Over the years there have been many titanic clashes between Hibernian and Aberdeen, but probably none as gripping as the marathon League Cup tie between the sides during the 1950/51 season.
Then in its fifth year, the League Cup was actually a continuation of the wartime Southern League Cup competition but now with the inclusion of the lower league sides. With a new trophy donated by the then Scottish League President John McMahon, the competition had initially taken place during a four week break in the league programme that had allowed the section games to take place, but was now used as a precursor to the new season. As before, the games would take place in sections of four teams playing each other home and away, the winner of each section qualifying for the later rounds.
In a group that also included Falkirk, St Mirren and Dundee, Hibs would top the table with five straight wins, including a 6-0 victory against St Mirren at Love Street, a 5-0 win against the Saints at Easter Road, and a quite incredible 5-4 victory over Falkirk at Brockville that was described at the time as probably the best game seen at the ground for many years.
In the final game of the section the Easter Road side had been leading 2-0 against Dundee at Dens Park when the referee was left with no other option but to abandon the game just 20 minutes from the end after the pitch had become unplayable on account of the torrential rain and thunder and lightning. As Hibs had already won the section with 10 points, five ahead of their nearest rivals, it was thought unnecessary to replay the fixture.
In a game that was said to be ‘full of thrills, spills, incident and splendid football’ Hibs faced an Aberdeen side then captained by the former Easter Road stalwart Davie Shaw in the first-leg of the League Cup quarter-finals at Piddodrie on 16th September 1950. Watched by a capacity 42,500 all ticket crowd, Bobby Johnstone gave Hibs what was said to be an ‘undeserved’ first half-lead.
Aberdeen however were much the better side throughout and scored four goals in the second-period to seemingly put the tie beyond the Easter Road side - and it could well have been worse. With just two minutes remaining the home outside-left Hather missed an open goal, and almost certainly a four goal deficit would have been too much, even for a team with the renowned fighting qualities of Hibs.
The previous Saturday Gordon Smith had been injured during Hibs’ 6-0 victory against Falkirk in the first league game of the season, his place taken at Aberdeen by the 21 year-old Jim Souness, grandfather of the current highly rated Academy player Jamie Gullan. At that time however, it was extremely difficult for a youngster to break into an Easter Road first team led by the illustrious Famous Five, and Souness would later join Hearts, winning the League Cup with the Tynecastle side in 1954.
The return leg against Aberdeen took place at Easter Road in midweek. In those pre-floodlight days the gates had been opened early for the 5.30pm start, and by kick-off there was well over 42,000 packed inside the ground. The news that Gordon Smith had been passed fit to play was met by ecstatic cheers from the crowd, an ovation that could clearly be heard in the opposition dressing room, and as the heavily bandaged Hibs captain, obviously still far from full fitness, took the toss it was clear from the faces of Davie Shaw and his team-mates that Aberdeen had been dealt a major psychological blow.
If Hibs had any real chance of overhauling the visitors lead from the first leg an early goal was needed, and their prayers were answered when wing-half Anderson put the ball past his own goalkeeper after just three minutes.
With an hour of a ‘thrilling and pulsating’ game played, the visitors still retained their two-goal advantage however late strikes by Johnstone and Ormond were enough to send the tie into extra-time. Only two minutes into the extra period, Lawrie Reilly scored from an overhead-kick by Gordon Smith to give his side an overall lead and that looked like being enough until Yorston levelled the scores with the last kick of the game when he took advantage of a loose ball in the Hibs penalty area to force the ball past goalkeeper Tommy Younger, and it was on to a third game at Ibrox.
In front of a 52,000 crowd at Ibrox, the largest attendance of the three games so far, Eddie Turnbull gave Hibs the lead in the first half only for Baird to equalise midway through the second period, but despite the advantage of yet another extra thirty minutes, the teams could not be separated with the game ending 1-1.
In the closing minutes of the regulation ninety, Gordon Smith missed an open goal when he blasted the ball high over the bar from close range. Years later the player would describe the miss as probably the worst of his entire career.
