Willie Fernie: Footballer whose beguiling skills earned him the sobriquet 'Scotland's Stanley Matthews'
Saturday 16 July 2011
Conjure an image of a typical top-quality Scottish inside-forward – a breed which proliferated in the two decades after the Second World War but now, sadly, seems all but extinct – and Celtic's Willie Fernie springs irresistibly to mind. Quick and clever, an inspired dribbler blessed with the most beguiling of body-swerves, the elegant Fifer with the loping stride was an instinctive finder and exploiter of space, a perceptive passer and a beautifully balanced athlete.
Some critics reckoned he was prone to hang on to the ball too long, but Parkhead's "Wizard of the Weave" was a truly enchanting entertainer during his 1950s pomp. Indeed,such was his mastery over a football while travelling at speed that, despite operating as an infield attacker far more frequently than he appearedon the wing, Fernie earned another expansive sobriquet: "Scotland's Stanley Matthews". Fernie sported the dark blue of Scotland in the World Cup finals tournaments of 1954and 1958, and surely would haveaccumulated far more than his 12 senior caps but for the plethora of competition for his position from such creative thoroughbreds as Bobby Johnstone, Bobby Collins, Allan Brown and Jackie Mudie.
While enjoying his football as a teenager with a local Fife club, Leslie Hearts, Fernie revealed a combination of artistry, industry and physical resilience which attracted scouts from far and wide. The Celtic talent-hunter Pat Duffy impressed the rookie by visiting him in hospital, where he was being treated for a broken jaw, and he enlisted with the Bhoys in October 1948. In March 1950 he made his senior debut for Celtic in a 1-0 victory over St Mirren at Love Street.
By 1952-53 he had staked a persuasive claim to a regular place and he climaxed that breakthrough campaign with a rousing show on the left wing – he was versatile enough to perform on either flank as well as in any midfield slot – in the Coronation Cup final against Hibernian at Hampden Park in May, setting up the goals for Neil Mochan and Jimmy Walsh which secured a 2-0 victory.
Fernie carried that scintillating form into 1953-54, which was to prove the most fulfilling season of his career. Gelling enthrallingly with an array of fellow attackers, including John Higgins, John McPhail, Sean Fallon, Bertie Peacock, Collins, Tully, Walsh and Mochan, he was a key man as Celtic lifted the League and Scottish Cup double, contributing a dozen goals in the process. He loved to run at defenders and one deathless highlight came in the Cup final triumph over Aberdeen when he embarked on a typical lung-busting foray before delivering smoothly for Fallon to convert.
His efforts were rewarded that May with a first full international call-up, building on earlier selections for Scotland "B" and the Scottish League. First, he helped to defeat Finland in Helsinki, then he featured in both of Scotland's reverses in that summer's World Cup finals, 1-0 to Austria in Zurich and a humiliating 7-0 to Uruguay in Basle.
Back at club level, Celtic were not the dominant force they would become in the years ahead, and Fernie's only subsequent honours were as part of League Cup-winning sides in 1956-57, when Partick Thistle succumbed 3-0, and 1957-58, when he gave arguably the most dazzling display of his life as Rangers were butchered 7-1. Lining up at right-half, the inspired Fifer orchestrated wave after wave of flowing attacks – and it was fitting that he should complete the rout with a clinical spot-kick in the dying minutes.
Though never an automatic choice for his country, he travelled to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup finals, appearing on the left wing in a 3-2 defeat by Paraguay. Once again the Scots failed to progress beyond the group stage and Fernie was never selected again.
By then approaching 30, Fernie was transferred to Middlesbrough of the English second tier in December 1958, the £18,000 fee going a long way towards paying for Parkhead's new floodlights. At Ayresome Park, Fernie was charged with priming the bullets for an assertive young centre-forward named Brian Clough to fire, and the pair meshed productively, with the voluble (even then) Teessider averaging around a goal a game for his season and a half in harness with Fernie. Still, it was not enough to secure promotion and in October 1960 the Scot was sold back to Celtic for £12,000, the hope being that his accumulated nous would benefit an emerging generation of young hopefuls.
This time Fernie didn't settle, and after stretching his statistics to 74 goals in 317 senior games for the club, in November 1961 he moved on to St Mirren in a £3,000 deal. Though increasingly ponderous of movement as his years advanced, he scored on his first outing for the Buddies, then garnered the deep satisfaction of supplying the opener in a 3-1 victory over Celtic in a Scottish Cup semi-final in the spring of 1962. The final was lost to Rangers, but at least Fernie had made a telling mark before leaving Paisley a year later.
A trial with Partick Thistle came to nothing, then the veteran featured briefly for Alloa Athletic, Fraserburgh of the Highland League and the Northern Irish clubs Coleraine and Bangor before laying aside his boots in 1965. He was keen to stay in the game, and in June 1967 he returned to Parkhead as a coach, at the invitation of Jock Stein, who had just guided the Celts to their ultimate glory, becoming the first British club to lift the European Cup.
Fernie proved to be excellent at his new job, demanding high levels of fitness, enthusing his charges with the freshness of his approach and playing a telling part in the development of future stars such as Kenny Dalglish, Lou Macari and Danny McGrain. He appeared to be ideal management material and, sure enough, soon after taking over as manager of Second Division Kilmarnock in October 1973, he presided over a 16-match unbeaten sequence. Killie missed the title, finishing two points adrift of Airdrieonians, but promotion was secured and under normal circumstances his side would have consolidated a berth in the top flight during 1974-75.
However, the Scottish League was under reconstruction, moving from two divisions to three, which meant that only the top 10 would remain among the élite. Kilmarnock were two points shy in 12th position so they took their place in the middle grade for 1975-76.
Undaunted, Fernie continued to champion his brand of entertaining football and his side finished runners-up to Partick Thistle, thus rising to the new Premier Division. As a team of part-timers, and with little cash to splash, Kilmarnock were always going to face an uphill struggle to survive at that rarified level and it came as no surprise when they were relegated as bottom club in 1977.
There followed a disappointing start to the following season and, predictably but sadly, the Rugby Park board lost patience with Fernie and sacked him in October. Immensely disillusioned, he left the professional game to become a taxi driver and he never returned to it, an unfitting end to an illustrious career.
William Fernie, footballer and manager: born Kinglassie, Fife 22 November 1928; married (deceased; four sons); died Glasgow 1 July 2011.
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