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Willie Woodburn: hero or villain?

In an age when Sergio Ramos can collect his 24th red card and still be regarded by many as a fine player, spare a thought for Willie Woodburn, one of the greatest defenders to play for Rangers and Scotland, who was banned sine die – after four dismissals.


This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

Strange though it seems today, there was a time not so many years ago when being sent off in a football match was regarded as being tantamount to a criminal offence with no redeeming features whatsoever. Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos, who collected the 24th red card of his career recently, may be a great footballer and he may think he is the bull’s pizzle but as an ambassador for the sport and as a role model he is nothing short of a disgrace. Perhaps Ramos is excused more often than not because Real are such a class apart from their often mis-matched opponents that they have only lost on five of those 24 occasions. He is also infamous for having dropped the Spanish Cup under the wheels of an open-top team bus during a victory parade. That should give you an idea of what a responsible human being he is.

While Ramos may be an extreme example of the serial red carder there are many examples of repeat offenders on the home front with the likes of Duncan Ferguson, Patrick Vieira, John Hartson, Lee Cattermole, Joey Barton, Mark Dennis and Willie Johnston being particularly good bad examples. Ramos and many other current players should read this cautionary tale and thank their lucky stars that they ply their trade in an age when unacceptable behaviour is, in the very public forum of a football field, too often regarded as part of the show and somehow brave and honourable rather than the sheer, often pre-meditated, nastiness that it actually is. While the desire to win may be commendable, by my reasoning that can be statistically harder to achieve when a team has fewer players on the pitch than their opponents.

As a footballer Willie Woodburn of Rangers and Scotland had few peers. He captained his country and won a number of top-class honours in a 16-year career which ran from 1938 to 1954, yet he ended up being thrown out of the game in disgrace due to a disciplinary record which by today’s standards would put him in line for a Nobel peace prize.

A football playing centre-half, he was tall, straight-backed and dominant in the air. Rarely drawn out of position he was also gifted with judicious timing – hence his nickname of ‘Big Ben’. His ability to intercept opposition attacks and turn them into swift counter-attacks by virtue of near flawless distribution set him a class apart from his contemporaries. He was the Alan Hansen of his day but he proved far more effective in the dark blue of his country than the former Liverpool star and BBC pundit ever did.

Woodburn first came to notice as an occasional performer in Rangers’ 1938-39 championship winning side. Still only 19 he made 12 appearances that season alongside long-established stars such as Jerry Dawson, George Brown and Bob McPhail. Two other teenagers also made their breakthroughs that season, the exciting embryonic double-act of Willie Thornton and Willie Waddell, both of whom would go on to become club legends.

September 1939 saw the floodlights go out all over Europe but, in the event, Rangers as a club did not suffer too badly from the privations of war. Their influential manager Bill Struth, a former professional sprinter, was quickly off his marks to arrange jobs for most of the first-team playing staff in reserved occupations in the nearby shipyards and this ensured that the Light-Blues’ dominance of the Scottish game continued unabated for the duration. A notable exception was Willie Thornton, who won the Military Medal at Salerno during the Italian campaign.

It was not to be all plain sailing for Woodburn. The youngster lost his place in the side for most of the war-time period to another future Rangers legend named George Young, who himself made such rapid progress in the position that he was selected for Scotland within 16 months of making his debut. However, Woodburn never lost heart and when he eventually fought his way back into the team he did so with such authority that his rival was forced to convert to right full-back from his preferred position. A then-record 53 appearances for Scotland, 48 of them as captain, are testimony to Young’s own pedigree.

The war over, Rangers’ ‘Iron Curtain’ defensive formation soon became firmly established. Nicknamed after the phrase from Churchill’s famous Fulton, Arizona speech, it featured the stylish Woodburn alongside tough-tackling left-back and captain Jock ‘Tiger’ Shaw with his fearsome cat-scowl smile; the telescope-legged Young; the immaculate Ian McColl at right-half; Bobby Brown their agile blonde goalkeeper and the versatile and tenacious Sammy Cox. Incredibly five of the six went on to captain their country and McColl and Brown (the one exception) would, in turn, manage the national side for most of the 1960s.

