'Tunnel fracas? Players now are bunch of fairies'

A TINY vision in pink marches into the room lugging equivalent-sized Christmas reindeer decorations.

The blonde-haired girl wants the legend on the sofa to spark them into brilliant twinkly life but his apparel this afternoon is disconcerting to her. "Grandpa," she says, "why are you wearing your pub jumper?"

Alex "Mickey" Edwards, though, isn't going anywhere. Not until he's told me more tales of football-tunnel fracas. It is, I admit, difficult to reconcile the one just recounted with a 62-year-old man with a plastic left hip, but we're talking about a whole different age.

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Early 1970s, Hibs vs Rangers, Easter Road, and a pitch not quite big enough for two diminutive, patter-merchant No 7s. "Wee Tommy McLean had been annoying me all day," he says, "so at the end of the game I ran after him down the tunnel and just at the slippy bit I smacked him. I shouldn't have done it because we'd won but, well, aye..."

At first the barney at New Douglas Park last Sunday involving significant numbers from the Hamilton Accies and Hearts squads, plus the baby-soft hands of a masseur, amused Edwards no end. This was mainly because of the presence of the masseur; they didn't exist in his day, when footballers got the magic sponge if they were lucky – it wasn't David Nixon-quality magic, more Tommy Cooper – but usually they were told, unequivocally: "Just run it off."

But, with time for reflection, he says: "I really think that today's footballers are a bunch of fairies. Everything's a big drama to them but they don't have to come up against guys like Erich Schaedler. Christ, he was hard. Couldnae play but he'd probably be worth ten million now."

Schaedler was a team-mate of Edwards in Turnbull's Tornadoes, who could be the classiest team in Scotland if manager Eddie Turnbull's preferred line-up stayed intact, but sometimes the midfield maestro's temperament got the better of him. "Aye I was fiery," he says. "I liked to take the piss, there were a few guys I didn't like – Greigy (Rangers' John Greig] for one – and of course I could be wound up."

So he got booked, a lot – "Don't ask me how many times" – and the suspensions would just get longer. Regarding referees, did he become notorious? "Maybe a bit. By the 1970s refs were being supervised so the bookings were flying around more. Back when I was with Dunfermline the best was Tiny Wharton. Everyone aye says that but it's true. Once, a Rangers player – I forget who – kicked me and I was all for going after him. Tiny tapped me on the shoulder but I ignored him. 'Now now, Mr Edwards,' he said. 'You'll notice that I'm 6ft 5ins while you're at least two feet smaller. Pleased be advised to shut the f**k up.'"

Hearts captain Michael Stewart, sent off for the fifth time in his career last Sunday, may feel his reputation is starting to go before him. In this, Edwards has some sympathy. "I think he's a good player but he seems to get involved in stupid situations. They tell me he's one of the more intelligent ones. Well, he should know better, especially being captain."

The sympathy runs out when Edwards contrasts this age with his own, when refs never went back on their word and a visit to the SFA's old Park Gardens HQ to be dolled out the medicine of a long suspension was one he dreaded.

"You always hoped your case would be called for the morning because the sentences before lunch seemed more lenient. After lunch, these old boys could be grumpy. I think one or two enjoyed lunch too much. They'd fall asleep and their glasses would slip off their faces. Once I had to take a lawyer along because I was looking at a six-week ban and he had to tell one of the panel to stop snoring!"

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That's enough about the dark side of Alex Edwards, at least for now. We should acknowledge those occasions when, seeming to run on tip-toes, he lit up Scottish football with his clever promptings and killer passes, such as Hibs' 6-1 Cup Winners' Cup destruction of Sporting Lisbon, your correspondent's favourite example of taking the Mickey.

I meet him at his home at the top of Cairneyhill, the village near Dunfermline where he's lived for almost 40 years. It's a grand house across the road from the church with land at the back for his daughter's horse; in the garage sit his Jaguar and, under wraps, the beloved Rover with which he first rolled up to Easter Road. Like his knack for the right ball, Edwards has made some smart moves away from football. We're standing on the site of an old piggery and he points to the bits he sold for a profit. Then he shows me inside, down the hall with the Harry Gilzean painting of Turnbull's Tornadoes immortalised in Trainspotting, to where he keeps his medals, including the 1972 League Cup badge, his apogee as a Hibee, for which he recently turned down an offer of 1,500. In Edinburgh's old North British Hotel the team's celebrations accounted for 200 bottles of champagne.

