Interview: Hibs hero Ally MacLeod on the final that got away

I'm chatting to Ally MacLeod, the Hibernian cult hero, when who should happen by but his old Hearts foe '¨Jim Jefferies. They exchange warm greetings, check on the wellbeing of mutual friends and promise to try to win a few quid from each other in a game of golf before they get much older. Then the conversation drifts to today's big match.

Former Hibs player Ally MacLeod recalled his role in the three-match Scottish Cup final of 1979, which his side eventually lost to Rangers Picture: Ian Georgeson
Former Hibs player Ally MacLeod recalled his role in the three-match Scottish Cup final of 1979, which his side eventually lost to Rangers Picture: Ian Georgeson

“I’ve a wee feeling Hibs might do it,” says Jefferies. “I was talking to Sloop the other day and he thinks so, too, as does Billy.” The latter is Billy Brown, Jefferies’ No 2 in management for many years who was in the Hibs dugout when they lost the 2012 final. Sloop is John Blackley, one of the beaten Hibees in the final of 1972. MacLeod gives his vote for the men in green, too, which seems like a helluva lot of backing for a club with a gargantuan disinclination towards the world’s oldest national trophy and this may spook those fans of a nervous disposition, which basically means all of them. But Ally qualifies his approval of the current team.

“I’d like to see them with a dominant centre-half and a midfielder who can score a few goals,” he says. Jefferies ponders this then suggests: “George Stewart maybe?” MacLeod reports that his former captain has recently battled cancer and is soon to re-marry. “And as for goal-scoring midfielders,” adds Jefferies, putting an arm round the 99-strike man, “who was better than you, eh?”

Ninety-nine in seven-and-a-half seasons at Easter Road and, reflecting on that goal haul, the faithful know the exact moment they would have wanted him to make it 100. The time was fast approaching 10pm on 28 May, 1979, the date of the third attempt to settle the War and Peace of Scottish Cup finals between Eddie Turnbull’s Hibs and Rangers. MacLeod, cool as a cucumber – and there weren’t many of those around with summer being delayed by this great saga – had stroked home a 78th minute penalty to signal another bout of extra-time.

“I remember picking up the ball and going round Sandy Jardine and Colin Jackson,” he says, as if this was the easiest thing in the world, which, if you possessed MacLeod’s languorous talents, it probably was. “I hit my shot and thought it was in. Peter McCloy was beaten. But the ball struck a post and bounced away. The score was 2-2. A goal for us at that stage would probably have won it.” The Scotsman declared this “terrible luck” and then a Hibs man did strike but it was Arthur Duncan at the wrong end. The longest final there will ever be was over at last, but three days later came a sado-masochistic twist in the shape of a re-arranged league game.

“Christ, I’d forgotten about that!” groans MacLeod. “Wasn’t the crowd at Easter Road really small?” 3,242 – surely an all-time low for this often incendiary fixture. “I think our fans were sick of the sight of Rangers and we certainly were. I’ve always wondered: what if poor old Arthur hadn’t scored an og with that amazing diving header – would there have been a third replay? The final seemed like it was never going to end.

“The referee had to be changed because Brian McGinley was going his holidays! He did the first match and should have awarded us a penalty when McCloy clattered Colin Campbell. That was outrageous. I confronted McGinley but he just said: ‘Get on with it.’ I hope it was nice where McGinley was because it bucketed down for that third match. Ian Foote took over – he liked to referee from the halfway line. That game was so late it came after the Home Internationals had finished. Maybe some folk had got weary of the 1979 final but we hadn’t. We really wanted to win the cup. It just wasn’t to be.”

We meet in Edinburgh’s Marriott Hotel on the western outskirts, just across the road from the Maybury roundabout, where open-top buses have often been pre-booked in pencil for a Hibernian winners’ parade, only to have to be stood down. MacLeod is 65 and looks well on having sold off half his finance business, allowing more time for golf in the Algarve and trips to London with his wife Rona to catch up with their grand-daughters. He’s always had a good head for figures but one stat doesn’t add up: those 114 cup-less years for Hibs.

“You do need a bit of luck to win it,” he agrees. “We didn’t have much in 1979 and neither did Hibs last week against Falkirk [in the Premiership play-offs].” The most telling, if not damning, stat concerning the 2012 finalists from Leith, thumped 5-1 by Hearts, was that half the side were loanees; MacLeod couldn’t see how they were going to succeed with such a line-up. But, those earlier reservations apart, he likes this team and their manager, Alan Stubbs, and hopes he stays.

