Last Sunday afternoon George Merchant passed away in a nursing home in Carnoustie after a long battle with illness. “Big George”, as he will always be known in Falkirk, was one of the key players who brought the Scottish Cup to Falkirk in 1957. The time at Brockville was undoubtedly the highlight of his career, and he hit a purple patch of form in that amazing season of 1956/57. Falkirk meant a lot to this proud Dundonian, and the walls of his Carnoustie flat were full of memories of his time as a Bairn.
After playing with Dundee Stobswell, he signed for Third Lanark as a defender and his commanding presence soon earned him a transfer to Aberdeen, where he stayed until 1951.
He joined Dundee and was a member of a strong Dens Park side. One of his strongest memories was of a friendly match against Manchester United, when he had to mark a promising youngster by the name of Bobby Charlton.
Dundee converted him to play at centre forward and he became a fearsome presence in the No 9 jersey. In 65 League games, he rattled in 31 goals and his heading ability was outstanding.
Many thought his best days were behind him when he was persuaded to join a struggling Falkirk side, but he was to enjoy an Indian summer to his career. Jimmy McPhie had brought him to Brockville, where he was reunited with his former colleague Andy Irvine and his former trainer, the unforgettable Reggie Smith.
The three travelled daily from Dundee in Reggie’s car and had many an adventure was had en route. George told some great stories about the journey, including the day when Reggie stopped to get a paper in Camelon, only for a passing lorry to take the door off the manager’s brand new car.
Falkirk’s situation looked hopeless when Reggie Smith took over, but not only did they escape relegation, they actually went on to win the Scottish Cup, beating Kilmarnock after a replay at Hampden Park.
George signed in January 1957 and went straight into the team. He only missed one game during the rest of that season – against Queens Park at Hampden – and George always said that Reggie “rested me and a few others”.
He started to score some great goals and at regular intervals. He was not just a typical “rumble-them-up” centre, but led the line well, bringing others into the game.
He played in every game of the 1957 cup run and ended up as top cup goal scorer with four goals. He found the net against Berwick, twice against Aberdeen. He had a great story about the game against the Dons at Brockville. He spoke of the kindness and generosity shown to him by the Aberdeen players and management prior to the cup tie at Brockville.
George got on the train in Dundee and they took him along to the dining car, treated him to a slap-up meal and offered him a lift in their hired coach to Brockville. After George had put them out of the cup, the return journey home was a solo trip.
His vital opening goal in the final replay was decisive and set the team on their way, yet ironically he had to wait 50 years to see the effort.
“When I got home back in 1957, I said to my wife, ‘I want to see the match, it’s going to be replayed.’ During the game, I said to her, ‘Here’s when it comes.’ Tommy Murray ran up the wing, cut in and crossed it to me about the penalty spot. I came running in to header it, but just as I got there, there was a Falkirk supporter in the stand who stood up and shouted ‘goal!’ All the cameraman got was the back of his head!
“For a long, long time, I had never seen myself scoring that goal, until I saw the other newsreel at the anniversary dinner in 2007.”
Thankfully, the Senior Bairns supporters, where George was the first honorary member, managed to track down another newsreel of the final, shot from another angle, and the offending supporter’s head was not in view.
George was immensely proud of his winner’s medal and his wife Nan wore it as a necklace.
George suffered from a niggling knee injury and his last game for Falkirk was on 10 September, 1958 against Stirling Albion at Annfield in a 1-1 draw.
Shortly after the start of season 1958/9 he moved to Dunfermline, but never appeared in their first team. He undertook coaching duties which he combined with his role as the owner of a successful printing business, which is managed by George’s son Neil.
When Falkirk moved to their new stadium in July 2004, the opening game was against Dundee for the Merchant-Slater trophy and George and Bert were proud guests. He attended the 50th anniversary of the cup win with Nan in 2007 and his passing means that only four of the final squad remain – Tommy Murray, Dougie Moran, Eddie O’Hara and Jimmy McIntosh.
George Merchant could never have imagined what lay ahead for him when he joined a team that was languishing at the bottom of the league.
He was a great hero in the town and his 17 league goals probably saved the club from certain relegation – and his four cup goals brought cup success to the town.
Above all, he will be fondly remembered as a gentle man and a gentleman. Playing colleagues and supporters alike thought so highly of him, and there was genuine sadness in Falkirk at the news of his passing. George is survived by his wife Nan, a son and daughter and several grandchildren.