Interview: Hibs cult hero Joe Tortolano on why he considered ending it all
Did you see that University Challenge was won by Edinburgh Uni? Hip, hip, hooray for them.
Ultimately it was the enormo-brained quartet’s knowledge of Byzantine empresses and heavy metal rockers Iron Maiden which proved decisive but, bolstered by Hibernian season ticket-holder and one-time Easter Road mascot Robbie Campbell Hewson, maybe they would have known the answer to this burning question:
Quizmaster Jeremy Paxman: “Fingers on buzzers, when was the last time Hibs finished higher up the league than Hearts two seasons in a row?”
Campbell Hewson: “1993-94 and, not surprisingly, 1994-95.”
Paxo: “I’ll do the gags, Edinburgh, but here’s your chance for a bonus point: who was that Hibee XI’s left winger-turned-full back, Italian descent, luxurious hair, not always luxurious first touch, the inspiration for a chant of ‘Joe, Joe, Super Joe’ which might have been ironic but there was no doubting the boy’s guts?”
Quite often the posers on University Challenge are Byzantine, in the sense of being beyond the scope of my keelie state education, but I’d get that one right and today Joe Tortolano is sitting with me in Burger King at the Bannockburn interchange of the M9, having just finished work. In his post-football life, the 53-year-old Tortolano checks schools and hospitals to make sure there’s nothing horrible in the water. Er, is that keeping him especially busy at the moment? “I cannae tell you that.”
Thankfully he is much more forthcoming on his football career – 11 years at Hibs – even though a lot of the time he was the target of those fans who like to go to the match and have a bloody good moan.
He has lots of funny stories about this, how pals would talk into his right ear, assuming he was deaf in the other one from all the abuse on his torrid touchline beat. How some of the catcalls were deserved: “There was a game against Falkirk – don’t know if you were there, hope not – when one, two, three, four times in quick succession I let the ball bounce over my foot and out for a shy. They were still getting the subby ready when I put the heid down and walked – I knew it was me coming off.”
How Andy Goram, his goalkeeper, would put a vicious spin on the ball when throwing it to him – “to make sure I was paying attention. He’d say to me: ‘Do you know, Joe, you’re the best five-a-side player at the club.’ I’d say: ‘What about Saturdays, though?’ ‘Aye, well, that’s a different matter.’”
And how he failed to persuade stadium car park orderlies that he was a player. “This guy wouldn’t let me use one of the bays reserved for the team. He even shouted over to his mate: ‘Hey Wullie, have you heard of Joe Tortolano?’ For christ sake, I’d been at the club eight years by then. So I had to park out in the street.”
There are so many slapstick yarns about Joe Tartan Lino, as he was christened by the Easter Road terraces, and he laughs so much in the telling of them that it comes as quite a shock when he reveals how he once contemplated suicide.
This was 21 years ago following his unhappy spell at Clyde, which followed his even more godawful tenure with Falkirk: “I was out of work for the first time in my life. What the hell was I going to do? I went after a job with the Scottish Prison Service. All I thought would be required of me was remembering to lock the cell doors at night but there was this big application form with tricky maths questions. ‘That’s it,’ I told myself, ‘I’m a failure.’” At the time his wife Hilary was pregnant with their first child. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to provide’, which was ridiculous, because ending it all would have left the family in an even worse state. But for a wee moment I did think about driving the car over the Kincardine Bridge.”
Tortolano came through that dark time, just as he came through the grimness of being the No 1 whipping boy at Hibs, reinventing himself as a cult favourite. Now a happy dad to two girls, he’s probably a better footballer in the collective memory than back in the day. Fans who’ve grown older with him have forgotten about those four miscontrols and, in this era of short-term loanees and players leaving clubs with barely a backwards glance, remember instead all his plucky striving. And they also acknowledge: we are Hibs and there will always be some incidental comedy. A typical Hibee mantelpiece may offer pride of place to a replica of the Scottish Cup, but there should also be room for action-pose figurines of Ally Brazil, the pre-Tortolano butt-of-the-jokes, and our man.
