Idon’t know if you saw that documentary about The Scotsman this week but the stand-out moment for me was when the narrator, Hearts-supporting thespian Ken Stott, revealed how in 1840 the paper broke the story of the Ice Age. This was 2,600,000 years after the event but, come on, an exclusive’s an exclusive. And now, folks, I think I might have uncovered a deep-frozen scoop of my own.
What you’re about to read is the story of Willie Gibson and it contains elements of comedy and – what’s that other one? – tragedy which I’m sure Stotty would view as crucial to any halfway decent plot. Willie who? Funnily enough, that’s what Hamish McAlpine said. “I was at a golf event with him a couple of years ago,” explains Gibson of Dundee United’s forever tracky-bummed goalkeeper. “He didn’t remember me.” From his rucksack, Gibson produces framed photographs plucked from the walls of his spare room, including one of him nicking the ball past the flailing McAlpine. “That was typical of the kind of goals I scored.” There’s a pause and a smile before he adds: “Serves Hamish right!”
I should point out that Gibson, 63, makes this remark in as quiet and self-conscious a manner as possible. He says everything quietly and self-consciously. That he’s speaking at all gives me my scoop. With a tiny chuckle, he produces the maroon-covered handbook issued to Jambos in the 1970s and points to rule No 17: “Players shall not make any comments to the press on any subject relating to the club without the manager’s consent.” Gibson obeyed this to the letter. He never spoke then, or after. He doesn’t do interviews. He’s turned down every Tynecastle invitation to be introduced on the pitch, talk at functions, be a guest-of-honour, prove he’s still alive. Until today ...
Most old footballers I know are happy to talk about their time in the game. They never made much money at it and are cheered by being remembered. And no one should forget Willie Gibson, should they? In the fanfare of the most goal-happy Jambos he’s the eighth surest sharpshooter since the Second World War, and on 112 strikes the 13th deadliest of all time. What’s more, he played in a thrice-relegated team – “the worst in the club’s history,” he affirms. But when Gibson quit football he was happy to walk away for good. “To be fair to Hearts I’ve been asked back a few times but that’s just not me. Who’s going to remember this skinny, shy guy? Other ex-players enjoy that sort of attention and good luck to them. They’ll have more of the gift-of-the-gab than me, a better way with stories. I’ve been a footballer, had my time and that part of my life is over.”
Whenever goals were required for the maroon cause, Gibson usually nabbed them. He scored vital Edinburgh derby counters and doubles to claim Ibrox victories. He scored on tours of Orkney and New Zealand. He scored first-minute winners at Somerset Park, last-minute winners at Shawfield and 111th-minute winners at Boghead. He scored against Bobby Moore and West Brom’s Three Degrees. He scored hat-tricks to flatten Stirling Albion, Kilmarnock and Arbroath, the latter coming one Christmas Eve in response to Drew Busby bagging a treble in the same match and claiming a sponsors’ crate of whisky. And most famously, he scored three against Jock Stein’s Celtic in a match that Hearts contrived to lose and two of the five banged past Lokomotive Leipzig on perhaps Gorgie’s maddest and most marvellous European night.
But come on: shyness can only take you so far down the road to self-imposed obscurity and a one-line entry on Wikipedia. There must be something else to this raggedy yarn. This is where the tragedy comes in, though our man stresses it’s only a slight sadness. Gibson, despite all his goals, was under-appreciated and occasionally a target for Tynie’s boo-boys. There’s an anxious flutter of the eyes when I mention the ironic chant “Gibson for Scotland” – and the one which went “There’s only one Willie Gibson, thank f**k” – which used to emanate from the darkest recesses of the old Shed.
“I remember those songs. They did hurt. I was almost in tears. I know I wasn’t a crowd favourite and while I say I’m not comfortable in the limelight and that’s a reason for not going back to Tynecastle, another one is the hard time I got from some of the fans. You know, I tried my best. Players sit on panels and slag off other players but none of us is deliberately having a bad game or missing chances. I think I was wholehearted. I ran non-stop.” He has sympathy for the recently-departed manager Robbie Neilson who “did nothing wrong to justify the grumbles about him”.
