Obituary: Johnny Hamilton, footballer

Born: 22 January, 1935, in Larkhall. Died: 8 August, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 78.
Johnny HamiltonJohnny Hamilton
Johnny Hamilton

With the passing of Johnny Hamilton, Heart of Midlothian FC has lost another link to the club’s golden era and Scottish football has said a final goodbye to one of that legendary breed, the out-and-out winger.

Combining pace with boundless energy and no little skill, Hamilton had the priceless asset of being able to take on and beat defenders, always aiming to hit the by-line and send in a telling cross, a talent at which he was masterful from either wing.

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Known as “Wee Hammy”, Hamilton stood 5 feet 7 inches tall and rarely weighed much more than ten stone, but his all-out play and sheer enthusiasm for the game, as well as his infectious toothy grin – as was the case with many players, he wore dentures – made him a crowd favourite throughout his career and long afterwards.

Born in Lanarkshire, like so many of his generation in that county, on leaving school Hamilton found his first employment in the mining industry, working at Stepps Colliery and later at Woolmet mine in Mid­lothian.

Yet in his teens he was already showing signs of his future prowess on the football field, learning the game at Larkhall Rangers Amateurs FC and Kirkmuirhill Juveniles, who had won the Scottish Juvenile Cup in 1951.

As was the case with most players in the 1950s, Hamilton moved up the football ranks incrementally. He signed to play for Birkenshaw Welfare Hearts – the club which also produced Scottish internationalist winger Tommy Ewing in that era – before stepping up to the Junior (semi-professional) ranks with Lesmahagow FC, who were enjoying their own golden age, winning the old Lanarkshire League in 1953 and the West of Scotland Cup in 1957.

Hamilton had left the
Juniors behind before the latter victory. His wing play had attracted the attention of several senior clubs, but it was Hearts who paid £100 for his signature in April 1955.

Thus began a love affair with the Tynecastle club that was to last until his death. Hamilton was an instant hit at the Gorgie club, moving into the first-team squad immediately at a time when most recruits would spend many months or even years in the reserves – no mean feat, as manager Tommy Walker had an embarrassment of riches in his playing squad at the time, and the club had just won the Scottish League Cup for the first time in its history.

Such Hearts legends as wingers Ian Crawford and Alex Young, iron men Dave Mackay and John Cumming, and the “Terrible Trio” of Alfie Conn snr, Willie Bauld and Jimmy Wardhaugh, meant that Hamilton’s first-team appearances were restricted in his first two seasons, though he still made such an impression that he was selected for the Scotland under-23 side in February 1956.

Hamilton was instrumental in helping Hearts reach the Scottish Cup final of 1956 with a fine performance in the semi-final replay against Raith Rovers at Easter Road. With Conn out, Young moved to inside forward and Hamilton came into the side, giving the
Fifers’ defence a torrid time as Wardhaugh, with two goals, and Crawford’s counter put Hearts into the final, where they beat Celtic 3-1 in front of 133,000 fans, a record for a Hearts match and unlikely to be beaten.

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Hamilton did not play in the final, most noted for Cumming’s head injury after which he insisted on playing on, but was on board the team bus which paraded through Edinburgh after the club’s first Scottish Cup
victory in 50 years.

Their cup heroics had undoubtedly sapped the side’s league efforts – they had been leading, but eventually finished third. However, the following season they improved to finish second in the league behind Rangers.

In season 1957-58, however, Hearts were imperious as they strolled to the League title, scoring a Scottish top league record of 132 goals for and only 29 against, and amassing a then record 62 points.

Hamilton made just four appearances but notched four goals. His goal celebrations involving a cycling action in mid-air were already in evidence and would be seen many more times as his career progressed.

One match which older fans still recall with pleasure was Hearts playing against Scotland in a trial match for the 1958 World Cup finals.

Such was Hamilton’s performance that night, which included a goal from more than 30 yards, that many Tynecastle supporters thought he had played himself into the Scotland squad.

It was not to be, however, and as Hamilton’s career overlapped with those of Alex Young, Willie Henderson and Davie Wilson of Rangers, and later Jimmy Johnstone of Celtic, he never did gain an international cap. He was selected, how­ever, for the Scottish League XI in 1958, his only representative honour.

With Hearts, there were several trophy honours. He earned winner’s medals in the Scottish League Cup in 1958-59, 1959-60 and 1962-63 and a runners-up medal in 1961-62, and was an important presence in the side that won the League title in 1959-60, scoring seven goals in 27 appearances.

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He was also in the first Hearts team to win in European competition, when he starred in the 2-1 home win against Standard Liege in 1958 in the qualifying round of the European Cup.

Hearts declined as Rangers and Celtic dominated Scottish football in the 1960s, but Hamilton continued to excite the fans until he was released in April 1967. In all, Hamilton played 496 times for Hearts, including 404 competitive matches. He scored 157 goals for Hearts, 114 of them in competitive games, which was an astonishing rate for a winger.

The impression Hamilton left at Hearts was one of a player who hugely enjoyed his football. He formed many effective onfield partnerships, latterly with Willie Wallace, and was always a cheery figure in the dressing room. He would often talk to the fans during matches, Tynecastle’s terraces being famously close to the pitch, and the supporters returned the compliment to one of their favourites, bellowing “open the gates” when Hamilton set off on a run, the theory being that he would keep going down Gorgie Road if he was allowed to.

Hamilton himself recounted the story, confirmed by John Grieg of Rangers in his memoirs, of when he was sent off playing against Rangers. The famous referee Tom “Tiny” Wharton pointed to the dressing room where Hamilton stored his dentures and said: “It’s time you were reacquainted with your teeth.”

On leaving Hearts, Hamilton signed for Watford, before finish his career at Berwick Rangers in 1973. He returned to Hearts the following year as a youth coach, staying in that role until 1979.

Hamilton then ran a successful newsagent’s shop in Slateford, near to Tynecastle, and was always happy to chat to customers about his old club, with the occasional wry comment about Hibs. Always a sociable man, he was also a welcome guest at supporters’ functions.

Hamilton kept himself fit well into old age, but latterly his health deteriorated badly. He also suffered the loss of his wife. He is survived by his son, Gary, and daughter, Karen.

A private funeral has already taken place, and Hearts have announced that a minute’s applause in tribute to Hamilton will be held just before kick-off at the club’s next home match against Aberdeen on 24 August.

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