Interview: Former Hibs star Peter Cormack

Former Hibs inside forward recalls jousts with Real Madrid and Ken Buchanan

Peter Cormack enjoyed an illustrious career which took him from Hibs to Nottingham Forest and then Liverpool. Picture: Jane Barlow
Peter Cormack enjoyed an illustrious career which took him from Hibs to Nottingham Forest and then Liverpool. Picture: Jane Barlow

The coup de grace last Saturday – a crisp volley from a lovely chipped pass – had us all delving into the record books. When was the last time Hibernian banged four goals past Rangers? The answer was 50 years ago and the man who scored two of them is showing off his trophy cabinet.

“Feel the weight of that,” says Peter Cormack, handing me a medal. The inscription reads “Uefa Cup 1973”. He hands me another – same competition, another Liverpool triumph, three years later. “Much lighter, isn’t it? They were giving us less gold by then.” This is a player who, from a young age, always reckoned he knew his own worth and mostly he was spot-on.

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Cormack travelled from the Cowshed to the Kop. From his time at Easter Road, he shows me the souvenir cutlery from continental skirmishes with Valencia and Porto and, best of all, the wristwatch from the still-celebrated-in-song victory over Real Madrid when he netted stupendously for Hibs’ 199th goal in Europe, aged 18. He points to one of his two Championship badges from Anfield, mounted on a modest wooden plinth, and laughs. “Pretty rubbishy for a league title, eh? I won better-looking things in juvenile football in Inverleith Park.”

Peter Cormack enjoyed an illustrious career which took him from Hibs to Nottingham Forest and then Liverpool. Picture: Jane Barlow

There is nothing, though, from 1964-65, a source of regret to Hibs’ former inside-forward who was ghosting between front and midfield before anyone thought of false 9s. That was the season of high promise, of Rangers 2, Hibs 4, one of three wins against the Gers – and all too briefly, of Jock Stein. “I still remember the day he told us he was leaving us. It was a Monday and we were all stunned. He said it had always been his ambition to go back to Celtic to manage them. We thought: ‘Fair enough, but couldn’t he wait until the end of the season?’ If he’d stayed until then I’m convinced we would have won something.”

Kilmarnock became champions on the final day, pipping Hearts on goal average, but the Hibees and Dunfermline had been serious contenders, and these two also contested a Scottish Cup semi-final, the Pars triumphing. I never get bored with this stunning season when the Old Firm were both stuck outside the top four, looking in, which is why I’m in Edinburgh’s Craigentinny to meet one of its protagonists.

He’s 68 and still a skinnymalink. The clootie dumpling diet he was given as a kid – perfectly true – clearly never worked. The smart home he shares with his wife Marion boasts African art from when he was national coach of Botswana and – beyond the decking often resounding to the whoops of six grandchildren – the sea views he craved after living in Southport while a Red. But I’m most interested in the trophy display and the rolled-up shirt in Brazil’s buttercup yellow. “I swapped with Gerson,” he says of his Scotland debut. I unfurl and sniff, expecting the cotton still to reek of the great midfielder’s cigars.

That Ibrox win recalled this week – 10 October 1964 – came just three days after Puskas and Co had been humbled. “It’s all right beating Real Madrid but this is the one,” the Hibs directors told The Scotsman’s John Rafferty upon arriving in Glasgow. Rafferty enthused about how Stein’s 4-2-4 – “based on the Brazil version” – could suddenly transform into a seven-man attack. With the Summer Cup already in the boardroom, what a time this was to be a Hibby. “A daft wee spell,” says Cormack, who was nicknamed Gas Meter. “I was on such a high after Real I probably could have let the team bus go and floated across to Ibrox.”

The architect of all these victories was Willie Hamilton, the mercurial midfielder with a fondness for Bacardi and nutmegs. Says Cormack: “I’ve been fortunate enough to play with and against some of the greats – Pele, Eusebio, Puskas, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Georgie Best – but Willie was some player, too.”

I’m imagining the young man studied the master’s every deedle and dawdle. “I did, but I always thought I was good. I looked at Willie, who was brilliant, and thought: ‘I’m as good as you.’ I was always striving to be the best. Did I have a high opinion of myself? Yes, but if I hadn’t I would not have reached the level I did. To get to the top a footballer needs to have that arrogance.”

Before the game, Rangers’ Jim Baxter had warned Hamilton he’d be a much tougher opponent than Puskas. “Willie just laughed and told him to keep his mouth shut and his legs shut. He won their personal nutmeg competition and was the only guy I saw who could beat Baxter at his own game, standing on the ball and playing it at his pace. To be fair to Jim, he was the first to shake Willie’s hand at the final whistle. Then Jim treated him to a double Bacardi and coke.

“Willie ended up an alcoholic but when he played I think everything about his character – including the drinking – made him the kind of magical footballer he was.” Then Cormack and I talk plates. Any discussion about Hamilton has to come round to them eventually. The first time I heard it, I loved the story about Hammy getting round a luggage issue on a north American tour by folding up his man of the match salver and popping it in a holdall. Then, much as I respect my former Scotsman colleague Mike Aitken, I was devastated by his revelation of a few years ago in which the wayward genius’s sister produced the famous plate, sans fold.

“No, it happened in the airport in Ottawa and I was right next to him,” says Cormack, standing up to demonstrate. “He got the plate and – as the rest of us were going ‘Willie, no!’ – bent it over his knee. Maybe he got a replacement later.”

