IT IS a curious irony that, despite a highly impressive 47 goals in 95 appearances for Rangers, followed by a further 15 in 150 games at Aberdeen, the career of Alex Willoughby is more readily recalled for a match in which he did not play.
To this day, it is not difficult to find Rangers supporters of a certain vintage who are unshakeable in their belief the Ibrox club would have won the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1967 had Willoughby not been left on the sidelines by the then manager Scot Symon.
The decision to instead field Roger Hynd, nominally a full-back or wing-half, at centre forward against a Bayern Munich side marshalled at the back by the peerless Franz Beckenbauer is cited by many as the reason for Rangers’ 1-0 extra-time defeat in the Nuremberg final, just a week after Celtic had become the first British club to win the European Cup.
While his omission was something Willoughby never understood, it was a measure of the man and his affection for Rangers that he never allowed any hint of bitterness to overcome his naturally sunny disposition.
Born in Glasgow in 1944, he was a product of the famed Drumchapel Amateurs club which turned out professional footballers on a conveyor-belt basis in the 1960s and 1970s.
Rangers snapped up the willowy inside-forward and he made his first-team debut at the age of 18 in a 3-1 league win over Queen of the South at Ibrox in March 1963. Four days later, he scored his first goals for the club, a double in a 3-1 win over Clyde at Shawfield, but it would take Willoughby some time to command a regular first-team place under Symon.
He contributed to Rangers’ treble success in 1963-4, scoring in the 5-0 League Cup final win over Morton at Hampden Park in front of 105,907 spectators. It was a family affair, with Willoughby’s cousin Jim Forrest, a prolific striker, grabbing the other four goals.
Willoughby made only six appearances in the league that season, scoring three times, not enough to earn him a championship medal. His first team outings were just as sporadic the following season, but in 1965-6 he was finally given his head by Symon and scored 12 times in 34 games, only to see another winner’s medal slip away when he missed the Scottish Cup final replay defeat of Celtic.
It was the ill wind of Rangers’ famous first-round Scottish Cup exit at the hands of Berwick Rangers at Shielfield which would, ironically, blow fresh wind into the sails of his Ibrox career in 1966-7. Restricted to only one substitute appearance before Berwick, Willoughby was recalled immediately after that humiliation at the expense of Forrest who, along with strike partner George McLean, was shamefully made the scapegoat by the short-sighted Rangers’ hierarchy. Neither Forrest nor McLean played for the club again.
Willoughby, still only 22, seized his opportunity spectacularly, with consecutive hat-tricks in 5-1 league wins over Hearts at Ibrox and Clyde at Shawfield. In total, he scored 17 goals in 14 games during a remarkable spell of form which made Symon’s decision to then leave him out of the Cup- Winners’ Cup final line-up all the more bewildering.
On the same day that Willoughby scored Rangers’ goal in a 1-1 draw at Dens Park on 29 April, Roger Hynd netted four times for Rangers’ reserves against Dundee at Ibrox after being drafted in as an emergency centre-forward. Symon, apparently beguiled by this dramatic new discovery, dropped Willoughby in favour of Hynd for the second leg of the Cup-Winners’ Cup semi-final against Slavia Sofia at Ibrox four days later.
Hynd retained his place in the side as a 2-2 draw with Celtic at Ibrox in the final league game of the season was enough to clinch the title for the Parkhead side, and Willoughby remained a frustrated spectator when Rangers lost out to Franz Roth’s late goal for Bayern Munich in Nuremberg.
Willoughby remained at Ibrox for two more seasons, playing fairly regularly under the new manager, Davie White, as Rangers again lost the championship on the final day of the campaign in 1967-8, but then becoming a peripheral figure in his final year with the club.
The fresh start he needed came in the summer of 1969 when Eddie Turnbull paid 25,000 to sign him for Aberdeen. Willoughby enjoyed his time at Pittodrie and was unfortunate not to win a Scottish Cup winner’s medal in his first season, an injury sustained in a league game against Kilmarnock ruling him out of the 1970 Hampden final against Celtic which Aberdeen famously won 3-1, with two goals from his young deputy, Derek McKay.
Willoughby helped the Dons finish runners-up to Celtic in the league in the next two seasons and he was in the side that defeated Jock Stein’s team 2-1 in the 1971 Drybrough Cup final at Pittodrie.
He left Aberdeen in the summer of 1974, extending his playing career on foreign fields in Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa before a brief stint as a manager in Iceland.
Willoughby, who later worked in the licensed trade, remained a hugely popular figure at Ibrox and was a driving force behind the club’s efforts to stay in touch with former players and organise reunions.
He is survived by his wife, Ann, and sons, John and Kirk.