Lisbon Lion Willie Wallace on glory days at Celtic and his controversial switch from Hearts

Celtic legend and Lisbon Lion Willie Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry
Celtic legend and Lisbon Lion Willie Wallace. Picture: Robert Perry
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Willie Wallace has just got back from another exhausting stopover on the Lisbon Lions Grand 51st Anniversary Tour. What, you know that Celtic are very fond of their European Cup triumph and with good reason, but you weren’t aware there was such a commemoration? Well, there isn’t, not 
really, but the one they call Wispy was making a devoted fan’s day.

“This lad got in touch by email saying he was collecting the autographs of all the surviving Lions but that he’d given up hope of ever bumping into me,” explains Wallace, who has been exiled the far side of the world in Australia these past 36 years. “He’s a student, lives in Grimsby, supports Grimsby Town. ‘Commiserations for that,’ I wrote back, but I told him I was going to be not a million miles from him visiting rellys on my wife Olive’s side. We arranged to meet in a wee village between Bridlington and Doncaster and he got his autograph.”

William Semple Brown Wallace is 78 and in all his years has never ceased being amazed at how the achievements of a group of men born within a fabled 30-mile radius continue to ripple right across the globe. The next date in his Lions-themed diary is a function in Perth – that’s Perth, Australia, by the way. “Lisbon is a romantic story and the fact that we were all locals – and some of us yokels – is what folk love. Sadly, I don’t think Scotland will ever produce a tale to match it.”

It can be a story which squashes others. For instance, today is the 56th anniversary of Hearts’ last League Cup triumph. Who knew? There will be no re-staged victory parade, and maybe only older fans who were at Hampden on 27 October, 1962 will acknowledge the 1-0 win over Kilmarnock and remember the part played in it by Wallace.

“Just a small part,” he laughs. “I think I passed to Willie Hamilton and it was his lovely ball which set up Norrie 
Davidson for the winner. We were fortunate, mind. Although I think we were the better team on the day, 
[referee] Tiny Wharton disallowed a perfectly good equaliser for Killie right at the death.” Before Kirkintilloch-born Wallace was a Bhoy, he was a Jam Tart. Surely you knew that. And as his two clubs, if you don’t count Stenhousemuir and Raith Rovers, prepare for tomorrow’s fascinating semi-final of what’s now called the Betfred Cup, the younger element of the maroon contingent making the short journey to Murrayfield might be interested that while Hearts are taking an age to reclaim the trophy, they used to win it for fun – ’62 was the fourth time in eight years – and Wallace back in his Gorgie tenure simply couldn’t stop scoring against the team which would later turn him into a legend.

“Hearts hadn’t won anything for a couple of seasons, which for the club at the time was a bit of a drought, and I was part of a rebuilding process. Willie Polland and myself came from Raith, Norrie from Aberdeen, Jim Cruickshank and Davie Holt from Queen’s Park and the bold Hammy from Aston Villa. Tommy Walker signed me although I never saw much of him as manager. When we played in Europe or were touring overseas, Tommy liked to sightsee. John Harvey was the trainer and he was an important character in my career, right up there with Jock Stein. These two, along with 
Willie Waddell, went to Italy to study tactics, and John was the guy who introduced 4-2-4 to Scotland. He was fantastic for me, my first real coach, teaching me how to play off the target man, great stuff.

“We actually got to the League Cup final in my first full season [1961-62]. In the semi-final at Easter Road, Stirling Albion took us to extra-time but I managed to score the winner. I once burst the net with a goal at Easter Road but I think it was against Hibs in a derby. Next time you’re there, son, you could check if the hole’s been repaired. In the final we played Rangers – 1-1. I was carrying an injury and it caught up with me. I missed the replay and we lost.”

A year later, after Hearts had beaten Celtic in an earlier round, Wallace inevitably scoring, he bagged a hat-trick in the semi against St Johnstone and Hearts were back at Hampden, determined to get reacquainted with a trophy which in those days was no diddy cup. The team was: Gordon 
Marshall, Polland, Holt, John Cumming, Billy Higgins, Wispy, Danny Paton, Davidson, Willie Hamilton and Johnny Hamilton. For Wallace, the stars were Hammy and Iron Man 
Cumming. “When John tackled you in training, God forbid, all your bones shook. He was the hardest man I ever encountered in football. And Hammy might have been the most gifted.”

