Obituary: Willie Finlay, East Fife footballer

Willie Finlay. Picture: Contributed
Willie Finlay. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 9 August, 1926, in Auchterderran, Fife. Died: 4 September, 2014, in Fife, aged 88

OF the many claims that certain players of 1940s and 1950s vintage were desperately unlucky to win an international cap, one of the strongest cases can be made for Willie Finlay.

In the post-war period, the outstanding centre-half was a triple League Cup winner with East Fife and a Scottish Cup winner with Clyde. Throw in a Scottish Cup runners-up medal, three Division B championship titles, and two Supplementary Cup wins, and it becomes clear that Finlay was the rock upon which successful teams were built. He could also have been a Scottish League championship winner in 1953, had East Fife not embarked on a suicidal programme of eight “floodlit friendlies” south of the Border in the last two months of the season, travelling to England by coach for midweek fixtures at places such as Swindon Town, Bristol City, Sunderland, Newcastle and Notts County, and then returning ill-prepared for league duty on a Saturday. The Bayview side blew their lead, having topped the league for most of the season, and ended up third in the table, four points behind Rangers and Hibernian – after taking just one point from their final three fixtures.

In the post-war era, perhaps only Billy Williamson of Rangers comes ahead of Finlay in the ranks of the most decorated players in Scottish football who did not win an international cap. The theory goes that Finlay, like many others, was overlooked because he played for an “unfashionable” club in Fife, although it should also be said that Rangers giants Willie Woodburn and George Young were worthy wearers of the Scotland No 5 shirt during Finlay’s heyday.

However, it should also be noted that in the three years between Woodburn’s final match for Scotland in 1952 and Young taking over the position in 1955, the Scottish selectors tried out four other players at centre-half, continually overlooking Finlay. If his East Fife team-mate Henry Morris could score a hat-trick on his Scotland debut and never be picked again, what chance was there for others? Not much.

Finlay’s death last week at the age of 88 is a particularly poignant moment for East Fife FC, because it marks the passing of the last direct link to the Methil club’s famous cup-winning teams from their halcyon days of the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

Finlay’s name once tripped off the tongue of a generation of football supporters across the country, as part of the revered half-back line-up of “Philp, Finlay, Aitken”. Jimmy Philp was the older head who at first guided the younger pair for the west of Fife, Willie from Bowhill and George Aitken from Lochgelly. The trio forged one of the most successful combinations in the country.

Finlay joined East Fife in 1946 from his local team Bowhill Rovers, at the age of 19. The chance of full-time football was one that any young man would jump at, especially one who had worked for the previous six years at Bowhill pit.

Success came quickly. One year after signing, he was a League Cup winner as East Fife became the first club – and still only one of two – to lift the trophy while playing outside the top division, then going on to secure the Second Division title later that season. Finlay was again on the winning side in the League Cup final in seasons 1949/50 and 1953/54. Remarkably, East Fife came closer to the cup double in 1949/50, losing out to Rangers in the Scottish Cup final.

He was a permanent fixture on the East Fife teamsheet for ten seasons – the most successful decade in the club’s history. Eight of those seasons were spent in the First Division, and the Scottish League Championship was almost within the club’s grasp, with East Fife twice finishing third in the league and twice finishing fourth. Changed days indeed for a club which now finds itself in the basement league of Scottish football.

After playing almost 400 games for East Fife, his eventual exit is linked directly to the ill-fated tenure of manager Jerry Dawson, the former Rangers goalkeeper who took over at Bayview when Scot Symon left to join Preston North End. Dawson’s man management skills were poor, and a fall-out saw Finlay depart to Clyde. Dawson’s folly was demonstrated when, within a year, Finlay was a Second Division champion, and within two years, he was a Scottish Cup winner. Clyde lifted the cup at Hampden after a 1-0 win against Hibs, just as East Fife were relegated to the second division, the Methil club never to revive its glory days.

After seven seasons at Shawfield, which included a further Second Division title in 1962, Finlay played 14 games for Raith Rovers before his senior career ended in April 1964. He returned to “civilian” life but stayed involved in football, at one stage taking charge of the Lochore Welfare team, and he remained in demand for guest appearances in charity matches. In later life, he was a keen and talented bowls player at his local club in Markinch, the Fife village where he lived before moving to Kennoway in his final years.

In 2008, he was a guest of honour at Broadwood Stadium as Clyde celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1958 Scottish Cup win with a reunion of surviving players. Sadly, his acrimonious departure from East Fife cooled his affection for the Bayview club for many years, but he made a long-overdue return to Methil in 2008 to help unfurl the Third Division championship flag with his former-team-mate Johnny Niven – the first league title East Fife had won since Finlay and Niven were part of the team who won the B Division exactly 60 years earlier.

And there were emotional scenes that same year as Finlay was honoured at a special ceremony to pay tribute to East Fife’s greatest players, receiving a standing ovation as he collected his award. A modest and quiet man, Finlay described the night as “unforgettable”, and characteristically attributed his own achievements to the fact that “we had a great bunch of lads in the team”. In truth, he was the cornerstone of the club’s astonishing success.

He is survived by his wife Margaret and their two sons.

DONALD WALKER