Leslie recalls debacle 50 years ago today
AT 3pm on 15 April, 1961 - 50 years ago today, Lawrie Leslie was arguably the unluckiest Scottish footballer then playing. By 5pm, two hours later, he was possibly the luckiest - because injury had forced him to sit-out Scotland's cataclysmic 9-3 defeat to England at Wembley. There but for the grace of God . . .
That humiliation is still a scar on the face of Scottish football and poor Frank Haffey, the Celtic goalkeeper who stood in for Leslie, has long since fled to Australia in search of peace, while English football fans of a sensitive disposition tip-toe round the match in the presence of Scottish friends - like Basil Fawlty not mentioning the War.
"It was a terrible game for me to watch", Leslie remembers. "I travelled with the team and had to sit through it in the stand. It was a poor game all round, nobody on our side played well and I still feel the result was a travesty.
"Then, as now, the goalkeepers tended to stick together, so that night I found myself wandering around central London with Frank, trying to cheer him up. But, in truth, we were both suffering and couldn't get back up the road quickly enough".
Leslie had been in the form of his life for Airdrie during that 1960-61 season. It was unthinkable that he would not be the Scotland goalkeeper at Wembley. Then, seven days before the big game, fate intervened. Late in a 2-2 Somerset Park draw with Ayr United, Leslie, with characteristic disregard for his own safety, dived at the feet of an Ayr forward, was carried off and taken to Ayr County Hospital, where 11 stitches were inserted in a serious eyebrow slash.
"The stitches didn't bother me, I felt I could still have played, but Scotland manager Ian McColl wasn't prepared to take the chance. He withdrew me from the team and Frank was in," Leslie recalls. "I was naturally desperate to play and even offered to have the stitches taken out but McColl wouldn't hear of it, so I missed my chance to appear in the biggest game of all for a Scottish footballer, England at Wembley."
The rest is history.
Haffey played poorly and, even if it wasn't entirely his fault that England scored nine times, he has carried the can for the half century since.
Leslie, a product of Newtongrange Star, under-studied then succeeded the great Tommy Younger in the Hibs goal and played in the team which lost to Clyde in the 1958 Scottish Cup final.
He left Hibs in November 1959 but his continuing excellence in the Airdrie goal earned him Scottish League honours before he was handed his first full cap in the opening international of that season, a disappointing 2-0 defeat to Wales in Cardiff.Fellow debutant, centre-half John Martis, of Motherwell, paid the price for defeat and didn't play for Scotland again, while another three members of the team, Everton's Jimmy Gabriel, Tottenham's John White and Motherwell's Willie Hunter, who, like Martis was never picked again, were also dropped. But there was no thought of jettisoning Leslie. Contemporary reports rated his performance alongside that of the legendary Jimmy Cowan's one-man defiance of England at Wembley in 1949.
Northern Ireland were then comfortably despatched, 5-2 at Hampden in November and, as Leslie continued to produce consistently top-class goalkeeping for Airdrie that season, he was a shoo-in to retain the Scotland goalkeeper's jersey for the visit to Wembley on 15 April, 1961.
You could say Leslie was lucky to avoid the carnage - he was restored to the Scottish goal for the three World Cup qualifiers in May of that year, playing in home and away victories over the Republic of Ireland, before a 1-4 defeat to a brilliant Czechoslovakia team in Bratislava brought down the curtain on his five-game Scotland career.
"The Scotland set-up was so-amateurish back then", he recalls. "There was a bias against Anglo-Scots. I joined West Ham from Airdrie in June, 1961. I must have had a good season in 1961-62, when I became the first goalkeeper to be named West Ham's Player of the Year, but I was over-looked by the Scottish selectors and Bill Brown got back into the international team".
During his career Leslie suffered several broken bones, including a broken leg in West Ham's home game against Bolton Wanderers in November, 1962. Indeed, Lawrie's wife Jeanette jokes that he was on first name terms with the A&E staff at the Royal London Hospital, who reserved a bed for him whenever West Ham were playing at home. He moved to Stoke City and was in their side which lost to Leicester City in the 1964 League Cup Final, before returning to London and Millwall and finishing his career at Southend, where he had a spell as trainer, before working as a football coach in London schools.
Now 76, Leslie remains an occasional visitor to West Ham and, while he feels today's Upton Park stars don't bear comparison with his team mates such as Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst, he doesn't begrudge them their money.
If he watches live football now it's usually at Gillingham, the nearest club to his home on the Kent-London border.
Life has been hard on Leslie. He almost lost a leg when knocked down by a truck as a nine-year-old; he was given blood transfusions with unscreened blood, the cause of the liver problems which blight his life today. He is almost bed-ridden, can barely walk and generally moves around in a wheelchair, pushed by Jeanette.
He is still, 50 years on, upset at missing that Wembley match, in spite of it's status as Scotland's worst defeat.
Lawrie Leslie will not speak ill of his friend: "Hapless Frank Haffey", who has suffered 50 years of blame for that defeat. He left the final word on the disaster to his devoted Jeanette.
"Listen, even with both eyes stitched shut, there's no way my Lawrie would have conceded nine goals," she says.