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Hearing the Family Whistle

July 22, 2013
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So why do I have tears in my eyes as I sit down to write about the death of Lawrie Reilly, Hibs and Scotland football legend, and member of the Famous Five forward line?

Well, let’s be honest. Men of a certain age have a tendency to over sentimentalise sport, and, anyway, my emotions are regularly displayed far too near the surface for a guy brought up in Scotland.

But really, it’s about more than that.

One of the noticeable themes in all the fans’ tributes to ‘Last Minute’ Reilly are the numbers who are posting pictures taken with the great man. We live now in an era when I would struggle to name the Hibs’ team from two years ago, but Lawrie spent his entire career with his boyhood heroes. If anyone earned the soubriquet “Mr Hibs’, it was Lawrie – though he would have silenced you with a look had you dared to suggest that -= and, right to the end of his life he could be found at Easter Rd – in Hospitality, around the stadium, at supporters’ meetings – always available, always willing to chat. For today’s generation of Hibernian Supporters, he wasn’t ‘that old club legend’ or ‘the former striker’ – he was Lawrie – in his club blazer and tie, striking by his silver hair, but unassuming in every other way, as happy to sit in the corner as to hold the centre of attention.

He got on well with all manner of supporter because he, like them, was a Hibs’ man. When asked if he regretted turning down big money moves to England, he would shake his head and dismiss the idea with a sweep of his arm. “My father was a Hibee, I was born a Hibee, I’ve always been a Hibee, and I’ll die a Hibee.”

More than once this morning, folk have said to me: “He was all that is good about our club.”

And that, I think, is the first reason for my tears. He was that rarest of things: “A Good Man”.

You couldn’t be more Hibs than Lawrie Reilly, yet, despite living close to Tynecastle Park in part of his youth, he was wise enough to understand that you don’t show your support for anything by hating something else. He was never happier than when he scored against the Hearts, but he despised the bile and childish hate adopted by so many current day fans towards our city neighbours. He couldn’t understand it – they were our closest sporting rivals, they were Edinburgh – our city – you beat them as often as you could, but you couldn’t hate neighbours or family just because they sported maroon colours rather than green. I never heard him say anything negative or bitter about anyone; he was a feisty competitor as countless centre halfs would testify – but he never confused that with personal animosity. That made him so much bigger than so many folk today.

When Ted Brack was cooperating with Lawrie on his life story, he said that the most difficult thing about writing the book was getting Lawrie to talk about himself. He would talk about the other four members of the ‘Five’ at length and with affection and insight, but try to steer the chat round to Reilly: his 238 goals for Hibs, his 22 goals in 38 Scotland appearances, including 5 in 5 v England at Wembley – and he would wave that away and talk of others’ contributions. He had a good understanding of his own talent, he wasn’t falsely modest, he just didn’t like talking about himself.

His unassuming nature was another thing which marked him out as something more than just a supremely talented footballer. It’s easy to sentimentalise football in the fifties – loyalty to club, players from the local community, crowds of biblical proportions. But it’s also easy to forget the downside of it all. Players were treated as slave labour – Lawrie himself had a protracted dispute with Hibs over his contract; injuries were poorly treated, many footballers ending up crippled in later life. Lawrie’s own career was shortened by injury, he never became a rich man through the sport, but, as he said himself, he became a happy man – playing for ‘his’ team, enjoying the praise of his fellow pros, and the adulation of the Hibernian support. Followers of the contemporary game can make their own comparisons.

But with Hibs, it’s always family.

I am proud to say I saw Lawrie Reilly play. Apparently!

My first visit to Easter Rd was just before my 4th Birthday – January 2nd 1956. As I’ve written before, it was the only occasion I was to watch the Hibs with my Dad and his brother James – a former Hibs’ player. I remember the occasion with great clarity, I just can’t remember anything about the football!

But that’s the connection – Lawrie was one of my dad’s heroes. He spoke about Lawrie and Gordon Smith the way I would talk of Pat Stanton, Jimmy O’Rourke, or Keith Wright – so when I got to meet Lawrie – as must be the case with so many Hibs fans – I was struggling with a whole raft of emotions, all based in that most febrile of areas somewhere between family and football.