One of Cormack’s goals at Ibrox, according to the match report, was a “fine oblique shot”, but headers were his speciality, diving headers his party-piece. How could he hang in the air for so long? “That couldn’t be taught, it was natural,” he insists. Cormack scored 99 goals for Hibs including the third in the great Napoli victory. He twice deputised for injured keepers, keeping clean sheets. Rather than unconditionally loved, like Pat Stanton, or idolised, like Peter Marinello, was Cormack merely admired? Well, he had what he thinks was the first girls-only fanclub in Scottish football. His prancing style, running on the balls of his feet, always ready for an opportunity header, was probably unique, too. Add his fiery temper to the mix, and he certainly made his mark in eight years at Easter Road.

He was always in a hurry to get on, improve, succeed, and at Hibs, Hampden disappointments and Euro quarter-final knockouts frustrated him. “I used to stay behind at training in the afternoons. The rest of the guys would want to go up the town or to the pub but I’d try to take a couple with me.”

To increase his fitness some more he joined a city boxing club, Sparta, and got as far as a bout against the star youth. “It was Ken Buchanan. I told him to go easy. But he only beat me on points.” Again on his own initiative he ran round Arthur’s Seat, which has Cormack laughing now, because he’s remembering how he bragged about his cross-country prowess to Bill Shankly when he moved from Nottingham Forest, who also lacked his ambition, to Liverpool. “Shanks said: ‘Naw naw, son, you’re a professional footballer, not Brendan Foster. Do you think the world snooker champion practises by going for a swim every day?’ ”

Cormack finds it impossible to split Shankly and Stein: both were great managers who were great for him, allowing him more freedom than some of his other bosses who might stick him at centre-forward where he’d probably get thumped and then lash out. “If somebody kicked me I’d have to elbow them. Airdrie had a guy called Shanks who was a bampot who couldn’t play and would boot you up and down the park.” He also played for Bill’s brother Bob at Hibs who was a gentler soul than the Anfield firebrand. “You feared Shanks. A summons to his office and you’d think: ‘Christ, what did I get up to at the weekend?’”

Cormack, though, continued to be self-possessed and driven and struck up a good friendship with Kevin Keegan, possibly because the latter shared these qualities. Tommy Smith called him a “f****n’ poof” on account of his running style but he became a good pal, too. The hardman defender’s verdict on the clothing range Cormack introduced, including polka-dot platform shoes, is not known. “I always had to have nice shoes,” he says. “I had a thing about them.”

Cormack won only nine caps. If he’d played for the Old Firm, he says, the total would have trebled. Being omitted from Willie Ormond’s team was the last straw. “Davie Hay was picked in my position – I couldn’t believe it. I bumped into Jock Stein, told him that if I could win the league with Liverpool and not make the Scotland team, I was done.”

Although there would be disappointments later when he tried football management, his Liverpool years were Cormack’s zenith and the big pay-off after all those lonely trots round extinct volcanoes, the non-drinking in the face of committed conviviality from Willie Hamilton, the fierce determination. “Playing for Liverpool, I felt I could run all day. Goals came because after about 20 minutes I could break free of my markers. I must have been one of the fittest guys who ever played football.” After so much blandness from footballers – Q: “How thrilled were you when that 35-yard rocket hit the back of the net?” A: “It’s all about the team” – Cormack’s brashness is almost refreshing. He went into the karaoke business after football and says: “I genuinely think I could have been a good singer.”

Sometimes the old memory box lets him down. He’s sure this is a consequence of being such a good header of the ball. “Those old footballs retained water so they got very very heavy. It was like heading a medicine ball.” Or one of his mother’s clootie dumplings, I say. He laughs, then adds: “You knew what the game was like back then and you just got on with it. I wouldn’t have changed anything. I played football in the best of times.”

For Cormack, the derbies were the best games, on Merseyside and in his home city. Hearts had him on their ground-staff but made him do too many menial jobs while Hibs gave him his chance to prance. “I loved the derbies, all the more so for being an Edinburgh laddie. Those were the matches where you wanted to prove you were the best.”

His contribution to the fixture was pretty rock ’n’ roll. Big wins and big losses. Goals and signature diving headers. A turn between the sticks. A sending-off. Roy Barry was his most aggressive derby foe – “We’re great friends now” – although the dismissal came after a clash with Peter Oliver. Cormack got a two-week ban and when another sending-off quickly followed Hibs decided to cut their losses and sell. That ban, never served, was a whopping three months.

Hibs are at Tynecastle today. Cormack is a regular at their games with old team-mates Neil Martin and Eric Stevenson and saw them thump Rangers in the company of his son, “wee Peter”, who played for Morton among others. “That was a great win but how bad were Rangers? The worst I’ve ever seen.” The victory sets Hibs up for the chance to end their rivals’ unbeaten run. Respect to Hearts for that, he says, but will they crumble if they lose?

Cormack heard another echo of 50 years ago when, straight after last Saturday’s victory, Hibs manager Alan Stubbs warned his players against boozing before the New Year clash. “We were playing at Tynecastle, too. On Hogmanay Big Jock took us to the Scotia Hotel. He wanted to keep an eye on us but Willie in particular, to make sure he didn’t over-indulge.” But Hamilton duly got stocious at the Scotia, availing himself of most of the champagne which chairman Bill Harrower had brought to the hotel, a well-meaning but dangerous gesture. “In the morning when we came down for breakfast, our physio Tom McNiven was carting Willie up to bed. Tom was a miracle-worker – he could sort out plenty of injuries with his magic hands – but I think we all thought Willie would be beyond his powers that day.

“Then a few hours later he was on the pitch, running the game the way only he could and scoring the winner from a ridiculous angle.” A special talent, but no more so than Gas Meter.