Hibernian 1950-52: Five was the magic number

HIBERNIAN have had a mixed history in recent times but in 2020-21, they finished third in the Scottish Premiership and reached the final of the Scottish Cup. In today’s football climate, that wasn’t a bad campaign, but for a relatively big club, the Hibees have a modest honours list, they were last Scottish champions almost 70 years ago. 

The Edinburgh club has produced some excellent players down the decades, including Peter Cormack, Pat Stanton, Joe Baker and Andy Goram, to name but a few. But some of the players from the early post-WW2 years remain club legends to this day – the so-called Famous Five: Gordon Smith, Lawrie Reilly, Willie Ormond, Bobby Johnstone and Eddie Turnbull.

For over five years, this quintet of talented footballers drove Hibernian to some of their greatest triumphs, including the league title in 1948, 1951 and 1952. The names of these players still trigger a smile from Hibs fans young and old and Easter Road has a stand that honours their part in the club’s history. 

Hibernian had won the Scottish league twice before the second world war but they had been very much in the shadow of Rangers in the inter-war years. The Gers had won 15 out of 20 championships between 1919 and 1939.

After the war, Hibs signed a number of young players from junior clubs, including most of the “Famous Five”. When the title was won in 1948, the team only included occasional appearances from the hallowed group, but it would not be long before they were all regulars. 

Hibs failed to retain the title in 1949 but went painfully close again in 1950, losing to Rangers by a single point. They met the Glasgow giants at Ibrox just before the end of the season in front of 101,000 people, the largest crowd to watch a league match in Britain. The game ended in a draw, but if Hibs had won, they would have been champions again.

They didn’t have to wait long, though. Hibs started 1950-51 in rampant form, winning 6-0 on the opening day against Falkirk but losing their next two games against Edinburgh rivals Hearts and Aberdeen. They then went 10 games without defeat before going down once more to Hearts on New Year’s Day on a frozen pitch. Hearts were certainly Hibs’ “bogey team” as this was their fifth successive win against them. Hibs were in fourth place in the league but they had games in hand.

In March, Hibernian were beaten 3-2 by Motherwell in the semi-final of the Scottish Cup, a game that became an uphill struggle after defender Jim Ogilvie broke his leg. Some said that the loss of a player effectively cost Hibs the double in 1950-51. It could even have been a treble as Motherwell beat them in the Scottish League Cup final in October 1950.

Hibs lost just one more league game, away at Aidrieonians at the start of March. It almost became a foregone conclusion that Hibs would win the title and on April 11, it happened. They travelled to Shawfield, home of Clyde, with an injury-ravaged squad, and won 4-0, Turnbull, Archie Buchanan and Jim Souness scoring the goals, along with Clyde’s hapless goalkeeper.

It had been an easy victory against a team threatened with relegation: “Surely no tamer game ever decided a league championship,” said one report. Hibs had four games still to play and they ended 10 points clear of second-placed Rangers. A few days later, Hibs players Bobby Johnstone and Lawrie Reilly were in the Scotland team that beat the “auld enemy” England 3-2 at Wembley. 

Manager Hugh Shaw, who had arrived in 1948 on a mission to make Hibernian Scotland’s most successful club, was eager to retain the title. He believed that attaining true greatness, was only achieved by winning trophies time and time again.

The 1951-52 season wasn’t quite as emphatic, but Hibernian, thanks to their all-star forward line, were prolific in front of goal. They scored 92 goals in 30 league games and at one stage were five points clear at the top, but they had fierce competition from Rangers who had games to spare. On March 15, while Queen of the South were beating Hibs 5-2, Rangers were squeezing home against Morton by 1-0. Hibs were three points clear, but Rangers had two games in hand. Rangers caught up on games, but had dropped three points against Motherwell and Queen of the South. Hibs had a two point margin and when they beat Dundee 3-1, the gap was four points and Hugh Shaw’s side had a far better goal average. The title was won.

Although Hibernian went close again in 1953 but lost their title on goal average to Rangers, they were invited to Brazil to compete in the Octagonol Rivadavia Correa Meyer, a competition involving Sporting Lisbon, Olimpia of Paraguay and five top Brazilian teams. The fact they were invited says a lot about the reputation they had established but they found it hard going, drawing against Vasco da Gama and losing against Botafogo and Fluminense. Both Reilly and Turnbull were on the scoresheet in Brazil, enhancing their reputations on foreign soil. 

Hibs became the first British side to compete in Europe when they entered the inaugural European Cup in 1955, reaching the semi-final and going out to Reims, who lost to Real Madrid in the final. By this time, the “famous five” had started to break-up. Bobby Johnstone was sold to Manchester City in 1955 for £22,000 and went on to win the FA Cup in 1956.  Lawrie Reilly, who later claimed, “my life has been blessed” when recalling his career, was a one-club-man and stayed with Hibs until 1958. He won 38 caps and has gone down in history as one of Scotland’s greatest forwards. Gordon Smith, “the prince of wingers”, left the club in 1959 and joined Hearts, although an ankle injury refused to completely go away. Eddie Turnbull joined Hearts from the Royal Navy after serving in the second world war. He departed Hibs in 1959 but later managed the club. And Willie Ormond finished playing for the club in 1961 and later became Scotland manager between 1973 and 1977. He also had a spell in charge of Hibs.

There were other notable names apart from the much celebrated five: Goalkeeper Tommy Younger won 24 caps for Scotland and later played for Liverpool; Jock Paterson, a centre half, was born in England and had a long career with Hibernian and represented the Scottish League XI; and wing half Bobby Combe played three times for Scotland and spent 16 years with Hibs.

These were golden days for Hibernian, a time when sound team-building and good management could create winners rather than simply bucket-loads of money. Scottish football has long suffered from the imbalance between the “old firm” and the rest of the league and it’s a problem that will not go away. Recreating that golden period has probably never been more unattainable than it is today, but isn’t that what football is all about – dreaming of the impossible and witnessing the unexpected?

This article is dedicated to John Ogilvie, who sadly died of covid-19 in May 2020.