Gibson was the unsung hero and latterly the unseen one. Every few years, fansites would whirr with reminisce about an awkward player forever wiping his nose on his sleeve and there would be unconfirmed sightings. “Think he’s in Coaltown of Balgonie now,” was one posting. For 22 years he and his wife Mary ran the general store and they still live in the village. On balance he thinks he preferred the shop life to the football one. “I knew I was a success at that,” he says.
We meet in a Dunfermline coffee-shop, round the corner from his son Graham’s flat. It’s Graham, an ex-player himself and most recently a journalist, who’s talked Gibson round for me, doubtless the latter profession making him aware that his father’s silence only made him more intriguing. “I actually think I was not bad,” says the missing link between Donald Ford and John Robertson. “And I didn’t realise how not bad I was until about six years ago when Graham showed me the stats. As I say, I’ve never looked back, so it was a pleasant surprise to see myself tucked in behind the Terrible Trio, Robbo, Donald and Willie Wallace. I was proud to have played for Hearts, I reckon I did my bit for Hearts. But here’s the funny thing: I don’t think I’m regarded as a Hearts player.”
Gibson hails from Methil, a goal kick from East Fife’s ground. “I grew up in Bayview Crescent and East Fife were my team.” He dives back into the rucksack to find a match programme from 2 January, 1978 when he was in the Hearts team rumbling into his hame toon. On the cover there’s a photo of a man holding a baby. “That’s me with Charlie ‘Legs’ Fleming, East Fife legend and a neighbour of my grandparents. Unfortunately, while I was scouted by Dunfermline at the beginning of my career, and turned out for Raith Rovers and Cowdenbeath at the end, the Fife never looked at me. That’s the tragedy of this story! But Graham did play for them and I was very proud of that.”
He’s the oldest of four brothers who’re still close. His father, also Willie, ran the Co-op across the road from Bayview. “Dad worked every Saturday so hardly ever saw me play, although he did make it along to one of my first games for Hearts, in the Scottish Cup against Partick Thistle, played on a Tuesday afternoon because of the three-day week.” By the way, Willie is really Billy. That was the name he had before football; the one he’s gone back to using.
Newly signed by Bobby Seith, Gibson was in the Tynecastle crowd for the 7-0 game against Hibs. “At half-time, Hearts five-nil down, the whole of the enclosure turned round and roared at the directors’ box: ‘Seith must go!’ I turned round, too – it would have been odd if I was the only one looking at the pitch – but needless to say I didn’t shout anything.”
Gibson could have been a sanitary inspector. He was offered a full-time council post in Fife, just as Hearts made him a full-time player. “The department guarded against fly-tipping and kept rats at bay, although I wouldn’t have had to have chased any. It was a good job but I’d always wanted to play football.” He had a tough act to follow in Scottish internationalist Ford. “I remember a game at Dundee when Donald wasn’t in the dressing-room when the team was read out, me in for him. When he appeared he walked straight over to the No 9 seat and started removing his shirt and tie. I was slinking down, trying to look invisible, a bit embarrassed to be replacing a legend. Someone shouted over: ‘You just popped in for a bath, Donald?’ When he found out he wasn’t playing, he just laughed. A player with attitude would have slagged Donald, but that wasn’t me.”
I read out some online chatter about him: “The nippy Fifer … Never seems to rate a mention … Played in a rotten team but still scored a goal every third game … The crayon-munchers among our support didn’t like him … Gash one week, excellent the next … Quick and brave but not nasty enough and lacked self-confidence.” He smiles at the last assessment. “That’s perfectly fair as I wasn’t like Drew,” he says, meaning of course Busby. “My claims to fame were never missing a penalty for Hearts or being booked. In my eyes that shows a good temperament but the fans probably wanted me to be more aggressive.”
“I’d like to have been gallus,” he continues. And kicked the odd centre-half? “No, been bolder. It might have made me a better player.”
