“OPEN the Gate” was a popular cry at Tynecastle during Hearts’ most successful era of the 1950s and early 1960s. It was most often heard when their charismatic winger, Johnny Hamilton, had the ball at his feet and embarked on one of his charges down the wing.
Such was Hamilton’s great pace and ability to leave a full-back for dead, Hearts fans reckoned he could keep on running all the way down Gorgie Road before he could be caught.
In practice, the end result of his forays was usually a dangerous cross into his opponents’ penalty area or a rifled shot by the player himself.
“Wee Hammy”, as he was affectionately known at Tynecastle, who has died at the age of 78, was imbued with an infectious enthusiasm which soon made him one of the most loved figures at the club. It was demonstrated most notably in his extravagant goal celebrations, which would not have been out of place in the modern game and were a common occurrence during his 12 years at Hearts.
Although employed ostensibly as a winger – a role which he performed equally well on either flank – he was also a regular scorer, contributing 114 goals in 404 competitive appearances.
Hamilton, who stood just 5ft 7in, joined Hearts in 1955 from Lesmahagow Juniors for a transfer fee of £100. Older fans who remember the flair and energy he brought to the team for over a decade will feel it was one of the most astute investments the club ever made.
After breaking into the Hearts team during the early part of the club’s “Golden Years”, he quickly became a Scotland under-23 international and began to build up a collection of domestic medals. Competing with team-mates Alex Young and Ian Crawford for a place in the League Championship-winning side of 1957-58, which scored a record 132 goals that season, he made just four appearances, yet still managed to find the net four times. But he soon became a fixture in the team and, two years later when the title was won again, he played 27 times, scoring seven goals.
Hamilton also appeared in four Scottish League Cup finals for Hearts, winning three of them and and scoring twice – in the 5-1 victory over Partick Thistle in 1958 and the 2-1 defeat of Third Lanark the following year.
One of his most outstanding performances came in March 1958, when Hearts played against Scotland in a World Cup trial match at Tynecastle and won 3-2. His pace and amazing dribbling skills had his international opponents at sixes and sevens, and he topped off his display when he collected the ball on the halfway line near the players’ tunnel, took two strides forward and unleashed an unstoppable shot from 35 yards which fizzed into the top corner of the net at the School End.
Former goalkeeper Gordon Marshall, who also played for Hearts that night, recalls it as “Hammy’s greatest game”.
“He was absolutely brilliant, and we talked about his performance for weeks afterwards,” added Marshall, a team-mate during both those title-winning seasons. “Alex Young was in the frame for World Cup selection – and Alex had a good game – but, if anyone made a claim for place in the squad during that match, it was Hammy. His whole game that night was a winger’s dream. But, in the end, they went with Jackie Mudie of Blackpool.
“Hammy was a one-off, and always so full of enthusiasm. Absolutely brilliant to have in the dressing room.
“When he scored, the other players couldn’t get near him to celebrate, because his arms and legs just kept on going. You just couldn’t catch him.
“He was exactly the same in training. Every time he stuck one past you in a practice match, he’d celebrate just as enthusiastically. And, on training runs, it was like every part of his body moved. He was like an advert for one of those long-life batteries that just keep on going.
“He was a real, old-fashioned winger, in the days when you never saw them inside their own half of the field and, equally, the full-backs never crossed the halfway line. You never wanted Hammy back defending, anyway – he couldn’t tackle a fish supper. Any time he strayed into our penalty box – for a corner, maybe – I’d chase him away. I’d say ‘you get up the field and we’ll get the ball up to you.’ And that was ok – he was so good as an attacker, that’s all you wanted him to do. He was always looking to go past his full-back and get to the bye-line, and he was a great crosser of the ball. He knew where the goal was, too.
“He was also a very fit man, even long into his retirement. As an older man he’d be going to the gym daily – sometimes twice a day – to keep his fitness up. Everyone there knew Hammy.”
Though he had been born in Larkhall, in 1935, Edinburgh became Hamilton’s spiritual home and, having been transferred to Watford in 1967, and later played for Berwick Rangers before ending his playing career in 1973, he never strayed far from Gorgie.
He returned to Hearts where he worked as the club’s youth team coach from 1975 to 1979 and, for many years afterwards, he was a well-liked local newsagent in nearby Slateford Road.
Hamilton will be remembered mostly for his whole-heartedness, says Marshall. “Before he came to Edinburgh, he worked as a miner,” recalls his former team-mate. “But he came out of the mines and fell straight into the first team and he never let us down. He absolutely loved playing for Hearts and you knew that, every time he pulled on a maroon jersey, you were never going to get anything less than 110 per cent from him.”