Interview: Lawrie Reilly - 'That rampant lion on your breast was the greatest feeling'

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Hibs' Famous Five were envied across the world but, in a different era, country always came before club for Reilly

• Lawrie Reilly, pictured with his Scotland Hall of Fame prize at home yesterday. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

NEVER need much excuse to seek an invite to the trim living-room of one of our former-and-forever association football greats but have to admit that recent events have made it highly desirable bordering on essential on medical grounds.

Hooker-addicted footballers, 200,000-a-week footballers, international-coinciding-with-groin-strain footballers - and Scotland's best hope of a goal against the unmighty Liechtenstein being dubbed "fat, lazy and selfish" ... please, Lawrie Reilly, take me back to an altogether different age.

"Player power?" he says, settling into his favourite armchair and rubbing his bothersome right knee. "Ach, we didn't really have that in our day. In 1949 I went with Scotland to New York to play a friendly against the USA. We sailed on the Queen Mary, the journey took a week and there were three classes: first, cabin and tourist. The SFA were in first and we were in tourist. The top brass could visit us but of course we weren't allowed up to see them."

Reilly is saddened the class system in football means that club sides now go first while international teams are relegated to tourist. He knows how this has happened but still doesn't get it. "I'm an old man now, son, so you'll have to help me here. How come it's the players who decide if and when they'll play for their country? In our day it was the thing you dreamed about most as a wee laddie. And when you got to pull on that dark blue shirt for the first time -boy oh boy." His pale blue eyes sparkle. "That rampant lion on your breast was the greatest feeling."

Lest we forget, Reilly scored 22 goals in 38 appearances for Scotland, a ratio only bettered by Hughie Gallacher. In a Four Four Two magazine poll earlier this year to find the best striker of any nationality to play in Britain - and which was inevitably dominated by those of the TV era - he was rated the third-top Scot behind Kenny Dalglish and Denis Law. But Tommy Docherty, for one, is in no doubt: "Lawrie is Scotland's greatest-ever centre-forward."

Reilly puts yet more distance between his own era and the one of the random hernia op with a story from the old Wembley changing-rooms. "Docherty and Tommy Younger were having a water-fight, a glass broke and I cut my foot. The Partick Thistle doctor had to put stitches in it and a few hours later I played." No one shook the Twin Towers quite like him: five goals in five games on England's patch, most memorably as "Last-minute Reilly" in 1953 with an at-the-death equaliser for the ten-man Scots.

"After that one we got taxis to a restaurant and when I opened the cab door it barred the way for some Scottish supporters and they shut it.

• Scoring against England at Wembley in 1955

The funny thing was, without knowing they'd just passed me, they then started singing my name." Reilly tells a few stories like this, finding the ordinary in the extraordinary. He's not trying to normalise his achievements. It's simply that he played the game at a time when a man at a bus stop could relay the news you'd been picked for your Scotland debut - and by the way Reilly was also going by bus, boots in hands to a match. This was when, even though Wembley was full, he could hear "the family whistle", look up and spot his dad waving in the crowd. But of course he couldn't normalise his achievements, anyway. The normal in his world - sticking with the same club all your career - just seems incredible by the badge-kissing, contract-breaking standards of today.

Reilly's club were Hibs. On the journey to his Portobello bungalow, opposite some potentially-doomed municipal pitches, I passed the site of The Right Wing, the pub owned by Gordon Smith, the greatest player Reilly ever saw and a fellow member of Hibs' Famous Five. As a boy on hurls down the coast my father would always doff his metaphorical bunnet at the hostelry in tribute to Smith and a keepy-uppy wonder goal the winger scored against Airdrie. Now Reilly and Eddie Turnbull are the Five's only survivors. Aged 81, he feigned injury at his front door. "You've got goalkeeper's hands." But it was entirely possible I shook his too hard in my eagerness to finally meet him, his final Wembley appearance coming the year I was born.

So go on then Lawrie, I say to myself, try to find the mundane in the Famous Five. "Before games at Easter Road we played shuttlecocks." With their feet, I'm presuming - what stars. "No, table-tennis bats. We'd rush down to the ground early for these larkabouts. We had a great camaraderie." And to think that now the iPod is hailed as the saviour of footballer-downtime.

Lawrie's wife Iris fetches more tea for the Hibs part of the conversation. "I was born in a green jersey. Hibs were the only club I ever wanted to play for. Mind you, I was brought into the world by a doctor called Fraser Lee who later became the Hearts doc. After a win at Tynecastle - I think I got a hat-trick - he told me: 'I threw away the wrong part when you were born!'"

I confirm that, all told, he scored 18 hat-tricks for Hibs. "Did I really?" His credentials as a fan are just as impressive. By the age of ten he'd seen Hibs play in every First Division ground, courtesy of free train travel. "My dad was a guard so I went in his van although the real thrill was to go up front with the driver and the fireman - boy, what a heat." Wartime privations produced the Southern League Cup and in 1944 Reilly saw his favourites win it - 6-5 on corners against Rangers. "I remember our outside-left Johnny Aitkenhead being jockeyed at the byeline, then playing the ball against a Rangers fellow for what proved to be the winner.The rest of the team ran to shake his hand as if he'd scored with a great shot."

