Interview: Davie Wilson on golden era at Ibrox and Hampden

Last year Scottish football lost one of its proudest records when Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar overhauled the 112 goals in a single season netted by the Rangers trident of Ralph Brand, Jimmy Millar and Davie Wilson. But where are Barca now? Out of Europe, the famed strikeforce having drawn a blank as they exited the Champions League. And where's Wilson? In Morrisons in Newlands, Glasgow, sipping tea in the supermarket's cafe, full of fun and rollicking tales, and getting ready for his big comeback.

Former Rangers and Scotland winger Davie Wilson at home in Glasgow with a picture of himself in his Scotland shirt. Picture Ian Rutherford

The outside-left in what some call the greatest-ever Rangers team has missed a large chunk of this campaign with a niggly chest infection but will be at Hampden tomorrow. Obviously I mean watching the Old Firm Scottish Cup semi-final, not playing in it – the man will be 80 next birthday. But he was all of 55 when he finally stopped scuttling up the wing.

“I was manager of Dumbarton by that time and the reserves were a man short for a game against the Celtic at Boghead,” he says. “Bob Tait was the ref and when I thought I should come off the bench I said: ‘Bob, I wouldn’t mind a wee penalty today’. ‘Jimmy,’ he said, ‘if you can make it into the Celtic box at your age, you’ll get one’. I made it and he was true to his word. Bob’s a good pal of mine. He usually picks me up at the end of my street and we go and watch the Rangers together.”

Sign up to our Football newsletter

Sign up to our Football newsletter

His chums in the Ibrox forward line of the first half of the 1960s, Brand and Millar, aren’t in the best of health right now but Wilson does them proud in the southside with his account of a glorious light blue era. The end of his street is over the car park wall and most days he’s in the cafe where everyone seems to look out for him. When a lens falls out of his specs, another regular takes them away to be fixed. Unprompted, a fresh pot of tea arrives, on the house. “That’s Liz, a dead nice Celtic fan,” he says, “as is Susan over there on the fast checkout.” He natters for so long that his wife Avril has to send across a search party to check he’s alright.

Well, there’s so much to discuss. Wilson won five Scottish Cup medals and in that haul Celtic were beaten in two finals, a semi-final and a quarter. He also won two titles and the League Cup twice and was capped by Scotland 22 times. The Jim Baxter yarns alone take up a sizeable chunk of our morning.

“Ah Jimmy,” he says with a wistful grin. “The first time I met him was the week before he signed for us and he almost ran me over. I stepped off the team bus and this motorbike roared past me. ‘Ach, dinnae worry, wee man’, he said, ‘I wouldn’t have hit ye’. Scot Symon, the manager, told him he’d have to get rid of the bike before he joined the Rangers.”

Wilson can still hear the crack from Baxter’s leg breaking in a vengeful challenge by Rapid Vienna’s Walter Skocik in the European Cup. “Jimmy had tormented this big lump all night. ‘I’m just going to nutmeg him again’, he said. I told him not to do it.”

The old wingman remembers Baxter sitting on the ball with Rangers two up against Celtic and it about to become three in the replayed Scottish Cup final of 1963. The same gallusness had been in evidence a few weeks previously at Wembley when he grabbed the ball for the penalty kick in Scotland’s victory over England. “He’d never taken one before.”

Immediately after that cup triumph Wilson was surprised to receive a Symon summons. “ ‘What does he want with me?’ I wondered. He pointed to a receipt and said: ‘Is this you?’ It was for a crate of Bacardi. ‘Come on, boss’, I said, ‘you know it couldn’t have been’. Symon said: ‘Well, tell Baxter he needs to practise your signature more!’

“Brilliant footballer, awfie man – that was Jimmy. And to those who don’t think he was dedicated enough, do you know that every morning when we were on tour he used to fling open the window at 5am? I ken this because I used to room with him. I’d wake up and there would be Jimmy, going through these physical jerks. And then he’d climb back in the window from wherever the hell he’d been all night!” An oft-told story, perhaps, but a good one. And it can’t have been Wilson’s Bacardi because he’s never touched alcohol.

