Interview: Alex Cropley recalls his football career

IN 23 years of ferrying punters about Edinburgh, Alex Cropley has had a few Hearts supporters in the back of his cab.

IN 23 years of ferrying punters about Edinburgh, Alex Cropley has had a few Hearts supporters in the back of his cab.

Most of them are alright, but some of them are bampots, kicking and spitting on his taxi. Others are just dyed-in-the-wool Jambos, launching into a diatribe about their city rivals, blissfully unaware of who is driving.

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If they get a bit too full of themselves, Cropley knows how to deal with them. He lets slip that he was a player once, and not just any old player. “I played for the Hibs,” he will say, waiting for the reaction. If that doesn’t shut them up – and there is every chance that it won’t – he takes a look in his rear-view mirror, and delivers the killer line. “I played in the 7-0 game. In fact, I scored that day.”

For Cropley, that is the trump card. His passenger can brag all he likes about Hearts’ upper hand in modern times, their eight Scottish Cup victories, even their 5-1 thrashing of Hibs in last season’s final at Hampden, but when it comes to the rivalry that gives Edinburgh football its pulse, nothing beats 1973. “That puts his gas at a peep,” says Cropley. “You can just see the smile disappearing from his face.”

The funny thing is, Cropley is not a Hibbee – not a proper one anyway – but he knows how it works. These last few years have been hard going at Easter Road, but however much they have struggled, however badly they have been beaten, they have always had The Game on New Year’s Day, which happens to be the title of a new book out to mark its 40th anniversary.

On Tuesday, two days before the clubs engage in a league match at Tynecastle, it will all come flooding back: seven goals at the same venue, five of them in the opening 37 minutes, and the green contingent in a crowd of nearly 36,000 chanting for the score to reach double figures. “We were fortunate not to be 2-0 down in the first ten minutes,” says Cropley. “Then we just got into gear, and it could have been ten. Really. It could easily have happened.”

Cropley’s strike was the best. Thirty-five minutes, and three goals, had gone when Alan Anderson’s clearance, after a cross by Arthur Duncan, spun into the air and dropped just outside the penalty area. With a flourish of his left boot, Cropley lashed a dipping shot into the bottom left-hand corner.

“It seemed to be in the air for an eternity, but eventually it came to me and I volleyed it. If I had my time again, I would have hit it a bit earlier, a bit quicker, and I would have aimed for the right post, across the goalkeeper. That’s what I did in other games, when I was a bit more experienced.”

Cropley was 21 on 1 January, 1973. After the game, the midfielder went to his granny’s for tea, as he always did on New Year’s Day. They didn’t talk much about the football, except when the goals were shown on television. Later, when he met some of his team-mates – Pat Stanton, Jimmy O’Rourke and Alan Gordon – at a Bruntsfield hotel, it was not what he would describe as a celebration.

Cropley wasn’t old enough to appreciate what had been achieved. Nor did he care enough about the city rivalry to dwell on it. Although he was brought up in the shadow of Easter Road, he liked Hearts almost as much as he did Hibs, and his passion was only for playing the game.

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Then, as now, it was the biggest margin of victory in a competitive Edinburgh derby, but it was also part of something more significant. Hearts were not the only side destroyed by Hibs during that most glorious of seasons, a campaign in which Turnbull’s Tornadoes, imbued with newfound professionalism, ruthlessly reached their peak, twice beating Celtic at Hampden to lift both the League Cup and the Drybrough Cup.

“To me, it was just another result,” says Cropley. “It wasn’t any great yardstick. For Pat and Jim and Alan, it was something to behold, but I was just riding the crest of a wave. It was made easy by the players around me. At the time, you took it for granted, but I realise now how good they were. I played with a left-back [Erich Schaedler] who did all my running. To my right, I had Pat Stanton. We had John Brownlie and Mickey [Alex Edwards] on the right. And the thing about Hearts was that they had no left-winger. Jim Jefferies had two men to mark. John, flying down that wing, was one of the best full-backs in Britain.”

Modesty forbids Cropley to point out that he was also special. Not only did he have a sweet left foot, he knew how to find space where others couldn’t. Although slightly built, he was wiry and fearless in the tackle, none of which was the reason for his military nickname.

Cropley was called Sojer because he was born, of Scottish parents, in the garrison town of Aldershot, where his father briefly played. In October 1971, he and Bob Wilson became the first English-born players to represent Scotland, when Tommy Docherty, after a change to the eligibility rules, picked them for matches against Portugal and Belgium. “I was playing well at the time, but I didn’t think I was playing that well. I think it was a kind of publicity stunt to get the punters in.”

Against Belgium, Cropley made way for a young debutant by the name of Kenny Dalglish, and never again played for the country in which he had lived since the age of six. In later years, he had Don Masson, Bruce Rioch and Graeme Souness to contend with, as well as a number of injuries that did not help him to fulfil his potential.

Cropley was used to it. He missed the 1972 Scottish Cup final – a 6-1 defeat by Celtic – after breaking his ankle in a clash with Alex Ferguson, then playing for Falkirk. “Brockville was some place. Somebody spat on me as I got carted away, and Ferguson was sent off later in the game. Turnbull once said to me ‘you know, I’ve never spoken to him since that day’.”

In 1974, after six years with Hibs, Cropley joined Arsenal, where he was frustrated by another fracture. This time it was a broken leg, although he would have struggled at Highbury, even with a clean bill of health. “Arsenal was a learning curve,” he explains. “Big city, big club, marble halls. Wonderful. I would like to have stayed there, but they had so many good players coming through like Liam Brady and Graham Rix.”

And so, after two years in London, Cropley joined Aston Villa, where he produced the best football of his life, winning the 1977 League Cup, and establishing himself as a fans’ favourite before suffering yet another, this time more serious, injury. To this day, Villa fans talk about the “crack” they heard when a tackle by Ally Brown, West Bromwich Albion’s Scottish forward, left Cropley’s leg hinged at the shin.

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“I was never the same after that. Twenty-seven years old… you’ve not even had your time. There are some things about football that are vague in my memory, but that particular day, I can remember it was 3:46, I can remember how it happened, how I was lying. I can still smell the grass. I looked at my leg and saw a big hollow where the break was. The next thing I see is Andy Gray running from centre-forward to get the boy by the neck. He had him up against the dugout wall.” Cropley had been, quite literally, cut down in his prime. Villa, he said, reminded him of the Tornadoes. For Schaedler, read John Robson. John Gidman was a full-back in the Brownlie mould. There was only one Pat Stanton, but Dennis Mortimer, Villa’s captain and midfield lynchpin, did a decent impression.

Now 61, Cropley can’t remember the last time he went to a Hibs game. He used to watch his son, Jordan, when he was in the club’s youth system, but these days he settles for English football on television. “When I had a stroke three years ago, I was in the hospital for two days, and I had to watch the Hibs-Hearts game. It gave me a relapse.”

Cropley decided against attending last season’s Scottish Cup final – “I thought they would get a doing, and they did” – but he cannot understand why Hearts chose not to go for the jugular. “People say ‘we’ve got them back for the 7-0 game’, but I don’t think they have. Seven is more than five. If Jim Jefferies had been in charge, he would have gone for ten or 11.”

That’s what Turnbull wanted 40 years ago. So did Cropley, who says that desire was his biggest asset. The left foot, the vision and the range of passing were all very well, but for supporters, it was simpler than that. As the song at Villa Park put it: “Five foot eight, not much weight, Alex Cropley’s f***ing great, la la la la la la la la la la la.”