Interview: Des Bremner, former Hibernian midfielder and European Cup winner

Des Bremner in 1977
Des Bremner in 1977
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THERE’S a terrible old movie called Geordie, patronising in the extreme about Scotland with chronic attempts at the accent filling the big VistaVision sky, but its central, cheering premise has always made me think of Des Bremner.

Country lad, lovely innocent expression on his face but a fairly unremarkable physical specimen ... suddenly transforms himself into an amazing athlete with near-superhuman powers. That was Bremner at Hibs when he came down from Deveronvale and, after just a handful of reserve games, had to be thrust into the first team in front of a support still traumatised by John Brownlie’s leg-break with many swearing they’d heard the awful crack.

Jackie MacNamara, Ally MacLeod and Des Bremner at Edinburgh airport. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood

Jackie MacNamara, Ally MacLeod and Des Bremner at Edinburgh airport. Picture: Alan Ledgerwood

Bremner ran and ran and ran for Hibs. And tackled and tackled and tackled. What an engine. Then he ran right out of Easter Road and I’ll never forget my father’s parting words: “That’s going to be hard to replace – Dezzy did the work of three men.” Right enough, Hibs were relegated. At Aston Villa, meanwhile, there was no let-up. More running, more tackling, more elemental midfield power. He played every game as Villa charged to the old First Division title. And the following season, 30 years ago, he was again ever-present when they won a most unlikely European Cup.

Of that unassuming Villa team, Bremner was its most unassuming member. Search for tributes and you’ll find him damned with faint praise, even compared to Forrest Gump. Much to the disappointment of the class of ’82, Villa aren’t marking the anniversary. With only one Scottish cap to his name, Bremner, now 59, was often under-appreciated. Let’s put a bit of that right.

As the European Cup final is contested once more, and as Hibs try to achieve what they didn’t quite manage with Bremner stoking the midfield coals – he featured in the 1979 epic against Rangers – I’ve come to Birmingham to ask how he could run for what seemed like forever, and what they put in his porridge. But first, once he learns I’m a resident of Edinburgh’s Stockbridge, he has a question for me: is Tiffanys still there? Sorry, Des, but that nightclub went up in smoke a good few years ago. Ah pity, he says, for that was where he met his wife Pat. Thursday nights he’d hit the capital’s clubland with Easter Road team-mates Bobby Smith, Jim McArthur and Willie Murray. They were younger but he was single like them. Edinburgh must have seemed like a decadent Hellzapoppin’ kind of place after Aberchirder, the Aberdeenshire village where he grew up. “Well,” he says, “if you’re a Foggie loon most places do.

“There’s just three streets in Aberchirder and Foggieloan is its nickname which everyone shortens to Foggie. My dad Sandy – he died last year, aged 89 – was a farmer. My mum Winnie is 87 and enjoying being able to put her feet up after having eight kids. There’s wasn’t an awful lot to do in Foggie but we didn’t know any different, so cycling, fishing, damming up the stream so we could swim in it – these things suited us fine. And of course there was football.”

Des Bremner, left, holds the European Cup aloft with Villa. Picture: Getty

Des Bremner, left, holds the European Cup aloft with Villa. Picture: Getty

The first to spot Bremner’s promise was Jimmy Shand, not that one but the headmaster of the joint primrary-secondary who fast-tracked ten-year-old Des into the under-15s side. He joined an Aberdeen youth team, a nursery for the Dons when Eddie Turnbull was the manager that also featured Joe Smith, younger brother of quixotic winger Jimmy. Turnbull moved to Hibs but didn’t forget the strong-running lad from those sessions on the Pittodrie car-park gravel, and after barely a dozen games for Deveronvale Bremner landed at Easter Road. This was in December 1972, with the Turnbull’s Tornadoes team at their zenith, and just a few weeks later, aged 20, he was playing right-back.

