Interview: Jim McArthur on Hibs' week of pain and his love of rugby

Tomorrow lunchtime Hibernian begin a breathless sequence of games which will tell them exactly where they are and how far they've got to go. But to those who're calling the fixtures season-defining, older fans who've gone as grey as Jim McArthur will offer groans and shudders which freely translate as: 'You should have been around in 1974.'

Youth striker turned Hibs goalkeeper and pioneering football agent Jim McArthur. Picture: Greg Macvean

Back then Hibs were very much the coming team of Scottish football and three games in eight days were billed as their succession to the throne. But in what’s gone down in history as “that bad week in October” they would lose them all, with McArthur required to pick the ball out of the net no fewer than 15 times.

The current Hibees play Celtic, then Rangers on Wednesday followed by Aberdeen next Saturday – the trio of sides above them in the Premiership. Forty-three years ago, though, the stakes were a good bit bit higher with Eddie Turnbull’s team having the chance to demonstrate serious title credentials, hoist the League Cup and add the name of Juventus to their impressive collection of European scalps.

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We’ll come to that horrible hat-trick of losses shortly but first let Bimbo – his nickname at Easter Road – describe how he came to be between the posts in the first place. Though he’d eventually notch up four short of 300 appearances for the club, this is not the tale of a born custodian or even a born footballer. Given the choice, and especially in his youth when he got dumped in goals against his will, he preferred rugby.

“Football was banned at my school, Dunfermline High, so I played rugby,” he says. “I really enjoyed it. Wing-forward was great for being right in the middle of the pile and I was being watched for the Scottish Schools XV. I got my football fix on Saturday afternoons with Halbeath Boys’ Club and, with eleven lads from the village, we won a new national cup for under-15s. The final was at East End Park which was fantastic because, although I love Hibs for having played for them for eleven years, Dunfermline Athletic were my team.

“But one day the Halbeath keeper didn’t turn up and I was nominated to play in goals. I protested. ‘But I’m a striker,’ I said. We won that game 4-0 and after the next match this man introduced himself as the Cowdenbeath scout and said: ‘I want you to come to Central Park.’ ‘What for?’ I said. ‘You’ll see.’

“I met the Cowdenbeath manager, Archie Robertson, who took me on to the pitch. It was dark and the lights were really poor. He fired three balls at me and I saved one. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘I want you to sign for us.’ As what? Maybe I was still hoping it would be striker but then he said: ‘We’ll farm you out to a local team and you’ll be in goals for them on Saturday.’

“So that was how the cookie crumbled for me. Nowadays a kid could have a chance of making a career out of rugby and it would have been interesting to have had the choice. Listen, I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming into goals at football and I soon came to like the responsibility of the position.

“But I continued to play rugby, even in the early days at Hibs, and would sneak in a game for the college when I was doing my teacher-training. I don’t suppose Eddie would have approved but he never knew! And then afterwards when I got fed up with football and stopped I enjoyed thirteen years at the rugby with Kirkcaldy.

“Rugby helped my football, definitely. I was used to handling the ball, foraging for it, breaking the odd finger. I broke one at training before Hibs played Leeds [1973-74, Uefa Cup] – Eddie often worked us on the day of games – but it was strapped up and I played. My dad had been a goalie for amateur teams, although I only found that out later. He was a miner all over Fife and died when he was 50, the muck having got into his lungs, so that was never going to be a career for me.”

