Interview: Hibs great John Blackley on League Cup jousts

Hibs' stylish sweeper John Blackley, left, in action against Celtic's Bobby Lennox in the 1973 Drybrough Cup final at Hampden. Picture: SNS Group
Hibs' stylish sweeper John Blackley, left, in action against Celtic's Bobby Lennox in the 1973 Drybrough Cup final at Hampden. Picture: SNS Group
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I’ve just made a Tornado weep. If you know me you’ll be aware this is the last thing I’d have wanted to do, but John Blackley is talking about his father, Grangemouth docker Sam, and how he never saw his son play in the second-best Hibernian team of all time.

The side containing the Famous Five were the most flair-filled but Turnbull’s Tornadoes were well-loved and maybe more quintessentially Hibs – burn bright, tantalise with the promise of a new world in the morning, fizzle and fade – and Blackley was their cool and classy sweeper.

“Dad just got too nervous,” explains John B., nicknamed Sloop after the Beach Boys song. “He came to some early games but never saw me when that team came good. He got too agitated and another problem was overhearing any criticism of me. If a guy in the crowd was shouting about something I’d done wrong, he hated it.”

What fool ever slagged off Blackley? He was one of Eddie Turnbull’s key men, and also starred for Scotland in a famous victory over England and in the 1974 World Cup. No Hibee has a greater association with the Scottish League Cup, having played in three finals and managed the club to a fourth. Those in green and white trying to lift the 
trophy tomorrow might read his tale and be inspired.

I’ve caught the train to Polmont to hear it. On the short car ride to his home in the village of Reddingmuirhead, he points out Westquarter, where he was born, and Redding, where he grew up. Each village is on a higher elevation than the last, in an area known as the Braes, and having reached this modest summit, he’s never wanted to live anywhere else. “When I leave it’ll be in a wooden suit,” he says. So what’s Reddingmuirhead got going for it? “There’s a community hall, a nice pub, a fish shop – and I don’t mean a takeaway.”

When Blackley, 67, moved to Newcastle United he kept on the house, knowing he and his wife Margaret would return. Two brothers and a sister have never left the Braes and only one of his two sons has ventured to the Big Smoke – that’s Falkirk, by the way. Nearby there’s a street named after Blackley. “I was very flattered but I don’t know why they did that,” he says. Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it?

He was 17 when he joined Hibs, then managed by Bob Shankly. “Just a boy, but with a man’s face! I was very nervous, turning up at Easter Road for the first time and chapping on the door. Eric Stevenson answered and took me under his wing. I was always grateful to him for that. He’s going through a hard time right now and needs a tumour taken out of his stomach. I’ll be seeing him soon.” He was farmed out to Bo’ness United. “I’ll put on record that I was one of the worst juniors ever.” He was played at right-back, didn’t like the position, wanted to be central defence. Later in the Hibs reserve side he thought his career was stalling. “Then the wee team played Morton at Cappielow, except they were full of guys from the big team. I did okay and remember afterwards being quite happy with my wee self.”

Still living at home, he travelled on something of a football express. “There would be Joe Davis and Pat Quinn and from Hearts Jim Cruickshank, Arthur Thomson and Ian Sneddon. They all played cards but I’d just watch as I didn’t have any money.” His first-team debut was in March, 1968, up against George McLean, the butt of comedian namesake Lex’s jokes while at Rangers, and by then banished to Dundee. Next it was the Gers and Orjan Persson. “Shankly said: ‘Try and give him a dunt early.’ It took me until 15 minutes into the second half and, right enough, he disappeared after that.” Up front for Hibs were Colin Stein and the Peters, Cormack and Marinello, who’d all quickly leave Leith for big money.

Blackley was still right-back, not feeling like he could complain. “I was intimidated by the manager who didn’t get any trouble from me.” But he was soon moved into his favourite position, mopping up behind Danish centre-half John Madsen – “A lovely fellow who could head the ball further than I could kick it” – and the following spring played in his first League Cup final. “That was a marvellous experience although obviously I didn’t like the result, 6-2 to Celtic and a hat-trick for Bobby Lennox. They were brilliant. At the end Billy McNeill said to me: ‘Don’t worry, son, you’ll be back.’”

