Interview: Ralph Callachan - a Hibee at heart

Ralph Callachan. Picture: Neil Hanna
Ralph Callachan. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The hotel staff all seem to know Ralph Callachan when he strides into the carvery, still cutting an elegant dash, but he’s uneasy. “Bad memories,” he says. “I haven’t been here since that Saturday in May and yet I only live round the corner.

Me and George Stewart sat over there with his twin sons for a big fry-up. Then we piled onto Paul Kane’s bus and got through to Glasgow in time for a few pints before the game ... ” And his words trail off like they do for all Hibs fans, 
be they famous or foot-of-the-Walk. 
Regarding that Saturday in May – the 19th, the Scottish Cup final – nothing more needs said.

Callachan during his time at Newcastle United in 1977

Callachan during his time at Newcastle United in 1977

Callachan has lived in the same house in Edinburgh’s Corstorphine for 34 years and even George Best has had his tea there. “We were going on to Stewart’s-Melville College to speak to the pupils as a favour for a friend of mine. George was asked for his career highlight and I was thinking to myself: ‘Please don’t say Miss World on that hotel bed – these boys are too intelligent to end up as footballers but you don’t want to sway them.’ Thankfully he told them all about 
winning the European Cup. Then it came to me. Highlights? I couldn’t think of any. So I said: ‘All my teams end up being 

Hibs went down in 1980 and before that so did Newcastle United but Callachan’s short spell there was so unhappy and he was picked so infrequently that he couldn’t be considered culpable. Then there was that other mob: Hearts. Of all his relegations this was the, er, jewel in the crown. The Jam Tarts had never been out of the top-flight in their history, but in 1977 it happened, although Callachan wasn’t there right at the death, having moved to St James’ Park three months previously.

As a cultured midfielder for both Hibs and Hearts, he’s a member of an exclusive club. Add his stint at the capital’s other team, Meadowbank Thistle, and he qualifies for gold card membership. There are enough with dual Hibee and Jambo nationality to form a complete XI, with Gordon Marshall in goal, Roy Barry and Jim Brown the basis of the defence, and so on. But you might have to look to Michael Stewart for a lot of the tackling. Gordon Smith, Alan Gordon and Ralphie didn’t do heavy-lifting – and with their lyrical gifts, why would they?

Now 57, Callachan still looks as slim as he was, crafting away on the right flank at Tynecastle and Easter Road. At Hibs, Eddie Turnbull tried to feed him up but that strategy must have failed. I want to treat him to the carvery’s big breakfast deal, then remember that my expenses won’t stretch that far. Played for both, but Callachan’s heart lies with Hibs. And until recently you’d always see him at 
Hibees games, home and away, and 
always in the company of his great friend, Jackie McNamara.

Callachan in action for Hearts against Arsenal in 1975

Callachan in action for Hearts against Arsenal in 1975

But he hasn’t been back to Easter Road since that 5-1 cup final thrashing – which he interrupted a holiday in Cyprus with his wife Anne to witness – and he won’t be there tomorrow for a fourth-round tie that, some always knew, perverse fate would throw up. “What 
happened in May was absolutely gutting for every Hibs fan, although I think we travelled to Hampden only in hope. 
The team had had a rotten season, being outplayed by the likes of St Mirren, which just shouldn’t happen.

“Filling the side with seven or eight loan players was never going to work. You wouldn’t want to say these guys went back to their parent clubs not bothered by the result, but the way we played that day made you wonder. I also criticise the manager for his tactics. He must have known Ian Black could run the show if given the chance. And the goals we lost were suicidal.

“Jackie and I went everywhere with Hibs. In the Scottish Cup we went all the way up to Ross County, had a lovely game of golf in the morning and, well, you 
remember how that one turned out [2-1 to County]. The last couple of seasons, fighting relegation, just weren’t enjoyable. Jackie’s now got the excuse of watching Partick Thistle who’re doing well under his son’s [Jackie Jr] management. I know Hibs are playing better this season but I’m not convinced yet.

“Some of the other ex-players we’d see at games like Kano and Kenny Davidson have been on at me to come back. Maybe I’d do that if the club showed a bit of ambition and signed Leigh Griffiths. I’ve heard that £150,000 is all it would take. If they can’t afford that then we’ve got serious problems. I don’t think they can keep asking fans to turn out in greater numbers without making that kind of statement of intent. The fans have given so much already, and been let down so many times. It’s time the club gave them something.”

Back in 1977 you wonder if Hearts supporters were asking the ambition question of their club’s board when Callachan, very much the Gorgie pin-up boy, suddenly disappeared down the A1 to Tyneside. “I wasn’t looking for a transfer,” he recalls, “and the manager John Hagart who’d given me my chance didn’t want to see me go. But he was over-ruled and I suppose for Hearts at that time £80,000 was a lot of money to turn down.”