His story begins in the 1950s when great-grandfather Antonio arrived from Caserta in southern Italy, quickly establishing himself as an ice cream tycoon in the Raploch district of Stirling. “He was 5ft 4in, big moustache, wee watch in his waistcoat pocket. There’s a great photo of him with his brother standing on the running boards of an enormous fancy car. Benedito was 6ft 5in and they were like Arnie Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins. You didn’t mess with them, or try to sell sliders on their patch.”
Stirling-born Tortolano is a real twin and with Mario on the right wing and him on the left the pair tore up the local juvenile scene with all-conquering Tullibody Hearts. Who was the better player? “Obviously there was only one winner there. Seriously, some folk reckoned Mario had more skill but he lacked a wee bit of heart and, when he was given the chance to sign for Leicester City, he decided he’d miss his mammy too much. But he became my biggest fan and followed me everywhere. We’re identical so sometimes he got mistaken for me and he wasn’t shy about signing autographs using my name!”
Tortolano’s first shot at the big time came as a 14-year-old at Celtic’s Barrowfield training ground, much to the delight of his lorry-driver father Giuseppe, and then Hoops manager Billy McNeill was there to watch his trial. “Billy told the scout afterwards that he didn’t think I would make it. I’m afraid I bore a bit of a grudge about that and once when Celtic came to Easter Road and the ball went loose near the away dugout I battered it at him. I missed – of course I missed – and Billy shouted at the ref: ‘Sort that idiot out!’ I apologised afterwards. He was a great man and I’ve shed a few tears at him passing.”
Unlike his brother, Joe did venture south, to West Bromwich Albion. He constantly sends himself up and does so again now: “I was on the bus to Birmingham with my suitcase and my toilet bag – the toilet bag was bigger, naturally … ” But right away he too wished he was back in the arms of mum Mary: “I stumbled right into the Handsworth riots: cars upside down, lorries in flames, fighting, looting – I was shite-ing myself.”
Illness restricted his chances under Baggies manager Johnny Giles and he and his toilet bag came back up the road. He had a tryout with Hearts but Alex MacDonald didn’t sign him either. So did he seek revenge on Doddie, too, with a wild clearance? “No, I would have been way too scared.” And so in 1985 it was on to Hibs, an association which somehow lasted 11 years, and started as it meant to go on, with some daftness. “Mum said: ‘There’s been a Mr Blakey on the phone for you.’ I thought: ‘Does she mean that bloke from On the Buses? Am I going to be offered a job as a bus driver? After all, I had an uncle who did that. That’s the way my mind works. I called back: ‘Hello, Mr Blakey, it’s Joe Tortolano.’ The voice on the other end said: ‘It’s Blackley, Joe, John Blackley, the manager of Hibs.’”
That confusion overcome, he knew immediately he was in the right place. “One of the first questions I asked was: ‘Don’t you use old tyres here?’ At Hearts they were strapped to your back before you ran up the sand dunes at Gullane. Training with Hibs you got to see balls – luxury!” He made a good start as a Hibee, starring in a titanic tussle with Celtic in the Scottish Cup and swinging over the cross for Eddie May’s best-of-seven winner. There were Under-21 caps and also modelling gigs. “That was me and John Collins. I thought I had a no’ bad physique but John was ripped. He used to say: ‘Call me The Viking, Joe.’ I’d go: ‘Aye, you would suit horns coming out of your heid.’ One time we modelled sunbeds, a studio up town called Electric Beach. We were each promised ten complimentary sessions and I’m still waiting for my vouchers.”
But for Tortolano, regime change of Blackley being replaced by Alex Miller dulled down the sunshine. “I’d been playing regularly before Alex came but, first game, he put me on the bench and I thought: ‘Uh-oh.’ Then I was absolute shite for two years. I wasn’t fit, I wasn’t good enough.
“I began to dread Saturdays. ‘Who are we playing, Aberdeen? Bloody hell.’ I wouldn’t sleep the night before, a nervous wreck. If I didn’t get a good touch right away, or find a green jersey with my first pass, I’d hear one grumble. Next mistake, five more. ‘For christ sake Tortolano! … F**k off back to Italy.’ Absolute torture.
