Recalling the day Hibs broke bank to back a managerial hunch
The first time Alex McLeish saw Ulises de la Cruz play, he might have been tempted to get his coat. But he stuck around for the second half of the match and was so impressed by the player’s pace and drive that he was soon cracking jokes with the Ecuador full-back about needing to get a motorbike to keep up with him.
“Ulises had had quite an ordinary first half, but in the second half he was so good it was scary. I decided there and then that he would do all right and I arranged for our doctor to go out there and put him through the medical,” said the then Hibs boss.
Taking what he admitted at the time was a gamble, on June 18, 2001, the Leith club paid out a record signing fee to fend off rivals from France, Italy and Spain and bring the South American to the capital. Two decades on, that pay-out has yet to be eclipsed.
That is perhaps a case of once bitten, twice shy.
Because, while there were flashes of the player who won over McLeish when he travelled halfway around the globe to watch him in that World Cup qualifier against Paraguay, the inconsistency that was evident during that initial viewing, became an ongoing issue, as the attacking right-back, who often operated more like a winger, dropped out of games as often as he grabbed them by the scruff of the neck, justifying some of the early reservations which greeted his signing.
Signed from Liga Deportiva Universitaria of Ecuador, he became the first of his countrymen to ever play in Scotland’s top flight and at the time of his signing his agent conceded that was a risk. The price tag meant it was also required a leap of faith from Hibs as McLeish admitted he may have made a rod for his own back by stumping up so much cash on a player few, if any, Hibs fans had heard of.
The hope, though, was that he would be the type of player, with a story to tell, who would capture the interest of Scottish fans.
He had arrived in Scotland a month after his international coach Hernan Dario Gomez had been pistol-whipped and shot for backing a fellow coach who refused to select former president Abdala Bucaram’s son and he said he anticipated life in Scotland to be “more tranquil”.
The country met those expectations. He, on the other hand, did not live up to his agent’s dubious proclamations likening him to David Beckham. An Edinburgh-derby double, the first goal coming within a minute, was the undoubted highlight of his time in Edinburgh, but those exploits against Hearts were not repeated often enough.
“Look, the world is shrinking and I embrace modern thinking,” said McLeish, as he explained his gamble. “I’m aware of the negatives people throw at you, about whether they are going to be in the trenches with you when the bad results come. But I have to prepare for setbacks and, hopefully, there will be more high points than low points.”
The jury may still be out on that. Although surely no-one, with the benefit of hindsight, will try to argue that he merited the record transfer fee, the fact he was eventually moved on, to Aston Villa a year later, for almost three times that amount, ensured there was no residual bitterness in one of Scotland’s more quirky signings.