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THE LIFERby Gordon Thomson
In the car on the way to school matches, on the pages of odorous football annuals, on a sun-kissed Glasgow terrace, drifting into sleep... his name was everywhere. He was my creepy uncle, though I never met him, my ghoulish invisible friend, though I never spoke to him, my Keyser Soze. though I never feared him. In truth, he was a mystery to me, and the most beguiling football player I have never known.
Wrapped inside this enigma was a scapegoat of the Scottish football disciplinary system, a man deemed so evil it is hard to imagine him as a man at all. But when we are nine or ten the story is everything; the truth inconsequential. That his story also taught me a Latin phrase was equally unimportant. Except sine die didn't, sound like a learn-it-by-rote classroom clause. It was much more than that. It sounded like the end.
To me Willie Woodburn was sine die. He defined it. This was more than just a misguided presumption: Woodburn took the full brunt of a broadsword wielded by a footballing body swayed not by reason but by some indefinable sense of 'duty'. By doing so he made it easy for those who followed in his wake. Eric Cantona and Paolo Di Canio take note. Woodburn was - is - the last great victim of football's puritan disciplinary power-brokers. You should know his name. But it's unlikely that you do.
Between 1938 and 1954 Woodburn played 325 games for Rangers, scoring a solitary goal. He won four League titles, four Scottish Cups and two league Cups: three Doubles and a Treble. And he was capped 24 times for Scotland. Such facts and figures are easily disposed of by a fading memory. Tragically, the stigma of sine die would live with Woodburn forever.
Willie Woodburn first walked through the gates of Ibrox as a player in October 1937. Though he had played juvenile football with Edinburgh Ashton and hailed from the capital (He supported Hearts as a boy), Woodburn was immediately a Rangers man. It was his first club. And his last. He was well-liked by the Ibrox fraternity. who later christened him 'Big Ben'. not as you might expect in tribute to his size and reliability, but as a result of Woodburn's impassioned and prolonged celebration of a Gers victory over Benfica in Lisbon during the late 1940s. Woodburn, with a joyful innocence that typified his deep love of winning, insisted on raising his glass every few minutes and bellowing: 'Viva Benfica!' His chant continued through the night and into the next day, and the Rangers players felt his performance merited some kind of permanent commemoration. So Big Ben it was.
Far from being a prototype bruiser, in his early days at Rangers the sinewy, beautifully balanced Woodburn was criticised for dallying on the ball too long. keen on proving himself to his Ibrox idols as a 'player'. when really all manager Bill Struth wanted was a human brick wall. 'You've got this juvenile habit of holding the ball in the penalty area and inviting trouble,' Struth told Woodburn after the 19-yearold's first Old Firm derby had ended in heavy defeat for Rangers. 'All we expect of you here is that you clear your lines. Leave the wing-halves to play the football.'
Woodburn found himself able to absorb only a diluted version of Struth's advice. Although he developed a striking economy in his play. he remained a footballing centre-half, a rarity in 1990s Britain and a breed unheard of in 1940s and 1950s Scotland. 'Woodburn for me was a guy that could have played in the modern game,' says Alec Willoughby, a wispy striker who followed his idol onto the Ibrox pitch in 1962. 'Because not only could he play, he was also a guy that could organise and talk, and when you play in the middle at the back that's crucial' If you read the game well and talk well. you save your legs, because you're playing with your head. And Willie was that sort of player.'
Ralph 'Fire' Brand, a legend to legions of forty- and fifty-something Rangers fans. was a starry-eyed ('and snotty-nosed') teenage reserve at Ibrox during Woodburn's final years at the club. He says that the big man - to whom he remains close - never lost his majestic poise and enviable technique. 'Willie had everything,' says Brand.
'Apart from being one of the hardest men. he was also one of the most cultured centre-halves in the country". He could bring the ball down, or he could clear it, or he could head a first-time ball to the likes of Sammy Cox (Gers full-back). He played it with skill. Which was rare because in those days centre-halves were all-out stoppers, they were chop-eaters, y'know? But Willie made you play. too, cos if you didnae, he just ran right over the top of ye.'
