Interview: Willie Carr still revels in his donkey-kick free-kick routine

A round-up of those we’d lost in 2018 got me thinking. There on my list was Ernie Hunt, the beefy, grinning Coventry City centre-forward and scorer of one of football’s most phantasmagorical goals who died last July. But whatever happened to his little Scottish sidekick who lit the blue touch paper?

A round-up of those we’d lost in 2018 got me thinking. There on my list was Ernie Hunt, the beefy, grinning Coventry City centre-forward and scorer of one of football’s most phantasmagorical goals who died last July. But whatever happened to his little Scottish sidekick who lit the blue touch paper?

Willie Carr it was who supplied the 
donkey kick enabling Hunt to fire home a radical volley. This was the first goal screened in colour on Match of the Day. Indeed it was so radical that previous to the ball hitting the back of the Everton net on 
3 October, 1970, all of TV, our living-rooms, our lives, seemed to have existed in monochrome. The goal pranged a secret lever which turned the world dayglo. We could see Coventry in sky blue, the bamboozled opposition in burnished yellow, tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

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I find Carr in his greenhouse in the charming Shropshire village of Ackleton where he’s lived for the past 44 years and it turns out he’s been thinking a lot about Hunt, too. “Right after Ernie’s funeral, which was a lovely occasion with lots of old boys telling stories about one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met, I was put on dialysis,” he explains.

“I need a new kidney. It was a bit of a shock to discover that. As a footballer you reckon you’re pretty much invincible. Ernie probably thought that and I know I did. Nothing was going to hurt us. The specialist says my kidneys are abnormally small and that I was probably born with them like that. My wife Tess is a good match but I can’t take one of the good lady’s as it would weaken her too much. Three of my four kids have been tested and hopefully I can get a transplant from one of them. Right now I’m just waiting…”

Carr remains in good spirits and is glad to still be able to hack around the local golf course a couple of times a week. And, with his 69th birthday tomorrow, there’s good recall of a career which for this Glasgow boy was spent entirely in England. “I left school on a Friday – 6 April, 1965 – and joined Coventry the following Monday. My digs were lovely. The landlady was Connie Snellgrove, a wonderful baker. On Sundays I’d start with a full cooked breakfast at nine o’clock. Lunch was roast beef and Yorkshire then salad at five followed by supper at eight. So it was just as well I was back hard at training on the Monday!” You see, he remembers the important stuff.

So you probably think I’m exaggerating that goal. If you were too young or not even born when Carr and Hunt magicked it up and you’re over-familiar with Ronaldo double-touches and rabonas and all the other tricks and flicks of the game today, maybe it doesn’t look like anything special. But context is everything. Although Pele had dummied outrageously and shot from halfway in the World Cup just four months previously, even back heels were rare in domestic football. Elsewhere, we were tremendously impressed by Meadowlark Lemon’s finger spins, by magician David Nixon’s disappearing rabbit, and by the muscleman on Opportunity Knocks making his torso talk.

These were more innocent times, for sure, and it didn’t take much to make us gasp but the sphere propelled straight up in the air by our ginger-haired inside-forward appeared to belong to the Space Race. The next day back at school, every playground in the land resounded to excited cries of “You be Willie and I’ll be Ernie”. And for the record, the great Edson Arantes’ fancy-dannery across in Mexico didn’t actually result in goals being scored.

You think, after nearly half a century, that William McInanny Carr might be bored of talking about his free-kick sleight-of-foot; he isn’t. “It was a coach, Bill Ashbury, who came back from [sports centre] Lilleshall and suggested to Ernie and I that we try the move. I don’t know where he’d seen it but our first few attempts at training were utterly hopeless. Ernie was hitting corner flags and everything. That’s if I managed to flick the ball properly.

“Ernie was a joy to play with and be around. He had this big wide chest so if I lifted a pass through to him it almost always stuck. Away from the park he was a riot. One time we were abroad somewhere and he’d had a skinful, stumbled out of his hotel room late at night in search of the loo, got hopelessly lost and ended up starkers in front of the lift just as [manager] Noel Cantwell got out. ‘What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?’ said the boss. Ernie picked up a tray of glasses lying on the floor and said: ‘Er, room service?’!

“He wasn’t the best trainer in the world and used to muck about in gorilla masks and ladies wigs but he had a great shot and was a superb volleyer. My part in the move was to grip the ball with my feet and flick it up behind me. Ernie used to say that our first attempt in an actual game was a pre-season friendly at Blackpool when his shot cannoned off a clock. I’m afraid I don’t remember that, and maybe for a good reason if the attempt was that lousy.

“Everton were the reigning league champs. In that match I think I popped the ball too high but in any case their wall didn’t move because none of them knew what was going on. I kind of walked away all nonchalant, didn’t I? That wasn’t me assuming he was going to score. If he hadn’t we probably would never have attempted it again. Everyone, the manager and our team-mates, was getting bored!”

Carr was born in Govan, just off the Paisley Road, fourth in line among six kids. “My dad was a shot-blaster in the shipyards but had to quit for health reasons and then he worked in pubs. I watched that Billy Connolly documentary [Made in Scotland] the other night and the clips of Glasgow brought back memories of folk slaistering about with their carry-outs. Then we moved to Possil when it opened as a shiny new housing scheme. I saw the best of the place, I think, and it was a bit of a shock to go back some years later and find it had become a hole. I’d taken my brother-in-law and his wife who wanted to see where I’d played football in the street as a boy. She comes from Manila and I don’t think she was too impressed either.”