“Hibs had a few guys who took more than their fair share of abuse: Benny [Ally Brazil], Snoddy [Alan Sneddon], Hammy [Brian Hamilton]. This might sound terrible but I’d want one of them to be first to muck up and take all the heat, in the hope that maybe I could get away with an average-to-crap performance. The grumbles always started in the same place: old main stand, top right. If I was on the bench I’d warm up at the other end where the away fans were, that was safer. But things got so bad for me that if I hadn’t made the 13 [only two subs in those days] I would be like: ‘Thank God!’”
Who was to blame here? Tortolano splits it 50-50 between Miller and himself. “We had a difficult relationship. I wanted him to put an arm round me occasionally, encourage and tell me not to bother about the boo boys, but I guess Scottish managers of that era didn’t do that. Look at foreign coaches now, going for the big cuddle after games. To be fair to my team-mates, guys like Murdo MacLeod, Gordon Hunter and Pat McGinlay, they were all supportive. Pat used to say: ‘I respect you 100 per cent, Joe, because I don’t know how you do it: take that barracking and come back for more.’
“The manager hadn’t always played me but he kept giving me three-year contracts. I had to do more, though, so I got fitter. I hadn’t been looking after myself – too many pizzas. I started training twice, sometimes three times a day and pounding the roads at nights.” This paid off. In the fans’ eyes Tortolano went from slug to butterfly. Not the most brilliant footballer ever to wear the green and white but one who, in the spirit of Leith’s motto, had persevered.
He missed out on the 1991 Skol Cup triumph but helped Hibs end two long unbeaten runs for Hearts in the Edinburgh derby, the first of 17 games and the second of 22. He relished the capital clashes, not least because the ramped-up racket would drown out grumbles directly aimed at him. “Hearts didn’t win all of those games but they had a psychological curse over us. They could play a bit, too, but they also had that toughness. Sandy Clark used to smash me into the net and Walter Kidd absolutely loved kicking the shit out of me. What a dirty bastard he was but, like many of the guys from my era, a good pal of mine.”
The year after those two seasons where Hibs could boast about natural order, Tortolano’s time was up. “I thought I might have been good for another couple of years but the boss told me I could go. I gathered up my boots in a black binliner and cried all the way home.” He managed five more years: KR Reykjavik followed that black period full of the blackest thoughts and East Stirlingshire provided the full stop, but his three months at Brockville were hellish and worse than anything he endured at Hibs. “On my debut I was greeted by a cry of ‘F**k off, you Edinburgh Aids bastard.’ Then a pie went flying past me. I thought: ‘Do I eat it or chuck it back?’ I chucked it back. My final game was against Berwick Rangers, officially the worst team in the country at that time, in the Scottish Cup. We were losing and the fans turned on me again. I pointed to my arse and they exploded. I felt like jumping in the crowd. Maybe I would have got a doing but I might have taken out three or four of them first. I needed a police escort to get me home after that.”
Tortolano played 257 times for Hibs, scoring 16 goals, but he went back for one last cameo and typical of the man it was fairly calamitous. “The fastest-ever sending-off in a testimonial, bloody hell!” The farewell match was for Hibee Gordon Rae, the victim Gordon Strachan. “What was it, four minutes? I maintain the tackle was mistimed although I supposed I did leap from about 20 feet away. Some of the guys were calling me Bob Beamon after that. There was a dinner at the Sheraton Hotel at night. Everyone got presented with a rug in Hibs tartan and a commemorative vase. ‘There’ll be nothing for me,’ I thought, and deservedly so – what a clown. But wee Gordon came up after the ceremony, said no hard feelings because he’d had worse from Bryan Robson and Norman Whiteside at Manchester United, and gave me a rug. Instead of one of the vases there was a plastic leg off a showroom dummy. ‘That’s mine,’ he said. And do you know I’ve still got it. It’s all I ever won!”