WORDS: LAYTH YOUSIF
Shortly before Scotland met England at Wembley this summer, one of the greatest players in the history of the rivalry passed away. Lawrie Reilly, Hibernian legend, will forever be remembered north of the border for his achievements on the pitch, but the humble hero never told the stories himself…
“Our kit was green with white sleeves. It was the only kit I wore in all the time I ever played: I was born a Hibee and I’ll die a Hibee.”
What must it be like for a man to play for the team he loved deeply as a child? How must it feel to play in a stadium where you watched from the terraces as a youngster; to be revered by the very people you used to stand with, who you travelled to the ground with on the bus, the journey taking you first as a spectator, then as a player? And then to represent your country, cheered on by its passionate countrymen.
And throughout it all, as your inherent modesty forbade otherwise, your character, as much as your achievements – though they were plentiful – was such that your memory is enshrined in goodwill, love and respect, to the extent that you will be talked about with a fond reverence for as long as your football club exists.
What must that be like for a man, for his proud family, and for the supporters who take a vicarious pride in their local hero and his achievements? Even now.
Lawrance Reilly, footballer, born 26 October 1928; died 22 July 2013. 355 appearances for Hibernian. 238 goals. The club’s most capped player, with 38. With 22 international goals, his strike rate is as good as anything the Tartan Army has witnessed. Only Denis Law, Kenny Dalglish and Hughie Gallacher have scored more goals for Scotland.
The figures tell you about his career in numbers. But there so were many stories the statistics fail to reveal about the man idolised by the Leith club’s faithful and every follower of the national side.
When his birth was registered, Lawrie Reilly’s forename was spelt Lawrance rather than Lawrence, and like another, more recent footballing great, Dennis Bergkamp – called Dennis by his father in tribute to another true Scottish legend Denis Law but spelt incorrectly – Reilly’s dad retained this spelling for his son’s name.
“I practiced a lot as a kid because we didn’t have anything else to do”, Lawrie recalled a few years before his death. ”You had a wee ball and you played headers against the wall and you ran to school dribbling with a wee ball: you grew up with the ball”.
“I had seen Hibs play on every ground in Scotland as a supporter by the time I was 10. My dad worked on the trains so we always went by train”.
He may have been born near Tynecastle but Hearts never came into it. “They had a word with my dad but there was no chance,” he said with an impish smile in a TV interview years after his playing career had ended. In it he laughed with joviality rather than a rueful bitterness that some players exhibit when talking of their time: “I got a hug signing on fee – it was £20 pounds! The first thing I did with the money was buy my mother an electric carpet cleaner”.
Reilly was the last surviving member of Hibernian’s “Famous Five” forward line, flanked by Gordon Smith and Bobby Johnstone on the right, and Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond on the left. This feted line-up, as part of the best team in Scotland, won Hibs two consecutive league titles, in 1951 and 1952. They nearly won the league again in 1953, but Rangers just pipped them on goal average. It was a time Edinburgh football fans will never forget.
“We knew exactly what each other was going to do. There were no passengers. I was the centre forward which was the easiest position playing with these lads”, recalled Lawrie with the kind of humility his team-mates came to admire him for.
“Lawrie Reilly was a great man. A modest man,” said Turnbull, who later managed the club as well. “When he came into the side we started playing more consistently and scored more goals. A lot of that was down to him”.
“We had this knack of interchanging. Nobody ever taught us it we just did it. We were all essential to one another”.
Rare colour footage exists of this humble but brave man training on the pitch at Easter Road. He may have only been 5ft 7in, with a granite jaw, but when he runs toward the camera before looking away in something resembling embarrassment, he also reveals to us he had a gentle shy smile. His modesty in this silent but revealing Technicolor shot is there for all to see. Even at the height of his powers in his early twenties, when a man thinks he is invincible.
It is commonly remembered that Chelsea, on retrograde advice from the terminally insular Football League secretary of the time Alan Hardaker, turned down the opportunity to become England’s first representative in the fledgling European Cup of 1955/56. What is less commonly known is that Aberdeen – that year’s Scottish Champions – also did so, but for vastly different reasons. Their protests were more against the notion that playing under floodlights in continental Europe would give the home side a far superior advantage.
By 1955, it was three years since the second of those two league titles for Hibs, but the reputation of their Famous Five forwards remained powerful. The club itself had shown an appetite to play summer tours against international opposition. They had also shown an innovative edge by touring Brazil that decade, and they beat Matt Busby’s Manchester United 7-3 in a testimonial for Gordon Smith in 1952. So it was with great excitement that Hibernian entered the inaugural European Cup in Aberdeen’s stead.
The campaign started well, even if Johnstone had left by then for Manchester City – and FA Cup glory – in 1956, due in large part to the Revie Plan. Yet City weren’t the only team that season to excite by withdrawing a forward as Hungary had done with Nandor Hidegkuti.
The Hibees did it too. It was Reilly, of course, who dropped back to act as a creative pivot and dictate play. The results were seriously impressive. In the first round of the European Cup, Hibs eviscerated Rot Weiss Esssen, the champions of Germany – including the influential Helmut Rahn, who scored two goals in the 1954 World Cup final – 5-1 on aggregate, with Reilly scoring in the 4-0 away leg rout.