During his career Woodburn ran over some of the most distinguished heads in Scottish football. Eric Caldow's was one. And that despite the fact Caldow was on the same team as Woodbum. 'My first ever game for Rangers was at Ibrox in September 1953 against Ayr United,' says the softly spoken full-back of a match that tool place exactly a year before Woodburn's final game. 'Willie made his presence felt right away. I went for a ball with him and he shouted. "That's my ball!" But it was too late - I got in his road and when he got the ball I went with it. He was that kind of player. On the ground or in the air he took the lot - man. ball. everything. But he wisnae dirty, he would have gone through a brick wall for Ranger y'know, and always encouraged us young players to do the same.
Despite leaving an indelible mark - often a little too literally - on his Rangers colleagues and on the burgeoning post-war Scottish scene in general, Woodburn's career was not as strewn with episodes of mindless misadventure as his unprecedented fate would later imply. Instead it glittered with the spoils of champions. Rangers, inspired by the almost despotic back-line of Young. Shaw, McColl, Woodburn and Cox. won virtually every domestic honour in the ten years following the war. They cleaned up. But then, that was their job. Enshrined in Ibrox lore as the 'Iron Curtain'. the Rangers back five drew plaudits from every corner of the globe (save for small enclave of east Glasgow where a deathly pallor prevailed). While a rudderless Celtic pulled the blinds down on their decadus horriblis their Govan counterparts, anchored by the Iron Curtain and the impermeable rock that was Woodburn, sailed a steady and favourable course. Great things lay ahead. Or at least so it seemed.
Struth's temperamental yet skilful centre-half made his Scotland debut against England in 1947 and took a final bow in the dark blue jersey after a match with the USA in 1953. The magisterial England striker Tom Finney faced Woodbum on four occasions and hasn't forgotten the frequently earth-shuddering encounters.
'Scotland were a formidable side at the time,' chortles the diminutive hero of Deepdale in recollection. 'And Willie was this towering centre-half who was very, very strong in the air and on the ground. And of course he was a fanatical Scotchman [sic], who played his heart out in every game, but partly when he was playing us... generally when Willie Woodburn was involved in a Scotland-England match it was blood and thunder right up to the end.'
Woodburn was a fearsome defender but much of his reputation as a hothead is apocryphal. Certainly, prior to the early 1950s it has little credence. Woodburn could mix it with the best. but until 1948 - ten years into his Rangers career and aged 29 - he had never been sent off or suspended in a professional match. Still, the 'wicked Willie' tag had mileage and the Scottish media made no apologies for pinning it to the big man's chest.
'Oh, he was a hard player and he had a short fuse and people played on that,' admits Finney, 'but there was so many of those players about in our day... a helluva lot. Back then the tackle from behind was allowed and it was generally a much tougher game. You had hard men who got away with a lot. I remember games against Willie when I got hit hard, but you expected it - it was part and parcel of the game.
'I think challenges were made to look a lot worse in his case, adds journalist John Quinn, 'because he was such a giant. If you were 5ft 6in playing against Willie or Big George Young, then obviously you're going to go down
John McPhail, Lisbon Lion, Celtic striker and long time adversary to Woodburn on the Old Firm battlefields, agrees it was Scotland's pint-sized strikers who really irked Big Ben. 'It was the wee fellas that really niggled him, doing things to hiss ankles, y'know, getting in about his legs, he had a problem with them, and the guy who got to him in his last game was a wee guy who did that.'
Woodburn's size and command of the penalty' area intimidated his opponents, and their dramatic slumps to the turf no doubt tricked many an able referee into awarding decisions against Big Ben, hut even his most ardent fans admit Woodburn's make-up was fundamentally flawed.
'There was a deep reservoir of violence in the man,' say's journalist Hugh McIlvanney with typical restraint. 'And anyone who opened the sluice gates had better be a good swimmer, His explosive temper? It was always part of him.'
One man who knew that better than most was Willie Waddell, Woodburn's friend and team-mate with Rangers and Scotland. 'He was always a fierce competitor,' said Waddell, years after Woodburn's lonely departure from the game. 'But I think that basic determination was distorted by the mystique of Rangers. There is no doubt that in our time the very act of pulling that blue jersey over your head did something to you. All the talk about tradition, about the privilege and responsibility that went with being a Rangers player, definitely had its effect. I think Willie felt it more than any of us. I am sure that obsession with winning for Rangers had a lot to do with his troubles. 'Still, it would be absolutely ridiculous to think of him as maliciously violent. You couldn't meet a more likeable, generous man. He could be wild, but when I was best man at his wedding I had to hold his hand through the ceremony.'