“Never smoked either – I left all that to others. My mum and dad were teetotal. Mind you, my three sisters liked a drink. They’d have sooked it out o’ a shitey cloot!” Instead, Wilson amused himself with his pigeons. He raced them for 60 years and his fascination with them wasn’t interrupted by there being a game of football to be played – he’d simply seek out known fanciers to talk doos, one such being John Lambie when he played for Falkirk. “John used to complain that I’d talk him off his game. Once at Ibrox the Bairns were leading one-nil and, five minutes to go, he said; ‘Yez are beat the day, wee man’. I put my shoulder down and ran inside him. I let him catch me in the box and Tiny Wharton blew for a penalty. ‘I never touched the little bastard’, said John. Tiny, who forever had a great last line, said: ‘Read the Sunday Post tomorrow, Mr Lambie, and see if it’s not a penalty’.”

Wilson’s story begins in the Lanarkshire mining village of Newton with a memory of the Second World War. “My sister Nan was a tap dancer and she had a board which she used to practise in the house. That came in handy when the alarm went up as our parents could hold it over their weans’ heads as we ran to the air-raid shelter.”

Wilson was a prolific goalscorer with his school team and a scout got him the chance to look round Ibrox as a 12-year-old. “I met the manager Mr [Bill] Struth in his wheelchair – he had an apartment inside the stadium – and also Alan Morton, the Wee Blue Devil himself. He had coal mines, you know. He asked me: ‘How’s your left foot?’ I told him I only really used my right. He instructed me to wear a sandshoe on my right foot, to encourage me to use the left more.” In a school game soon after that advice he netted ten.

Wilson’s first Old Firm game was a reserve fixture. “There were 25,000 at Ibrox – that’s unbelievable, isn’t it?” His debut for the first team came early in 1957 at Dundee. “Big George Young kicked my backside coming out of the dressing room. He said: ‘All these newspapers are out there and they’ll be flashing their cameras. My boots are a wee bit dirty and I want you to look after them. Give them a wee clean after each tackle.’”

There’s an amusing symmetry to this incident with one that came later when Wilson moved to Dundee United and he was the senior man, with the boot quite literally on the other foot. “I’d gone along to Redpath Brown [engineering works] to see my uncle and bumped into Walter Smith’s dad, who also worked there as a crane driver. He said: ‘I see you’re at Tannadice now. Do me a favour and kick my son’s backside, make him dae something’. Next day at training I booted him. Then, when I was Dumbarton manager, I signed him for £8,000. We got to the Scottish Cup semi-finals [1976] and played Hearts. I remember shouting at him before a corner: ‘Make sure you win the ball’. He did and scored with an OG and we lost. But everything worked out for Walter after that, didn’t it?”

Wilson reckons he was promoted to the Rangers first XI too quickly – “I was still doing my apprenticeship. The crowds were so big; we had 100,000 at Ibrox some days” – and his breakthrough season would come three years later, with it his first Scottish Cup medal. An Old Firm semi-final was a rare thing and ’59-’60 produced two. The first was a dismal 1-1 draw. “Errors and inadequacies at Hampden” was the headline on Hugh McIlvanney’s report in The Scotsman. Frank Haffey had just about managed to keep Rangers at bay, although McIlvanney noted that the Celtic keeper was the type who would “stand out as excitable in South American football”, with any good work likely to be undone by a “disastrous mistake”. But the goalie couldn’t stop the Gers in the replay, Wilson netting twice in a 4-1 success.

“If we won an Old Firm game the Rangers fans would have a party; if Celtic won their lot did. But we pretty much used to murder them in those days – it was hardly a contest.” Mention of Haffey, though, requires us to discuss Scotland’s 9-3 hammering at Wembley in 1961, Wilson’s third appearance for his country. “I scored the best goal of my career, a diving header from a cross by the wee gangster, Johnny MacLeod of the Hibs, to get us back to 3-2 and then Frank started his carry-on. You know the old song: ‘Over my shoulder goes one, over my shoulder goes two… ’ Afterwards the rest of us were devastated. But guess what Frank did the next morning at the railway station: posed for a photo with his arms outstretched. He was copying the clock which read a quarter to nine – that terrible scoreline.”