“I wasn’t at the League Cup final victory [2-1 against Celtic] or the 7-0 game [against Hearts] because I’d have been playing for the reserves, same with the match where John broke his leg. I was quite nervous about being pitched in so early – Hibs were top of the league at that point – but come the day my fantastic team-mates made it easy for me. Just a few weeks after that I was playing in Europe: away to Hajduk Split in the Cup-Winners Cup quarter-finals, firecrackers all around!”

Hibs’ challenge that season faded, at home and abroad. Fans still talk about what might have been: if Brownlie hadn’t got injured, if Alex Edwards hadn’t been hit with a long suspension. But no blame was attached to Bremner who soon became impossible to dislodge, especially when he moved into the midfield. He remembers midfield foes such as Alex MacDonald. “I was one of those players who never stopped and older ones like him probably thought: ‘I can’t get rid of this guy.’ ” So: was it all down to the Foggie air?

“We had an outdoor life there, for sure. I’ve got three brothers and we all had to help out on the farm, evenings and weekends. That was hard, hard work and I don’t think any of us fancied taking over from Dad. With hill cattle you had to do heck of a lot of chasing. And in winter-time the tractor pulling their hay would only get so far up the road and we’d have to strap the bales to our backs and climb up through deep snow to feed them.” That explains his terrific stamina, then, I say. “Aye, you’re probably right.”

Des Bremner, front row second left, among the Hibs lineup in 1979

Des Bremner, front row second left, among the Hibs lineup in 1979

Bremner’s brother Kevin was a much-travelled player, down south and with Dundee, while another member of the clan, Keith, was a jockey. “After the Horse of the Year Show on TV Dad would set up jumps in a field and we’d all tear round – without horses!”

He won a Drybrough Cup-winners’ medal with Hibs but that was all. “We had a fine team and it was just a shame we didn’t achieve more success.” He has fond memories of Edinburgh derbies, most of which Hibs won. “I was living in Kirkcaldy and every morning would share the train ride across to Edinburgh with Jim [McArthur] and Hearts’ Willie Gibson and Cammy Fraser. There was always good banter between us. And the fella serving us coffees was Denis Law’s brother Joe.”

Memories of that thrice-played ’79 final are less fond. “I still don’t know how we didn’t win the cup that year. We considered ourselves the second-best team in Scotland – better than Rangers – and did enough over the three games to win, only to lose to an own goal. Poor Arthur Duncan. Great diving header, just the wrong end.”

Bremner’s glamour Euro nights in the green and white – Juventus, Liverpool, Leeds Utd – all ultimately ended in defeat, too, but are much cherished. “We should have beaten Leeds, having surprised them at Elland Road when Tony Higgins was our star and absolutely battered them at Easter Road. But Billy Bremner was brilliant playing sweeper although we didn’t like it when he taunted us by sitting on the ball near his goal-line.” It went to penalties, our man scoring but Pat Stanton hitting a post.

Des loved his time at Hibs – “And I really hope they can finally win the Scottish” – but was keen to see how far football could take him from Foggie. “Billy McNeill was interested in me at Celtic, as was John Greig at Rangers. Eddie said he wouldn’t allow me to go to a rival club and it could never have been Rangers. I got married in a Catholic church and guys like Bobby Russell and Graham Fyfe, who came to Hibs from Ibrox, told me that would count against me.”

Bremner played for Scotland Under-23 nine times but his solitary full honour came against Switzerland. “It would have been nice to have won more caps and I thought I might because Jock Stein, when he was manager, was supposed to be an admirer. Of course there were always grumbles that Old Firm players got picked automatically.”

Now he’s laughing, having remembered how Turnbull dealt with his transfer request. “He was some man, was Ned. A brilliant coach but also, as we know, a strong disciplinarian. Not exactly free and easy with the praise. I remember scoring a good goal at Ibrox – chipped Peter McCloy from the edge of the box – and thought he might mention it afterwards, but no. As regards money, some of the guys would knock on his door hoping for a £5 or £10 rise but I never did – too scared! My basic by the end of my time there was £110 a week and I thought that was pretty fair. I mean, I think Eddie liked me all right but Mickey – Alex Edwards – was definitely his favourite.