With his signing-on fee, Reilly decided to treat his mum. "Electric carpet cleaners were all the rage so I got her one." He laughs when I mention his first manager, Willie McCartney. "Homburg hat, carnation, frocked coat, striped trousers - he was like a circus showman." Then came Hugh Shaw for the glory, glory years. He's proud of the Famous Five's achievements, but in his own modest way. When I press him for their magic formula it's some seconds before he answers, and then only to say: "We were all different, that was the thing." Most players from so soon after the war are almost not aware of their great gifts. Yes, football was popular and packed terraces stretched skywards but back then the game didn't have an inflated opinion of itself. Reilly entertained the working man after himself completing a Saturday-morning shift as a painter. Gordon Smith came straight from his shipyard and these 12-a-week legends didn't expect bonuses for back-to-back championships.

Others fanfared the Famous Five far and wide. Rangers paid them the compliment of soaking the leather ball when Hibs visited Ibrox. "It was like a horseracing handicap for us. One time I headed the big mealie puddin' and could remember nothing else about the game. But I was good friends with fellows like Ian McMillan and Willie Thornton and we'd stay with each other after matches and go out to the pictures. Once, when I had toothache, Willie chummed me to the dentist - a Hearts director, would you believe. Aye, it was a great rivalry we had with Rangers. There was even talk of our attack and their 'Iron Curtain' defence combining for Scotland. It didn't quite happen, but the Rangers fellows who did play for Scotland regarded that as the ultimate. We all did."

In England, Manchester United were great admirers of the Famous Five. Maybe after this week Old Trafford won't be in a hurry to see another Scottish team, but Reilly & Co received regular invites for friendly matches, once winning 7-3 in front of 70,000. "Matt Busby - who'd guested with Hibs during the war - used to put an arm round me and say: 'Would you like to play for Man United, son?' I was flattered, and I suppose I could have earned more at a club like that, but I was a Hibs man. Money didn't come into it. You never gave it a thought."

Reilly praises Hibs' unsung defence of the 1950s but of course it was the attacking quintet - their power and grace and, of course, their differences - which the whole continent wanted to see. "Every summer we were in France, Germany, Holland - I don't think any other British club toured as much as us - and one year we even played in Brazil."

Ah, Brazil. No chapter in Hibs' history is romanticised and mythologised more, not even their involvement in the first European Cup. The records show that the club reached the semi-finals of that competition.A couple of months ago it was suggested, not by me but an English newspaper, that a Hibs-Real Madrid final would go down as one of the six all-time greatest games that never quite happened. But I admit I've got carried away about Brazil; picked up the ball and ran across the beach with it. Hibs didn't just teach the Brazilians how to play football, I've written, they pretty much founded the country. Rio's Sugar Loaf Mountain was a man-made construction homaging the old Easter Road slope. And Lola, the showgirl in Barry Manilow's Copacabana, used to be an erotic dancer down Leith Docks with a "Persevere" motto on her left bumcheek. But after that expedition to the Maracana in 1953 Hibs received an honorable mention in an influential Brazilian coaching manual - that much was true, yes?

Reilly laughs. "It's a good story, but I don't know what we could have taught them that they weren't doing already, and pretty well, too. What a trip, though. We flew from Edinburgh via London, Lisbon, Dakar and Recife to get to Rio. There was a lot of press to meet us and one of them asked how we felt to be in Brazil. Willie Ormond said: 'Ah wish tae hell as wis hame.' That was typical of him. I took ill early on. We were capering about in the sea and maybe I swallowed some water - Rio had open sewers then. But two hours after leaving hospital I was lining up against Vasco da Gama. There was about 50,000 in the Maracana though at the time the stadium had a 210,000 capacity so the crowd looked quite sparse. There was a moat round the pitch and at the final whistle we kicked balls to the small boys at the wall. I've often wondered if one of them grew up to be Pele."

Reilly has never heard of the manual. "But we were well looked after by an expats' club and we got free ice cream the whole trip from an American with a van and whose sister was the actress Tippi Hedren. We didn't overdo it, though. Just the odd slider now and again."

He's been teetotal all his life. Is that why he's still going strong? "Maybe, but Ned (Turnbull] liked a drink and he's even older than me. I only ever saw Gordon touch alcohol - just a nip before kick-off - on the coldest of days. It's sad that so many old pals and terrific players have gone. I still watch the Hibs but they can be sare tae bare and Ned and I could do with some support from fellows we used to know."

The odd slider - was that his greatest footballing excess? Oh no, he says. In New York in '49, despite being forced to travel steerage, the Scotland players were given good pocket money by the SFA. "And I blew mine on six dozen pairs of nylons for the wife." How decadent. "But I can top that. At Hibs, buying new boots from Thornton's in Princes Street, I fancied these smashing Cotton Oxfords - 5 the pair. When the manager got the bill I was summoned to his office for a ticking off. 3 10s was the club's top limit."

Lawrie Reilly's era was different in every way."Thanks for helping me pass the afternoon, son," he says, and I'm careful to give him my limpest handshake. He all but rubbished my favourite story about Brazil, but it was a privilege.

• "The Life and Times of Last minute Reilly" is due for release next month.

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