While Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland, it is often overlooked as the capital of Scottish football. The fierce city rivalry between Heart of Midlothian F.C and Hibernian F.C is just as bitter as the Old Firm over in Glasgow. With that in mind, it is rare that one player is loved and admired by both sets of rivals in equal measure.
Willie Hamilton was one of those players. Born in Chapelhall, a small village just outside Airdrie, his career as a professional footballer began in England and would see him playing for Hearts, then transferring across the city to Hibernian before retiring and becoming a bricklayer in Canada. However, both sets of fans, especially those who were lucky enough to witness him playing, share the feelings that he was comfortably one of the greatest players they had ever seen.
Hamilton was a maverick, the type who needed some discipline, but not enough to drown out the raw talent that would lighten up the packed stadiums of the ’60s. The type of player that falls into the category of Diego Maradona and George Best, based on their careers both on and off the pitch. The great Scottish mavericks like Jim Baxter and Jimmy Johnstone are perhaps a more fitting comparison. Despite not making the same ripples in terms of the success on the history of the game as these players, the way Hamilton and the others mentioned inspire us as fans should never be disregarded, even more so nowadays, when we see so few of these types of not only football players but characters.
How Good Was Willie Hamilton?
I am far too young to remember Hamilton. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot online about him either, there’s no chance I would have known about him if it wasn’t for my father. A Hearts fan himself, he would often throw his name into the debate when I mentioned great players of the past. He describes Hamilton as having the same impact on him as Leo Messi does to fans nowadays. There is a fantastic article in the Scotsman from 2006 (I was unable to identify the author) where Donald Ford, the former Hearts striker is quoted in the piece saying Willie was indescribable. He had an uncanny knack of not looking at the ball. He instinctively knew where it was to the inch. When he was in space, he would collect the ball and hit a 30-yard pass without a glance. At other times he would be boxed in by three defenders. Yet within five seconds, he’d have wriggled away from them, all because he could mesmerise opponents. I’ve never come across anyone else quite like him’. Now I don’t want to start comparing him to players who are now hailed as the greatest ever, but that quote alone could easily be describing a certain little Argentine. Hamilton was such an enigmatic character and a delightfully eccentric player. My father adds in with his humbling nature towards praise which proves his strong Scottish roots that Hamilton was either ‘brilliant or a total waste of space’. He always mentions a certain game that he attended as a child with his father on New Years Day 1965, a game that can help sum up the career of this truly blessed entertainer.
Hamilton’s name began to start ringing bells while he was playing for local side Drumpellier Amateurs. Joe Mercer, who was manager of Sheffield United at the time, made the first move in acquiring the young starlet by turning up at Hamilton’s house and offering him a new pair of football boots. Upon turning sixteen, despite from interest in Scotland (which may have been more helpful in his development) Hamilton felt obliged to join Mercer at Sheffield United in 1956 after the compassion he’d shown him. The world of professional football met Willie Hamilton at the Cannes Youth Festival, at the time the most distinguished youth tournament on the continent. Hamilton was voted player of the tournament.
Despite some of his entourage claiming he should have stayed closer to home, Hamilton made 79 appearances for the Blades and scored 21 goals in five seasons. His sister Marion remembers ‘For me, his best football was at Sheffield United. That was the start of his career and as a young player, he was wonderful. He told me he never knew what he was going to do next. He played by instinct’. In an interview with the Scotsman in 2006, Marion also shed some light on her brother’s character. She described him as ‘painfully shy’ and ‘the only time he looked or felt confident was on the football field’. Hamilton couldn’t handle the limelight, struggling to fight off the embarrassment of even a minor encounter with a fan asking for an autograph. On the pitch, he played like a blockbuster movie star, confident to make risky passes or try audacious things. This shows you how powerful a football pitch can be for anyone, a comfort zone. It is hard to imagine a person so shy in public and sick with nerves before every game he played, but then feeling at ease when performing in front of 50,000 spectators every week, with many more watching at home.
He would then start the journey home, stopping off in the North East for a stint at Middlesborough who paid £12,000 for him in 1961. Due to injuries and stomach troubles (an ulcer that would disturb him for the rest of his career), he never really got going on Teesside. Then, in the summer of 1962, Hamilton returned to Scotland. Hearts reportedly paid £7,000 to Middlesbrough, however, an inspection of the club accounts shows that the sum was in fact only £2,500. The mavericks always seem to end up to be available quite cheap, whether it is because they are injury-plagued, attitude-based or inconsistency in the eyes of their managers but they are virtually always worth the risk.
His time at Hearts produced perhaps the zenith of his career, the moment when he cut-back the ball to produce a fantastic assist for his team-mate and friend Norrie Davidson, a goal that would win his side the League Cup at Hampden Park against Kilmarnock. His impact was immediate when arriving at Tynecastle, a fantastic performance and goal on his debut against Dundee had the crowd on their feet applauding their new hero. Despite him more than doing his bit on the pitch, off the pitch Hamilton was a liability. Continuing to live in Airdrie while he was playing in Edinburgh, after drinking sessions, teammates remember how he would stay the night in his car to sleep off the drink, before going directly to training the next day. Marion, however, denies her brother was an alcoholic but admits his ‘bad boy’ reputation was linked to his ‘low threshold for drink’ and loving a Bacardi or two. She always believed that his drinking was just a way for him to ease his anxieties in social situations; ‘…but to suggest he was an alcoholic is ridiculous’.