Carr’s exit from Scotland, aged 13, was a dramatic one, the circumstances behind it only becoming apparent later. “My mum had run off with another man,” he reveals. “An older sister had a friend who moved to Cambridge and she went down for a holiday. One of my brothers followed her. They found jobs easily and reported back: ‘It’s different here.’ So Dad and the rest of us packed up our stuff and jumped on a bus. We got off at a lovely little place called St Neots on the banks of the Ouse. There was a regatta, there was sunshine. I said to myself: ‘Oh my god, this is great!’”

Carr was a pint-sized playmaker who rolled off the famed Scottish assembly-line for little big men of the game. He’s immensely proud of the six caps he won for his country under Bobby Brown then Tommy Docherty. Scotland never lost when he was in the side or even conceded a goal. Most memorable was the 1970 clash against England as a 20-year-old, witnessed by a Hampden crowd of 137, 284. For a World Cup qualifying victory over Denmark there was a gift for each player: “We each got a car, a Vauxhall VX490. A lovely
motor but I had to give mine back as I’d needed it towed away three times.” And a 1972 friendly against Peru was a collector’s item for aficionados of a certain Scottish archetype: “The midfield was me, Archie Gemmill and Asa Hartford – surely the tottiest that’s ever represented Scotland. I said to the Doc beforehand: ‘You’re sending the three of us into the Land of the Giants!’”

Carr can’t remember if he was ever told, “Sorry, son, but you’re too wee to make the grade, I fear”, and in any case would have ignored such a judgment. By 13 and his arrival over the border he’d already made up his mind that football would be his life.

In the new surroundings the game helped him acclimatise after his parents’ break-up. “Boys of my generation just got on with upsets like that,” he says. “I went to my new secondary and straight into the school team. In Glasgow I’d played football morning, noon and night – we all did. I’d modelled myself on Paddy Crerand who I loved for his passing and being able to see opportunities other guys couldn’t. My first proper boots were brown leather with string across the toes. You had to hammer in the studs only sometimes after a game your socks would be all bloody because the nails had poked through. Then you’d get the boots back on the lathe. There were two city selects, Glasgow and Glasgow RC, my team. Also in it were Bobby Murdoch’s brother Jimmy and little Gerry O’Brien who went on to play for Southampton. We won the Under-12s Scottish Cup, beating Edinburgh in a two-legged final.”

Carr continued to catch the eye down south. “I made the English schoolboy trials with guys like Alun Evans who played for Liverpool and this big fella called Peter Shilton.” Everyone at the trials was bigger than him but he persevered and much later, in 1980, he would help Wolverhampton Wanderers stun Shilts and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, then European champs, to lift the League Cup. “I could have had my pick of all the London clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham, but chose Coventry who were then in the old Second Division. I thought I might have more chance breaking into the first team, plus they just had something about them.”

That something was Jimmy Hill, the Highfield Road manager-cum-ringmaster. “We were a provincial, unglamorous club and Jimmy was always dreaming up schemes to boost our profile. He was an incredible guy, way ahead of his time. He changed the strip to sky blue and got the Sky Blue Express up and running for awaydays with bingo on the train.” For home games there was pre-kickoff and half-time entertainment at Highfield, free juice and snacks for the kids and an outstanding match programme. “On the back of all of that we shot to sixth in the 
First Division, which is still the club’s highest-ever placing.

“Sometimes we were able to field an all-Scottish forward line: Ernie Hannigan, Gerry Baker, Neil Martin, myself and Ian Gibson. I don’t think that was listed as one of the novelties! We qualified for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and were drawn against a Bulgarian team, Trakia Plovdiv, who must have played in the greyest place in the world, even worse than Possil when I went back there. We won that tie and our prize was Bayern Munich when they had [Franz] Beckenbauer, [Gerd] Muller and [Uli] Hoeness. For the away leg we were without our regular goalie, Bill Glazier, and my abiding memory is of this polka-dot ball skiting off the wet turf and bouncing over poor Eric McManus as he dived. They were a terrific side and stuffed us 6-1.”

Carr served ten years at Coventry then had seven equally enjoyable ones at Wolves, continually looking for the artful pass or the chance to nick a goal, before finishing up in non-league. Then he became a sales rep for a firm manufacturing ball bearings where the donkey kick was his calling card. “Meeting someone for the first time, it broke the ice. ‘Talk me through it,’ they’d say. It’s been very good to me, that daft thing. It’s what I’ll be remembered for and I’m not going to complain about that.”

Comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel did more than ask for a run-through. For their Fantasy Football League show, they turned up in Carr’s village with a TV crew intent on a full reconstruction. “Frank wanted to play Ernie and, because my old pal had these massive sideboards back in 1970, he hung a pair of bristly doormats from his cheeks. The crew hired a real donkey. They wanted to film in my garden but my wife wasn’t having that so we all trooped off to the golf course.

“I think we tried the stunt once more that season – against Spurs – but Ernie’s volley came back off the crossbar. And then Uefa banned it because using both feet I’d touched the ball twice and by being flicked directly upwards it hadn’t travelled its full circumference. We both thought that was absolute rubbish. Football’s entertainment, isn’t it?”