Willie Woodburn

William Woodburn, footballer: born Edinburgh 8 August 1919; played for Rangers 1937-54; married (one daughter); died Edinburgh 2 December 2001.
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William Woodburn, footballer: born Edinburgh 8 August 1919; played for Rangers 1937-54; married (one daughter); died Edinburgh 2 December 2001.

Footballers yearn for their name to go into the history books and be spoken of by future generations. Willie Woodburn's talent was enough for him to be described as "ahead of his time" but that, sadly, was not the reason the reputation of the robust Rangers defender lived on long beyond his playing days.

Woodburn had a notoriety out of all proportion to his crimes, which was possibly the intention of the Scottish Football Association when it issued him with a life ban in 1954. If that was so, then it worked. More than a decade afterwards, those with no grasp of Latin could reel off the "sine die" punishment imposed by the SFA for a man who amassed just four dismissals in his 17-year career. No one wanted to end up like Woodburn, so his fate forced others to clean up their acts.

The infamy which surrounded Woodburn obscures the truth. Even rival supporters testify that he was no hatchet man and his skills as a ball-playing centre-half would be more suited to the modern era than the post-war one in which he helped Rangers to a period of supremacy as part of a defensive unit dubbed the "Iron Curtain".

That era brought Woodburn four Scottish championships, four Scottish Cup winners' medals and two League Cup triumphs. Few teams could penetrate the "Iron Curtain", as Woodburn and his colleagues provided their own annexation, of Scotland's domestic trophies, in 1948/49 winning the league title, the Scottish Cup and the League Cup to become the first team in the club's history to complete the treble.

Woodburn was born in Edinburgh in 1919 and, despite attending a rugby-playing school, came to prominence in the city's strong juvenile leagues before moving up to the junior (Scotland's equivalent of non-league) ranks with Musselburgh Athletic, before joining Rangers in October 1937.

It took the composed Woodburn less than a year to break into the first team. He moved easily, although he was 6ft tall – his team-mates would later call him "Big Ben". Some thought he had been promoted before his time, especially when Celtic inflicted a 6-2 defeat on Rangers in an Old Firm derby, but Woodburn flourished and won his first championship medal in 1939 before war broke out, which effectively robbed him of six years just as he was at his physical prime.

After the war, he made up for lost time. Rangers claimed the league championship in 1946-47 and did so again three more times in the next six seasons as they traded titles with a celebrated Hibernian side. Woodburn's competitive streak would often boil over into tirades against his goalkeeper, Bobby Brown, if a goal was lost, yet, though physically imposing, he preferred to play his way out of trouble than kick his way out.

The flashpoint temper saw him suspended in 1947 for 14 days for a "violent exchange" with Motherwell's Dave Mathie, then in 1953 he punched the Clyde striker Billy McPhail, which earned a 21-day ban. Later that year, Woodburn was sent off for retaliation in a match with Stirling Albion and when the clubs met again, the following season, in a League Cup tie at Ibrox on 28 August 1954, Woodburn was forced to live with the consquences of that day for the rest of his life.

Playing with a knee injury, Woodburn took exception to a bad foul and retaliated. The SFA convened a disciplinary hearing the following month, which lasted just four minutes, and Woodburn was suspended sine die. The England international Tom Finney, one of many well-known forwards Woodburn had encountered in an international career that embraced 24 appearances for Scotland, described the ban as "a grave injustice". The SFA revoked their punishment three years later, but by then Woodburn was 37 and it was too late to start again.

In later years, Woodburn worked in a garage business before entering newspapers, where he wrote for the News of the World.

Phil Gordon

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