Profile: Erich Schaedler, Hibernian hero

EVERY year between Christmas and Hogmanay, John Schaedler and his wife head up to the woods near Cardrona in search of a clearing known only to them.

• Hard but fair: Erich Schaedler prospered at Easter Road in the 1970s, and won an international call-up. Photograph: Stan Warburton

Schaedler's Hill, they call it, for it was here that John and his brother, Erich, played when they were growing up. And it was here, 25 years ago, that John scattered Erich's ashes, shocked, grief-stricken and as confused then as he remains to this day.

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Erich Schaedler, brought up in the Borders, drove into these same woods on Christmas Eve, 1985 and took his life. The news of his death numbed not only his family, but Scottish football, and more particularly Hibernian. In two successful spells at Easter Road, he was a cult hero, a ferocious, uncompromising left-back whose whole-hearted approach to the game only made his untimely departure all the more tragic. He was 36 when he died. He was still playing.

No wonder they raise a glass to Schaedler at this time of year. He was a fans' man, the kind of player they identified with. If he didn't have the natural gifts of those around him, he made up for it with a combination of brute strength, fitness and a willingness to sweat blood for the cause. A mainstay of (Eddie] Turnbull's Tornadoes in the early 1970s, he twice finished second in the old First Division, and reached both the Scottish and League Cup finals. In a four-year spell with Dundee that split his two spells at Easter Road, he won the (new) First Division and appeared in the 1980 League Cup final.

He also played for Scotland. The son of a German prisoner of war, he made his one and only appearance in 1974. His opponents that night were none other than West Germany, who already had inquired about his eligibility. Having chosen the country of his birth, the 2-1 defeat in Frankfurt was an emotional occasion. His father travelled over from Scotland to see it. Although no cap was issued, John accepted a retrospective one on his behalf four years ago.

John was proud of Erich that day, and he wasn't the first. "Wait till you see this full-back I'm bringing," said Willie MacFarlane when he signed him from Stirling Albion in 1971. The Hibs manager described him as a cross between Giacinto Facchetti, the Internazionale defender, and Celtic's Tommy Gemmell. Pat Stanton, Schaedler's captain at Easter Road, admits that he was a bit raw in the early days, a bit error-prone, but before long he would get the best out of himself, and the fans loved him for it. "He turned out to be a right good player for the Hibs. It says a lot for him that it was a great team he was playing in, with some top players, but he was still really popular with the fans."

Intimidating though he could be on the pitch, he had a warm relationship with fans, chatting and signing autographs outside the ground, helping young players and raising money for St Columba's Hospice through his two pubs - Shades on Easter Road and The Victoria Bar on Leith Walk. "He would run through a brick wall for you," says Jim McArthur, the Hibs goalkeeper who played alongside him. "Nobody had a bad word to say about him. So affable, so friendly."

And a character too. Stanton likes to recall the days when Schaedler would give him a lift into training from Bonnyrigg. However cold and blustery the weather, Erich would have the roof down, the radio up and his sunglasses on. "This is cool," he would say to Stanton. "Cool?" came the reply. "I'm absolutely freezing."

He loved cars. If it wasn't a soft-top Jag, it was a green Capri, all of which he had serviced, like most of the Hibs players, at the garage in Spey Street Lane run by Gordon McDougall. Now chairman of Livingston, McDougall was a big Hibs fan, and a big friend of Schaedler, who spent much of his time down there, making himself useful. "I can't speak highly enough of him," says McDougall. "I mean, here was a professional player, at the top level, doing bits and pieces for me, going out to get us food, things like that. And there were times back at my house in Abbeyhill, when my wife would go to bed, and we'd stay up playing Subbuteo till three in the morning. He had an infectious enthusiasm for everything he did."

Even without all that, Schaedler's story is remarkable. His father, also Erich, was in the German navy. Originally due to serve on the Bismarck, he was diverted elsewhere two weeks before his scheduled departure. Assigned to a torpedo boat instead, he was wounded off the coast of France, captured by the Allies and taken to the Happendon prisoner of war camp in the Lanarkshire village of Douglas. Sent out to work in the local farms, he met a Biggar girl, married her and eventually settled down in Peebles.

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Erich senior had been quite a footballer. Some say he played for Borussia Moenchengladbach until a serious head injury ended his career. In Scotland, he took his two sons to watch Peebles Rovers, where he kicked every ball on the touchline, and later became a committee member. "You could always tell where he had been standing because there was a big hole in the ground," says John. "His feet were going all the time."