With the semi-finals of the competition due to take place the following Saturday, the fourth game would take place the following evening at Hampden. The game was scheduled to be played at Ibrox, however heavy rain the previous evening had left the Ibrox pitch resembling a mud bath and the tie had immediately been switched to the National Stadium. This time there would be no mistake.
In front of another crowd of well over 50,000 Hibs would eventually run out comfortable 5-1 winners to qualify for the semi-finals. Three goals in nine first-half minutes had given the Edinburgh side a commanding lead only for Aberdeen to pull one back before half-time.
Although the ‘Dons’ mounted a spirited comeback when they could, and perhaps should, have scored more, in the end there would be no denying the Easter Road side what in the end was a well-deserved victory. As a sign of the popularity of the league cup competition at that time, in the space of 18 days Hibs had played Aberdeen five times with a league game at Pittodrie sandwiched in between, the games watched by well over 200,000 spectators.
In the semi-final against Queen of the South at Tynecastle on the Saturday, a ground that had not proved a particularly happy hunting ground for Hibs in cup semi-finals, the Second Division side took a first-half lead. With memories of another cup upset by lower league Dunfermline at the semi-final stage of the competition at the same venue just twelve months earlier still fresh in everyone’s mind, an Eddie Turnbull hat-trick, one from the penalty spot and another a trademark thunderbolt drive from all of 30 yards, would be enough to send Hibs into their first ever League Cup Final and a meeting with Motherwell.
Two weeks before the cup final Hibs faced Motherwell in a league game at Fir Park, the Easter Road side running out comfortable 6-2 winners despite having played most of the match effectively in those pre-substitute days with only ten men after an injury to Gordon Smith after just 15 minutes that had left him as a virtual passenger on the wing.
Eddie Turnbull had been injured while training with the Scotland squad before the game against Wales the previous Saturday and would miss the cup final. In the days leading up to the game, Chairman Harry Swan had made one of his rare errors of judgement. In midweek he had watched the players taking part in what was no more than an eight a side bounce game at Easter Road and had been impressed by Willie Ormond playing in what could loosely be termed the inside-left position.
Instead of drafting in the readymade replacement for Turnbull in Mick Gallagher, the chairman had convinced manager Hugh Shaw to play Ormond in the inside-left position on the Saturday, the young inexperienced Jimmy Bradley drafted into the side for his first team debut at outside left. The experiment however was an abject failure. Ormond was not a success at inside forward and the young Bradley was clearly out of his depth.
At Hampden, a Hibs side that had found goals so easy to come by at Fir Park just a couple of weeks earlier, now encountered a Motherwell side in a far more uncompromising and resolute mood, and at the end of the day the Fir Park side were worthy 3-0 winners, all the goals scored in the final 15 minutes of the game.
Goalkeeper Tommy Younger, so often the saviour of the Hibs side, was in tears at the final whistle after being badly at fault for two of the goals and had to be consoled by his team mates. Turnbull’s work rate in midfield had been badly missed as had the ingenuity and drive of Ormond on the wing. Young Jimmy Bradley never played for the first team again and would soon be on his way to Third Lanark.
After the game, Hampden had been described by one newspaper reporter as ‘once again the burial ground for Hibs’ cup aspirations.’ It was only revealed after the game however that as well as the injury to Turnbull, in the days leading up to the final at least half a dozen Hibs players had been fighting a fitness battle to play on the Saturday.
In the league however it was still all to play for. Putting the disappointment of the League Cup Final behind them, in front of over 70,000 at Ibrox the following Saturday, the first game of the season between what was thought to be the ‘likely title contenders’ ended all square, one of only four draws that Hibs would suffer that season, a 4-0 victory against Clyde at Shawfield on Wednesday 11th April finally clinching the League Championship for the second time in four years with four games still to play, ten points ahead of nearest challengers Rangers.
During the season Hibs had won 22 of the 30 league games played, drawn four and lost four, with their 77 goals the highest total in the table and the 26 conceded the lowest.
Written by Tom Wright