From a now lonelier spot inside the pantheon of Hibernian living legends, Pat Stanton yesterday saluted someone who played football “to the best of his ability, for the club he loved”.
This simple tribute is one Lawrie Reilly, who died yesterday at the age of 84, would appreciate. “Lawrie did great things for Scotland but he was above all a Hibs man,” said Stanton, who has lost a hero, friend and fellow Easter Road figurehead. “Though he came from a part of the town that is near Tynecastle, he was always Hibs, through and through.
“Most people will look at it and say: there was a man who played football to the best of his ability, for the club he loved,” added Stanton. “Even the Hearts fans all greatly respected him.”
Befitting his reputation for keeping on going until the very last minute, Reilly outlived his four colleagues in the great Famous Five line-up of the 1950s – Reilly, Eddie Turnbull, Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone and Willie Ormond. The last of the gang to go, his passing is a hugely significant occasion for not only Hibs, but Scottish football in general. Even in England and as far afield as Brazil, where the Hibs team of the ’50s toured, Reilly’s talents were admired.
“He was not just a Hibs icon, he was a Scottish icon as well,” says John Fraser, a team-mate and former coach at Easter Road. “I remember we once went down to Manchester United on an ex-Hibs players’ outing and we met Alex Ferguson. He took us into his office, and there in his office is a painting of Lawrie Reilly scoring a goal for Scotland – and that was his pride and joy, sitting up on the wall.
“That tells you everything about ‘Last Minute Reilly’.”
Fraser had one of the hardest jobs in football – as understudy to the Famous Five. “On the occasions I got promoted to the team, he made you feel that you were one of them, not just a replacement,” he recalled. “There was no jealousy. They all knew how good they were, so they had confidence. They were happy to bring young boys on.”
Fraser’s relationship with Reilly continued until the very end. He visited him in hospital as recently as last Friday. He also used to collect Reilly on the last Thursday of each month for a former players’ evening.
“His knees were bothering him,” recalls Fraser. “I would pick him up. He loved going to the meetings. He was the star attraction even among the other players – Pat Stanton, Jimmy O’Rourke, Jackie McNamara and Peter Cormack. They all thought the world of him.”
Stanton confirms that he was in awe of Reilly. “When I was a kid on the terraces I never thought I would one day be sitting beside him,” he said.
“We would sit together and watch the games in recent years. He had his opinions. But he was not too critical. Don’t get me wrong, he liked to see the Hibs winning. But he was not overly critical.”
Despite his phenomenal goalscoring feats, he was never someone who sought to impose his achievement on anyone. It seemed fitting yesterday that shortly after news of Reilly’s death was confirmed, Gordon Strachan should sit down and unveil his Scotland squad for next month’s international friendly match with England.
Reilly was not only a phenomenal goalscorer with Hibs, for whom he scored 238 goals, but he was one for Scotland too – 22 in 38 appearances, including five goals against England alone. “I met him a few times and I just found out he scored five goals against England,” said Strachan. “I wouldn’t have known that. He was that kind of guy. He wouldn’t tell you. He would talk about Hibs and things like that, but he would never speak about what he did. I find that with all great players. They never really say anything. You’ll find out what they did. And I just have.”
Supporters, too, reflected on a lost last link with the greatest of eras. Ian Wood, the former sports editor of The Scotsman, grew up a Hibs supporter, and, thrillingly for him, got to know Reilly, having admired him – and several other Hibs players – from the terraces for so long.
“Hibs were a bit like Brazil in that they shared this trait of giving away goals, so the technique was to score more than they gave away,” he recalled. “The back line were just as given to going forward, and there was one game when Hibs lost an early goal. Reilly went back and confronted them: ‘how many bloody goals have we got to score today?’ ”
Even though he was only 5ft 7in, Reilly could also make his presence felt. He was a winner. “He was an inveterate chaser of the ball – if there was a ball going back to the ’keeper, it did not go alone,” says Wood. “He was a right terrier. I once mentioned to him about the new passback rule, wondering whether he would have liked to hare down on a ’keeper who could not just pick the ball up.
“He had this wistful look on his eye,” added Wood.
It was the same look he wore when Stanton sometimes left him sitting alone at half-time, lost in thought. Reilly’s knees were by now restricting his movements. When once he left his seat in the Easter Road stand to join the others for coffee and biscuits downstairs, he chose to remain where he was for the interval, telling Stanton that “the second half will have started again by the time I get down those steps”.
So he would remain in situ, looking down at the pitch he had once graced. It was a period of quiet reflection that Stanton believes he greatly appreciated. “He was not just some other player playing for the Hibs,” he said. “There is a special place for him.”
Now reunited with his four other friends in the high stand, there is no doubt Reilly will still be looking down, from the best seats in the house.
During his career – which was ended by injury when he was only 29 – Lawrie Reilly scored 187 league goals in 253 games. His overall goal tally was 238 from 355 games.
But Reilly was no one-man goal machine at Hibs. Every member of Hibs’ Famous Five forward line – who often switched positions with each other during games – scored 100 league goals or more for the club.
Reilly scored 18 hat-tricks in total for Hibs – including six in the 1952/53 season.
That campaign also saw him rack up his highest tally in one season, scoring 46 goals.
His final game for Hibs, for which he was made captain, was a 3-1 win over Rangers at Easter Road in April 1958. Reilly scored one of the Hibs goals.
The tag ‘Last Minute Reilly’ was an apt one, with the Hibs centre forward scoring 19 last-minute goals for club and country.
Reilly’s first cap came against Wales in 1948. He famously learned of his call-up when a fan showed him an evening newspaper as he waited for a No.1 bus to take him to Easter Road for a Hibs game.
His second cap came the same year against England at Wembley, where he scored the third goal in Scotland’s 3-1 win – the first of his five goals at the stadium.
Despite scoring 22 goals in his 38 games for Scotland, Reilly never played at a World Cup. Scotland bizarrely refused to send a team to Brazil in 1950, while a bout of pleurisy robbed him of his place at the 1954 tournament.