Joe Baker was one of the most outstanding forwards of his era and he left a lasting impression on those who watched him play at Easter Road.
Joe Baker was one of the most outstanding centre-forwards of his generation.
Strong, skilful and quick, Joe could turn a defender with a single touch and was deadly in the penalty box.
Born in Liverpool, he grew up north of the border with his Scottish parents and began his career at Hibernian after his month’s trial at Chelsea ended without an offer of a contract.
At Hibernian, Joe scored 102 goals in 117 league games and 159 in all competitions in only four seasons.
Aged 17, Joe scored four goals against Hearts in a memorable 4-3 victory at Tynecastle in a Scottish Cup tie en route to the final against Clyde.
His form brought him to the attention of the England selectors and he became the first player from outwith the English Leagues to play for his country. Incredibly he was only 19 when he won the first of his eight caps in a goal-scoring debut against Northern Ireland.
Joe’s goals helped the club to a famous victory over Barcelona in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup and had the ‘away goals’ rule been in force, to a European final after two draws with Italian giants Roma.
The striker was so dangerous that he changed his regular shirt number from 9 to 8 for the return leg in Leith, a tactic which confused the Roma team.
That season he also scored nine goals in a Scottish Cup tie against Peebles Rovers but was overshadowed by his brother Gerry who had scored 10 the previous year for St Mirren against Glasgow University. Gerry would also wear the famous green and white strip of Hibernian with distinction.
The Hibernian Board eventually decided that they ‘could not afford’ Joe’s outrageous demands for a wage rise of £5.00 per week so he was sold to Torino who paid £75,000 for him and he shared a flat in the city with fellow new boy, Denis Law.
Joe spent just one season in Italy, but it was a highly eventful one scoring seven goals in 19 games for Torino and being sent off twice. He began well, scoring twice on his home debut, though his proudest achievement was scoring the winner against Juventus in the Turin derby. This endeared him to fans, but his fondness for nightclubs brought unwanted attention from paparazzi and one Italian photographer ended up in a Venetian lake for his troubles.
Joe’s time in Italy came to a horrific end when he and Law were involved in a serious car crash that hospitalised him for a month.
Law later recalled: “Imagine a 19-year-old Hibs player being selected for England today. It was unheard of then and it would be unheard of now. That shows just how talented Joe was.
“He was a terrific player and it would have been a pleasure to play alongside him in a dark blue shirt at Hampden. Instead, I played against him when he made his second appearance for England.”
Arsenal paid a club-record £70,000 for the 22-year-old and he quickly regained the prolific form he had shown at Hibernian.
He scored on his debut against Leyton Orient and finished as top scorer in all four of his seasons. Having been used to the tight marking of Italian defenders Joe quickly took advantage of the extra space to play, scoring 100 goals in 156 games for the Gunners.
Rangers striker Derek Johnstone closes in on Joe Baker.
His ‘century’ was achieved in fewer games than Thierry Henry’s or Robin Van Persie’s. In terms of goals per game ratio, Joe remains the third most prolific striker in the history of the club.
In addition to goals, Joe feared no-one on the pitch and never shirked a confrontation as Liverpool’s 6ft 2in centre half Ron Yeats found out when he was floored during a game at Highbury, which saw both players sent off.
On another occasion during a pre-season tour of the West Indies Joe allegedly head-butted one of the Jamaican players and the game got abandoned.
Joe was in Alf Ramsay’s initial squad of 40 for the 1966 World Cup but missed the cut in favour of Jimmy Greaves, Geoff Hurst and Roger Hunt despite a goal-scoring performance in a 2-0 victory over Spain in Madrid the previous year which many cite as the turning point in the fortunes of the side that went to lift the trophy.
Joe joined Nottingham Forest from Arsenal and his 49 goals in 134 games helped the club to a runners-up place in the first division.
After a brief spell with Sunderland, Joe returned to Easter Road.
His second debut for Hibernian was one of the most memorable games in the history of the club against Eddie Turnbull’s Aberdeen who had gone 15 game unbeaten whilst Hibernian hadn’t won in their previous nine.
On that cold afternoon, an astonishing 23,402 fans crammed into the stadium and Easter Road erupted in a sea of green and white in the 68th minute when Joe celebrated his return by scoring the second with a sensational diving header.
Joe later recalled the day saying: “It was an incredibly emotional reunion. The reception I got when I ran onto the pitch made me realise just what I had been missing all these years.”
Pat Stanton recalled: “When Joe ran onto the pitch he was wearing white boots which I couldn’t remember any players in Scotland wearing at the time but he showed that he could still play.
“A lot of players rely on speed and when it goes they’ve not got the technique. Everybody gets old and Joe had been away from Easter Road for a while but he was still quick and allied to his experience, he knew when to use that pace.”
Joe Baker in action.
Joe played another 33 times for Hibs during his second spell scoring 17 times before moving to today’s opponents Raith Rovers where he scored an incredible 43 times in 66 games.
Joe had two brief spells as manager of Albion Rovers but worked mainly as a publican. He remained a popular figure around Easter Road and his contribution to the Hands Off Hibs campaign will never be forgotten.
Joe passed away whilst playing golf in Lanarkshire on 6th October 2003. He was survived by his wife Sonia, daughter Nadia and son Colin.
Written by John Hislop