Willie Coburn was part of the fabric of Scottish football in the 1960s and early 70s when he was a virtual ever present full-back for St Johnstone before finishing his career at Forfar and Cowdenbeath. Described as a “tough tackling no-nonsense defender” he played some 324 games for the Saints and about 45 for his other two clubs.
Bobby Brown, later to be Scotland manager, was in charge of St Johnstone when Coburn was signed and recalled him fondly, “I remember him with great affection. We signed him from Crieff Earngrove Juniors. Willie was very reliable,a very good pro and a very honest player.
“You could put all your trust in him and be confident of getting a wholehearted 90 minutes from him. He had great resolve and loads of ‘never say die’ spirit. He was always trying to better himself and was a great example to others. An excellent club man.”
Because of his commitment and team ethic, he was a fans’ favourite which was reflected in his being one of the first five players to be voted into St Johnstone’s inaugural Hall of Fame in 2013, some 41 years after his last game for the Perth club.
He also figured in Saints’ never to be forgotten run in the Uefa Cup in 1971, playing in all six games under Willie Ormond’s astute management.
Drawn in the first round against Hamburg , who had reached the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup three years before and had a number of internationals in their side,it seemed the Saints’ run in the Cup might be brief. A 2-1 loss in the away leg kept the tie alive for the return at Muirton Park, then Saints’ home, where they turned on the style in front of a delirious crowd to whip mighty Hamburg 3-0 and clinch the tie 3-2.In the next round highly rated Vasas of Budapest were beaten, earning the club a 3rd round tie against Zeljeznicar Sarajevo,then in the old Yugoslavia. A 1-0 win at Muirton set the team up for the return leg but alas they came crashing to earth with a 5-1 loss. One newspaper report criticised the referee, claiming he “was as much a ‘homer’ as any racing pigeon!” Worse was to come on the return flight when the pilot had to make an emergency landing after take-off because of ice on the plane. A number of fire engines were present but only one ambulance, causing Coburn to defuse tension by asking, “How the hell are 60 of us going to get into THAT?!”
He signed for Saints in September 1962 and by the end of the month had made his first team debut against Morton at Cappielow, and made a few more appearances that season to help Saints claim the old second division title and promotion to the top tier where they would remain during Coburn’s time. Over the next season he began staking a claim for a regular place and from 1964 onwards he became a fixture,winning the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year award in 1966.
The “back three” for Saints then almost picked itself with Jim Donaldson in goals, John Lambie, later well-known Partick Thistle manager, at right back and Coburn at left back. They played as a unit 63 times.
Another teammate at this time was Alex Ferguson at centre forward. When interviewed for a biography of Ferguson years later, Coburn commented: “He could hold his own and could sniff out chances.”
Coburn’s most successful spell at Muirton coincided with Ormond’s time as manager from 1967 onwards. In 1968 they reached the semi final of the Scottish Cup, only losing to eventual winners Dunfermline after extra time in a replay. And in 1969 they reached their first national cup final,the League Cup, where they were unlucky to lose 1-0 to Celtic in front of 73,000 fans. And in 1970/1 they finished third in the league earning qualification for that European campaign.
Willie Henderson, Rangers and Scotland right winger, faced Coburn regularly. He said: “He was a decent player, air, very steady and a nice guy.”
Steve Brown, St Johnstone chairman, commented: “Willie’s passing is a huge loss to the club. Few players have made such a contribution as Willie did to Willie Ormond’s inspirational team.
“He is fifth in the list of appearances for our club. Willie was at the club daily as caretaker for our all weather surface till he had his recent operation and he was a hugely popular character with everyone. He will be greatly missed.”