Dunting wasn’t really Sloop’s thing. Franz Beckenbauer had invented the role of sweeper – the libero – and here the likes of Blackley and Celtic’s George Connelly promoted cultured defending, proving you didn’t have to boot the centre-forward over the terrace wall. Suddenly in Scottish playgrounds and parks, the position was viewed as sexy, with Blackley’s long hair and shirt worn outside the shorts adding to the grooviness.

Margaret and his mother Isa led his fan club. “They came to every game, which was great, because Dad, try as he might, couldn’t. I wasn’t hurt by that. Yes, I’d have loved him to see me play but I knew he was proud of me. If I was in any doubt I only have to think of the last thing he said to me. He was in a nursing home and it was his dying breath. He grabbed my arm with all the strength he had left and said: ‘John, you’ve made this family’s name.’”

Although he favoured the scalpel over the sledgehammer in his tackling, Blackley still got into bother with referees. According to Easter Road records, he was sent off three times but he says: “Over the whole career I think it was nine. Once at Ibrox, Tommy McLean was miles offside when he scored. Pat Stanton asked the linesman: ‘Which lodge are you in?’ and I took it from there with nonstop swearing – I went absolutely mental. Bob Valentine sent me off and the SFA produced this charge-sheet listing every f-word and b-word. I was too embarrassed to show it to my mum.

“Another time at Dundee I exploded at Brian McGinlay because we didn’t get a corner. I also got sent off at Pittodrie when I was assistant manager to Pat after Alan Rough was clattered enabling them to score. I forget the ref but his day-job was women’s lingerie. I didn’t mention that in my rant which I thought showed great restraint.”

So he was only ever red-carded for lip? “Well, I do remember a bad-tempered game against Falkirk. They had a boy from round here who’d been at Rangers, Dennis Setterington – nice lad but a bit of a poser. I was knackered after a European trip, he was buzzing about annoying me so I clocked him.”

Games with the Bairns were often tousy, and Alex Ferguson was a provocative presence. “Before a match at Brockville he asked me to get a Hibs photo signed by all the guys. During it he elbowed me. ‘But I got all your autographs,’ I said. He said, and the incident is in one of his books: ‘There’s nae friends in football, John’!”

At least, thanks to young John Brownlie, Blackley wasn’t having to play right-back anymore. “Onion’s debut up at Muirton was sensational – the best I ever saw.” Brownlie lives nearby and the pair are great friends. Blackley also remembers Alex Cropley’s debut: “The first thing this skinny wee kid did was clatter into the 
St Mirren right-back Bobby Duffy. Hugely skilful – but incredibly brave, too.” Manager Willie MacFarlane made some important acquisitions, including Arthur Duncan, Erich Schaedler and Jim Black: “Cilla was our centre-half and thank goodness. Pat and I were sometimes paired together at the back but that never worked as we both wanted to step off and read the play. Nobody would attack the ball but Cilla did.” Then, after Dave Ewing’s stint in charge, Turnbull arrived and, according to the player he called “Red” because of the colour of his hair, “enlightened everyone”.

The new boss bought shrewdly. Jim Herriot, Alan Gordon and Alex Edwards had all been treading water. “In the case of Mickey [Edwards], Ned [Turnbull] looked at the Dunfermline balance-sheet, saw they were struggling, worked out £13,000 was what they needed and we ended up with this classic Scottish footballer: a rascal and a dream passer of a ball.” The jigsaw was complete, the Tornadoes began to blow up a storm and Billy McNeill was right: Sloop & Co would get to another League Cup final, this time overcoming Celtic to lift the trophy.

“We’d reached the semi-finals and final of the Scottish Cup. An old pal of mine, Jimmy Colvin, a massive Hibby, used to say: ‘You take us to the edge of the cliff, Sloop, then – aagh! – you push us right off.’ We were determined that in ’72 we weren’t going to lose again and I thought we were terrific that day. Pat was sensational – it was a privilege to play with the man. Afterwards the pair of us were interviewed by Archie Macpherson. Pat was fluent at doing telly; it was my first time. Later we were in the NB [Edinburgh’s North British Hotel] enjoying the celebratory dinner when someone said: ‘The highlights are on!’ Now, Jimmy O’Rourke always called me a yokel for coming from this wee village, but that day he was right. I looked startled, like I didn’t know what TV was. The daft voice topped it off.”