Callachan greatly enjoyed his three years in maroon – despite coming off second best in the Edinburgh derby and despite growing up a Hibee. “My dad was a big Hibs fan. Maybe my first time at Easter Road was a Scottish Cup tie against Rangers. Hibs won, but I was more fascinated by all the snow piled up round the pitch. I didn’t see them all that often because I always wanted to be playing, for the school and boys’ clubs.” One of Callachan’s junior outfits was a team for “lost” Brunstane Primary lads – former pupils who’d moved up to Portobello High and were alarmed to discover the secondary was rugby-only.

“I loved playing in the derby for both teams, even though my record overall was quite poor. I never won one with Hearts although there was a notorious game when I scored a 25-yarder which I must have thought was pretty good because I’ve seen old footage and I go off my rocker. My dad ticked me off about the celebration. It looked like that would be enough but Pat Stanton equalised right at the death. Not only was Pat miles offside, his header came so late the pubs had already been serving for 15 minutes!” (There was no all-day drinking in 1975, 5pm being the re-opening time).

Jim Brown and Dave Clunie were the Hearts players who mentored the young Callachan, although he quickly befriended Bobby Smith and Willie Murray from the rivals in green. “Myself, Jimmy Cant and George Donaldson would meet up with them in good pubs like the Bailie or the Laughing Duck before hitting Flannigan’s discotheque. Bobby, God rest his soul, and Willie were a right couple of posers in the latest gear but great guys.”

The Newcastle interlude lasted 18 months during which Callachan played a mere nine games. “I was naive, allowing myself to be signed by a chairman rather than a manager. Newcastle had an ex-schoolmaster, Richard Dinnis, in temporary charge and he let it be known that he thought I was no better than what the club already had. There was a lot of in-fighting between the board and the players. Then Bill McGarry became the manager but he didn’t fancy me either.”

Callachan’s first reaction to learning of Hibs’ interest in bringing him back up the road was that of any footballer not getting a game: “I just want to play.” His second was: “Dad’ll be pleased.” The third came after phonecalls from agitated Hearts fans of his acquaintance and he admits: “I was probably naive about that transfer, too. One pal from Musselburgh, James Gordon, got very het up about it. ‘But Ralph,’ he said, ‘I went and named my laddie after you!’ I was worried for the boy’s sake that he might change it but I don’t think he ever did.”

His second game for Hibs in 1978 was the derby at Tynecastle where the Gorgie Road End had re-written chants of adulation for their former hero using much less flattering terms. He laughs: “I remember being over in the far corner when Eamonn Bannon nutmegged me. You should have heard the Jambos – they loved it.” Maybe Callachan on that occasion was being “languid” – when you scan his old match reports this is the description which crops up most.

He’s still chuckling because he is 
recalling how Eddie Turnbull, in addition to trying to beef him up along with the other Easter Road skinnymalinks Willie Murray and Ally Brazil, kept our man back for sessions aimed at modifying his running style (desired aim: so he’d get a bend on).

“Eddie brought in Wilson Young who’d been a professional sprinter to attempt to get me to shorten my stride so I’d be faster over five to ten yards.” Did it work? “Not really, but I always reckoned that if I couldn’t get away from an opposing player then dropping the shoulder would do the trick.” The stats don’t show exactly how many times, in 1979, that Callachan beat and re-beat the Dundee defence, rounding off his delirious dribble with a spanking shot, but that goal in a 5-2 win at Easter Road is fondly remembered as his greatest. “I can still hear Ally MacLeod. He was screaming: ‘Pass it ... pass it ... pass it ya greedy b*****d ... great goal!’”

Callachan’s Edinburgh derby record finished up like this: played 18, won two, drew nine, lost seven. He scored twice for Hibs in the fixture, one of the goals being a billowing cross in a 2-1 victory at Tynecastle which he still maintains was a cunning shot. But he got out of the fixture just as Hearts were beginning to exercise a stranglehold. Not that naive, then.

In the autumn of his career he clinched a promotion with Meadowbank on the day his buddy McNamara did the same with Morton, prompting a night of celebration in the pub they used to run in Musselburgh, and these days Callachan works for an airport taxi firm. The pair, along with MacLeod, were key components in Hibs’ rebuilding after Turnbull’s Tornadoes and the later team came closest to getting its hands on the holy pail, the Scottish Cup, only to lose the 1979 final to Rangers after two replays.

Rangers were also the victors in Callachan’s other final, in ’76 with Hearts, which enjoys the quirky quiz-night cache of featuring a goal scored before three o’clock (the ref started it too early). Not a happy competition for the languid one, then, but Ralphie, who always took his own sweet time, is quick off the mark with this prediction: “Hibs will win the Scottish Cup one day.” Post-19 May, he’s the first I’ve heard make such a 
bold claim. Let’s hope he’s not being naive, and let’s hope he’s back in the 
fold to see it happen.