Obituary: Lawrie Leslie, former Scotland goalkeeper who famously missed 9-3 drubbing by England
LAWRIE Leslie, who has died following a lengthy battle against illness and dementia, was a spectacular and also insanely brave goalkeeper, perhaps best-known for being injured and missing Scotland’s 9-3 drubbing from England in 1961.
Since the Second World War, Hibs have had ten Scotland goalkeepers backstop their team – George Farm, Willie Miller, Tommy Younger, Leslie, Ronnie Simpson, Jim Herriot, Thomson Allan, Alan Rough, Andy Goram and Jim Leighton. Where Leslie stands in that pantheon would start a good-going argument in many a Leith pub, but, what is beyond dispute is that he was the bravest of that stellar list.
As a young boy, he was badly injured when struck by a lorry, and it was thought he might never walk again. He had to have blood transfusions and unscreened blood was used.
This nearly killed him and caused ongoing liver problems which blighted his life. Then, as a player, his courage frequently saw him carried off – indeed, Jeanette, his long-suffering wife, in the course of a Scotsman interview in 2011 joked: “Lawrie was injured so often he was on first name terms with the A&E staff and had his own reserved bed in the Royal London Hospital.”
His early football was played at right-back, before a switch to goalkeeper saw him playing for Hawkhill Amateurs, then Newtongrange Star. National Service in the Royal Artillery saw him playing in the same team as Hibs’ Jock Buchan, who told the Easter Road club they ought to have a look.
Leslie passed a trial and was signed, first understudying, then succeeding Tommy Younger as first-team goalkeeper, following Younger’s move to Liverpool. He played just shy of 100 games for Hibs, including the 1958 Scottish Cup final loss to Clyde, but, in 1959, after a fall-out with the club, he was offloaded to Airdrie for a little over £4,000.
In just under two years at Broomfield he did enough to earn a place in the club’s Hall of Fame. His transfer value trebled as he produced a consistent display of brilliant goalkeeping. He made the spectacular seem everyday, was made club captain and, in 1960, his brilliance in two matches for the Scottish League XI saw him make his Scotland debut, against Wales, at Cardiff’s Ninian Park, in the opening game of the 1960-61 Home Internationals.
His brilliant form at club level came at the right time. The SFA and Tottenham Hotspur were involved in a battle over player availability, with Spurs’ boss Bill Nicholson reluctant to release goalkeeper Bill Brown. So, the SFA selectors gave Leslie his chance.
He was one of four debutants in that Cardiff game, which the Welsh won 2-0; their first win over Scotland in Cardiff since the 1920s. But Leslie was widely praised for a display which the Scottish press corps felt had saved the Scots from embarrassment.
One veteran writer, the Glasgow Herald’s Cyril Horne, wrote:“I can recall, of Scottish goalkeepers, only John Thomson, against the English League in London in 1931 and Jimmy Cowan against England at Wembley in 1949, making as many breathtaking saves in one match as Leslie did on Saturday.”
A second cap followed against Northern Ireland – a 5-2 win at Hampden – then, in April 1961, he was named in the team to face the English at Wembley. Unfortunately, on the preceding Saturday, playing for Airdrie against Ayr United at Somerset Park, a typically brave save at the foot of a United forward saw Leslie taken to Ayr County Hospital, where 11 stitches were inserted in a horrific eyebrow gash.The wound swelled up and the eye closed, so, on the Friday, ignoring Leslie’s protests that he could play, and his offer to have the stitches taken out to open the eye, Ian McColl told him he was out and Celtic’s Frank Haffey was in. The rest, as they say, is history, with Leslie witnessing the carnage from the stand, then trying to lift the distraught Haffey’s spirits.
Fit again, Leslie was restored for the three World Cup qualifying matches, home and away against the Republic of Ireland, then away to Czechoslovakia, which completed the 1960-61 international season.
By the time of Scotland’s next match, the return against the brilliant Czechs, the SFA and Spurs had settled their differences and Brown was restored to the side. Leslie, meanwhile, had left Airdrie, West Ham United having paid £14,000 for his signature.
At Upton Park, he settled-in quickly, playing behind a defence masterminded by Bobby Moore. In his first season, he became the first Hammers goalkeeper to be named ‘Hammer of the Year’. However, his courageous play and penchant for diving at the feet of inrushing forwards soon made him a regular at the Royal London and saw him missing games.
Because of injuries, he lost his place and United recouped their outlay by selling him to Stoke City, where, once again, his flamboyant style and spectacular saves quickly won the admiration of the fans.
He backstopped the Potters’ run to the League Cup final – then a two-legged affair – but, needless to say, he was injured in the first leg and missed the second, before injuries again contributed to him losing his place.
Leslie returned to East London, to Millwall, and at the Den he enjoyed some of the happiest days of his career. He replaced a star in Alex Stepney, who would win a European Cup with Manchester United, but Leslie, in two seasons with the club, made the fans almost forget him.
From Millwall, he moved on to run down his 13-year, 400 game, professional career with Southend United, before turning to coaching with that club. He later had a spell back at Millwall, where he was briefly caretaker manager, prior to quitting football to become a coach working in various schools in London.
His sympathetic approach to the boys, and his ability to warn them that professional football was a hard life, earned him much respect.
As he grew older, his liver problems resurfaced, while the many injuries he had suffered took their toll. Ten years ago he began to show signs of dementia. He was reduced to needing a wheelchair to get around, pushed by the steadfast Jeanette. He occasionally went to watch West Ham, but mostly he watched Gillingham, the closest club to his home on the Kent-South London border.
An imposing figure, the 6ft 3in Leslie was a spectacular player. But it was his will-to-win and his courage which made him stand out. The last word goes to Jeanette – speaking about that 9-3 massacre, she told The Scotsman in a 50th anniversary piece: “Even with both eyes closed, there is no way my Lawrie would have let in nine goals.”