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Better late than never
on 10 October 2010
As a member of Hibernian's iconic Famous Five forward line in the 50s, and as a Scotland internationalist, Lawrie Reilly gained the soubriquet 'Last Minute Reilly' for his habit of scoring crucial goals in the dying seconds of games. Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that he's left the production of his autobiography till his 82nd year.
For all the long wait, this volume is worth reading for its depiction of a time in football which is slowly slipping beyond the memory of those who still attend stadia around the country - with gates of 50,000 or more a frequent occurrence at Easter Rd, and Hampden hosting more than twice that for internationals and even some club games. It's hard to imagine today's stars arriving at Tynecastle at 2.30pm, fresh from Best Man duties, in full wedding gear, and turning out half an hour later in an Edinburgh Derby, as Lawrie did. Likewise, you can't help but think that footballers, who travelled to the ground on buses alongside the fans who were paying to see them, may have had a greater understanding of the privilege it is to hold supporters' dreams in your hands - or at least at your feet.
Lawrie played 355 times for Hibs between 1945 and 1958, scoring an amazing 238 times. For Scotland he scored 22 goals in 38 games. Legends such as Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews and Matt Busby all rated him as up there with the best centre forwards they'd seen, and a raft of top teams tried unsuccessfully to lure him away from his beloved Hibees. He operated in an age of soon to be extinct 'one club men', before the abolition of the minimum wage, and betrays absolutely no regrets at all.
Lawrie co-wrote his story with Ted Brack (There is a Bonny Fitba Team, Pat Stanton's Dream Team) and those who have read Ted's work before will recognise the easy mixture of match facts, social colour and personal anecdote. To read this book is to be taken back to football's great post war era of huge crowds and innovation - floodlights, European football, foreign tours. Hibs led the way in all and Lawrie was right in the thick of it.
He tells of hearing his 'family whistle' from the stands and spotting his dad in the crowd before his first International at Wembley, of his dispute with the club over the failure to promise him a testimonial match, and of his long struggle with the knee injury that finally brought a premature end to a brilliant career. Throughout the book his love and affection for his colleagues in the Famous Five shines through and, whilst eschewing any false modesty about his own exploits, he is generous to a fault towards all the players in that treble championship winning side, not just the forwards, and he heaps praise on many of his most difficult opponents. It speaks volumes for the man's character that he remains friends not just with former team mates but also with many of those he played against.
Where Lawrie's memory for detail of games that took place 60 years ago fades, we have fascinating snippets from contemporaneous press reports in their wonderful old style, but mostly we have a hero's reminiscences and the smell of the liniment from our fathers' and grandfathers' halcyon days.
Lawrie is a modest man, confident still in his own abilities as a footballer, but a little bemused at the attention and celebrity poured on todays's stars. Befitting this attitude, and while friends and family get timely references throughout his story, the focus is very much on the games he played and the men he played alongside and against. As such it's not just one man's memories but an account of a very different time - in football and in society. There is humour and misfortune, great days and crushing failures, the joy of victory, and the disappointment of defeat, particularly, this being Hibs, in the Cup!
Lawrie plainly states 'I was born a Hibee, I am a Hibee, and I'll die a Hibee'. If that clarion call sparks a response in your heart, then you'll love this book. Once you've read it, you'll understand why the shout went up from the high terracing of the old Easter Rd - "Gie the ba' tae Reilly!" He never let them down.