Scottish Cup classics: Eddie May recalls thriller

IT was, they said, the finest cup tie seen at Easter Road since the last meeting between the sides, all of five months earlier.
Steve Cowan (No. 9) scores in a barnstorming Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road in 1986. Hibs prevailed over Celtic 4-3. Picture: Denis StraughanSteve Cowan (No. 9) scores in a barnstorming Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road in 1986. Hibs prevailed over Celtic 4-3. Picture: Denis Straughan
Steve Cowan (No. 9) scores in a barnstorming Scottish Cup tie at Easter Road in 1986. Hibs prevailed over Celtic 4-3. Picture: Denis Straughan

When Hibernian entertained Celtic – with entertained the word to use in this context – they had already shared eight goals with the 
Parkhead club in a Skol Cup tie earlier in the season.

After that 4-4 draw (Hibs progressed after winning on penalties, then lost 5-0 to the same opponents days later), nobody expected yet another rip-roaring game when the clubs were again drawn to meet each other, this time in the Scottish Cup.

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“I said that game couldn’t be repeated,” said an emotionally drained John Blackley after Hibs had managed to win 4-3, “but 
Saturday’s Scottish Cup tie was as near as you can get.”

It was memorable enough for those in the 20,000 crowd who looked on from the stands and terraces that afternoon in February. There was therefore little need to worry whether Eddie May recalled the game when putting a call through to him yesterday. Then a teenager, May sprang from the substitutes’ bench to score the winner 
during a frantic end to the match, when three goals were scored in the final six minutes. The midfielder proved 
invaluable to Hibs in their run to the semi-finals that year, 
having also scored a late winner in the previous around against Ayr United.

When he did it again 
against Celtic in the quarter-finals, there was a feeling that this, finally, might be Hibs’ year. It didn’t quite turn out like that, of course, although it is 
interesting to learn that, even then, May recalls sensing an “anxiety” about the Scottish Cup at Easter Road. Being a Hibs fan as a boy – his father used to take him and his two brothers to Easter Road – perhaps May was more sensitive to this cup-related anguish than others. However, it is true that, in 1986, you still needed to be in your 90s to remember Hibs winning the 
trophy back in 1902.

Hopes were raised again after the Easter Road side defeated the eventual league champions in an eventful match. May relished playing against Celtic, because, in their desire to go forward and play “the Celtic way”, they inevitably left spaces at the back. Davie Hay, the Parkhead club’s manager, was particularly 
gung-ho on this occasion.

Given the abundance of quality midfield players at his disposal, he decided to play as many of them as possible. Remarkably, Celtic started with only one out-and-out defender, Paul McGugan. Tommy Burns and Peter Grant were deployed as full-backs, where, in the words of former Scotsman sportswriter Mike Aitken, “they looked 
neither fish nor fowl”. Roy Aitken, meanwhile, partnered McGugan at centre back.

“It sounds a bit makeshift, but Peter and Tommy were two good players, who could slip into those positions quite happily,” recalls Murdo MacLeod, who was one of the quality midfielders at Celtic at the time, and who of course later moved to Hibs. “I always enjoyed the atmosphere at Easter Road,” he adds. “The slope had an influence on the game, we always spoke about that pre-match. The pitch 
always seemed tight, there was not much room about it. The atmosphere was a big plus, for both teams.”

Celtic were left to concentrate on the league after Hibs eliminated them from a cup competition for the second time that season. Hay’s side perhaps benefited from this arrangement, snatching the title from Hearts on what remains a famous last day denouement. Hibs finished in eighth place, but had two good cup victories over Celtic to reflect on, including a match in which May says he “lived the dream”.

“There wasn’t much between the teams on the day, you took your chances as they came along,” he adds. May certainly took his.

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Celtic were given the lead by Brian McClair just before half time. Just after the interval, Hibs striker Stevie Cowan hit another goal on the way to his season’s tally of 29, which Leigh Griffiths is currently trying to emulate, or even better. Mark McGhee put Celtic ahead and then Gordon Chisholm drew Hibs level again, and the hosts finally got their noses in front through Cowan again, with a penalty awarded after a foul on May, in the 84th minute. McClair replied almost immediately for Celtic with 
anther spot-kick, before May entered the fray, and threw himself at a cross from the right from Colin Harris and flicked the ball in with his head.

“I got in front of Roy Aitken and I got a good kick from him at the time, after I connected with the ball,” he recalls. “He didn’t get the ball, but he certainly got me. I think he might 
have got me for the penalty too.”

May certainly made his mark, which was notable, because just a few months earlier, while on the books at Dundee United, he had decided to quit the game altogether. Contrary to what you might expect, he wasn’t another victim of Jim McLean’s authoritarian style. Indeed, May has little but praise for the legendary manager. His decision to walk away from Tannadice was informed by the standard of player he saw in front of him, such as Eamonn Bannon, Ralph Milne and Billy Kirkwood.

“I have always been realistic,” he says. “They won the league and then got to the semi-final of the European Cup. I was asking myself: ‘can you realistically see yourself breaking into that team?’ I asked Jim that question. He wanted me to stay on. But a few weeks later I decided I wanted to go. I hadn’t intended to keep on playing football.”

So where did he go next? “The job centre,” he replies. “Five, six weeks later I got the opportunity to go to Hibs. A scout from the club got in touch. ‘OK, I will give it a try again’, I thought. Within a few days I was signed. Sometimes you are at a club at the wrong time, and you go to another one and flourish. It is not your fault or the fault of the club. It is not just the right place at that given time.”

Although he suffered a 
disappointment in being left out of the squad for the Skol Cup final against Aberdeen in October 1985 (John Collins took his place on the bench), he bounced back to score in three successive rounds of the Scottish Cup.

Sadly, the run could not continue in the semi-final, where Hibs were defeated by Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. “Unfortunately, I missed a good opportunity in that one,” he recalls, but at least he was back in the side.

“I do remember after scoring the winner v Celtic, going away after the game, everyone was happy, and people were saying how well I had done,” May, who now coaches the Rangers under-15 side, recalls. “We had another game in midweek v St Mirren and I was substitute again, and I didn’t even get on. And we won 3-0. That taught me one lesson, which was: Football’s a team game.”

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Scorers: Hibernian: Cowan (51, 84 pen), Chisholm (76), May (89). Celtic: McClair (42, 86 pen), McGhee (60)

Hibernian: Rough, Milne, Brazil (Harris), Rae, Fulton, Tortolano, Chisholm, Cowan, Durie, Collins (May) .

Celtic: Latchford, Grant, Burns, Aitken, McGugan, MacLeod, McClair, P McStay, Johnston, McGhee, Archdeacon. No subs used

Attendance: 20,000