'I remember Sauzee at Hibs trying to work it out' - Stuart Lovell and Alex McLeish recall Easter Road's famous slope, 20 years after it was levelled

Just how bad was the tilt? Well, the tales back it up from two men that know ...

Kenny Miller scored the final goal down the Hibs slope.

“Towards the end of 1892, the committee signed a lease on a field called Drum Park. The field had a slope ... but this space was to become the home of Hibernian Football Club, a home the club still occupies to this day.”

A simple mention in the history books. But, the reference to the slope is as evocative as it is informative.

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This month marks the 20th anniversary of the flattening of that famous Easter Road slope; the incline that had generations looking for the opportunity to win coin tosses that permitted a second-half charge downhill and had players wondering if they had simply forgotten they had been out on the sauce the previous evening.

Out drinking the night before?

“You would glance across at the East Stand, where it was most pronounced, and it would catch you out. It looked like everyone had one leg shorter than the other, everything seemed to be on a tilt,” says Stuart Lovell, whose time at the club straddled the final flurries of that incredible gradient and the experience of a level-playing field that followed.

“If you didn’t know better you would think you had been out drinking the night before. Sometimes it did mess with your head.”

Yogi’s preference

It has been messing with the minds of opponents for decades, though, earning a reputation as big as Mount Everest. In truth, the differential from the corner flag cocooned by the West Stand and the Famous Five stand, all the way upfield to the flag in the South East corner was just over six foot but that was enough to prey on the thoughts of the men charged with shuttling up and down it all game.

“I think everyone at Hibs liked to play up talk of the slope, looking for a psychological advantage over opponents and it did become a thing,” said Lovell. “At the coin toss, Yogi would always choose to kick down the slope in the second half and sometimes I think opponents were tired at the thought of it by the time we got to that stage of the game.

“As wing-backs, we would be told to get up and down the park, sometimes as a decoy, because if your opponent was too lazy to track you back, it gave us an edge. You had to have a willingness and decent fitness and some players just wouldn’t bother.”

Brakes had to work

As an opposition player, Alex McLeish would arrive in Leith and try to shut out the chatter. “The slope was nothing compared to one I’d played on as a schoolboy and we had Alex Ferguson who would always tell us to try to go out and win games early so shooting down the hill in the first half was okay for us,” McLeish, who ended up benefiting from the slope as Hibs manager, said. “You would try to tell yourself that the slope wasn’t that big but I will tell you that when we were running down hill, we were going a lot faster. You had to be careful and make sure the brakes were working!”

That was through the 80s and on into the 90s, by which stage the slope had already, incredibly, been reduced. In 1924, three banks of the terracing had been raised and the slope lessened. “It does make you wonder what it must have been like before that!,” laughs McLeish.

As it was, the pronounced slant was an anomaly but one Lovell learned to embrace.

Usain Bolt would struggle

“I remember coming up from Reading and Alex showing me around the ground and thinking, ‘I’m going to have to adjust some things!’ Lovell recalls. “I probably hadn’t played on any kind of slope since schoolboy football.

“I was fortunate enough to play with some great footballers and we played a passing game so it didn’t really affect our tactics. But, If you hit a long ball into one corner, it would take one bounce and be away, especially if the ground was wet. We would squeeze the game when the other team was attacking down the hill because we knew that unless the ball over the top was perfect, not even Usain Bolt would have caught it! Playing the other way, the hill would kill the bounce. So teams did have to adapt and that gave us a psychological advantage.”

Sauzee’s surprise

“Young kids going out to play at Easter Road for the first time would be saying: ‘Let’s see this slope’, it was already in their heads before kick-off,” added McLeish, who laughs recalling the reactions of some more notable, older players.

“When you were showing new signings around, it was fun to watch their reaction. You could see them straining their eyes as they came out the tunnel, trying to make sense of it. I remember Franck Sauzee adjusting his neck and cocking his head, trying to work out if it was the stands or the pitch that was sloping.”

But with the promotion delivered in 1998/99 and the team consolidating its place in the top tier in 1999/2000, McLeish and his men were forced to wrap up their home fixtures early.

The final goodbye

In 1995 the Famous Five and South Stands had been redeveloped, leaving a holding wall and a corner of the pitch incongruously towering over the first few rows of the latter. By 2000, and in an attempt to meet UEFA regulations, work on flattening and rebuilding the main West Stand was to begin. At the same time the pitch was simply to be flattened.

It led to an afternoon of unabashed nostalgia, as the team ran out onto the infamous incline on April 29, 2000 for the final time. And fans packed in to see off the slope than was as fondly familiar as any player who had performed upon it.

The last four games of the campaign would be on the road but, against Ebbe Skovdahl’s Aberdeen, the current cast of performers bade a fond farewell to their idiosyncratic stage.

A blank scoresheet after the first half, shooting uphill, the home side netted the only goal of the game via Kenny Miller, eight minutes after they changed direction.

“It was pretty appropriate that we scored the winning goal hitting down the slope,” McLeish said. “It was as if it had been scripted.”