Willie Fernie 1928 – 2011


Posted By David Potter

Posted in Articles, If you Know your history

Very few players deserve the title “the wizard of the dribble”. It was of course applied to the great Stanley Matthews, but Willie Fernie was sometimes called “the Scottish Stanley Matthews”, and it was a title that was richly deserved. But there was a great deal more to Willie Fernie than dribbling, a skill which by the 1950s was clearly on its way out. He was also a visionary passer of the ball, a great reader of the game and a surprisingly frequent goalscorer – 84 in domestic competition.

He was born in Kinglassie in Fife and joined the club in 1948 from junior football. He played for a glorious decade until he went to Middlesbrough in 1958 (his transfer fee paid for the Parkhead floodlights, it was said). Boro fans to a man were mystified as to why Celtic let this man go, particularly when he brought out the best in a talented but wayward young man called Brian Clough. Fernie then returned to play for Celtic in season 1960/61 in the role of adding maturity to the undoubted talent that existed in the Kelly Kids. He was not used to his full potential in that role, however, and, some time after the heartbreaking Scottish Cup Final of 1961, he was allowed to go away again, this time to St.Mirren where he played a great part in Celtic’s disastrous Scottish Cup demise in the awful semi-final of 1962.

He played 349 times for Celtic in a variety of positions, such was his versatility. He was brought in for the injured Charlie Tully on the left side of the field in the 1953 Coronation Cup Final, and in the famous 7-1 demolition of Rangers in 1957, we find him at right half. He was (arguably) the best player on the field that day, spraying passes, setting up moves and frequently leaving several Rangers trailing in the wake of his long stride as he surged forward supplying the ammunition for the ever-eager Sammy Wilson, Bobby Collins and Billy McPhail.

His usual position was inside right, however, and it was here that he was instrumental in landing the League and Cup double of 1954, in particular making the second goal for Sean Fallon to score. He had his bad days as well, notably the Cup Finals of 1955 and 1956, and one wishes that Jock Stein had been the manager to bring out the best in the prodigious talent of Willie Fernie. As it was, they both played together and Fernie worked for Stein as a coach when Stein was the manager at Celtic Park. He eventually became the manager of Kilmarnock in 1973, but gave up the game after he was peremptorily sacked from his post at Rugby Park in 1977.

He played 12 times for Scotland, including being a member of the World Cup squads in 1954 and 1958. He suffered from a long period of ill health in recent years, but those who saw him play, consider themselves privileged to have done so.

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