Friday, May 13, 2011

SPL: Memories of Eddie Turnbull Dominate

The starter before the main course. The stale garlic bread with mouldy mozzarella before the Old Firm's Wagyu steak.

The bottom six chunter out of view with everything decided and nowt left to play for. Inverness are safe in seventh - and how we thank the split for making seventh place such an aspirational target - and Hamilton are doon.

Turn up, play. And get the hell out of there to whatever holiday spots an SPL wage can stretch to in these days of austerity. A weekend in Skegness? A day trip to Blackpool? An all-inclusive lad's week in Magaluf?

The mind boggles.

Hibs v Aberdeen

Interest here at least. Not in two teams that have let down their fans all season. Aberdeen lost a game 9-0. Hibs stitched together a run of form so bad that decades old records were tumbling right, left and centre.

It's been, frankly, pathetic stuff. When the history of these football clubs is written the SPL season of 2010/11 will be but a minor footnote, barely even glanced at by anyone but the diehard or the masochist.

Eddie Turnbull, however, looms large in the history of both clubs. And his contribution to both will be righly saluted at Easter Road.

A player in the Famous Five, Hibs' quintet of attacking talent that echoes through the decades.

A cup winning manager at Aberdeen, dispatched north to kick a slumbering giant into shape.

And then back to Easter Road to preside over the technicolour 1970s, to manage players with flowing locks and wide flares that he couldn't understand and to turn them into a footballing force that he understood perfectly.

The outpouring of tributes that greeted the news of his death and the turnout from the great, the good, the not so good and the ordinary fan at his funeral earlier this week hinted at a connection with people that Turnbull in his abrasive prime might have found surprising.

By the end he must have realised the respect he was held in. Even so the genuine emotion hints at something deeper than the bond between teammates, between manager and player, between fans and footballing hero.

Turnbull served on the vicious Arctic Convoys during the Second World War. The astonishingly high attrition rate meant many of his friends and comrades didn't survive.

Turnbull came home. He resurrected his football career and became a key part of the Hibs team that opened up the 1950s and early 1960s in Scottish football, an era of possibility when any team good enough could win the league, when Hibs and Dundee could excel in the European Cup and the Old Firm were often reduced to also rans.

At Aberdeen he won a Scottish Cup and proved he could go toe to toe with Jock Stein, proved that Stein was not the solitary member of that wonderful cast of football men left in Scotland.

On his return to Hibs he somehow cajoled - at times maybe bullied - a team of local talents and clever signings into playing what was, if you'll allow me to borrow the hyperbole of a tribute song, the "best brand of football the world's ever seen."

When it ended at Hibs, Turnbull walked away. His club car was the only pay off for a relationship that had lasted over 30 years, three decades when he was never richly renumerated for bringing the very best of times to Leith.

So Turnbull's passing brought to the fore a jumble of different emotions. Sorrow that his is a dying generation not always venerated enough for the hardships they bore. Celebration of a footballing career that scaled the heights.

And nostalgia that with his death we move ever further away from an era when Scottish football seemed to have the world at its feet, when the game was simpler, perhaps purer.

Celebration will be the order of the day at Easter Road. Fans of both clubs will be encouraged to show their appreciation for Turnbull. I'd guess they'll do that out of respect for both the man and for his era.

Tales of Turnbull's career will be told again.

Of the great Lawrie Reilly taking and missing a penalty and Turnbull offering a predictably forthright assessment of Reilly's chances of ever being allowed to do so again.

Of Joe Harper asking to be treated like a man and of Turnbull promptly smacking him in the face to welcome him to maturity.

Of a turn of phrase that Pat Stanton described as a habit of "never using two words when one swear word would do."

Of the late Alan Gordon, elegant and erudite as he was, being told that "the trouble with you Gordon is a' yer brains are in yer heid."

Of the directness of the advice and help he would still offer to the current bunch of Hibs players.

And also, of course, of the great player with the belting shot who held his own with the best of the best at Hibs.

Of the manager who was loved and respected by the players for his commitment to them and to playing football properly. Loved even as they cursed him for his temper and his demands.

Of a keen football thinker who brought innovation and attacking flair to Pittodrie and Easter Road.

Easter Road will be all about Eddie Turnbull.

The game will be secondary, will be in his shadow.

Given the fare he was watching at the stadium until just a couple of weeks ago he might have expected nothing less.

Hamilton v Inverness

The success of the bottom six visit the condemned men. Inverness are assured in seventh and look likely to top fifth placed Kilmarnock's points tally. What a strange league we stress over.

Strange league or not, relegation is relegation and bottom place means Hamilton are for the chop. They came close to keeping the fight alive until the final game. Given they've looked all but lifeless for most of the season that would have been quite an achievement.

But it wasn't to be. This is their farewell.

The end of the road for a number of Inverness players as well.

For what it's worth, an away win.

St Mirren v St Johnstone

Given the end of term feel to this one I wouldn't be surprised if the players arrive in casual clothes, brandishing board games and pestering the managers to let them outside for a game of rounders.

St Mirren have done enough to keep ahead of Hamilton. That is not a lofy aim. But it's enough for survival so really it's mission accomplished.

St Johnstone would be enjoying a much brighter season if they didn't carry all the attacking threat of a retreating Italian army.

On which lazy, countryist, military stereotype I will predict an away win and bid the bottom six a hearty and somewhat relieved farewell.