Wilson’s dark-blue debut had been away to Wales the previous year. “In the first 50-50 challenge the Welsh captain Vic Crowe sent me through six somersaults. Dave Mackay got a hold of me and said: ‘I’m going to put the ball between the two of you and if you don’t kick him you’ll never play for this team again.’ I actually kicked Vic in the head. ‘That’ll do me, wee man’, said Dave.”

He purrs about his fellow internationalists John White and Denis Law. “We called John Chalkie, ‘the Ghost’. You could have three of the opposition ganging up on you and you’d aye hear the call: ‘Here Davie, give the ball to me’. Denis was the best ever, him and I were great pals, and against England the year after 9-3 he cut one back for me. I knew it was a goal as soon as I hit it. The police said there were 155,000 inside Hampden with guys paying a fiver to jump over the turnstiles.”

His England opponent was always Jimmy Armfield. “Years later I was in Blackpool for a pigeon show and spotted this fellow who was obviously a footballer because of his walk – it was Jimmy, on his way to church to play the organ. ‘I thought I recognised those legs’, I said. ‘How many times did I put the ball through them again?’ ” But back at Wembley in ’63 Wilson was forced into a withdrawn role. “That was the game when Eric Caldow broke his leg after only nine minutes. Subs weren’t allowed and [manager] Ian McColl shouted at Dave Mackay to go to left-back. I didn’t think that was the best idea so I did it. And that was another great win over the English.”

Wilson loved playing for Scotland, loved his father Thomas’s reaction when his son in his strip handed over tickets for the games. “His eyes would be laughing.” Wilson was a member of an occasionally brilliant but maddeningly inconsistent team which never qualified for anything but thumped Spain 6-2 in Madrid. Wilson scored that night, also in ’63, and the same year netted two in a Hampden friendly against Austria – a match notable for being the first British international to be abandoned because of persistent fouling. “The ref was an Englishman, Jim Finney. There were only 11 minutes to go and we were leading 4-1 so I asked him why he was stopping it. He said: ‘The Austrians have already put you on the track three times. If you or Denis Law score another you’ll end up in the infirmary’.”

Back to Rangers, then, and their near-dominance of the Scottish Cup. Wilson maybe didn’t quite have the flamboyance of other wingers of the 1960s but he was speedy and just as quick with his wits, as evidenced by his taking charge of that Wembley emergency. Here’s another example: “A year before the 1960 cup final I was on a training course in Ayrshire, watching crosses being fired at the Kilmarnock goalie Jimmy Brown. I noticed he was reaching for them with his wrong hand. He told me it was because of a bad shoulder. So before that final against Killie I said to our Jimmy Millar: ‘Stand just beyond the back post and I’ll aim for you.’ He scored with two headers that day – what a player he was, only 5ft 8ins and yet he could jump into the clouds. Afterwards Jimmy Brown said to me: ‘You don’t miss much, do you?’”

Wilson scored in the ’62 final victory over St Mirren and in the following year’s replay triumph over Celtic. He remembers Pat Crerand standing in the tunnel not yet stripped just 15 minutes before kick-off in the first game as he went to give his father his tickets. “Paddy was one of the finest passers of a football. I said to him: ‘Are you not playing today?’ ‘I don’t know’, he said. ‘The chairman’s stuck in traffic and it’s him that picks the team’.”

Celtic were in need of a revolution and Jock Stein was on his way.

Rangers would win the Scottish Cup again in 1964, beating Dundee to claim a Treble and two years later prevented their great rivals repeating the feat when Kai Johansen’s rocket enabled Wilson to make it a nap hand of winner’s badges.

But the world had already changed. Four months earlier in the New Year’s Day derby Celtic had battered Wilson’s men 5-1.

“The pitch at Parkhead was rock-hard and slippy. I scored and we led at half-time. But Jock had his team change into sandshoes. After that beating I said to him: ‘I can see your tail swishing – you’re a fox’.”

Stein was, but so in his way was Davie Wilson. He says his goodbyes to the Morrisons staff and heads home for lunch and I’m not entirely sure he didn’t slip right over the wall.