Willie Loney was born in 1879 and joined Celtic in summer 1900. He came from Denny Athletic, and he was one of Maley’s first and cleverest signings. Around Willie would grow the greatest Celtic defence up to that point, and arguably of all time.
Willie Loney was a large youth, of silent temperament and, unlike other centre halves like McStay, Lyon and McNeill in later years, Loney never aspired to be a captain. His leadership of his defence on the field however was what mattered, and it was done by silent example rather than by shouting and blaming anyone else for his own (rare) blunders.
In these days, centre half could also be an attacking position. Loney was capable of attacking and indeed he scored 29 goals in his career but most of them were when he paid a surprise visit to the opposition’s penalty box. By inclination, Willie was a genuine defender, and when he did go up to try to score, it was only, as he said, “tae gie Quinn a hand”. In their younger day, when both Quinn and Loney were very fast, the double centre half/double centre forward game was played to devastating effect.
Loney must however be seen in the context of his two wing halves, Jimmy Young and Jimmy Hay. The half back line of Young, Loney and Hay still reverberates round Scottish football. The three of them were indeed half backs, taking a stranglehold of the centre of the field, stopping opposition attacks before they started, and starting Celtic ones. “Burglar proof, rain proof and wind proof”, they were called.
Willie was of course able to play it tough, as a centre half needed to do in Edwardian football. Injuries came frequently and Willie could count a broken arm and a broken wrist among his battle scars. It was all however part of the game, reckoned Willie, for professional football for a Club he loved and a Manager he revered was a far better life than anything that the pits of Denny could offer.
He had a plethora of nicknames, all complimentary. “The Obliterator”, “The Destroyer”, “No Road This Way”, “The Gobbler” were at times bestowed on him, as Celtic won the Scottish Cup in 1904 and simply went from strength to strength after that, winning six League titles in a row.
Any great opposition centre forward would be treated with respect, but usually his influence was nullified by the mighty Loney. “We scarcely see the lad at all – if Willie Loney’s playing!” was a line from a poem written about great centre forwards who fell on the “Gibraltar rock” of Willie Loney.
It was 1905 and 1906 that Celtic saw Loney at his best. Only 20 goals were scored against Celtic in the League campaign of 1905-06, and for eight games in midwinter, Celtic kept a clean sheet. These were the only seasons of the six great years that Loney was free from injury. He actually missed three Scottish Cup finals through injury – 1907, 1909 (where his presence might well have made a difference) and 1911. Later in 1911 he picked up a strange disease called “British Cholera” but survived and came back to win a Scottish Cup medal in 1912 to add to those he won in 1904 and 1908. Celtic were fortunate in that they could juggle their defence around if Loney was injured and bring in men like Alec McNair and Joe Dodds, but there was no real substitute for the mighty Willie Loney.
Loney was only twice capped for Scotland. He was unfortunate in that he came at the same time as Charlie Thomson of Hearts who was also good, and being more extroverted and more of a talker, tended to win the nod rather than the ultra efficient but occasionally unflamboyant Willie Loney. Loney would of course have loved to play oftener for Scotland, but it was not his way to complain. A stoic “let’s make the best of it” was his trademark.
He left Celtic to join Motherwell in 1913 and subsequently played for Partick Thistle and Clydebank before retiring in 1917. He remained on friendly terms with ex-Manager Maley, doing a little informal scouting for Celtic as well as a more official talent spotting job for Aston Villa. As late as 1953 he appeared at Celtic Park along with Maley, he and McMenemy escorting Maley on to the field on the famous day that Celtic at last made their peace with Maley.
His granddaughter recalls him going to church every Sunday, tipping his hat to all the ladies and smiling to all and sundry. He was a proper gentleman, kind, courteous and much loved. Like his old friend Jimmy Quinn, he look surprisingly “just like an ordinary man”. But of course, he wasn’t. He was one of the rocks of Maley’s great side, and one of Celtic’s best defenders of all time.
Willie Loney died in 1956 at the age of 77, having outlived almost all of his contemporaries apart from Jimmy McMenemy and Davie McLean, from the great days of 50 years previously.