Cider warned me, ‘he’ll no recognise you.’
Willie Miller was standing in the doorway, squinting in my direction. He bounded down the two steps and came out into his driveway, took a step up on to the mossy lawn to meet me. Cider hovered, anxiously, at my shoulder.
‘How you getting on Jack?’ Willie stuck out his hand.
We shook hands, ‘Great Willie, how are you getting on?’
‘No bad,’ he smiled.
I only ever talked to Willie about fitba. I’ve known him for about thirty years. Yet I didn’t know if he supported Celtic or Rangers. He had no interest in the Glasgow giants. He played and managed the Co-op fitba team for sixty years and that was his passion. If they ever put up a statue for the man that invented walking fitba and led others to believe that they could play (ahem), then there would be a statue of Willie Miller on every street corner in Clydebank and whatever town we’re currently twinned with abroad.
Willie was born at the beginning of the hungry thirties. Scots Home Rule – in the Union was being debated (*spoiler, it didnae happen – not yet) and Scotsman Jim Mollison fly from Briton to Cape Town in Puss Moth and took four days, seventeen hours and nineteen minutes and broke some kind of record. Maybe that’s when Willie got his idea for walking fitba. He was pretty keen on the Boy’s Brigade and lived in Birch Street, Parkhall, like many others school kids he was evacuated to Ayrshire, after the Clydebank Blitz.
Willie did his national service and grew up at a time of full employment and a job for life. His trade was butcher and he worked for the Co-op, one of post-war Britain’s great success stories. The Co-op delivered out milk and eggs and Co-op stamps were legal tender in their department stores. He met Mary, his wife, at the dancing and they married in 1963.
His daughter Sharon, married Cider. Willie was pragmatic because it gave his team a new centre forward and two grandkids Lee and Abby. Willie had moved on from the Co-op, as the company disintegrated. He worked for the Albion and later as a janitor in Dalmuir Primary. Willie managed the primary school football team on the red-blaze pitch. He spent a lot of time lining the pitch and teaching the team how to take proper throw-ins. My memories of playing against Dalmuir was they were really good at taking shys, but never won a game.
By this time Willie was the janitor in Clydebank High I was playing with Cider in the Co-op football team. Every year we won a trophy in the Welfare League, The Fair Play Trophy. But one year I think St Peters, who were all about thirteen with thin reedy voices, ran as close for the Fair Play Trophy. But they lost it in the hectic final few game, only going on to win the two Welfare Scottish Cups instead. Willie was ecstatic. He didn’t like players that swore, or were violent, like those St Peter apostles.
Every year Willie held a dance. In my time it was in Dalmuir Bowling Club. Willie didn’t smoke, or drink much (if at all), but he liked bowling and could dance. He kept his shoes as shiny as I’m sure he kept his fitba boots encrusted in dubbing when playing for the Boy’s Brigade and later as a flying winger for the Co-op. When we went to training up in the wee gym hall in Clydebank High, rattling about like beans in a tin can, three against three or sometimes two against two, inevitably, there would be too many, or too few bodies and Willie would step in and play. There was a kinda tacit agreement nobody would tackle Willie, he was in his seventies. Inevitably wee Martin would, because although he was in his forties, he had the speed of a traffic cone and Willie was quicker than him. Willie handed out trophies from Tausney’s at the end of the year.
I should re-phrase that. Trophies, Willie pronounced as ‘Troffffeeeees’. As well as inventing walking fitba he had invented the Esperanto of Troffeee speak. Player of the year, went every year to Jim Anderson. When Jim retired at 65, it went to Jim’s son, David Anderson. David Anderson, was most probably, the Co-op’s best ever player. At thirteen, training with his dad, he was better than anyone else (with one exception, ahem).
Willie had a sense of humour and liked Laurel and Hardy. Because every year the main trofffeee went to Jim, and top scorer trofffeee went to Cider, Willie invented other trofffeee winners. One year I got an award for being the most promising player. I’d stopped being a promising player aged nine, after that it was all downhill. Most managers took a look at me and because I was taller than most other players, played me at Centre-Half. Willie quickly noticed I couldn’t heady a ball and had a tendency to run into people with the ball when I did have it. He already had enough players doing that in defence. Willie always played me in midfield where my tendency to run about and get in the road of the opposition was my only asset.
Like Jock Stein, Willie Miller, maximised my strengths. Willie always turned up early, with half cut oranges and juice. He prepared his half time speech in advance, telling us how unlucky we were and how with a bit of luck we could turn it around in the second half. I think there was a season we lost every game, although to be fair, we might have drawn one or even two.
Willie would make copious notes, standing at the side of the pitch. I’d love to read them. They would be a hoot. Willie didn’t swear. Not even besom. If I could look over his shoulder they’d read something like this: Cider McIver **I******, Jack O’Donnell ******** sake
That day I’d met him outside his house he’d vascular dementia.
I’d only one question for him, more of a statement, ‘Was I the best player to ever play for the Co-op.
Willie just laughed.