IT’S a record he’s held for 33 years, but Gordon Rae will be the happiest man inside Easter Road tomorrow if he can finally relinquish his claim to be the last Hibs star to score a Scottish Cup winner against Hearts.
Four times since that day in 1979 have the Capital rivals met in the competition, with the Jambos winning each time. Their latest triumph, of course, was that Hampden mauling in May, a painful experience for Rae as he joined a group of friends in a bar near his home on the Greek island of Corfu to watch the match on television.
The former Hibs skipper recalled: “There was about a dozen of us, we’d made up a CD of Proclaimers songs and were ready to sip a few beers in 80F during what was to be a ‘soccer fest’, with the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich that night as well. But by the time that came on, we’d had enough football for one day. We’d watched Hibs being murdered and it all turned into a bit of a wake. It wasn’t a good day at all.”
Rae admits he still cringes at some of the scenes he witnessed at Hampden, the sight of Pa Kujabi wearing gloves in mid-May and Hearts midfielder Ian Black being allowed to run the show having escaped what he felt could well have been a red card for an early challenge on Hibs striker Leigh Griffiths. He said: “I couldn’t believe a player wearing gloves in a Cup final. In my time, one of the boys would have had anyone turning up with gloves on by the throat. Likewise, after Black’s challenge, for which he wasn’t even booked, someone would have said ‘next time you are near him sort him out’.
“We had him at Hibs as a lad, he’s a very good football player, a hardy wee boy but, let’s say, his temperament sometimes isn’t the greatest. Someone should have given him a whack but instead he was allowed to run the show. He was brilliant and we looked like we were scared of him. That’s what stuck in my mind.”
Rae will be at Easter Road tomorrow, the 54-year-old home to see his family and delighted to find the cup tie coinciding with his trip. And he believes he will see an entirely different Hibs team to the one which capitulated at Hampden. He said: “I get all the channels in Corfu so I have watched a few games and Hibs now look as if they have something about them.
“They look a lot more resilient and it looks like the manager is probably bringing his influence to bear and getting in his own players. I’d imagine it was a bit difficult for him last season. He’d come in as something of an unknown, things weren’t going well but now it looks like it’s all starting to come together.
“But confidence is a key thing. After what had happened in the last couple of seasons I’d imagine a lot of people would have had Hibs, along with the new teams in the SPL, Dundee and Ross County, as contenders for a relegation battle but, instead, they are right up there, just a point behind Celtic. I know it’s all ifs and maybes, but had they not slipped up in a couple of games they could even have been out on their own at the moment. But to be just one point behind Celtic when you are almost halfway through the season has put a real spring in their step. They have a good foundation to build on.”
Tomorrow’s clash against a Hearts side which hasn’t lost in their last 12 derbies will test the nerve of all involved. Rae will be among the thousands of fans who will pack into Easter Road, with his fingers firmly crossed that one of Pat Fenlon’s players will emerge the hero on the day and take the crown he’s been wearing all these years.
While he’d be happy for anyone in green and white to grab the winner, Rae admitted he’d be particularly delighted to see Griffiths, like himself a lifelong Hibs fan, be the one. He said: “I remember that win against Hearts well. Eddie Turnbull had told me at training on the Thursday that he had a job for me, which was unusual, but he didn’t tell me what it was until the Saturday. The task was to mark Drew Busby, he was a big, strong guy and I chased him up and down the pitch. He hardly touched the ball, I hardly touched it and when he went off at half-time the manager told me to get forward a bit more. Big George Stewart had scored earlier and I got a raging left-foot volley into the top corner. They scored quite late on through Derek O’Connor, but we were miles ahead of them.”
Having won that quarter-final, Hibs marched on to a final against Rangers, which was eventually decided in the Ibrox club’s favour at the third attempt after two 0-0 draws. Arthur Duncan’s own goal proved to be decisive in a 3-2 Rangers victory as Hibs’ infamous Scottish Cup hoodoo continued – and Rae’s record remains intact. He added: “When you look back on all the players who have been at the club over the years you wonder why it hasn’t happened,” said Rae. “We all hoped the Cup final would be that day but sadly it didn’t happen again for us. It would be brilliant if it were Griffiths. I really like him, he has a great attitude, he works really hard and looks like someone for whom it means something – that’s my kind of player. He’s like a wasp buzzing about, he’s a real nuisance.
“He’ll come short or go over the top and as a former centre-half myself I can say no-one will really fancy marking him.”
The future of Griffiths, the SPL’s top scorer, is shrouded in doubt with his latest loan deal from Wolves due to end next month and the Molineux club reported to be wanting a £150,000 fee for the newly-capped Scotland star, but Rae believes that, while money is tight, securing the 22-year-old on a permanent contract would be seen as a sign of intent from the Easter Road board. He said: “If Hibs could push the boat out a bit and get him to put pen to paper on a longer deal, it would be a massive thing. I don’t know the ins and outs as far as Wolves are concerned but getting Leigh signed could be the catalyst going forward. Everything is in place, the stadium is magnificent, as is the training ground, and to me this would be a big opportunity for the directors to nail their colours to the mast. If they can push a deal through, it would be welcomed by every Hibs fan.”
Tomorrow will be the first time Rae has been to a Hibs match since watching them against Dundee United a couple of years ago, but afterwards he’ll return to Corfu to watch from afar as Fenlon’s players bid to continue the remarkable progress they’ve made in the past few months. He also takes a healthy interest in football in his new homeland.
He said: “We’ve been in Corfu for the past three-and-a-half years and love the lifestyle. When we first moved there I played a season with a local village team, Kavadades Thunder in the lowest league in the Greek pyramid system. We had a very young team and I was by miles, some 25 years, the oldest.
“The coach had me playing central midfield but I ended up as sweeper. I got a couple of goals and enjoyed it but the games were on astroturf and that did my knees in. Now I play fives on a Sunday morning and have a three or four-mile run on the beach a few times each week. When I come home, I catch up with the local guys who used to play for Hibs like Keith Wright, Gordon Hunter, Paul Kane, John Collins, Mickey Weir and Callum Milne, have a game of fives and a couple of drinks.
“We like to think we’re still playing as we used to – but then the aching legs the next day tell you we’re all that bit older.”
• Gordon Rae will be in Hibs’ Club Shop from 11am to noon tomorrow to sign copies of Bobby Sinnet’s book, The Hibernian Miscellany. Rae wrote the foreword to the book, which contains a wealth of quirky facts about the Easter Road club.