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Spiers on Saturday: meeting Alex Cropley, a star of the seventies

Any Celtic versus Hibernian weekend such as this surely takes you back to only one place:

Alex Cropley, his football career ended prematurely after he suffered a broken leg, is now a taxi driver in his native Edinburgh. Picture: Steve Cox
Alex Cropley, his football career ended prematurely after he suffered a broken leg, is now a taxi driver in his native Edinburgh. Picture: Steve Cox

those fine, vintage days of the early 1970s. If drink is taken, Scottish football eyes will almost well up at the memory of the skill, talent and finesse we had in abundance back then.

Such as the wonderful Alex Cropley: a wiry, lithe midfielder who was only 5ft 8in tall but was a tenacious and skilful footballer. Cropley's career effectively ended one tragic afternoon in 1977 while playing for Aston Villa but by then he had already produced enough evidence of how good he was.

Along with Pat Stanton, John Brownlie, Erich Schaedler, Alex Edwards, Alan Gordon, Jim O'Rourke and the rest, Cropley was a member of Eddie Turnbull's brilliant Hibs team of those days. Today, at 62, he is an Edinburgh taxi driver, often sitting listening to football chat in the back of his cab, his young passengers oblivious to the maestro at the wheel.

Cropley grew up a on Edinburgh's eastern side, playing football day and night. "When Hibs offered me a full-time contract, my dad was dead against it," he says. "He told me: 'No way. Stay as an electrician and learn your trade'. He'd been a professional footballer himself, not a very well known one, and was aware of the pitfalls. He was adamant. It took my mum to intervene on my behalf and eventually I signed for Hibs in 1968."

That blessed Hibs side took off when the great Turnbull arrived as manager in 1971. It was magisterial at times, with Stanton its leader and all around him a brilliant collection of talents. Typically, they won just one trophy, but they were envied and admired all across Scotland.

"The turning point for everything was Turnbull arriving at Hibs," says Cropley. "It was like a rocket taking off. Everything we did - the training, the preparation, the playing - was superior to anything we had done before. Before Eddie arrived, Hibs had just been kidding themselves on.

"At first I didn't get on well with Eddie - he kept taking me off. I asked him why and he replied, 'cos ye dinnae dae as ah'm tellin' ye'. He was a fabulous manager. Jock Stein had been at Hibs but back then people said to me, 'Jock was a better man-manager, but Eddie was out of the park in terms of his coaching.'"

The Stein-Turnbull tension remains fascinating. The truth is, the great Celtic man had a fear of Turnbull, and knew of his ability. Turnbull, against the odds, had already got the better of Stein on a number of occasions with Aberdeen, and had arrived at Easter Road in 1971 intent on doing further damage.

The Scottish League Cup final of 1972 remains one of the greatest club matches ever played in this country. Turnbull's Hibs beat Stein's Celtic 2-1 and it was an extraordinary game of skill and pace: the absolute essence of football.

"We passed Celtic off the park that day," Cropley remembers. "My God, the skill we had in that Hibs team. We won 2-1 with Celtic getting a late consolation goal through Kenny Dalglish. We were miles better, there was no way we were going to lose."

Two years later, in 1974, Hibs could hold on to Cropley no longer. In a UEFA Cup tie in October 1973 against Leeds United at Elland Road he had bossed one of English football's finest midfields over 90 minutes and plenty of clubs wanted the then 22-year-old. Turnbull, though, proved bloody-minded.

"I was being pursued by Chelsea and Arsenal. Dave Sexton, then the Chelsea coach, came to [former Hibs chairman] Tom Hart's house and asked me to sign. But I told him I couldn't, as I knew of Arsenal's interest. They'd been after me for months. Eddie Turnbull didn't want me to sign for Arsenal. Gordon Clark, the Arsenal scout, who had watched me for months, could not get Eddie to budge.

"Gordon once said to me: 'Eddie Turnbull is without doubt the rudest man I have ever met'. Arsenal beat Hibs 7-1 in a game to celebrate the new Highbury floodlights [in 1952, when Turnbull was a Hibs player] and Eddie hadn't forgiven them. When Gordon approached Eddie for an umpteenth time about me, Eddie said, 'f*** off!' He eventually relented. 'Ach, I'll let you go to Arsenal,' Eddie told me. I adored him but I thought that was a bit of a cheap shot, to be honest . . . grudging-like."

When Cropley finally pitched up at Arsenal in the summer of 1974, his early thoughts were quite striking. "Bertie Mee signed me and the double-winning team of 1971 was getting old, with guys like George Graham, Bob McNab, Eddie Kelly, Charlie George and Peter Storey still there. I did okay before I got injured.

"I'll say this about that Arsenal team of 74-75 . . . arriving from Hibs I felt I had joined a lesser team in terms of ability. There was no doubt in my mind the Hibs side I had just left was better."

Hampered by two hairline fractures to his leg while at Arsenal, Cropley left London in 1976 for Villa, where he had the best time of his career and where the fans adored him. He won the 1977 League Cup with the club before injury struck.

"They really liked me at Villa," says Cropley. "I was typically Scottish: I had skill but I knew how to tackle, I got stuck in. The Villa fans were great to me and I love having that memory. But then it all ended with my really bad leg break."

That afternoon in 1977 is still spoken about to this day by older Villa fans, robbed as they were of their brilliant Scottish midfielder.

"We were playing West Brom and the guy [Ally Brown] came in late and high and went right through me. Everyone in the ground heard the crack of my leg breaking. It was a terrible incident and it finished me as a player. I was in a plaster for six months and out for more than a year. I was never the same player again. I was 26 when it happened.

"Funnily enough, a bit later I might have come back to Scotland, to Celtic. I bumped into Billy McNeill, who was watching me in a reserve game at Manchester City, and he said, 'd'you fancy coming back up the road?' But I was still recovering from my break and I told him I wanted to prove my worth again to Villa. But I couldn't. I was never the same again.

"I wasn't angry or bitter but I always felt I could have played until I was 35 at least. I played in a great period for Scottish football. We didn't know how good we had it back then."

Footnote: the great Alex Cropley won only two Scotland caps.

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