Willie Miller 18/10/32 – 12/6/19 RIP

willie as a youngster

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 the butcher.jpg

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.

willie at cider and sharon's wedding.jpg

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.



Tommy Burns, BBC Alba 9pm, BBCiPlayer.

tommy burns.jpg


In the week of another lacklustre Celtic performance in Europe, and, ironically, when Celtic visit Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park on Sunday,  this is a wonderful tribute to the evergreen Tommy Burns who died ten years ago, at the age of 51, of skin cancer, who managed both teams. Why a boy from the Carlton was on Gaelic telly I don’t know, and don’t care, I loved it. Tommy loved his family, who appear here talking about how great their dad was –and I’m not arguing- he loved his fitba and Celtic and he loved his Roman Catholic faith. His life revolved around his beliefs. A true Celtic diehard, but not a bigot.

Former Ranger’s managers Walter Smith and Ally McCoist helped carry his coffin. All the football greats were in attendance of this humble man. Billy Stark his former teammate and assistant manager at Kilmarnock broke down in tears as he talked about Tommy, and how grateful he was to have played for and followed in the footsteps of the great Jock Stein and managed Celtic.

Kenny Dalglish, Danny McGrain and Davy Hay the Quality Street team of the Stein nine-in-a-row era all loved Tommy. Gordon Strachan stayed an extra year in the gold-fish bowl of Celtic because he knew Burns was dying. Paddy Bonner shared a room with the young Burns and a love of Celtic. George McCluskey talked about signing a contract with Kilmarnock because of Burns, a friend he trusted – to slag him off – but not rip him off.

But to imagine this is a programme about football would be a mistake. This is a programme about family and uncommon humanity. Burns wasn’t the cream of the Quality Street team, but in a new era where we have Kieran Tierney, a boy who is Celtic daft, playing for the Hoops, he would do well to follow in the footsteps of the late-great Tommy Burns, who oozed joy in living and may he rest in peace in Paradise. All Celtic players should be made to watch this programme. Then, maybe, some shysters, like Dembele, would understand, there’s no king of Glasgow, we are a republican team, but the passing on of a true Carlton heritage of Brother Wilfred and helping each other be the best we can be. Hail, Hail, Tommy Burns.

Glasgow 1967: The Lisbon Lions, BBC 1 Scotland, directed by John McLaverty.

billy lifting the cup.jpg


Narrator Rory McCann had an easy job, everybody knows the score. Celtic were the first British team to win the European cup. Inter Milan had scored from the penalty spot in seven minutes, cancelled by an equalising second-half goal by Tommy Gemmell and a late winner from Stevie Chalmers. ‘You’re a legend John. You’re a legend.’ Bill Shankly famously said of the late great Jock Stein after this win. The anniversary of the fifty years since that famous win in the Estadio Nacional, near Lisbon, in Portugal on May 25th 1967 is commentated today, and the strange thing was I was biting my nails as if the score was still in doubt.

The joy of that victory still resonates. Celtic will never again win the European Cup or Champions League as it’s now called. Even getting into the competition is regarded as a mark of success, something to be proud of, and rightly so. It’s difficult to imagine Scotland being a powerhouse of European football. Rory McCann reminded us that in 1967 Rangers reached the final of the Cup Winners Cup and Kilmarnock the semi-final of the Fairs Cup. These were remarkable achievements. Even Ranger’s captain of that time and voted Ranger’s greatest ever player, John Greig was wheeled out to say this Celtic team were something special and in Jock Stein they had a twelfth man. He didn’t include the referees, of course, because they were always Ranger’s men, but that didn’t matter. Celtic were so good other teams needed thirteen men.

But they were also innocent times. Bobby Lennox travelled 30 miles from Saltcoats. He was the furthest away player recruited into the European Cup winning team. The other ten players were recruited from a ten-mile radius of Parkhead. Spitting distance. Bertie Auld was in fine form as a raconteur, talking about his old Panmule Street team, that had their own song, which he sung. And how one family in a single end had 15 boys, but they didn’t have a good inside right.  We were shown families crowded around tables in dilapidated and grim tenements and outside playing football. It was played 24-hours a day, boys dreamed about football and playing for Celtic (or whisper it, Rangers). Bertie Auld’s signing on fee was twenty quid. The note was the size of a telly and Bertie recounted how his mum had folded it up and shoved it down into her bra. A neighbour of Jimmy Johnstone’s recalled how he used to practice, dribbling between milk bottles, but he used put on his dad’s steel toecaps first thing in the morning and kick the ball up and down the living room. Non-stop.  The pictures here are of boys, fresh faced and in their prime. Stevie Chalmers was the big money signing for £30 000, but for the post-war NHS and a Ranger’s daft surgeon he’d have died of tuberculosis and meningitis (meningococcal meningitis)  in1955 as most others did. With such crowded conditions TB was common, but he lived to score that winning goal.

It’s hard to imagine in the media world of WAGs Jock Stein’s belief that wife’s shouldn’t be allowed to watch their men at work. Bobby Murdoch’s wife who attended most home matches laughed when she recalled Jimmy Johnstone’s wife Agnes coming to one of the games asking her which team was Celtic and where was wee Jinky? Imagine Posh Beck’s asking what team David Beckham plays for and where is he? It’s just so unbelievable. Jimmy Johnstone voted Celtic’s best ever player worked as a building labourer for Lawrence, and I remember my brother Stephen, saying that wee Jinky had been his labourer. Marking wee Jinky was ‘like trying to pin a wave to the sand’ was the epithet a Dukla Prague defender gave after their semi-final defeat to Celtic that year.

I’d have been four or five when Celtic won the European Cup. I wrote a story about it (luckily I can’t find it, or I’d be attaching it here).  It’s one of the few childhood memories I retain. My dad eating his dinner and watching the game on telly. When Celtic scored that winner he jumped up and flung the mince and potatoes against the ceiling. He was younger than I am now. But these memories never age.

The fans here relive them. The guys that travelled by plane, bus, car, whatever way they got there, they got there. There’s a beauty in that belief. Times were hard. One guy said engagements were a big thing then, but I had to tell her, I’m going to Lisbon. Sauchiehall Street was deserted on the night of the game. Ghost town. The Celtic players sung ‘It’s a grand Old Team to play for,’ coming out of the tunnel that night. The Italian players look like film stars, but Bertie Auld as usual had the last word, ‘Aye, but can they play?’

The answer my friend is Caesar holding the cup in that iconic moment. Upwards of 150 000 met the Celtic team coming off the plane and crowded the streets in a procession. Parkhead full.  I’m sure my dad would have been one of them. Him and his sidekick, my Uncle John, they couldn’t afford to go to Lisbon. But they’d have been there. Celtic in their heart and in their blood. Passed down from generation to generation.  It’s a Grand Old Team…