At the high altar of Ibrox - and anywhere else for that matter -Woodburn hated losing and it showed. The South African Johnny Hubbard, known as 'the penalty king' in his Rangers heyday (54 successful spot kicks out of 57 more than justified that particular moniker), remembers 'one or two incidents' soon after the war when Woodburn simply snapped rather than face up to the realities of defeat.
'He actually threw his boots though a window at Hampden after we lost a Scottish Cup semi-final there,' recalls Hubbard. 'He just lost his head. I mean, I'm sure he didn't actually know what he was doing. but he did it all the same. He was so passionate about Rangers, we all knew what he was like. Sadly. by the Indian summer of 1954, the rest of the country' had also come to realise the full extent of the big defender's intolerance. Woodburn already had a touchpaper temper. In September of that year he found the tinder and lit the spark. It had been coming for some time.
Back in August 1948 Woodburn had been involved in a 'violent exchange' with Dave Mathie. the Motherwell centre-forward, and was subsequently suspended for 14 days. That made it almost five years of unbroken good behaviour, which was undone on 7 March 1953 when Rangers played Clyde - and Woodburn played the fool. 'He actually had a swing at Billy McPhail,' says Hubbard, who was also on the pitch that day, 'but missed him. He was sent off and banned [for 21 days]. I don't know what he would have got had he made contact.'
On 26 September 1953 came the first of two ugly confrontations with Stirling Albion, highly improbable arch-rivals. 'I'm never certain what it was about Stirling,' says Robert McElroy, editor of the Rangers Historian, 'but there was an intensity about those contests at the time that you had to see to believe.'
Woodburn. this time to nobody's real surprise, showed that even the most undistinguished opposition were more than capable of getting a rise out of him. Then again, he never did have much truck with the ignoble art of brinkmanship. 'It was a chap called McBain, I think.' remembers Hubbard, 'and he actually gave Willie the fisticuffs. Willie retaliated with the head. It was just a spur of the moment thing.'
It was also one step closer to oblivion for Woodburn. The SFA banned him for six weeks, making it clear that 'a very serious view would be taken of any subsequent action'. Unfortunately for the powder-keg defender, the authorities were as good, nay better, than their word.
On 28 August 1954 Woodburn then 34 years of age. Not a young man, but ferociously fit (when McIlvanney met Woodburn in 1968, aged 50. he was astounded by his 'exceptional physical condition... in former terms there is something of the same magic as [the boxer] Jack Dempsey' about Woodburn'). Younger players waited in the wings but there is no doubt that there they would have continued to wait for a good while.
'There was still this masterful, domineering personality at centre-half who would have been the sheet anchor of my new team, said Scot Symon as he took over from Struth as manager in the summer of 1954. Woodburn himself intended to continue playing until he dropped. 'That he deprived himself of the opportunity to sport flowing locks and wear his shirt tucked out and his socks rolled down was nothing short of a personal tradgey.
Ralph Brand watched his hero self-destruct that autumn afternoon at Ibrox. 'I was at the game, sitting in the stand. Firstly what a lot of people don't understand is that Willie was nursing a knee injury' and played with strapping on his leg. In those days you played with injuries, you didnae bloody sit the game out, you played for your cash and your bonus, or else somebody else got the money. Willie just declared himself fit and that was that. Stirling had a young centre-forward [Alec Paterson] who was obviously trying to make his mark.
'I can see the incident right in front of me even now. Willie had a few tussles with this guy during the game, and this guy was trying to be the big shot at Ibrox - playing against Rangers and Willie Woodburn. With about a minute to go they went for a ball together and Willie won the tackle, fair and square, no problem. But as Willie was turning to go this fella locked his legs around Willie's injured leg and of course when Willie went to pull away he jerked his knee and aggravated the injury. It must have been painful. But it didn't end there. On top of that the fella got up and stood chest to chest with Willie Woodburn, right in his face, giving it some lip, yap, yap. yap. yap. 'Willie just dropped the head. Bang. I remember the whole thing so clearly. It was right on the centre line. right in front of the stand. right in front of I suppose. the whole referee committee. 'It was all over the papers. of course. and then it came up in front of the committee. They banned Willie sine die, which was shocking, absolutely' shocking. There was no need fur that. To end a great man's career like that was just unforgivable...' He trails off, '...unforgivable.