McArthur is an elusive fellow. An international man of mystery (Halbeath branch). We cannot travel too far down the personal road today but what is known is that he’s been a football agent for 28 years. Agents of course lurk in the shadows of the game, or they used to, being more accepted now and less demonised than in the past. “I didn’t want to be an agent either and had hoped to get into coaching,” he says, almost apologetically. When he started representing players it was the Wild West with few rules and no sheriffs and it was easy to portray agents as the bad guys. “At first it was a tough gig, though maybe I got given a little bit more respect than Bill [McMurdo] because I’d played the game.” The lines of communication with managers have improved. “They’ll ask us to find them players and of course they’re now represented by agents themselves. But even in the old days a manager who shall remain nameless, and who always claimed he never talked to agents, would have me in for wee chats. ‘Make sure you come in the back door - I don’t want you spotted,’ he’d say.” Fans still grumble that it’s in agents’ interests to have players moving clubs so they can collect their fees. “We still get fees if players stay put and I’ve never moved anyone who was happy and settled,” says McArthur. “But it’s very difficult to tell a boy not to be interested in five times his current salary. Football’s a short career.”

McArthur’s first-team debut for Cowdenbeath came at just 15. “We lost 4-1 away to Queen’s Park and Malky Mackay’s dad scored a hat-trick but that was a good Cowden team with guys like Andy Kinnell, Davy Ross and Billy Bostock and we got promoted to the First Division.” In the summer months he was among the young pros who acted as “guinea pigs” for Largs coaching sessions where Turnbull held court. “Eddie was the top man and Alex Ferguson and Jim McLean just listened.” The young goalie caught the eye of the Hibs boss and after Jock Stein’s £1,000 bid for him was rejected – Cowdenbeath could do that to Celtic back then – McArthur and his distinctively droopy moustache turned up at Easter Road in November 1972, just in time to witness an apotheosis.

Going into December, Hibs had scored four goals or more on ten occasions. Five had flown past Celtic’s Evan Williams and Sporting Lisbon had been hit for six. Then a first-ever League Cup triumph was celebrated with an 8-1 thrashing of Ayr United and if you’d missed the Famous Five and didn’t know how 21 May, 2016 was going to pan out, there were three-and-a-half weeks, rounded off with the 7-0 vanquishing of Hearts, which would represent peak Hibee as the Turnbull’s Tornadoes team soared to the top of the old First Division. How in the name of the wee man – and at 5ft 10ins he was at the shorter end of the spectrum – was McArthur going to get a game?

Over a pot of tea at the top of Leith Walk, Bimbo goes into quiet raptures about Onion, Sloop, Cilla, Sodjer, Nijinsky and the rest. “John Brownlie was the best right-back in Britain and there was no one harder than Erich Schaedler. Pat Stanton led by example, Jim Black was no-nonsense and John Blackley was class next to him. That defence all wanted the ball rolled to them. I went three games in a row where I never once booted it up the park. When Barcelona play like that now everyone raves.

“Jimmy O’Rourke was a great goal-scorer and a great competitor, always battering the rest of us at training. Alan Gordon’s timing was immaculate – the ball would spring off his head. After training was finished Alex Cropley would fire free-kicks at me – what a shot that slip of a boy had. The pre-match meal was fillet steaks all-round apart from Arthur Duncan who went with Corn Flakes and fruit – that must have been why he was so fast. And for me to find myself in the same team as Alex Edwards who I’d watched win the Scottish Cup with Dunfermline was just fantastic. From our half he used to hit a cross-field pass right into Arthur’s stride. He never looked up so the opposition didn’t know it was coming. We scored so many goals from that.”

Behind the Tornadoes was Jim Herriot, another ex-Pars man, but McArthur deposed him after a miserable night in old Yugoslavia when Hibs were dumped out of the European Cup Winners’ Cup. “That was hard on Jim, a fine keeper who’d represented his country. He wished me good luck and probably hoped I’d throw one into the net in the next game and I’d have been the same. Goalies stick together. We know how mentally tough you have to be to play the position. That, or mad. And when folk remind me that I played in the great Hibs team of the 1970s I tell them that Jim was there first and he’s the Tornado.”

The next game was Rangers away. “Colin Stein was a big annoying bugger for a keeper when we never got any protection from referees. The first time I got barged into the net and a goal was given was for Cowdenbeath at Stirling Albion. I’d been playing well, getting lots of praise off the defence, until a corner in the last minute when Joe Hughes shoved me over the line. My team-mates shouted: ‘You’ve got to get stronger.’ But every side had a muckle brute like that. Dixie Ingram at Ayr United was another although the worst was Drew Busby.”