Maybe, apart from his goals from the middle, this lot could do with some of MacLeod’s fierce self-belief. It was a trait which was sometimes misinterpreted, such as when Jim McLean signed him for Dundee United at the start of what would be the Arabs’ greatest season. “He said to me: ‘Now listen, you can’t strut about up here. I don’t want any of your arrogance.’ I didn’t know what he meant.” Unfortunately an injury picked up on a coaching course was to prevent MacLeod playing any part in United’s 1982-83 Premier League triumph.

He makes for a fascinating subject. Dissenters thought he was lazy, that he couldn’t run, that he often looked disinterested – and they wondered why he never smiled. Well, he has a good old chuckle today at the number of times in my yellowing match-reports he’s described as “enigmatic”. MacLeod appealed to the aesthetes, men like my father. Dad led a thoroughly cultural life and football only rated a mention in his diary when his favourite footballer did something special. I used to sneak a peak hoping to see mentions of the “Ally Shuffle”.

The late, great Ian Wood, former sports editor of this paper, was another devotee, though he once remarked that MacLeod “gave the impression he’d as soon be at the pictures as hanging about a draughty football pitch”.

And fansites chime with their harsh praise: “Pudding face … tiny wee legs … couldnae run … watching him move was like the special-effects in Matrix films … but oh the vision!”

All of this prompts more laughter: “Listen, I had no idea what I looked like while I was playing. All I can say is that it was a privilege to be a footballer, there was nothing better. I thought I had a wee bit of skill – you’ve got to be confident in your own ability. Training I viewed as a necessary evil but respect to players now because they’re so fit. They wear these special vests which check how far they’ve ran and whether they had a pint the night before. Maybe that wouldn’t have suited me! I wasn’t trying to cultivate an image but so many folk have said I was lackadaisical that I suppose it must be true.”

MacLeod’s footballing life began in the playground of Ibrox Primary School, just across the road from the stadium. His father was a marine engineer, his mother, if she were still alive, would be insisting I address him as Alisdair, though his birth certificate actually reads Alexander Hector McMillan MacLeod. He supported Rangers in boyhood and, he says, “every other week I was told they were about to sign me”. For more than 40 years now, he’s called himself a Hibee.

He was brainy enough to go university and contemplated it before joining the Bank of Scotland. “My so-called glittering career,” he laughs. “By now I could be reviled!” A banker through the week, he turned into a Buddy at weekends, trying to keep first club St Mirren in the old First Division in 1970-71 and scoring both goals in a 2-2 draw with champions-elect Celtic at a sell-out Love Street, but it wasn’t enough.

Relegated, Saints decided to go full-time. “It was a back-to-front move, very enterprising of them.” The bank didn’t want to lose their young talent and general manager Bert Cromar called him into his office to emphasise steadiness over the spectacular, although, as an ex-Queen’s Park captain who’d once stunned Rangers, he had to acknowledge the excitement of short-termist fitba. Buddies boss Wilson Humphries went with youth himself – Gordon McQueen, Bobby McKean, Iain Munro and our man – and MacLeod was to stun Rangers, too. In August 1972 Saints thrashed Rangers 4-1 in the League Cup, Ally bagging all four. Surely the Gers, who’d snapped up Jim Baxter and Alex Ferguson shortly after being embarrassed by them, would come in for him? “I got told to report to Love Street; there had been a bid for me which had been accepted. From Southampton.”

England’s south coast is a long way from Paisley’s White Cart Water but MacLeod was ready for an adventure. “I went straight to Mauritius on a pre-season tour. No disrespect, but if I’d stayed at Saints I would probably have been heading to Rothsay.” Fellow Scots at the club included Jim Steel, Hugh Fisher and Gerry O’Brien. MacLeod was impressed by Mick Channon, rating Ol’ Windmill Arms and Hibs’ Pat Stanton the best he played alongside. “But Mick hardly ever trained – he was worse than me!”

Ally liked life at the Dell for as long as Ted Bates was in charge, which wasn’t long at all. “I didn’t get on with Lawrie McMenemy,” he admits. “I scored goals galore in a very competitive reserve league but he never gave me a chance. One day he said: ‘Do you still want to effing leave?’ – we never spoke civilly to each other. Hibs had made an inquiry. ‘They’re a smashing club,’ I said. ‘I thought you’d be interested, you b*****d,’ said Lawrie.”