That’s some compliment given that Wallace would eventually team up with Jimmy Johnstone, but it’s a view which would be endorsed by Stein after he had managed the quixotic inside-forward at Hibs. When Stein got to Parkhead and eavesdropped on a dressing-room debate over the 
Scottish League’s solid gold classic performers, he was compelled to nominate Hamilton.

But the player took some managing. Hammy was as fond of a swig of 
Bacardi and coke as he was of a swing of the hips to sell an opponent an outrageous dummy. I bow to no one in my quest for anecdotes about the greatest player I never saw and Wallace comes up with a couple more. “My journey to Tynecastle was along the old A8. I’d often pass Willie in his little A30 van and – can you believe this? – he’d have the Daily Record splayed out over the steering wheel, reading as he drove. At least motorists who use their phones now might be watching the road! He virtually lived in that van. All his gear was in the back and if he was going out for the night, which he usually always was, he’d scrabble around for the cleanest shirt.

“Then there was the time we played a friendly against Bergen as part of a British Trade Fair delegation to 
Norway. On the boat coming back the captain requested we all go below deck as we were approaching the fjords and we wondered why. We soon found out when we saw Willie, who’d ignored the advice and grabbed a deckchair. He was covered in salt and almost dead. He had a wee bit missing between the ears but, boy, what a player.”

Wallace now calls himself a “true blue kangaroo”. He and Olive live on the Gold Coast where they raised two daughters who have in turn given them four grandchildren. “The thing I love about Oz is knowing that when I wake up it’s pretty much going to be another beautiful day,” he says. But, the son of a foundry worker, Wallace grew up in a farm cottage with an outside toilet. Christmas was The Broons annual or – his namesake – Oor Wullie.
It was a rural idyll: he milked the cows, helped bring in the harvests and enjoyed a magnificent playground. But there were dramas along the way: “Six months old, I got pneumonia and again when I was two. Every William in the extended family – and there had been loads of them – had died either in childbirth or very young. But I survived. The name stopped being so popular after that. Then when I was five Dad went down with tuberculosis. For Mum and me, without a car, that meant a six-hour round trip to the 
hospital in Helensburgh to visit him. He was there a whole year.”

At 17 he signed for Stenhousemuir, saw sight of his first ten pound note, made his debut against Dumbarton and lost 6-1. Ochilview being next to the McCowan’s toffee factory meant a big box of chewy treats for the team at Christmas and after good results in the Scottish Cup. At least some of them still had their own teeth although the goalie, Archie McFeat, was 45. “I wondered about this guy Rab Quinn who’d been on Celtic’s books – how old was he? When we were queueing up for our ’flu jabs I tried to find out but he was outraged.” Caution: it’s impolite to ask a woman or a Warrior their age.

Stenny had no manager, the side being picked by a seven-man committee, which gave young Wallace some freedom of expression, even if toffee rewards were few and far between. His goals, then from the right-wing berth, earned him a move to Raith where, perhaps in good preparation for encountering Hammy, he teamed up with young Jim Baxter, then very slim indeed.

“We called him Stanley, after the comedian. There were lots of us in digs in Kirkcaldy and every Wednesday night we’d head for the Burma Ballroom down on the front. Jim and I also golfed together when we’d look in on his mum down Dunfermline way for boiled eggs and toast. He was always up for a good giggle, was Jim, and I remember the day he roared up to Stark’s Park on a brand new fancy motorbike.” Baxter would roar out of Raith after masterminding a famous Ibrox victory, Rangers snapping him up to avoid further embarrassment.