Managers would be sympathetic but only up to a point. McArthur says Turnbull allowed his goalies to be “autonomous” but hell mend them if they dropped a clanger and the ball. “Eddie was a hard, hard man. A brilliant coach but man-management wasn’t something that he obsessed about. He dropped me down to the reserves a few times and I even remember having to turn out for the third team against Gala Fairydean at City Park in front of the proverbial two men and a dug while Hugh Whyte, another Fifer, took my place for a Scottish Cup tie against Celtic.” If McArthur had hoped Whyte would chuck one into the net that’s more or less what happened.

“The worst goal I conceded was at Montrose [League Cup, ’75-’76]. I’d got a kick on the head and was pretty groggy. Maybe I turned round to say something to [trainer] Tom McNiven who’d been behind the net telling me I was okay because the next thing the ball came flying through the air. I didn’t know how far it had travelled, which was going to affect the bounce. It went right over my head and I’m sure I was straight back to the reserves after that.” Was it during these moments when McArthur most hankered for a game of rugby? “Well, I remember being on the bench for the second team back up the road at Arbroath – I was coming back from an injury – and when one of the outfield players got hurt, volunteering to take his place. It didn’t happen, sadly.”

Hibs generally had the measure of Rangers and Colin Stein at that time but Celtic and Dixie Deans were a different proposition. “We could beat Celtic to win the League Cup and Drybrough Cup. Eddie was desperate for us to win the title, though, and he changed the team some more.” Third in McArthur’s breakthrough season, the Hibees improved on that in ’73-’74 with big signing Joe Harper arriving in time to nab a few goals to help them to runners-up. Could they go one better again?

The week before the bad week in October went well, Hibs thumping Motherwell 6-2. Then came Jock Stein’s champions at Parkhead. “Celtic were unbelievable that day. Alex Edwards and I had a drink with some of their boys afterwards and we told them so. Jimmy Johnstone was unplayable and Dixie Deans – our Nemesis – scored a hat-trick.” So what was Turnbull’s verdict on the 5-0 rout? “Oh, he went nuts.” Four days later Juventus came to Easter Road in the Uefa Cup. “We were disappointed to lose to Celtic but there was another big game right away, which was how it was for Hibs at that time. We lost the first goal, recovered and went ahead. But then we got carried away. Eddie was urging us to finish them off at home. We left holes at the back and [Jose] Altafini and [Pietro] Anastasi – two of the best strikers in the world, by the way – punished us.” At 4-2 the tie looked finished and it very soon would be.

Three days later it was Celtic again, in Glasgow again, this time the League Cup final at Hampden. And it would be Dixie again with another hat-trick. Steve Murray also got on the scoresheet as the Hoops won 6-3. “I remember John Blackley when that one went in. ‘You’re allowed to save them, Bimbo,’ he said.”

In The Scotsman the doyen of football scribes John Rafferty, who reported on all three defeats, had begun by criticising the team for having “cavorted as winners before a match was won” but concluded: “There must be no scoffing and sniggering over the sore blows which pained Hibs last week. Those who feel tempted should remember that what they tried to do was reach for the top and with the entertaining style of attacking football which the public want.”

The goalie agrees. “There was no shame in losing to a terrific Celtic team, or to Juventus with their smashing players. But we could just as easily have won those glamour games as lost them and I think that’s the situation Hibs find themselves going into next week.”

Back in ’74 McArthur followed up losing 15 goals with a quiet afternoon as Hibs beat Morton 5-0 and went on to finish runners-up once again.

“Nearly but not quite,” he says of that campaign.

“But what a pain in the neck that Dixie was. I spotted him in a pub a few years ago. He was playing darts but when he saw me he marched straight over. ‘Dinnae you mind me touching you,’ he said. ‘It’s bound to bring 
me luck!’”