The following year Willie Ormond handed Blackley his Scotland debut. “That was something I always dreamed about but never thought would happen.” The dream got better in ’74 when on the morning of the England clash in the Home Internationals Ormond told him: “Get the right heid on – you’re playing.” Margaret and Isa rushed over to Hampden to witness a famous victory – “and Dad watched it in his local.”

That game, of course, came just four days after Jimmy Johnstone’s attempt to emulate Thor Heyerdahl in a Largs rowing-boat. “That was a great squad who socialised well – maybe a bit too well. We were enjoying a few drinks after the Wales match and it might have been 2am when Erich shouted: ‘Jinky’s in the middle of the water!’ The wee man was frozen when we got him out and gave him our jackets. Back at the Queen’s Hotel, chittering in the hallway, he was met by the proprietor. ‘Jimmy Johnstone,’ she said, ‘what disgrace you’ve brought to your country and this place.’ Jinky popped his head out from under the coats and sighed: ‘Mrs Ganley, please f*** off.’

Johnstone didn’t play at the World Cup in what was then West Germany but Blackley lined up for our first group match against Zaire, who’d been promised yachts and villas for qualifying by their despot president only for that to turn into dire threats on their return home. “Maybe that was why one of their guys headbutted me.”

He made way for Martin Buchan against Brazil, a shattering blow for the player. “That was the only time in football that I cried. They were the world champs and I’d have loved to have taken them on. I phoned Margaret and told her I was coming home, which would have been stupid, and thankfully she talked me out of it. I was devastated but in the end pleased that I played for my country seven times. Martin was quicker than me and I suppose there’s the consolation of that being the worst Brazil team ever to play in the World Cup.”

While Scotland were hammering the Brazilians 0-0, Yugoslavia banged nine past Zaire. Blackley subscribes to the conspiracy theory that the hapless Africans’ coach wouldn’t have been too devastated, being Yugoslav himself. After the draw with Yugoslavia which ended our tournament, unused sub Sloop swapped shirts with Drazen Muzinic. “It was only afterwards that I realised he was the guy who’d molested and abused Mickey Edwards – kicked him up and down the park – when Hibs played Hajduk Split the year before.”

Turnbull took that Cup-Winners’ Cup quarter-final defeat badly and immediately began dismantling the Tornadoes. “It’s hard to believe we were only together for about 18 months and I think he broke us up too quickly.” Joe Harper was to be the key to the rebuild as later in ’74 Hibs lined up against Celtic in the third all-green League Cup final in five years.

Blackley adds: “We’d been pushing the Old Firm hard and had had more success against Rangers. I remember beating them in a Scottish Cup semi [’72], Willie Waddell congratulating us and after he’d gone Ned saying: ‘You should have thrashed them. Only scoring two has kept that man in a job.’ But Celtic, even though Jock Stein was changing them, were always harder to beat and I’d have to admit that in my jousts with Dixie Deans – a hardy character, a pest – he came out on top.” Deans bagged a hat-trick that day, not for the first time against the Hibees. So did Harper but Celtic prevailed 6-3. “Joe changed the dynamic in the dressing room. We’d be sat upright waiting on the manager, afraid of him, and he’d be lying on the benches. He had a tough job replacing fans’ favourites in Jimmy [O’Rourke] and Alan [Gordon] but he’d arrived carrying a bit of extra weight and didn’t seem to push himself too hard to shed it. A great goalscorer, though, as he proved back at Aberdeen when he did me for another hat-trick.”

Despite being a homebird, the boy from Reddingmuirhead always fancied trying England and eventually got his chance, turning in some stylish performances during a generally gloomy period for Newcastle. In management, Blackley preferred the 
No 2 role, and had a long partnership with Paul Sturrock, yielding promotions for Plymouth Argyle, Sheffield Wednesday and Swindon Town, but before that there was the 1985 League Cup final, Hibs against Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen. “I had a young team, the likes of John Collins, Gordon Durie and Paul Kane, and unfortunately we didn’t really take part. But that bugger Fergie still didn’t thank me for those autographs!”

This Hibs great would love to see the current team emulate his achievement, and go one better and win the Scottish Cup as well. On the drive back to the station, he apologises for getting upset. No need, I say. He knows his dear old dad missing all those games was his greatest regret. Then he says: “But I’ve just remembered: he did come to one of our finals. It was the last before we finally managed to beat Celtic. I was so upset I threw my loser’s medal across the Hampden car park. Dad ran to fetch it, which made me forget my disappointment. That was our football moment.”