Former Hibs star Stevie Cowan believes Terry Butcher will be afforded a warm welcome when, as expected, he’s introduced as the new boss at Easter Road. But, he insisted, it won’t come anywhere near the reception the big Englishman “enjoyed” on his first visit to the Capital ground.
Graeme Souness’ Ibrox revolution had hardly got underway when Butcher, then England captain, and his countryman Chris Woods pitched up in the east end of Edinburgh for the opening game of the 1986/87 season, with 27,000 fans packing the terraces for a glimpse of players they never believed they’d see playing in Scotland.
However, it was a game which was to end in infamy, with Souness, recruited from Italian side Sampdoria as Rangers’ player/manager, sent off for a kick which sliced open George McCluskey’s leg, an act which saw him deservedly sent off on his debut in his hometown while every other player but Hibs goalkeeper Alan Rough was booked.
Amid it all, though, John Blackley’s Hibs earned themselves a hard-fought victory with Cowan’s 43rd-minute goal proving the winner, Ally McCoist having earlier cancelled out Stuart Beedie’s opener, a fact which was almost lost amid the mayhem.
Today, as Butcher prepared to take the reins at Easter Road, Cowan said: “I remember it very well, Souness’ first game in charge of Rangers having brought top internationalists like Butcher and Woods to Rangers.
“We were definitely no more than a sideshow as far as many people were concerned, everyone was talking about Souness, Butcher, Woods and so on. But it also meant John Blackley and his assistant Tommy Craig didn’t have to do a lot of work on motivating us to play against a top-class team which everyone expected to win.
“If you listened to what was being said, we’d been written off – we were going to be no more than cannon fodder. But you have to remember we weren’t a team of shrinking violets ourselves. We had people like Billy Kirkwood and Gordon Chisholm who could take care of themselves and our plan was to let them know they were in a game.
“George’s tackle on Souness was rather innocuous but he wasn’t happy with the attention he was getting, that his team was being beaten and he flicked out a boot, caught George and caused a very bad injury which put him out for something like three months. It caused a big ruckus in the middle of the pitch, everyone piled in but it was very much handbags at five paces.”
Cowan had his own run-in with Butcher, the big stopper, like Souness, not enamoured by Hibs’ feisty display. The former Aberdeen and Motherwell hitman said: “It was in the second half. I was chasing him down in his area of the park trying to nick the ball off him and he swung an elbow which didn’t really connect. Technically, I suppose, he should have been shown a red card as well but the two of us ended up with bookings.
“People tend to forget all these years later that Hibs actually won the game. It’s only that flashpoint which is remembered. I can’t recall exactly the welcome the Rangers players received that day but I’d imagine there were more than a few unpleasant greetings from the Hibs fans.
“Easter Road was visually stunning that day, the ground was jam-packed, the green and white of the Hibs supporters and the red, white and blue of the Rangers crowd. But our fans got right behind us and I thought we played really well and merited our win.”
As eye-opening as the arrivals of Souness, Butcher and Woods might have been, it proved only to be a taste of what was to come in Govan as each big signing by Rangers was overshadowed by an even bigger name, players such as Graham Roberts, Trevor Steven, Ray Wilkins, Trevor Francis, Mark Hateley, Gary Stevens and Paul Gascoigne – to name but a few.
Cowan said: “It was quite phenomenal. Those of us sitting in the dressing-rooms at Scottish clubs knew guys like them weren’t coming here for peanuts. They were getting the wages they merited because of what they’d achieved in the game in England and abroad. But I don’t think we expected what the extent of it would be.
“Rangers went on to win nine-in-a-row, Celtic couldn’t compete, Aberdeen and Dundee United weren’t the forces they had been so the field was wide open for Rangers to go on and dominate, which they did. No-one could keep up with them.”
And Cowan believes the events at Easter Road that day, August 9, 1986, played a part in shaping what was to follow. He said: “They adapted very quickly. They had obvious footballing ability but they realised right away every game was going to be a cup final for them. As a player you know you have to win your own physical battles before you are allowed to play your football and the likes of Souness, Butcher and so on could take care of themselves.
“I was lucky enough to be brought up as a football player under Sir Alex Ferguson and, if you look at all his teams throughout the years, they have that bit of grit, steel, determination and never-say-die attitude, that you don’t leave anything on the pitch on the final whistle.”
And those are traits which Cowan believes Butcher will bring to Hibs. He said: “I think he will be a very good appointment. Hibs couldn’t afford to go for anything from left field this time and Terry has great experience of Scottish football. He did well at Motherwell and he’s built a great squad at Inverness. Maurice Malpas is a good coach and, along with Steve Marsella, I think Hibs will be getting a good package.
“Terry’s got a good scouting network to keep bringing players to the club and keep them at the top end of the table. He will need time and I think Hibs are still short of three or four players so I’m sure he’ll bring in some of his own.”
Cowan disagrees that the post of Hibs manager has become a “poisoned chalice,” adamant that with the backing of chairman Rod Petrie, Butcher can unlock the club’s potential. He said: “I think Petrie has allowed his managers to go and bring in players and letting Pat Fenlon spend £200,000 on James Collins is a great example of that. Hibs should be top six without a shadow of doubt and I think Terry feels he is ready for the challenge of managing a big city club. With the backing of Petrie and the fans then hopefully that will happen as Edinburgh needs both Hibs and Hearts to be successful. I don’t know, but I’m assuming Terry feels he has taken Caley as far as he can. Hibs have a great stadium and training facilities, they should be operating at the top end of Scottish football and whoever can do that will know there are thousands of fans out there who’ll come flocking back.”