Djurgarden of Sweden were beaten in the next round. In the semi-final, fledgling European giants Real Madrid and AC Milan faced off. But the other semi saw Raymond Kopa’s Stade Reims (also containing the French 1984 European Championship winning manager Michel Hidalgo) play Hibernian.
Despite conceding a goal midway through the second half, Hibernian and Reilly admirably pushed on for a leveller instead of settling for a narrow defeat. Unfortunately, in the last minute Kopa set up Bliard for Reims’s second.
The deficit was too much for Hibernian to claw back in the second leg in Edinburgh as Kopa set up the vital away goal. “Even now, many years later,” an ageing Reilly recalled, “I can categorically state that the 3-0 aggregate margin greatly flattered Reims. They were a very good side but we were definitely better than them. We just missed too many opportunities which we would normally have taken, and we weren’t strong enough defensively.”
In the final at Parc des Princes, Reims went 2-0 up within the first 10 minutes and came within 11 minutes of beating Real Madrid before losing 4-3.
We will never know if Scotland’s first entrants in the European Cup – Reilly’s great Hibs team of the 1950s – could also have given the immortal Real Madrid side a game, and maybe changed European footballing history.
Yet if Reilly was, is and will forever be loved at Hibernian, the same also applies to the Tartan Army.
“I was going down the road to get a bus to Easter Road to play in a friendly against Manchester United,” recalled Reilly. “A bloke at the bus stop says, ‘By the way Lawrie, congratulations on your first call up for Scotland.’”
“Well, I didn’t know whether to go home to tell my folks first or go the match to play against Manchester United!”
Family man that he was there was only ever going to be one outcome for the excited Reilly.
“The rampant lion on your breast is really something. In those days you could only wear the Scottish jersey if you played for the national team. You couldn’t buy it in the shops. It was a real honour for me. A real honour”, he said in an interview, eyes blazing with pride.
“Scotland used to have loads of ball-playing inside-forwards. Kids learned that skill from dribbling tennis balls. Nowadays, unfortunately, no one beats anyone on the ball.”
Reilly played outside -left for Scotland against England. On outside-right for England was Stanley Matthews. In a radio interview with Jimmy Armfield in 1996, he chuckled at the memory.
“Now that was an experience I will never forget because, being young and stupid, I went out to play well against him. I never got within five yards of him!”
“He was simply the finest I’d ever seen at not letting people get near you”, he said astutely but with typical generosity. Yet Lawrie was being modest again. He failed to mention that Scotland hadn’t lost in his first 13 internationals, or the fact he scored a goal that day. “Against the run of play”, he said about one of his five goals in five games against the Auld Enemy – another stat he failed to mention.
No one has scored more goals for Scotland against England.
A reporter dubbed him “last-minute Reilly” for a late goal he scored at Wembley in 1953, just as Alf Ramsey was about to intervene. “I always remember our keeper was the third man to congratulate me – he must have run 80 yards!
“It was the highlight of my career playing at Wembley. I used to read that people couldn’t play at Wembley and I just thought why not. All Scots love Wembley. We had 30,000 backing there. It was the biggest thing for Scots. People saved all year to get down to London for the weekend.”
Yet his career was already on borrowed time. He contacted pleurisy, which saw him miss the 1954 World Cup finals, where Scotland lost 7-0 to Uruguay. To recuperate he was sent on a cruise to Copenhagen.
“The captain arranged a game against another ship when we got there. I wasn’t supposed to play as I was still recovering, but I couldn’t help it. So we agreed I’d play centre-half. The other team were far better but at the end the opposing manager came up to our manager and said, “Good effort, but I couldn’t help thinking your centre-half would have been better as a centre-forward!”
It must have been easy for Reilly to behave as he did. He was a decent man. It must have been easy too for his proud family and supporters to love him. Everything you learn about Reilly indicates that this was a man of loyalty; a man of a deep honourable character; a man who, whilst never taking himself too seriously off the pitch, was profoundly proud to play for his country and his team; a man, who to paraphrase the great American writer Phillip Roth, did the best he could with the things he had.
“I always played hard, right through to the final whistle, and it just so happened I got the chances,” Lawrie once said with characteristic understatement.
Sadly, his last season for Hibs was curtailed by a cartilage injury, forcing him to retire at the age of 29. He became a publican, enjoying his golf and continuing his connection to the club of his heart as a popular matchday host at the Easter Road stadium.
For all its problems football does sometimes honour its genuine heroes. And when Lawrie passed away, many turned out for his funeral. Current Scotland manager, Gordon Strachan, who grew up a Hibs supporter, spoke fondly of Reilly on the day of his death:
“I used to see Lawrie regularly when I went to Easter Road,” he said. “He was a big hero of my father and it’s not great news. But he has left us with some fantastic memories. He scored five times [against England] but, even though I met him so many times, he never mentioned that. It’s a measure of how much a gentleman he was that he never mentioned that.
“Great players never tell you what they did – people already know.”