The Glasgow club’s main rivals in those days were Hibernian, who then had the most talented side in their history. Clashes between the two were fierce with no quarter given and the contests between Woodburn and Hibs’ crafty centre-forward Lawrie Reilly were a particular feature. The fact that Woodburn restricted his prolific opponent to just four goals in 11 League and Cup encounters suggests that the Rangers pivot came out on top in their personal duel. A measure of the attraction of those fixtures was that in April 1950, a near record crowd of 101,000 turned out at Ibrox to watch the top two slug it out in a goalless draw. Rangers’ whole game plan was based on stout defence while Hibs were far more cavalier in their approach. That is perfectly illustrated by their League goals for-and-against columns in those highly competitive years between 1946 and 1954:

                         GF     GA

RANGERS     522    254

HIBS              651     310

Woodburn faced the fearsome Tommy Lawton at Wembley in his international debut in April 1947 but he came through that particular baptism of fire with flying colours by shackling Lawton throughout and denying him the opportunity of adding to his incredible goal-tally in a match which finished one-apiece. Victories in both 1949 and 1951 made the Twin Towers a particular happy hunting ground for the big defender whose real moment of glory in the blue shirt of Scotland came against Wales at Hampden in November 1947 when he was given the honour of captaining his country.

The Scotland side which Woodburn led was: Miller (Celtic); Govan (Hibs), Stephen (Bradford); Macaulay (Arsenal), Woodburn, Forbes (Arsenal); Smith (Hibs), McLaren (Preston North End), Delaney (Manchester United), Steel (Derby County) and Liddell (Liverpool).

Club honours came thick and fast too with four League championship badges, four Scottish Cup winners’ medals and two League Cup winners’ medals being bagged in just seven seasons, but a darker side of Woodburn’s personality began to emerge – his inability to control his temper.

Ordered off together with Motherwell’s Davie Mathie at the beginning of season 1948-49 he received his marching orders for a second time in a league defeat against Clyde at Ibrox in March 1953. Six months later he was sent for yet another early bath in a league defeat at Stirling and 11 months after that he had first use of the soap again for the fourth time in his career after being expelled from the pitch just 30 seconds from the end of a comfortable League Cup win over Stirling Albion at Ibrox. Praised so often for using his head in difficult situations, he used it once too often that day – to assault an opponent named Paterson. Less than three weeks later he was out of football for good: banned ‘sine die’ by the footballing authorities for what they considered as his continued misconduct. The hearing to decide his future took just a matter of minutes to play out.

His last-ever competitive match proved to be a 1-1 home league draw with Hibs on September 11, 1954.

While there was no excuse for his misconduct and the embarrassment it brought the club, in retrospect those last three indiscretions, in what proved to be the final 18 months of his career, could simply have been the result of sheer frustration at his own diminishing physical powers on a football field. We will never know.

Although Rangers had a ready-made replacement in Young, then in the twilight of his career, it was not until the arrival of Ronnie McKinnon some seven years later, that the Ibrox club adequately filled the gap left by one of their greatest-ever players.

The SFA ban was eventually lifted in April 1957 but there was never any likelihood that Woodburn, then approaching his 38th birthday, would ever resume his playing career.

The owner of a garage business, he later embarked on a new life as a sports reporter.  Those two teenagers – Waddell and Thornton – whom he played alongside before the war – both went on to enjoy relationships with the Ibrox club which would endure for more than 50 years but it appears that Willie Woodburn was never fully forgiven for his indiscretions.

It was a sad end to an otherwise glorious career which saw him play 325 games for his one and only club and represent his country on 24 occasions.  Willie Woodburn died in 2001.


HONOURS WON: League Champions: 1947, 1949, 1950, 1953. Scottish Cup: 1948, 1949, 1950, 1953. Scottish League Cup: 1947, 1949.

INTERNATIONAL CAPS: 1947 v England (a) 1-1;
Belgium (a) 1-2; Luxembourg (a) 6-0; Northern Ireland (a) 0-2; Wales (h) 1-2; 1949 v England (a) 3-1; France (h) 2-0; Northern Ireland (a) 8-2; Wales (h) 2-0; 1950 v England (h) 0-1; Portugal (a) 2-2; France (a) 1-0; Wales (a) 3-1; Northern Ireland (h) 6-1; Austria (h) 0-1; 1951 v England (a) 3-2; Denmark (h) 3-1; France (h) 1-0; Belgium (a) 5-0; Austria (a) 0-4; Northern Ireland (a) 3-0; Wales (h) 0-1; 1952 v England (h) 1-2; U.S.A. (h) 6-0.

This article first appeared in Issue 7 which was published in March 2018.

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