There’s sunshine on Leith today but any Hibernian fan spotting the sharp-featured fellow sitting opposite me in a coffee shop halfway down the Walk could find themselves shivering uncontrollably.
Ian Black works in refrigeration now, having just finished fitting out a mini-supermarket. “Funnily enough, I live in Leith these days as well,” says the Hearts hero. “What’s so bloody funny about that?” Hibbys might wail. “That man turned our midfield into blocks of ice, chilled our souls, deep-froze our dreams. He applied the most severe cryogenics to our hopes of ever winning the Scottish Cup.”
Okay, so 2016 happened but that doesn’t negate 2012 – not in the minds of Jambos, anyway. They’ll never forget the all-Edinburgh final, the biggest, most crucial, most brag-some and derbiest derby there’s ever been – the day the boys in maroon thrashed their internecine nearest-and-dearest by five goals to one.
Black was man of the match, the coolest cookie at Hampden. If tests had been carried out on the blood temperature of the hyped-up hysterical fans, both squads and Hibees manager Pat Fenlon, he of the right-up-yooz gesture, then it’s a pretty safe bet that Blackie’s would have been the lowest of them all. It was exactly the right level to be strutting around like he owned the place, which that day he kind of did. “My best-ever game,” he says. “All through it I felt like I was being carried on this wee breeze, like I was floating. If I could, I’d live that day for the rest of my life.”
Black may be overalled-up but at 34 he’s living other days and still getting a kick at the ball. He now plays for Tranent Juniors, his hometown team, and last night they were involved in a semi-final. He laughs. “Now you’re going to ask me which cup and I dinnae ken!” Further investigation reveals this to be the King Cup, an old-established east coast tournament which was once contested by Hibs and Hearts.
Tranent, nickname the Belters, have ambitions to compete in the Scottish Cup. Black would love to play in the competition one last time but, in any case, life is treating him well. “When I came back up the road from England my relationship was over and I was at a bit of a loose end, not sure what was next. But then I met my partner, Christie, who’s been great for me.” And today he heads for Hampden with his teenage daughter Mia hoping for another great Hearts victory.
“I think they can do it. My prediction? Two-one to the Hearts. But they’ll have to be bold and not just sit in. Remember how they beat Celtic at Tynie earlier in the season and play like that, not giving them any time or space.” Their task would be considerably aided by having Black in his pomp as playmaker. Every Gorgie ballboy will have fantasised about having the decisive impact in a showpiece match, but this one actually did.
Tranent play at Foresters Park where crowds average 150. Players hear everything and if you’re a player like Ian Black, the sort of guy opposition fans love to hate (but would secretly like to be bossing their midfield), then the jibes will come thick, fast and customised. I’m imagining stuff like “Cannae see you putting a bet on this game, Blackie” or “Bit of a comedown for you, naw?”
“There’s a lot of abuse,” he confirms, “but it’s fine, I just laugh. I’ve had it my whole career.” Black has always played with an arrogance and – euphemism alert – pronounced sharpness to his tackling. One fan’s trusty enforcer is another’s wee squirt acting the hard man, but he says: “I’ve never been fazed by the physical or teams wanting to kick me.” And guess what? In the East of Scotland League opponents do want to kick him. “The guys I’m playing against are at the level they’re at. Sometimes one of them will say ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ I could tell them that my last game in senior football was at Wembley [the 2017 playoff win to get Blackpool into League One] but I don’t. I came back to try and help Tranent; they were the first club I played for. Now and again out on the park there’s a bit of a competition to see who can hit me the hardest. But I just get on with it, I accept it.”
Black comes from a footballing family. Grandfather Peter was a goalkeeper and his father, also Ian, played left-back with Hearts during the yo-yo years of the late 1970s. The old man had previously been at Celtic where he was one of Jock Stein’s last signings, although he didn’t manage to force his way into the team. After Hearts he switched to Easter Road for the Hibees’ turn in the second tier. His son laments the lack of old footage of his father in action. “Dad doesn’t talk about his career very much, but he must have been not bad to have been signed by Stein. When I was a boy he took me up the park near our house all the time to work on wee drills – I’ve always appreciated that. During my career Dad hasn’t ever commented very much. I think he didn’t want to build me up so others could knock me down – and I’ve come to appreciate that, too. I might have scored a screamer and all he’d say was: ‘You did all right the day, son.’ I took that as high praise. So when, after we won the cup in 2012, he said ‘I’m really proud of you’ it meant the world to me.”
Graeme Souness didn’t say much either when Black began at Blackburn Rovers. “He had one conversation with me all the time I was there. He wasn’t much interested in the youths.” This seems unfortunate in Black’s case, as manager and 18-year-old saw the game the same way: if there was a tackle needing to be made you went and won it, arguing the legality afterwards. Just prior to that, Black had been a schoolboy at Hibs when the likely lads also included Scott Brown. With those two around some of the tackling must have left victims black and brown.
Next for Black were Inverness Caley Thistle where he started to make a name for himself and one which fitted neatly into referee’s notebooks. “I was a laddie in a team of men but there didn’t seem much point in being shy. Be respectful, but when the game starts, know that you’re good enough to be playing and let everyone know: ‘I’m here.’”
There was certainly nothing shy about Black at Hearts. The Vladimir Romanov revolution was starting to stall with the owner entering what’s usually described as the capricious period of his tenure. The harsh reality of this for the players, though, was not being paid. On four occasions in the season ending in Hampden glory, wages were late. Black made sure the hierarchy knew he was supremely hacked off.