Wallace was being noticed, too. “I’d been moved into the middle and our trainer Willie Hunter, a Powderhall sprinter who ran under the name Willie Black, had upped my speed.” Hearts paid £15,000 for him and would be rewarded with 127 strikes in 239 appearances, though sadly he couldn’t score when it mattered most: the 1964-65 league showdown won by Kilmarnock, who snatched the title by 0.04 of a goal. “Our wee Norwegian, Roald Jensen, hit a post and Alan Gordon had a header saved but I missed a good chance as well.” I mention that Tommy McLean, then of Killie, told me he thought Hearts were complacent, assuming all they had to do was turn up to be declared champs. “No, I don’t think we were. We might have been the fancied team, just like Celtic were in the 1970 European Cup final [won by Feyenoord], but football doesn’t always work out the way you think it should.”

Though the latter defeat was disappointing, Wallace could hardly complain about how his career panned out, and he doesn’t. Even if all he had were six weeks in the spring of ’67 it would rate as magnificent, for in that period when as he says, “the stars shone on me”, Wispy netted two goals for the Celts in the European Cup semi-final against Dukla Prague, lifted the Scottish Cup, clinched the league, helped Scotland become unofficial world champions by beating England 3-2 at Wembley – and to top off the delirious dream there was Lisbon.

He rates his second against Dukla the best goal of his career, a rocket shot from 20 yards after Bertie Auld’s craftily tapped free-kick, though some veteran Jambos I know have just as fond memories of a header against Hibs from nearly the same distance, and that one wasn’t even the net-shredder. But his five and a half years in the Hoops weren’t entirely spotless. He was sent off following a clash with Dundee United’s Davie Wilson. “I swung a fist at Davie, missed by a mile, but he went down holding his jaw. As I headed up the tunnel Big Jock muttered out of the corner of his mouth: ‘You deserved to go for that terrible punch.’

Then there was his turn on the TV show Quiz Ball when he got the question: “Who or what is a Garryowen?” In Celtic mythology his response was: “Er, the racing correspondent on the Daily Record?”

He remembers it differently. “I thought I said that Gary Owens was the announcer on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.” Let’s go with that: Laugh-In remains The Saturday Interview’s all-time favourite telly show. This was a long time ago and memories can get muddled. Certainly his departure from Hearts was a messy affair, prompting much maroon regret and some anger. In his autobiography, published five years ago, Wallace related with sadness that a supporters’ group wrote to the club after a game accusing him of not trying.

Rumours swirled around that he’d been tapped up and Rangers were suspected. Celtic accounts have it that Stein made his move for our man when the Gers were out of the country playing a European tie. “I would like to think I always gave my all for all my teams,” he says. “From the start I remember saying to myself: ‘Right, I’m at Stenhousemuir, I’m going to do my very best.’ I don’t think I was tapped up. John Greig did say to me a few years ago, ‘You should have come to us’, but I wasn’t a Rangers supporter as a laddie. Yes, I went to a Protestant school but after playing for the Boy’s Brigade in Kirkintilloch on 
Saturday mornings me and my pals used to watch Falkirk. Mum wouldn’t let me go to Ibrox – too scary – and the same with Parkhead.

“At Hearts I’d asked to be put up for transfer because they wouldn’t give me the extra fiver a week I thought I was worth, having been top scorer every season and capped by Scotland. I didn’t have grand ambitions to play for a bigger club. I loved my time at Hearts and Edinburgh is still one of my favourite towns. Every August if we had a game in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup I’d stay over and a few of us would head out to the Festival. We saw Sean Connery’s one-man show and Hector Nicol, great laughs.” Yes, but were these two really any funnier than Willie Hamilton and “Stanley” Baxter?

Like Baxter’s virtuoso display against Rangers, Celtic could hardly miss Wallace when he came up against them. It would almost have amounted to gross negligence on their part if they hadn’t wanted to sign him, given how many times he scored in those games. The sequence began in 1961 in his second appearance for Hearts, a 3-1 victory at Parkhead. “The crowd was just 3,000. I discovered that recently, looking through some old programmes. I know Celtic weren’t a force at that point but it shocked me.” They needed the goals of Willie Wallace and tomorrow, by which time he’ll back home on the Gold Coast, Hearts probably wouldn’t say no to one of them either.