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Light and Shades

November 15, 2013

Tomorrow will be the 50th Annniversary of the day I started attending live football – and every other weekend since – and frequently more often, attendance at a football ground has been my norm.

I must have seen thousands of players and games, and, inevitably, a lot of the action merges into a blur. However, there are individuals and teams who stand out – perhaps for a particular goal, a save, a passage of play, or even a bit of madness.

One of the teams who stand out are the Hibs’ side who were the legendary Turnbull’s Tornadoes. Across the football world they are recognized as one of Scotland’s greatest sides. Each of the players was distinctive, and in Pat Stanton, the team was led by a man who could only be referred to as “Mr Hibs”.

However, one player in that side, not the most talented, but certainly the most committed, has a story which is truly unique.

Consider that team’s left back: Erich Schaedler. Born in the Scottish Borders to a father who had been a German PoW, he went on to win his only cap for Scotland against West Germany. In an age when most players’ post training routine was a steak pie supper and a couple of pints, he was fanatical about fitness, fascinated by physiotherapy, and highly aware of the physiological elements of sport. His tackling was fierce but his approach was fair. He was a joker who could be intense, a loner who was loved by all who knew him, a near teetotaller who ran two pubs, and a much admired hero who died alone, at Christmas, apparently by his own hand, and at the painfully young age of 36, whilst still a professional footballer

Football biographies are not easy to write: they can easily stray into the land of self justifying anecdotes and tedious lists of games and results. Erich Schaedler deserved better than that, and, thankfully he has received it in Colin Leslie’s fine tribute to him: Shades: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Erich Schaedler from Black and White Publishing.

The details of his early career in the Borders, his short spell with Stirling Albion, his long love affair with Hibs, his success with Dundee and his final stop at Dumbarton are all well covered, but always in a manner which tells us more about the man himself and his complex relationship with the game he loved.

As Colin suggests, there were more than enough rumours flying about Edinburgh after his demise, to engender a sensationalist potboiler of the worst kind. However, while stating his wish that he wanted to find out, at least for Erich’s family, more facts about his death and the reasons behind it, the author is principled enough to avoid tabloid speculation, and honest enough to admit that the mystery still remains.

“Shades” is a good read – but it’s more than that. It’s a reminder to sports fans that their heroes are human and composed of more than their public image. In times when depression in sportmen is beginning to gain more consideration, Colin’s approach to whatever demons Erich may have had, and the wise words of his former team mate and SPFA leader, Tony Higgins, on the support that is needed for professionals, particularly at the end of their careers, lend this biography a gravity which extends far beyond the story of this one player and one life.

Inevitably, there is a melancholy hanging over Schaedler’s story – but there is much to raise a smile: his weakness for fast cars, his pranks with fellow players, his kindness to fans at every club, the respect of his fellow pros, the dive from the tour hotel balcony into the swimming pool, his determination to be first up Arthur’s Seat on training runs and, I suppose, his defining moment, his crunching tackle on Dave Clunie in the lead up to Hibs 7th goal in “The Greatest Game ever played” in January 1973.

Everyone who knew him was shocked at the manner of his death, and clearly – among all of his family, team mates, and supporters, there is a sharp appreciation of what might have been, and a collective guilt that they might have done more to change his life. However, if the honesty in this book helps others to be more alert to a loved one’s despair, or encourages even more awareness of the issues sportsmen can face, then Erich Schadler, nearly three decades after his death, will still be doing what he did in life – helping others and inspiring them.

Colin Leslie may have been apprehensive that he might not do Erich Schaedler justice. He needn’t have worried. Erich was no run of the mill footballer, and this is no run of the mill biography.

It is respectful without being hagiography, brings insight without intrusion, and, like the much mourned Erich himself, is effective, sensitive and to the point.

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