It was an autumn Wednesday in the early 1970s.
Being a Holiday of Obligation, when Catholics were expected to attend Mass, I had made a quick exit from my midday lecture at the university along in George Square and headed for the upstairs chapel at St Francis in Lothian St, known to Southsiders as “The Friary”.
Honesty demands that I don’t claim any particular feelings of piety. It was a time when we “did our religious duty” without much reflection, and the major thoughts in my mind during the service concerned Hibs European tie that night at Easter Rd. The Tornadoes were flying and we expected to win every European tie we played.
As I queued to take communion, I hoped, rather superstitiously, that my pious keeping of the religious rules would play well with the Big Man upstairs when it came to getting a result later that day.
Then, looking up, I noticed something very familiar about the two men in front of me as we approached the altar. Unbelievably, it was Pat Stanton and Jimmy O’Rourke. Here they were, my two heroes, just hours away from a major European tie, just next to me in church. Surely that guaranteed a victory! (It did!)
Footballers were less high profile in those days – even the legends of Turnbull’s Tornadoes. If you knew the family or stayed near to them, you would see them around, otherwise their life off the pitch was not visible – rather like teachers, who, for all we knew, could have been kept in the classroom cupboard overnight – so to see the guys at church was a surprise.
I went for some lunch, still feeling excited about seeing them, and reflected on how we come to support a football team and what it means to us and our sense of self.
My family had been involved with the Hibs since arriving from Ireland in the 1890s, we ran grocery stores in the Southside, my uncle James played for the team briefly in the 1920s, and though we moved down to England after my father’s death, there was never any doubt that I was a Hibee, and my return to Edinburgh, to go to university, gave me the opportunity to jump in fully, with both feet, to that particular agony which is Hibernian supporting.
But seeing Pat and Jimmy that lunchtime became a kind of consolidation of my connection to the club.
We follow football clubs for many varying and personal reasons. Sometimes it is family history, or maybe geography, or a friend’s choice, or perhaps the happenstance of the first game attended, the colour of the kit, or a perplexing name. It may be as deep as a combination of all these reasons, or as superficial as a pin stuck in a list. At the end of the day, the reasons carry little weight compared to the passion shown in following “the lads”.
I thought of all the connections reflected in that lunchtime event.
Like Pat and Jimmy, my dad and his brothers had attended Holy Cross Academy. Had we not moved to England, there was a good chance I would have followed them there – and I ended up playing cricket for their FP team for over three decades. Having honed his talent on the East Meadows, where Hibs originated, and opposite our family’s grocery store, uncle James was Holy Cross’s star player in his time, netting them victories in a number of cup finals. After football, at Hibs and Ayr Utd, he became a Franciscan priest and spent some time at the Friary In Lothian St where I had just seen the Hibs players.
Holy Cross Academy, the Southside, The Friary, my dad and uncle – there was a swell of connection there which made Pat and Jimmy “familiar” to me, in every sense of the word.
I should point out that I have always been proud that Hibs embraces all its founding influences, without marketizing any one particular strand of our heritage – as is reflected in our badge – and it just so happened that these two had an overlap with my own specific background. But I may have been a Reddings boy, proud of John Blackley, from Montrose and in awe of Gordon Smith, or a Dunfermline lad who idolised Alex Edwards. It is not the origins but the depth of connection we feel which makes our support so special to each of us.
However, I should admit that when I recall the famous League Cup win over Celtic in 1972, and the goal contribution of Stanton and O’Rourke, I still have a tendency to think “Holy Cross Academy 2-1 Celtic”!!!
So Jimmy’s death today feels like much more than the loss of a sporting legend. Speaking to Pat Stanton last week, he mentioned his old school pal was unwell, and couldn’t help recalling the famous tale of Jimmy scanning the jailbirds on a prison bus seen by the Hibs touring party outside Fulsom Prison on a sixties American tour: “He said he was checking to see if there were any lads from Clerrie on board!”.
Jimmy’s pawky wit is well documented. My own favourite involved the time when he was coaching the Hibs youths alongside Jackie McNamara. Having locked up the stadium after Tuesday night training, they were headed along through Abbeyhill when Jimmy nudged Jackie: “Hey! Did you leave the lights on?” he asked, pointing down Easter Rd to where the glare of the floodlights lit up the night sky.
For those who missed the pleasure and excitement of seeing Jimmy play each week, I have been trying to find words to describe his style of play. It’s not easy, because he was quite unique – in build, in style, in application – but, ultimately, I think his play matched his humour: it was impish! He would pop up everywhere, deceptively skilled for his build, strong as an ox, but capable of the most sublime touches. His goals were a joy – the explosions primed by the finely tuned Tornadoes mechanisms, and it was hard to tell who got most delight from them – Jimmy or the supporters.
That his special song was based on the theme to that most irrepressible of characters, Rupert the Bear, seems fitting, and it was true – everyone did know his name.
And, here’s a thing. For some reason, it was almost impossible to refer to Jimmy without using an Edinburgh accent. My auntie Nellie, deeply rooted in the Southside, would always point out to me that, for all my mongrel English/Scots accent, I always pronounced his name as “Jimmehoroork”. He was so much part of Clermiston and our city that anything else would have sounded odd – despite always being `James’ to his family.
I am writing this about half a mile down the hill from Clermiston on a dreich, grey, wet and miserable day, and sad as I am at the death of Jimmy, an ultimate relief though it may have been, neither the weather nor the sense of loss can quite extinguish the pure joy that this bouncing dynamo of a footballer brought to the Hibernian support.
He was very special man and a very special footballer. He was all we would want an Hibernian Hero to be.
Driving down Ferry Rd, past the site of Holy Cross Academy, I often think of all the connections, and I will always think of Jimmy as I go past – and how, in so many games for the Hibs, he reflected his old school’s motto: “Spes Unica” – “Our Only Hope”.
Thank you, Jimmehoroork.