“Anyway, I did knock on his door. This wee cubbyhole under the main stand. ‘What is it?’ He always roared at you. I told him I was keen to further my career. ‘You’ve been effin’ tapped up!’ I’m laughing because I’d interrupted him shaving and he was spluttering this abuse at me with foam flying everywhere. It was difficult to keep a straight face but important that I did!

Bremner got his move but Turnbull, raging against the dying of the disciplinarian method, kept him on tenterhooks until the moment he signed for Ron Saunders. “Tom Hart, the Hibs chairman, told me at lunch before we were playing Celtic that a club were going to be watching me. ‘It’s up to you,’ he said, but he wouldn’t tell me who. Neither would Eddie when I went to see him in his cubbyhole. We lost that game 3-0. On the Sunday, instead of taking the family for a drive, I thought I’d better stay in the house in case of a phonecall. Ned eventually rang at half ten that night: ‘Be at Edinburgh Airport for 6.30am.’ I was met by Mr Hart who was surprised I still didn’t know the name of the club. A manager wouldn’t be allowed to treat a player like that now!” Bremner was put up in a hotel by Villa, so his chums on the Kirkcaldy train were surprised he wasn’t in his usual seat the next morning. The £275,000 signing made his debut the next Saturday against Arsenal – “in direct opposition to Liam Brady, another baptism.”

In Saunders, he’d swapped one disciplinarian for another. “There were a lot of similiarities between them. If you were a really gifted player, such as Gary Shaw or Tony Morley, he’d get the apprentices to count up your tackles. Maybe Eddie was more thorough regarding the opposition because sometimes Ron wouldn’t mention them at all, but he instilled such confidence in us. We were pretty experienced, anyway, but the key thing was we were a team, perfectly balanced.”

Dennis Mortimer was the captain, Peter Withe the big guy up front. Shaw and Morley provided the verve and Gordon Cowans – after one too many leg-breaks for Alex Cropley – was the playmaker. But he couldn’t have supplied those clever passes if the ball hadn’t first been won by Bremner, who also had two fellow Scots in the team, Allan Evans and Ken McNaught. “I never minded being the unsung member of the team,” he says, although in the championship-winning season he netted twice against Notts Forest’s Peter Shilton.

The European Cup campaign was viewed as “just an adventure”. The team agreed to a modest £2500 win bonus per man, not thinking it would apply. Icelanders Valur were beaten 7-0 and away goals were needed in Dynamo Berlin, “a gie dreich place” he remembers. But then Saunders sensationally quit. “To this day we don’t really know why but for Ron principles were at stake.

“Tony Barton took over and although he was called ‘assistant manager’ that was only so he could qualify for a club car – he’d been the chief scout and the man who’d watched me at Hibs. Nice guy but not a manager as such. Ron leaving was a shock but the team had such a togetherness.” Because of a whiteout, the away leg against Dynamo Kiev was moved to a grim Black Sea resort and Bremner had to do a turn in central defence. Vanquished Anderlecht protested about a pitch invasion in the semi-final but Villa were headed for the showdown with Bayern Munich in Rotterdam. The Germans were stern-faced during the warm-ups. “We were still relaxed.” Withe scored the winner via shin and post and Des marked Paul Breitner out of the game.

Now an independent financial advisor after a spell in charge of the finances for the Professional Footballers’ Association, father-of-three Bremner says it was some years before he totted up the full significance of Villa’s achievement. “It was fantastic, really fantastic. And the best thing was having my whole family there to see it – including my dear old Dad, bless him, who used to travel all over to cheer on his boys. He’d watch Keith race at York and carry on down to see Kevin play for Millwall, then it was back up to Spaghetti Junction where I’d collect him for a Villa game. He never drove or took a bus but hitched rides with the haulage firm based in the village and loved meeting folk and the chit-chat from being, as we say back home, always on top of the road.”

That’s a good way of describing dynamo Des. “Well, none of us ever did take over that farm but we did all right in his eyes, I hope - for Foggie loons.”