Willie Kilmarnock: Footballer and publican

Born: 16 January, 1922, in Irvine. Died: 7 June, 2009, in Irvine, aged 87.

WILLIE Kilmarnock was arguably Motherwell FC's greatest captain. A virtual one-club man (most if not all Fir Parkers would exclude his one season post- Motherwell career with Airdrie), he was one-third of the fabled Steelemen defensive pyramid of Paton, Kilmarnock and Shaw; the names of centre-half Andy Paton, right-back Kilmarnock and left-back Archie Shaw tripped off the tongue as easily as they melded together for the club.

Kilmarnock was very much an Irvine boy, he was born in the town's High Street and educated at nearby Bank Street School.

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His football talent was obvious then and on taking up an engineering apprenticeship at Laird's blockworks in the town he was pitched into the rough, tough world of Ayrshire junior football with his local club and it was from the fabled Irvine Meadow XI that he went "upstairs" on his 17th birthday in 1939.

His younger brother, another good footballer, always maintained "Hitler ruined my career", the Second World War scuppering a possible move to Leicester City, but the Nazi despot's attempt at world domination failed to derail Willie Kilmarnock's senior career.

His was a reserved occupation and by 1944 he was sufficiently established in the Motherwell team to warrant an international call-up, to a wartime clash with the Auld Enemy at Wembley. Sadly, a below-strength Scotland side, captained by Liverpool's Matt Busby, were comprehensively thrashed 6-2 by the Saxon side of Cullis, Mercer, Matthews and Lawton.

Certainly, there was to be a later call-to-arms for the Scottish League XI in the post-war pre-Europe era, when such an honour was perhaps work more than some of today's "challenge match" caps, but Kilmarnock was never able to convert that unofficial wartime cap to a "full" one.

His classy passing game soon made him a Fir Park favourite, never more so than in the 1951-52 season, when he led Motherwell to Scottish Cup glory for the first time. He was to play a particularly important role in their 4-0 cup final win over the star-studded Dundee side of the time; but for three goal line clearances from the skipper in the course of a first half which Dundee dominated, that win would not have looked so comfortable or even possible. That match was Motherwell's second Hampden appearance that season – defending the League Cup, which they had won, beating Hibs 3-0, the previous year. Motherwell lost 5-1 to Dundee in the semi-final in October – making their revenge, before more than 136,000 fans, in the Scottish Cup, six months later all the sweeter.

There were to be other Hampden appearances. In 1954, Motherwell made the League Cup final. The team's place in that match, which they lost 2-4 to Hearts, had been clinched by a Kilmarnock 40-yarder in the 2-1 semi-final win over East Fife.

Scoring from that distance, with the old leather T-balls of the time, confirms Kilmarnock's reputation as a superlative striker of a dead ball.

A year later skipper and club were back at the National Stadium, only to lose another League Cup semi-final, by the only goal of the game, to St Mirren.

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Generally, during Kilmarnock's service with Motherwell, they were a hard-to-beat upper-mid-table, top-flight club. Motherwell did, however, follow Scottish Cup glory in 1952 with relegation in 1953, only to bounce straight back up as Division B champions in 1954.

A year later a final day 0-2 loss at Ibrox looked to have relegated Motherwell once more, but league reconstruction saved them.

Kilmarnock had been signed to the club by the great long-serving player and manager "Sailor" Hunter. He also gave sterling service to another Fir Park legend, George Stevenson, but with Stevenson's departure in 1957, new boss Bobby Ancell decided to ring the changes and at 35, Kilmarnock was released to make way for the "Ancell Babes" as the new manager's young side were christened. The superannuated skipper crossed the Lanarkshire divide for that short spell with Airdrie, before retiring back to Irvine.

There, he ran a sports shop and a popular pub – the Bute and Ayr Arms, but when the building of the Rivergate Shopping Centre and town centre redevelopment followed Irvine's designation as a new town in the 1970s forced the closure of his business, Kilmarnock took his compensation and retired to Bogside golf course and Irvine Winton's bowling green.

He gave long service to both sporting institutions and at the time of his death was an honorary president of Irvine Winton BC.

Willie Kilmarnock was pre-deceased by his wife, Ruby, some 20 years ago. The couple had no children, but he was a devoted and admired uncle to the extended Kilmarnock family and accorded the status of a Meadow and sporting legend within his home town.

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