“I couldn’t hold my tongue. I just got more and more upset about the fact we weren’t getting paid. I caused havoc. If you were put up for media duties you were supposed to keep quiet about it but I couldn’t lie.” And he gatecrashed attempts by Romanov’s representatives to smooth over the issue. “The captain, [Marius] Zaliukas, and Webby [Andy Webster] would get invited to these meetings and I’d find out about them and just turn up. This guy would tell us that our pay would be in our accounts the following day but it never was. Once I was told I should manage my money better. That got me. I said I’d spend my money how I effing well liked.
“I had to say my piece. I was getting angrier and angrier and I didn’t want to take that on to the park and do something silly in a game.” Famously at Easter Road, four months before Hearts would meet their city rivals at Hampden, Black celebrated a win by doffing his shirt to reveal the sprayed-on message: “I’ll paint this place maroon.”
By then everyone knew, in the midst of the pay dispute and just before Christmas, that Black had done a shift with a paintbrush. There was sympathy for him and his team-mates at other grounds, with DJs spinning the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black. “The truth of that is a mate asked me to help him with a paint job. I did it as a favour but I knew he’d stick some money in my pocket. And, aye, that money did put a bit of food on the table that week. The situation of us not being paid was okay for the single guys but for those of us with kids and mortgages it was more of a problem. I’d have swept the streets to provide and wouldn’t have had any shame about doing it.”
At Easter Road that afternoon Black was the dominant derby figure, a sign of things to come. And something else from that time was hugely significant, come Hampden: the togetherness of the team fostered despite, or maybe because of the madness of the Romanov reign.
He says: “I roomed with Stephen Elliott the night before the final. We woke up late in fits of giggles, laughing like wee boys and wondering: ‘How did we even get here?’ We’d worked hard and we’d worked together. We were like a gang, aye a gang. And Stephen and I said to each other: ‘Come on, one more game.’”
Black loved the capital clashes and never lost to the Leith team in a Hearts jersey. Did he, in the era when the men in green and white were supposed to have had an unfortunate knack of “Hibsing it”, detect apprehension or even fear in their opponents? “I don’t know. We just always thought that if all of us were up for the game we’d be fine. Plus we had guys who could create something out of nothing, the likes of Temps [David Templeton] and Rudi [Skacel].
“But Hibs had players who could hurt us,” he adds. Quite literally at times. “I always had battles with Ian Murray. Once at Tynie he cleaned me out, a stick-on red card, although he wasn’t sent off. At the start of the following season when refs as usual showed us videos of decisions they’d got right and wrong, Ian’s tackle was in there. ‘Definite red’ was the verdict.”
So what, then, about Black’s elbowing of Leigh Griffiths early in the final – should that have been red, too?” A wry smile. “Some folk think that won us the game. If you look at the challenge I don’t take my eye off the ball. Yeah, I clattered him. I took everything. If he’d got the ball he would have been away and he was their key man. That was my last game in a Hearts shirt so there was no way I was going to lose it. Because of the money situation the club couldn’t afford me any more. I wanted a bit of silverware, and for my mum, dad, twin sister, big sister and brother to see me win something, to go out on a high.”
Black knows that in the quick, cynical shorthand of many, his time at Rangers which followed will be remembered for him having bet on matches featuring his own team and been banned for it. He knows he was a silly boy and has long since apologised to team-mates and the Rangers support. He says now: “Everyone bets. They did then, they still do. That was an accumulator, I bet £5 on three draws. We were getting off the team bus so I had to hurry and pressed the first games to come up, one of which was ours. But I scored the goal to beat East Stirling so I burst my own coupon.” Clubs in the English Championship wanted him so why did Black swap sold-out Hampden for a crowd of 4,000 at Peterhead watching Rangers struggle to a draw as they began life in the fourth tier? “Because Rangers are Rangers. You don’t realise how big they are until you pull on that strip.” Did he think, because of the modest opposition, it would be easy? “No, not at all. I knew from playing against Rangers that every club would raise their game. I went from one cup final to 36 of them every season.” Okay, the rumoured £5,000-a-week might have been nice, but what did Rangers do for his game? “Maybe not every performance was great; some of the pitches were poor. But once we got these teams back to Ibrox, no disrespect, the games were like training matches. Did that improve me? I don’t know. Playing for Rangers was a challenge, and an opportunity that was only going to come round once. I’d like to think I gave 110 percent because I would have felt guilty otherwise. And I won trophies, albeit smaller ones. Some guys are still out there striving.” The end for Black at Ibrox came when the club failed to get out of the Championship at the first go. “Stuart McCall replaced Ally McCoist and I went from playing every game to not at all. He wasn’t man enough to tell me why.”
His solitary Scotland cap came as a Ranger, and from the fourth tier at that, which was highly controversial, but so was his appearance from the bench against Australia in an Easter Road friendly being greeted with boos. “That didn’t bother me, as I think footage of [manager] Craig Levein with his arm around me showed. I mean, it’s disappointing that a guy representing his country gets that treatment, but I was used to booing. I’ve had it all my life! At every ground in Scotland, and from the Rangers fans when I played for them. They’re very demanding, sometimes brutal but great supporters of their team.”
Of course some of his critics that night may have been Hibbys, still hurting from the worst result in their club’s history just a few months previously. Did he feel for Hibs? “Not really. It’s a tough world. I was relegated with Inverness on the last day of the season. We’ve all suffered crushing defeats, you just have to get on with it.” Was he worried when Hibs got it back to 2-1? “Well, we knew we had to score the next goal.” That was the controversial penalty – should it have been awarded? “No way.” Could five have become seven? “Maybe it should have done but I thinks Jambos are happy you need two hands for the scoreline.” When did he sober up? “Not for two days, maybe three.” And when Hibs finally won the cup four years later how did he feel? “I watched that final in Benidorm on a stag weekend – fantastic game. I’m not sure I can say this… notice how I’m whispering into your microphone: it was nice to see them do it at last, a right fairytale.”
Ian Black – what a softie he is.