Sky’s The Limit.
Hamilton’s problem off the pitch was not just drinking. Although playing at the top of the professional game in his country, he treated his physical preparation like a Sunday league player. It would be this lack of discipline that would cost him his shirt at Hearts. After a break in the season due to bad weather, Hamilton returned in shocking shape, so was suspended by manager Tommy Walker and placed on the transfer list. The Rangers’ defender Sandy Jardine highlights how ‘the sky would have been the limit if his physical preparation had ever matched his skill level’. Don’t misunderstand his lack of commitment off the field to think that Hamilton did not take the game seriously. Donald Ford remembers how he would sometimes ‘look down his nose at others he didn’t feel were up to it’ and the great Pat Stanton praises Hamilton for bringing him on massively, saying ‘he could be quite demanding to play with and let you know what was required. Because of his reputation, some thought he was ‘easy-ozy’. But he wasn’t carefree about football.’ Hibernian picked up Hamilton, with Jock Stein taking a gamble on him, knowing that his more modern way of man-management compared to Walker’s may help get the best out of Hamilton again, a gamble that paid off.
Hamilton was always given a bit of leeway from his new employers, the trainer Tom McNiven knew of Hamilton’s famous trick in training. While the players were doing their running laps, Hamilton would sneak over the walls and join in again on the last few laps. The players also knew, but it was never made into a big deal, as they knew what Hamilton brought in the big games. Stein used to prevent Hamilton’s drinking sessions on the eve of a big match by putting him up for the night in his house to keep an eye on him. Hamilton was so unpredictable on the pitch, Jim Scott the Hibernian centre forward in the 60’s claims “I remember a time after training when Jock Stein brought out the tactics board and said ‘Right, we are going to talk tactics – Willie, you go and have a shower’. That was because on the park, everybody played around Willie Hamilton”
The Hogmanay Session.
It was this freedom that would allow Hamilton to showcase his fantastic skills at their peak again. On New Years Day in 1965, in the Edinburgh derby, was a game that my father recalls as seeing ‘the most bizarre performance he has ever seen.’ Bizarre in the fact that despite supporting Hearts, Willie was the main attraction to the game for him. In the first half, in what was a pretty dull affair ‘Willie was atrocious, he looked ill’. At half time my father recalls feeling mixed emotions. Modest optimism at the scoreline still being 0-0 and Hearts having a chance to win it. Besides that, he also was angry at how poorly his hero was performing.
This now makes sense when you look at the eve of the game, New Year’s Eve, 1964. Hamilton would be returning to Tynecastle where he was still somewhat a crowd favourite, albeit now wearing the colours of Hearts’ most hated rivals. With it being such a huge tie, but as it was also New Year’s Eve, the players were all staying in the old Scotia Hotel in Edinburgh, sharing a few glasses of champagne.
“The chairman came in with a crate of champagne at about 9.30 pm and put it on the table,” remembers Hib’s attacker Eric Stevenson. “We just had a wee sip and everybody went to bed – apart from Willie Hamilton. In the Morning Tom McNiven came down the stairs and said, ‘That bugger Willie!’ We had left the crate in the lounge, so Willie must have drunk five or six bottles of it – he couldn’t stand. I wouldn’t talk to him, I was in the huff. Willie and I were good pals and we liked a wee swallie together.”
The second half began 0-0. My father’s hope of a Hearts win was fading quickly, furthermore, the adrenaline was warming up his body on what I’m guessing was surely a cold day, as Willie Hamilton had started turning on his class. Willie had sobered up and, as my Dad claims (which is backed up by YouTube footage of the game) ‘In the second half he was unplayable, amazing. Exactly what I wanted to see. He was fantastic.’ The icing on the cake for him would have been to see Hamilton doing this in the Hearts jersey but you can’t have it all. He scored a fantastic solo goal and Stevenson’s huff with his good friend faded quickly “We won 1-0. He took on three men and hit this ball that rocketed into the net. Off the park, he said, ‘Stevenson – who got you the (win) bonus?” I bet you it was one hell of a drinking session that New Years Day.
That second-half performance was Hamilton as a player summed up, while the first half highlighting his problems off it. I guess you have to feel some sort of frustration towards these types of players like my father did in that first half, but at the same time it’s a game that he can recall so vividly, I feel like it’s a highlight of his life.
Great Recognises Great.
Hamilton was not just a guilty pleasure for fans who admired a certain type of player, he was the real deal, a match-winner, a true talisman. Stein, the man who gave Hamilton his only Scotland cap and someone whose opinion holds authority like few others in Scotland, described Willie Hamilton as the same calibre as Kenny Dalglish, even going once going a step further and described Hamilton as the best player he’d ever seen. “People such as wee Jimmy (Johnstone) and (Jim) Baxter each had that special thing they did brilliantly. But Willie could do it all. He could match anyone in the game with his speed, stamina and shooting power.” This shows not just how highly he held his talisman at Hibernian, but also how he helped get Hamilton back to his best. Unfortunately, after a fantastic first season with Hibernian, Stein was plucked away from the club to manage Celtic, leaving his star striker behind.