Of the two brothers, John was more of a country boy, but there was an agricultural dimension to Erich's game. His monstrous throw-ins led to many a goal, and his tackles were legendary. Usually they were fair, always they were frighteningly hard. "Even if you were playing in his team, you had to keep an eye out in case he tackled you," laughs Stanton.

They still talk about the one that led to Hibs' seventh goal against Hearts in the New Year derby of 1973. He was also the first man to "do" Bryan Robson's shoulder. The future England captain came to Easter Road with Manchester United on Boxing Day 1981 because Hibs' heated pitch was one of the few playable in Britain, but a Schaedler challenge had him sloping off injured. "I remember (Ron] Atkinson, with his big fur coat, going off his trolley on the touchline," says McArthur.

Erich was a fitness fanatic. John says that you could hear him thundering down the wing. One of his best friends, Frank Dougan, now treasurer of the Hibs Supporters' Association, remembers a Sunday when Erich did the Edinburgh Marathon in the morning, and the Peebles Half Marathon in the afternoon.

"He said he had promised his mother," says Dougan.

He also liked his judo, which he practised with the Edinburgh coach, George Kerr. That progressed into weight training, and pretty soon, he was a taut, muscular figure, much stronger than his size suggested.

"He would come into the dressing-room in the morning, always full of beans, and he would grab you round the neck," recalls Stanton. "It was a vice-like grip. He said he was showing you where your pressure points were, but you were standing there going blue. He had terrifying strength."

Christened "the mad Kraut" by some of his team-mates, he certainly knew how to handle himself. Dougan says that, when an armed raider came into his bar one day, Schaedler climbed over the counter to confront him. "The boy never pulled the trigger. I asked him what he had been thinking about and he said he'd worked hard for that pub. He wasn't going to let anyone take it away. He had that sort of mentality."

You wouldn't want to cross Erich Schaedler. Or, for that matter, the two Dobermans with whom he spent much of his time. He liked walking with them in the hills. He liked hunting and shooting. That was where the shotgun came from. The one found in his silver Volkswagen Passat, alongside his body, on December 27, 1985.

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Three days earlier, Erich had been helping his brother do some construction work at a local hotel. After lunch at their mother's, he asked John if he fancied going shooting for the afternoon. John, who still had Christmas presents to buy, reluctantly declined. "Oh well," said Erich. "I'll just have to go back to Edinburgh then."

It was the last John saw of his brother. There was no note, no explanation, nothing. He has been through it a thousand times, wondering what went wrong, and whether he could have done more. So, too, has Dougan who still has the Scotland jersey that Schaedler gave him when he returned from Frankfurt. "He phoned me on the Thursday before Christmas Eve and asked if I would meet him for a pint. Unfortunately, I was working backshift, and I couldn't get time off. I knew at that stage there was something wrong, but I didn't know to what extent. I felt for a long, long time after it happened that, if I had just gone to meet him ... but I know now that it wouldn't have made any difference."

All agree that he was not the kind of man you would expect to do something like that, but who is? Erich was often highly-strung, a bit deep maybe, even something of a loner at times, but nothing that hasn't been seen in a million others. Down the years, a few rumours have done the rounds, all of them rubbish, the product of those who know nothing, and resolve instead to make it up.

Erich had recently been divorced, and one or two bills remained unpaid, but he was not alone in that. His final season was with Dumbarton, where he made 14 appearances as a part-timer, and John speculates that he missed Hibs, the club that had been his life. "I always thought it was to do with football," adds McDougall. "He was so engrossed in physical fitness and playing at the highest level. When he could no longer do that..."

Dumbarton's match against Alloa Athletic on December 28 was postponed. A minute's silence was observed before Hibs' match against Clydebank. Midway through the funeral at Mortonhall Crematorium in Edinburgh, a stranger stood up and told the congregation that he was lucky to be there. He had collapsed in Erich's pub one day, stopped breathing, and had the Hibs player to thank for saving his life.

Erich would be 61 now. McDougall says that, had he been alive today, he would be working at Livingston. Only last week, a salesman walked into the office of John's joinery business in Peebles, and said that he wanted a word. John thought it was a business proposition, but it wasn't. It was a Hibee who wanted to talk about Erich. "You get that quite a lot," he says.

Two years ago, their mother passed away, still wondering, still asking why. "That's one of the saddest things," says John. "She wanted to know before she died." John didn't have any answers, but he arranged for her ashes to be scattered on Schaedler's Hill. Maybe there, she will find out.