Open the gate, here comes Pigalle Wonder!’ It was a familiar cry on the terraces of Tynecastle football ground in the late 1950s when Heart of Midlothian were piling up the trophies and their ecstatic fans gloried in comparing the scorching pace of winger Johnny Hamilton with a champion greyhound of the time.
In fact, Pigalle’s top-level career – illustrious though it was, encompassing victory in the English Derby of 1958 – had nothing like the longevity of Hamilton’s, which was reflected in his collection of one Scottish League title medal and three League Cup gongs.
The Edinburgh crowd adored the former coalminer, too, for his character and his style, both of which were effervescent. In an era when goal-scorers tended to celebrate with a brisk handshake and maybe receive a pat on the back before trotting to the centre circle for kick-off, the Jambos’ diminutive winger was renowned for his extravagant celebrations, all flailing limbs and athletic gyrations.
“Wee Hammy”, as he was described, was recruited by Hearts as a 20-year- old in 1955 from Lesmahagow Juniors for a transfer fee of £100 and pitched straight into the first team, his speed and crossing ability displayed to telling effect as Tommy Walker’s team finished third in the table in 1956, then second a year later. However, with stern competition for places from the likes of Ian Crawford and Alex Young, he was barely used in 1957-58 as the Tynecastle club became champions for the first time in the 20th century.
Even so Hamilton averaged a goal a game in his four outings that season, and soon he stormed back into favour, taking a prominent role as the League title was regained in 1959-60 and in three League Cup triumphs. He scored in finals against Partick Thistle in 1958-59 and Third Lanark in 1959-60, then put in a characteristically energetic shift as Kilmarnock were overcome in 1962-63.
While speed was his most obvious attribute, Hamilton also offered flair with the ball at his feet, the ability to cross accurately while sprinting at full pelt, and a fulminating shot, which brought him 110 goals in his 391 senior appearances for the club. He was adaptable, too, capable of producing his finest form on either wing, and a marvellous all-round clubman, his bubbly dressing-room presence and irrepressible enthusiasm for training marking him out as a magnificent example to younger team-mates.
That Hamilton was never awarded a full cap was a source of outrage to his regular admirers, many of whom still recall with reverence his dazzling display for Hearts against a Scotland XI in a World Cup trial match in the spring of 1958, in which he gave a masterclass in dribbling, topped by a spectacular long-distance goal.
After a dozen seasons of high-quality contribution to the Tynecastle cause, the 32-year-old Hamilton was released in May 1967 to join Watford, who had just narrowly missed promotion from the English third tier. He made little impact at Vicarage Road, though, being granted only eight senior outings and being sent off in one of them, and in 1968 he returned to the Scottish League with Second Division Berwick Rangers. At Shielfield Park he belied his veteran status with his characteristic enthusiasm and ebullience, making nearly a century of appearances before his retirement as a player in 1973.
“Wee Hammy” returned to Tynecastle as a youth coach in the second half of the 1970s, and was a newsagent in Edinburgh for many more years after that.
John Hamilton, footballer; born Larkhall, Lanarkshire 22 January 1935; played for Heart of Midlothian 1955-67, Watford 1967-68, Berwick Rangers 1968-73; died Edinburgh 13 August 2013.