A Week That Won’t Be Forgotten In Edinburgh.
Before Stein left for his dream job, Hamilton would have the best week of his Hibernian career. They not only beat one of Scotland’s finest teams but took on one of the greatest teams in the world. Stein managed to persuade chairman Willie Harrower that the club should host Real Madrid in a friendly, only a few days after being beaten by Kilmarnock in the league. In 1964 the European Cup was still a home and away knockout competition, so it was common ground for teams competing in the tournament to play friendlies even during the season, to keep them sharp for the European ties. Also, especially in terms of this Real Madrid side (who went 109 games without losing in the years 1956-1964 at home) teams often demanded an appearance fee. The 30,000 that flocked to Easter Road would more than cover the expenses of Madrid’s appearance fee.
Hibs beat Madrid by 2 goals to nil, which was a huge confidence boost for Stein’s men. Hamilton was outstanding that night, along with Pat Quinn and Pat Stanton. It was no fluke, Hibernian outplayed the Spanish giants who played all the big stars including Alfredo Di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskas, Jose Santamaria and Francisco Gento. Hamilton tormented them in what Stanton described his performance as truly outstanding. ‘The game of his (Hamilton) life was against Real Madrid and I always thought that was the level he should have played at.’ Stanton also tells a fantastic tale of how during the game, Madrid had a corner in which it was Stanton’s job to mark the great Puskas, ‘Willie was standing beside me, the crowd must have thought he was giving me advice. In fact, Willie said: ‘They tell me you get watches for this game.’ And they did give us watches!’ Again proving how relaxed Hamilton was, even when playing with the worlds best players.
Hamilton’s week would get even better when Hibs played reigning champions Rangers at Ibrox. Tensions were high leading up to the game as Hamilton and the star of the Rangers side Jim Baxter had been in a confrontation on the morning of the game, the two of them arguing and laying down claims about what they would do later that afternoon. Hamilton would win, nutmegging Baxter and controlling the game from start to finish, an emphatic 4-2 win for Hibernian with Hamilton rounding off a fabulous performance with a wonderful goal.
With his mentor and manager off to Celtic, it looked for a while that Hamilton would join him. Stein was, of course, ready to take the gamble on him again. However, the Celtic chairman Sir Robert Kelly wasn’t fully sold on the idea of bringing in Hamilton. It is thought that he was suspicious of his reputation away from the game. This opened the door for Aston Villa, who were looking at bringing Hamilton back south of the border. They paid £24,000 for Hamilton, who was now 27 years of age. Showing glimmers of what he would do so often back up in Edinburgh, Hamilton was in a serious car crash and sustained serious chest and facial injuries. In his sister Marion’s eyes, this would be the end of the Willie Hamilton she knew, ‘It knocked the stuffing out of him.’
Hamilton was never really given a chance to show the Villa faithful what he could do, maybe this helps explain why he isn’t such a household name for fans outside of Scotland. It would’ve been amazing to see just how he would have got on without the crash. Instead, Hamilton headed back to Hearts in the summer of 1967, a shadow of his former self.
From Bombing Down The Pitch To Building Houses.
In 1969, Hamilton ended up in South Africa for Durban United. He also had a brief stint in Australia, before heading back to Scotland one last time to play for Ross County in 1971, finally retiring from football at Hamilton Academical in 1972. An unbelievable footballer, but he retired with very little to show from it. Hamilton emigrated to Canada in 1975 with his wife Carol and son William. Strapped for cash, he became a bricklayer.
Billy Mcneil was working for Celtic after his retirement and was involved in the talks when it looked like Hamilton was signing for Celtic in 1965. McNeil once said ‘Today, a player like him (Hamilton), even after seven or eight years, would never need to worry about money again.’
It would get tragically worse for Hamilton and his family as after only a year of leaving Scotland, Hamilton died of a heart attack in 1976, aged 38. As modest and shy as ever, the builders to which Hamilton was working with had no idea that he used to be a footballer .
To make Hamilton more comparable to that of modern-day mavericks I will use the career of Hatem Ben Arfa, a player more personal to me as a Newcastle United fan. Supporting a team like Newcastle, we know we will never challenge for titles or even cups, so players like Ben Arfa or Hamilton are essential for us, as without them it is soulless, and we are left watching dross football with the depressing reward of only surviving in the league by not being as poor as other teams around us. Ben Arfa, a journeyman somewhat yes, but he has left the fans of every club he has been at drooling at the mouth for more, a player that will always divide opinions but not based on his actual talent.
Hamilton, Ben Arfa and all the other players who are so close to becoming ‘world beaters’ are often dubbed an ‘unfulfilled talent’ but I don’t think that is fair. Their talent is to entertain us. They may not make it into a hall of fame or be pictured with the trophies every season, but the talent is there and as the former Hibernian player Peter Cormack said in an article for The Scotsman in 2009, ‘Willie might have let people down outside football, but he never did on the park.’