But first for Edwards there was Dunfermline Athletic. The buzz among public-park scouts began when he was 13, and Pars manager Jock Stein was sufficiently intrigued to watch him in a schoolboys' cup final. "Aston Villa were desperate to sign me; they were at my mum and dad's house in Rosyth almost every day. But I was just a laddie and I wasn't for going doon there." Stein sealed the deal with a house refurb, new TV and 1,000 for the folks, and a Ford Classic for a laddie, a car nut even then, and Edwards made his debut in 1962 at 16 and five days, the youngest for an outfield player in Scotland – score: Dunfermline 4, Hibs 0.

Still 16, he played in the famous 6-2 thumping of Valencia in the Inter-Cities Fairs' Cup and helped the Pars win the 1968 Scottish Cup. With a keen sense of his own worth, he fancied a bigger challenge – especially after an East End Park pay dispute. "George Farm tried to put everyone on the same money but Roy Barry and I were the best players. For me that would have meant dropping from 90 quid a week to 60 – a lot of money when mates in the docks were only on 15 quid. So for three months I was on the hills, training on my own."

Eventually Turnbull brought the rebel in from the cold for a fee of 13,000, a bargain when you remember the imperious right flank Edwards formed with Pat Stanton and John Brownlie. So, having played for both Turnbull and Stein, how did they compare? "Big Jock was like a father to me. I rate Eddie the best coach ever, his Hibs team was the best in Scotland at the time, but Jock had something Eddie didn't have: he was a great man-manager and he'd an arm round your shoulder. He didn't criticise and I never once heard him swear.

"Eddie was the exact opposite. His huffs were legendary. Even when we beat Hearts 7-0 (New Year's Day, 1973] he was angry at us for going easy on them in the second half. 'You should have scored ten,' he said. Someone dared to snigger – Paddy Stanton, I think. 'They would have done that to you.'

"When Eddie laughed it was like the dug in Wacky Races so we called him Muttley, though not to his face. What a coach, though. His methods were revolutionary. Most teams at that time got Fridays off. He'd have us in to work out moves for the Saturday so come the match there was nothing needing said.

"But I think he blew it. After we lost to Hajduk Split (Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final] he went nuts and never spoke to our goalie Jim Herriot again and that was the end for that team. I still think he broke it up too early, and I tell him that whenever I see him. Then I say: 'And you're too old to shout at me now!'"

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At Easter Road, fans of the Tornadoes reckon the ill wind started blowing through the 72-73 season two months earlier. Having scored 100 goals before Christmas, and with 7-0 taking Hibs to the top of the old First Division, John Brownlie broke his leg in a bad-tempered match against East Fife and – for throwing the ball at John Love – yet another Edwards booking resulted in an eight-week ban.

He says: "I was angry at myself for that; I'd let the team down. I thought Eddie was going to rip through me but he didn't." Love was something of a Nemesis for Edwards, who'd been sent off for kicking the East Fife man 12 months before, but he says he tried not to bear grudges. "Tommy McLean's not a bad lad; I've played golf with him since. And Alex MacDonald was all right after I walked over him on the ground and left stud marks on his chest. We made up in the tunnel and had a drink and a laugh."

Edwards has a lot of stories from tunnels, including a mass brawl broken up by French riot police after Dunfermline had knocked Bordeaux out of Europe. Also with the Pars, he remembers a full and frank exchange of views with Turnbull, then Aberdeen's manager, after – mistakenly, he says – battering the ball at him. Then there was Donald Park.

"We're five-up in the 7-0 game and coming back out for the second half. Donald's nipping my ear about how it would have been an oh so different story if he'd scored early doors and then we see these big gaps on the terraces. 'Hey Donald,' I said, 'when do they pay you at Hearts?' 'Mondays,' he said. 'Maybe not this week – look, there's naebody left.'"

After a short spell at Arbroath, Edwards landed a good brewery job – "Three ex-Hearts players were in for it, too, so I was still beating them after I'd stopped playing" – and he was able to retire from that at 50. He should have played for Scotland but didn't. He should have been on the park more often, but aggression was much more a part of football back then, even for silky midfielders like himself.

Still, he caused a few sparks: on pitches and in tunnels. I leave him to light up some reindeer, happy that – having held a 1972 League Cup medal in my hand at last – my Christmas has come early.

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