off the plane and it’ll start. What a team Hibs had back then, could we have won more?

“I get a sense of pride about that and hope that maybe I was able to make a few folk happy. There was another fantastic 3-0 victory at Ibrox [Scottish Cup, 2006] when Gaz and I tore Rangers apart and although we weren’t allowed jewelry I wore my father’s wedding ring for extra luck.

“I feel blessed having a beautiful wife and three beautiful boys but obviously when I started out two big important people in my life couldn’t be there for me so I had to make a lot of decisions myself. Some I got right and others wrong but Hibs were definitely one one my best. I think about Dad and Keith every day and hopefully I’ve made them happy, too.”



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