Willie Hunter: A footballing poet with ‘old school class’

Former Motherwell, Hibs and Scotland forward, who has died at the age of 80, was a man of many talents

Willie Hunter in the colours of Motherwell in 1965-66, the club where he made his name. Picture: SNS
Willie Hunter in the colours of Motherwell in 1965-66, the club where he made his name. Picture: SNS

It seems strange to recount that, though at the wrong end of my forties and in no way able to identify as young, I once saw Willie Hunter perform.

Hunter, after all, began making his name with Motherwell in the late 1950s, when he had every right to call himself young. He was handed his debut v Dundee in 1957 when only 17-years-old.

Though born in Edinburgh, Hunter – he was always Billy rather than Willie to friends and family – was one of the ‘babes’ in Bobby Ancell’s now rapidly diminishing front five. As of Sunday, when Hunter passed away at the age of 80, the number remaining stands at one – the great Ian St John.

Pat Quinn, who like Hunter went on to play for Hibs, passed away last month. Sammy Reid died six years ago, Andy Weir in the early 1990s.

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But Hunter was still performing as recently as three years ago, which is when I saw him. While the scene was Hampden, we were not out on the pitch where Hunter, regarded in some quarters as the most talented of the Motherwell front five, trod fewer times than he deserved. Each of his three Scotland appearances were away from home, including a scoring debut in a 3-3 draw with Hungary. He was an unused sub when Hibs lost 6-2 to Celtic in the League Cup final in 1968-69.

We met at the Hampden museum for the launch of Mind the Time, a poetry anthology that Hunter had contributed to. For all his talent as an inside forward, he was also a wordsmith. It was a way to self-medicate during bouts of depression. His mother had taken her own life.

“I can be right in the depths and someone says go and do a poem, and I’m like: ‘how can I write a poem feeling like this?’” he told me in 2017. “But I can. Sometimes it can be up to three pages long. They all have a reflection of football in them.”

As well as poetry, he wrote prose. His first book was a personal history of Edinburgh’s Begg’s Buildings, named after Rev Dr James Begg, a campaigner for the poor. Another book chronicled his storied time at Motherwell, where he scored more than 50 competitive goals in ten injury-disrupted years.

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He left to join the Detroit Cougars in 1967 and then returned to Scotland to sign for Hibs, his boyhood heroes, a year later. Pat Stanton played alongside him and remembers someone who would go out of his way to help less experienced team-mates.

“He would point things out to you – I certainly listened to him, so did a lot of other players,” recalled Stanton yesterday. “One thing I would say, he did not take himself too seriously – he did not take life too seriously. But he was still a fierce competitor, he liked to win like anyone else.”

Hunter kept looking out for his team-mates in later life too. After football, which also took him to South Africa, and stints in management with Ian St John at Portsmouth and then under his own steam at Queen of the South and Inverness Caledonian, he worked in insurance and then for a cancer charity. In his later years, he became an ambassador for the Football Memories project conceived by Michael White.

“He was almost a social worker for ex-players in and around Edinburgh,” said White yesterday. “He would take those such as Lawrie Reilly and Alex Young out on a one-to-one basis.”

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One of Hunter’s regrets, recalled White, was never being able to track down film of the time Motherwell ran riot against touring Brazilian side Flamengo. He scored twice in a 9-2 win.

Hunter’s Football Memories involvement gave him new impetus. He contributed nine poems to Mind the Time, published to raise funds for a charity helping those with dementia find a link with the past through football.

Poet Jim McIntosh recalled Hunter’s presence at the anthology’s launch in June 2017, shortly before Scotland took on England in a vital World Cup qualifier.

“I’ll never forget a wonderful sparkle in his eyes that said so much about his passionate belief in what he was doing for those around him, especially those going through tough times – old school class,” McIntosh said yesterday.

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Hunter recited verses from his own poems but had to break off towards the end of one after welling up. His emotions at being back at Hampden had got the better of him.

Fortunately, poets are as adept as footballers at covering for a team-mate. In stepped McIntosh to declaim the elegant last verse from A Ba’s a Ba for a’ That, where Hunter writes from the position of a ball lamenting its brutal treatment at the feet of inferior, modern day players.

“I only hope we see again the likes of Denis Law,

Or Gordon Smith, or Jinky, or John White.

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Or another Kenny Dalglish, who would say to this wee ba’,

That skill is back…and then put out the light.”

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