Obituary: Billy Houliston

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IN THE beautiful late November and early December days of 1963, there was a by-election in the Dumfriesshire constituency. At lunchtime, it was the wont of Labour Party canvassers to repair to Billy's Bar in Dumfries High Street. Our host, "Basher", was a genial, five foot eleven, immensely broad-shouldered man, a veritable Belted Galloway bull, with twinkling kindly eyes, from whom physical power and good nature exuded.

Heaven knows what his politics were, he never let on. But the conversation was not about politics but football and his reminiscences. Our host was Billy "Basher" Houliston, a living legend in those parts, the only man ever to have gained full international caps for Scotland playing for Queen of the South, the venerable, if unfashionable, Dumfries football club.

Houliston had been one of my boyhood heroes - and a hero to tens of thousands of other Scottish boys. He was the centre-forward in that pantheon of 1949 Wembley wizards who astonishingly and unexpectedly beat an England team 3-1, where the forward line read Matthews, Mortenson, Milburn, Pearson and Finney, not to mention Frank Swift in goal and the captain Billy Wright.

Houliston more than held his own that day against Neil Franklin of Stoke City, arguably the most commanding centre-half ever to don an England shirt. Like his predecessor, Jock Dodds (Blackpool), Houliston was like a tank, a marvellous asset half a century ago, when balls were leather, heavy and held together by laces. Centre-forwards had to be tough and "Basher", or "Rumble-them-up", as he was known, certainly was.

Houliston's father was a gardener at the Crichton Royal mental hospital, a superb set of red sandstone buildings recently created an outpost of Glasgow University. On leaving Brownhall School, Houliston became a male nurse in the Crichton and first came to notice as the thrusting centre-forward of the hospital eleven.

Whisked away to Arbroath to serve the Second World War in RAF Coastal Command as a gunner operator, Houliston developed his skills with the Arbroath club. On his return home in 1945, he joined his local team, Queen of the South, for whom he was to score 67 goals in 154 First Division appearances.

I first saw him at Tynecastle Park against Hearts, when he quickly became the opponent we loved to hate - a role he relished. My memory of him is at Hampden Park against Ireland in 1949 when he scored twice in a 3-2 victory. His flying header from a cross from Willie Waddell, later manager of Glasgow Rangers, in the dying seconds was one of the best goals ever seen at the Glasgow ground.

The highpoint of Houliston's footballing career came on 9 April 1949 at Wembley. Under blue skies and on an exquisite stretch of turf, Scotland, surviving a fearful crisis in the game's opening passages, stormed their way by three goals to one to gain the international championship and inflict on England their first defeat in the tournament since the war. The Association Football correspondent of the Press Association wrote:

When Houliston prepared to take a throw-in down the Scottish left wing, the second phase was about to begin. Scotland, till now in attack, had been reduced largely to a series of long passes down the centre where, in spite of Houliston's liveliness, Franklin was in complete command but now, in their second real advance, Scotland snatched the lead after 29 minutes. Steel took Houliston's throw, gave Reilly a clever pass behind Aston and there was Mason up to stab the winger square centre beyond Swift on to the far post and into the net.

Alas, while Scotland were touring that summer in the United States, Houliston injured his ankle, and was never the same player again. After spells with Berwick Rangers and Third Lanark he hung up his boots and returned to Dumfries. Lord Monro of Langholm, as Sir Hector Monro his MP from 1964 till 1997, remembers him as "a great scout. As owner of both the Nith Hotel at Glencaple and the Embassy Hotel in Dumfries he was immensely popular." He could say that he never played in a losing Scotland side.

William Houliston, nurse, footballer and publican: born Maxwelltown, Dumfriesshire 4 April 1921; married 1949 Betty Jamieson (two sons); died Dumfries 10 February 1999.