Finney well remembers the general amazement that greeted the news of Woodburn's fate. 'We just couldn't believe it. An international player of some standing and he's been banned from the game completely'? It just didn't make sense at all. There was a feeling that a grave injustice had been done. I'm sure he wasn't given the help from the people with influence.
Brand expands on Finney's hunch. claiming that Rangers were wilfully negligent in their defence of Big Ben. ''If it had been Bill Struth that had been manager I think Willie would have remained a Rangers player. Struth was an iron man - he would have told Scottish football to away and ravel themselves. But Scot Symon was manager and that was that.
Despite Brand's obvious resentment. Symon was there for Woodburn when it mattered. He waited nervously in a stark corridor as his player endured perhaps the shortest and. as it transpired, one of the most conclusive disciplinary hearings in the whole History of British football. Utter humiliation was the outcome. 'When the door of the committee opened.' Symon recalled later, 'one look at Willie's face was enough to tell me the verdict. 'That's it all finished. he shrugged. My own feelings were immediate. I felt as if "The Castle" which once perched so proudly on top of the Ibrox grandstand had come tumbling to the ground around my ears.
If Symons' sentiments were genuine enough. they were in no way, backed up by restorative action. Woodburn, Symon and the vast majority of Scottish football fully expected a reprieve. and the legal experts tried, unsuccessfully in the end, to persuade Woodburn that his ease would be favourably received in the courts.
John Cameron QC informed Woodburn by letter that the SFA was legally obliged by a clause in its Articles to give Woodburn a definite date on which he may 'resume the right to play' and consequently earn money. no matter that the suspension was sine die. For 30 months, Woodburn later recalled, Cameron's letter lay in his desk 'like a smouldering fuse'. He ignored it. Instead, turning to the men he trusted and heavily swayed by his deep feelings of personal loyalty, toward Rangers, Woodburn bided his time.
'Rangers are behind you and we don't want to take it to court,' pleaded the club chairman John Wilson. Woodburn, of course, had no desire to go where his beloved Gers feared to tread. 'The club had been generous to me.' he later wrote, 'and the last thing I wanted to do was bring it into open conflict with the SFA. I was sure that after a reasonable period the ban would be lifted. I knew my offence merited a stiff punishment but when the sentence was pronounced, words failed me completely. It was obvious I didn't have many years left at the top of football and the stigma of sine die was punishment enough. I had good grounds for believing that the SFA might relent after a few months. There was a top legislator who phoned me with an urgent plea not to take legal action.' "Don't do it. Willie [go to court]. Things will work out for the good, you'll see.
They didn't. Woodburn appealed to the SFA every six months (as was his right) but to no avail. 'I know one thing.' he told MeIlvanney some years later. 'If I was faced with the same decision today I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to carry my fight for justice to the lifting:
When the Scottish Football Association lifted Woodburn's sine die ban on 23 April l957 he was 38 years old. It was too late. In the midst of all the appealing and protesting and hoping. Woodburn had become an ex-player. Time had finally taken its toll on Big Ben. 'I never fancied playing for another club anyway .' he told FourFourTwo recently from his home in Edinburgh. Instead he ducked away, from football completely. presumably because the bad feeling which had accompanied his final days at Rangers didn't square too well with the joyous memories that he savoured of his long and prodigious career in the game. Sine die had simply shattered Willie Woodburn.
In the 1950s and 1960s Woodburn ran a garage with his brother. In the I 980s he even returned to the football grounds of Scotland. though not to Ibrox ('I was there l7 years. You'd think they would have one day in the year when all the old players go back, but they never do.' he says sadly.)
Quinn worked alongside Big Ben in the press box as Woodburn enjoyed a brief career as a reporter for the News of the World. 'He used to sit behind me and I'd get these big knees in my back whenever he got excited. Every time the ball came into the box he would say: "Oh-mammy-daddy, oh-mammy-daddy." It was his kind of involuntary reaction to the game. He still cleared every ball when it came into the box. He was a lovely man - a real gentleman.
'Willie's getting on a wee bit now: he's 77,' says Brand, who 'pops in to see how he's doing now and again. He's very healthy,. he looks great, it's just... he forgets things sometimes that's all'.
Sir Tom Finney last saw Woodburn at the funeral of his great defensive partner George Young. 'He's not in very good health, is he?' ventures the England goal hero with touching concern A few of the boys were saying that Willie wasn't too well One of the best there has ever been and a kind man. It's sad. isn't it? Very sad.'
Tom, it's a crime.
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