It was January 2009. My son, Patrick had recently reached his 21st Birthday and, being McPartlins, part of the celebration was in Hospitality at Easter Rd.

To our delight, the Hibs’ Host at our table was Lawrie Reilly. Those who met Lawrie will know that there was never any danger of this being awkward or difficult for us as star struck supporters. He chatted away quite the thing, answered our questions, put us at our ease, and showed the same skills as a matchday host as he had as a centre forward. In the end, you forgot who he was and just enjoyed the fascinating football chat and insight.

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At one point during the meal, Ned Turnbull came into the restaurant and stopped to talk to Lawrie; meanwhile Pat Stanton was nearby, getting a football signed for a charity auction. The moment was too fabulous to miss. Patrick now has a photograph of himself with Turnbull, Reilly and Stanton. It’s well known that Paddy and Ned weren’t bosom buddies; I like to think only Lawrie Reilly could have got them together like that!

Almost as good as the chat with Lawrie was to find ourselves for the game, sitting behind Lawrie and Pat Stanton – with 972 appearances and 316 goals for Hibs between them, as they commented on the game and the players. A true education, and, again, all conducted without anger or irritation – despite the fact that the players on show were nowhere near the ability of the two men sitting in front of us. A good lesson learned.

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I don’t suppose we often meet our heroes and find they exceed our expectations – but that was Lawrie.

Like the Beatles after them, part of the Famous Five’s impact was that they had discernible personae: Bobby Johnstone was the no nonsense artisan, Willie Ormond the nippy sweetie, Ned Turnbull was the hard man former sailor, Gordon Smith was the smooth matinee idol, and Lawrie was the supporter who was living our dreams. We loved all of them for different reasons I guess, but Lawrie was that favourite relative who never forgot to bring you a treat, but never spoiled you, lovable but nobody’s fool.

He was a fund of stories and one from that wonderful day in the west stand will demonstrate the man and his impact.

When he was young, he lived in Stockbridge – ‘Stockaree’ as he called it – a very different place to the Rive Gauche wannabe of today. The kids from the tenements, as was normal in those days, would play outside all hours. There were so many of them that, when their tea was ready, instead of shouting their names, their parents would employ a distinctive whistle to call their weans, quite often with the aid of fingers in mouth. Even 70 years later, Lawrie was still able to replicate his dad’s particular notes.

Telling the story, and in typical Lawrie mode, he switched from Stockbridge to Wembley Stadium. It was his first game for Scotland there, waiting on the half way line for the referee to start the game. Not normally nervous, the occasion was starting to get to him, the hushed silence of expectation was quite oppressive. Then in the split second before the game started, he heard something – that distinctive Reilly Family whistle coming from the old stand high above him. He turned and looked up, and with the luck of fate, spotted his dad there waving and cheering. He went on to score.

Coincidentally, yesterday was the anniversary of the death of one of my other footballing heroes, John White of Tottenham and Scotland. Known as ‘The Ghost of White Hart Lane” for his silky movement and skills, he was taken too soon, struck by lightning on a golf course at the age of 27. Lawrie, on the other hand, lived a long, happy and fulfilled life – but ghosts tend to inhabit our footballing dreams.

When I look at that picture of my son with Reilly, Turnbull and Stanton, I can’t help but see the much loved if shadowy figures of my dad and my uncle. The thing about Lawrie, though, was that he was real, flesh and blood, and grounded in Hibernian earth.

Family and football is, as I mentioned, a heady mixture.

I suspect, as long as there is an Hibernian FC, the Hibs Family will remember this lovely man, and continue to hear that distinctive whistle in the stands, coming from one of our own: Lawrie Reilly.

And I’m wondering if Dad or James will win the race to greet him as he takes his eternal reward.

God bless, Lawrie – thank you for making our club great, by being yourself.
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One Comment leave one →
  1. mark strachan permalink
    July 25, 2013 12:02 pm

    Fantastic as ever Sean. I actually spoke briefly to you in the queue for the plane coming back from Billund, although I didn’t know it was you at the time. One day I hope I make your aquaintance.

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