It is an unfortunate fact of life that many so-called football heroes, admired and revered for their skill on the field, do not live up to that image off-stage. I can recall being in an Edinburgh pub and having to listen from an adjoining table to a former star (and not a Celtic player) mouth off obscenities about past incidents, complain about past injustices and boast about his exploits on and off the football pitch.
And then there is Willie Fernie.
In 2000, Pat Woods and I arranged for an interview with Willie Fernie at his home in Glasgow’s Newlands Drive. It was highly satisfying for Pat and I to meet and talk with somebody who lived fully up to his image.
As a young man, Willie Fernie was a genuine player, and a perfect sportsman; older, he was a gentleman (in the best possible meaning of the word).
Audrey, his wife and who had been Jimmy McGrory’s long-time secretary, had greeted us almost apologetically; Willie, apparently, was out, driving a visitor home and had not yet returned. Much worse was the news that he had very recently been diagnosed with ‘early-onset Alzheimers’ (and might at times be forgetful).
Willie arrived, immediately recognisable and still trim and fit-looking in his 70s; Audrey told him we had been informed about his diagnosis. He shrugged fatalistically, and admitted to a slight difficulty in pronouncing the name of the condition:
“I’ll just call it ‘Oldtimers.’ No great problem. Audrey’ll look after me. She’s been doing that for years, anyway.”
During the interview, Audrey at times hovered nearby, but Willie needed little prompting from her (or us). What we saw that night was an elderly man, happily married, polite and gracious, appreciating that we had taken the trouble to come and interview him and the evening went beautifully.
Willie’s memory did not fail him, and he regaled us with stories of his days at Celtic Park (and also at Rugby Park). What impressed us most was his modesty about his own accomplishments in the game and his tolerance; it was clear that he, a non-smoker and non-drinker, had not cared too much for the habits of some of his playing contemporaries…but he was at pains not to criticise.
He had always been one of my favourite Celtic players and my admiration stemmed as much from his genuine sportsmanship as his undoubted skill and artistry. I saw him make his debut against St Mirren at Love Street on a miserable, rain-swept day, and was reasonably impressed with his promising display at inside right in a 1-0 win (and I believe Bertie Peacock made his second appearance at inside-left the same day).
A month or so later, at Celtic Park on a sunny afternoon, both youngsters starred in a 4-1 win over East Fife and the denizens of the Jungle, notoriously hard to please, roared their encouragement and approval.
I am a few years older than Pat (Woods) and on the way home after the interview I reminded Pat of his great days: pride of place must go to his display (at right-half) in the famous 7-1 triumph in the 1957 League Cup final, but close behind came a scintillating performance (at outside-left) in the Coronation Cup final, when he roasted Hibs’ renowned full-back Jock Govan…and, of course, there was a remarkable balancing-act along the bye line in the 1954 Scottish Cup final to set up the winning goal against Aberdeen (inside-right, that day).
Sturdily-built with square shoulders, an erect posture, a graceful stride, perfect balance: a genuine player, no matter what position he played.
And a perfect sportsman from the start to the end of his football career. I have another personal memory of Willie Fernie. I had been touring Scotland with a party of some 30 Canadian high-school students, and had arranged for a visit to Celtic Park.
It was a Monday morning, and Jock Stein’s Celtic had been surprisingly held to a draw by Hearts on the Saturday in the Scottish Cup and the replay was due at Tynecastle that night. Things were busy at Celtic Park that morning, but the manager was agreeable to the visit going ahead: Jimmy McGrory gave the visiting Canadians a talk about Celtic’s history…Jock Stein dropped in, and invited the youngsters to wander around Celtic Park, and take as many pictures as they wanted.
I found myself in a cubby-hole of a room where Willie was chatting with some of the visitors. He was comfortable with them, asking about Ottawa and where in Scotland they had visited. All the time he was folding the team’s jerseys for that night’s game. One young lady (Christine Trepannier) asked him in all innocence if that was ‘the team’s uniforms.’
Willie, perhaps a little surprised, quietly pointed out, “These are the Celtic jerseys. Lovely, aren’t they?” Christine was impressed and described Willie to me later as “a really nice man” and added, “He was folding those jerseys gently, the same way my mother does after the ironing.”
“A really nice man” and a Celtic legend, indeed.
Foreword by Tom Campbell, Celtic author & historian, for his friend David Potter’s new book, Willie Fernie – Putting on the Style which is out now on Celtic Star Books. Order your copy, a perfect gift for Father’s Day on Sunday 19 June, from the link below…