Now, the remarkable yet forgotten sporting legacy of the former village of Glenbuck is to be commemorated to mark the centenary of the birth of its most famous son, Bill Shankly.
The former Liverpool manager was part of a crop of footballers who hailed from the tiny industrial community. From a population never larger than 1,300, Glenbuck turned out more than 50 professional players, including six Scotland internationals and three FA Cup winners.
However, the village on the banks of the River Ayr endured a grim demise in tandem with the decline of heavy industry. By the 1950s, barely 200 people remained, and now Glenbuck is deserted, with only a solitary building still standing in a landscape scarred by open-cast mining.
But Robert Gillan, a youth football coach, is spearheading plans to keep the region’s heritage alive. The founder of the Banner of Glenbuck project, he is raising funds to establish a museum and football academy that will pay tribute to Shankly and the men who passed through the first XI of the village’s legendary team, the Glenbuck Cherrypickers.
The initiative has received the blessing and support of the Shankly family. His granddaughter, Karen Gill, said: “My grandad would have been proud of the fact he’s on a stamp, but he would consider the museum in Glenbuck the greatest tribute possible.”
The roots of the village’s footballing pedigree took hold in the late 1870s, when players would travel to away matches in a three-horse brake. Their team, which dominated in Ayrshire for long periods, was a nursery of talent. Its players would go on to play for some of the most illustrious clubs in British football, including Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester City, Blackburn, and Newcastle United.
It is, though, the city of Liverpool with which it is inextricably linked, thanks to Shankly. The ninth of ten children, he was born in the village – three miles east of Muirkirk – on 2 September, 1913, later working in the pits and playing a trial game with the Cherrypickers (some of his brothers did play for them) before moving south. An FA Cup winner as a player with Preston North End, his tenure as Anfield manager reaped three top division titles, two FA Cups, and the UEFA Cup.
He never missed an opportunity to remind people of his pride in his background, but also its challenges, once remarking: “I never saw a bathroom until I left Glenbuck.”
Gill, chair of the Liverpool Supporters committee and patron of the Spirit of Shankly group, explained: “Glenbuck was a massive influence on my grandad. Me and my sister would often stay over at his at weekends, and before we went to sleep, he would always come in and tell us stories about Glenbuck, it was something he always wanted to share.
“They weren’t just football stories. I remember he told us how the men would stand on the corner telling stories and if you thought someone was telling a tall tale, everybody would turn your cap upside down.”
In 45-year-old Gillan’s eyes, Shankly is the man who epitomises the region’s outstanding footballing story. “Bill Shankly is world renowned, and he came from this stronghold of football that people forget about,” he said. “Glenbuck were pioneers. No other place of a similar size in the world has produced so many professional footballers.”
Although no one lives in Glenbuck now, a memorial to Shankly lies just off the A70, while Burnside Park – the former ground of the Cherrypickers – is one of the few places not ravaged by opencasting.
Gillan, who is in talks with the Shankly family and Liverpool FC to exhibit artefacts, believes the museum belongs in Glenbuck, but is pragmatic enough to realise it may not be possible. “I’ve been offered a place in Muirkirk, but it’d be ideal to be in Glenbuck itself,” he said. “Unfortunately, Scottish Coal collapsed, and it’s been a nightmare trying to establish who owns what.”
Matthew McDowell, a lecturer in sport and recreation management at the University of Edinburgh and an authority on early Scottish football history, has helped Gillan with the project. He believes Glenbuck’s story is as vital for social reasons as sporting.
“Glenbuck almost symbolises this tradition of Scottish footballers and managers coming from heavy industry into football. For working-class males, the idea that you can make it out, become successful, and still remember your roots, is very much a narrative Shankly helped create.”
Gillan will be holding a gathering at the Shankly memorial on the centenary of his birth. A lone piper will play and flowers laid at the memorial. It is, he hopes, the first step towards a renaissance. “It’s been a long time since this area produced a player,” he said. “We’re out in the wilderness and don’t have much, but hopefully this project can change that.”