Gibson stresses he had huge respect for Ford and Busby. Finding himself in the latter’s neighbourhood a few years ago he tried to look him up but missed him. “I see no one from my time in football,” he confirms. Arm twisted by a pal at the golf club, he did venture out to a function at Raith where Ford was the speaker but, feeling unwell, left before his praises were sung. This might well sum him up. But if the impression is given that Gibson was a loner – the Gorgie Garbo – it’s not accurate. He enjoyed the camaraderie and the culture, which of course in the 1970s revolved around drink. “Bevvy buddies with Bobby Prentice,” writes a fan. “Both were partial to a fish supper from Brattisani’s after a Saturday night swally.” “That’s true too,” he says. “After a game we’d go to the Grosvenor Hotel at Haymarket. If we’d won we were buzzing. If we’d lost then five pints made you forget about the result.”
The players would also take on liquid after returning to training on the Tuesday. “When you think about the life of a professional athlete back then it was pretty poor. We’d be sent running round the pitch and never see a ball. Then we’d go drinking. I remember after one session in Rose Street Drew and I were running for our trains and he tripped and fell his length. In Princes Street in front of loads of people. One or two of them phoned the club to complain. I’m sure the manager at the time was Willie Ormond. His ticking-off was: ‘Next time try not to fall.’”
Legend has it he once netted at Muirton Park off his backside. “I can’t remember that one but it sounds like me, doesn’t it? I was a poacher. Most of my goals were six yards or less. I could guess where the ball was going. Then I’d stick out a toe or, yes, maybe my beam-end.” He’s glad I’ve mentioned his double to beat Rangers, in November 1975, as no one else does. “It’s been forgotten about. All I’m remembered for is the hat-trick against Celtic.”
The latter came almost exactly a year later with Hearts twice two goals ahead before succumbing to an 87th-minute Ronnie Glavin winner. “In the bath afterwards I didn’t know whether to be happy or gutted.” One of Gibson’s goals re-directed a team-mate’s effort; same in the Lokomotive Leipzig game. Checkpoint Charlie soldiers with machine-guns had overseen the first leg of the Cup-Winners Cup tie, Hearts losing two-nil, and after an away goal at Tynecastle they seemed doomed. But, as Ian Wood reported in The Scotsman, the crowd were “uproarious” and very soon “delirious”. A “magnificent” Jim Brown led the fightback, the final goal in the 5-1 victory coming when Busby smashed the ball across the box, seemingly intent on blasting a hole in the far enclosure wall, and Gibson bravely put his head in the way. “That was a special night and it felt like we’d hit the big time because instead of Arthur Montford or Archie Macpherson commentating on TV there was one of the guys from England [ice-skating expert Alan Weeks]. It was the highlight of my career.”
The fall would quickly follow. Relegation after relegation after relegation. “That was a terrible time. The atmosphere was rubbish, confidence was low, blame was pushed around and the team fragmented.” Were there bust-ups? “Maybe not enough of them, although I was the quiet guy in the corner and wouldn’t have instigated them.” Fans recalling his hat-trick against Kilmarnock remember him being barracked beforehand – does he? “I thought my goals came in the first half. That would have meant they were booing me in the warm-up. It’s possible!” Eventually Wallace Mercer arrived to break the cycle of decline but he needed funds. Gibson was sold to Partick Thistle for £35,000 – “Hearts paid me £4,000 to go, double Thistle’s signing-on fee” – but he got off to a bad start with manager Peter Cormack by electing to keep pace in the sprints with Tony Higgins, one of Scottish football’s great lollopers and soon moved on to two Fife clubs who were not East Fife.
He can’t believe he’s talked for almost two hours about football and really must be getting back to his happy obscurity. But hang on Willie, some fans have kept their old badges: “Jesus saves ... but Gibson scores the rebound.” Might he go back to Tynecastle one day? “I don’t know. Supporters are terrible for disowning the past until it’s time to get nostalgic about it. But then maybe that’s what I’ve just been doing ... ”