This was 1974. “Eddie Turnbull told me to bring my boots and picked me up from Edinburgh Airport. He said: ‘We’ve got a great team but they’re not winning anything so I’m breaking it up.’ I didn’t know Alex Cropley had been sold that day – Eddie was fly and never told you anything. I was on the bench at Broomfield: three feet of mud and dead narrow. I got on for the last 20 minutes. Everyone in an Airdrie shirt tried to blooter me and I missed a sitter. An inauspicious start.”

Looking back over his managers, he rates Turnbull the best. “I learned about football from him, not the balloon down at Southampton. Training and tactics-wise, Eddie was streets ahead. When I went to Dundee United, Jim McLean wanted to know how he did things. Maybe I would have learned from Jim, too, although I never saw a manager turn into a maniac come match-day like he did.” There was a philosophical disagreement with Bertie Auld who let MacLeod leave Hibs: “He wanted the ball up in the air all the time. ‘That way no one can score against us,’ he’d say. It wasn’t my kind of football.”

MacLeod would fare better than most in replacing one of Turnbull’s Tornadoes – Joe Harper less so. “Maybe, like me at times, Joe didn’t help himself. He was genuinely two-footed with a great football brain but it was tough for him taking over from a legend like Tosh [Alan Gordon].” MacLeod raves some more about Stanton: “A fantastic player who, if he’d been at Celtic or Rangers his whole career, would have won a hundred caps for Scotland.” But Stanton would leave, too, the blow softened by Jackie McNamara’s arrival – “He was a rock for us.”

MacLeod’s first full season in green and white was the inaugural Premier League and, with the brio of Des Bremner and Tony Higgins added to the cunning of Alex Edwards and the dash of Arthur Duncan, he reckons they could have won it. I produce a match-report from that season, a 4-0 win over Dundee, which rhapsodizes about a MacLeod chest-trap and side-foot finish although puzzles over his celebration: “As the ball enters the net he stands stock-still, drooping slighting, with the air of a man who has just received terrible news.” MacLeod thinks modern celebrations are effusive and embarrassing. “Jackie always wondered why I didn’t make a fuss but I viewed scoring goals as simply me doing my job.”

As we know now, Hibs didn’t win the title that season, finishing third after two second places previously. Turnbull tried to convince his re-modelled team they were the equal of the Old Firm: “He always told us he wouldn’t swap one of them for one of us.” MacLeod developed the happy knack of scoring against Hearts, including an especially explosive derby when the same Jim Jefferies was one of two Jambos sent off. He netted in nine consecutive matches, an achievement which wouldn’t be beaten until Rangers’ Marco Negri came along. But, as we also know now, MacLeod’s Hibs didn’t win the Scottish Cup either, and, indeed, after coming so close in the 330-minute final, they were relegated.

Unlike so many who’re demoted now, he didn’t jump ship. “The attitude of that team was: ‘We took the club down, let’s get them back up.’” There’s a lot MacLeod doesn’t like about modern football, not least that so many players seem “ungrateful”. He repeats: he loved being a footballer, even if it never looked that way. “When I was forced to stop playing it took me five years to get over not being part of a dressing-room anymore.” And he’s happy to still be here to talk about the game.

Many who flit through our conversation aren’t: “Jim Blair, my big centre-forward at St Mirren, died in Belgium. Bobby McKean was found one morning in his car. At Hibs, Bobby Smith went tragically young and Erich Schaedler’s death is still a mystery. He was the fittest guy I played with. After training we’d all go to the pub; Shades hit the gym.” The bar was the Jinglin’ Geordie in Edinburgh’s Old Town, MacLeod making a return visit recently. “They’ve still got that photo of Bestie on the wall, a dozen empty pint glasses in front of him, but it was a complete set-up.”

This was the incomparable George Best, of course, although he couldn’t save Hibs from the drop either. “George wanted to do well for us but he just wasn’t fit enough. He’d fly up on the Friday, pop over a few corners and that would be his training. But he was the greatest player I saw with my own eyes and a smashing bloke. There was a story he and I didn’t like each other but it’s utter rubbish.”

Best, you think, would have appreciated what turned out to be MacLeod’s last but one goal for Hibs, with Dundee once again the victims, as he banged a free-kick into the left-hand corner of the net, only to be ordered to re-take it. Unflustered, deadpan but definitely not grumpy, he simply popped the ball into the other side.

So come on then, Ally, imagine yourself scoring the winner today, the one that ends the interminable wait – would you celebrate? “Well,” he smiles, “maybe one arm would go up. But only ever so slightly.”