It is with regret that we learned of the death of former player Willie Hunter on Sunday at the age of 80.
Hunter, or Billy to his friends and family, would become the darling of every Motherwell fan of a certain generation.
Following a few years of typical Motherwell Football Club inconsistency, which included relegation, a major decision was taken between the boardroom and the manager’s chair during the summer of 1956.
After a year in the Fir Park hotseat, Bobby Ancell implemented a policy of no longer signing ready made “seasoned” football players from other clubs, and going back to pursuing a strategy of developing talented youngsters from Scotland’s central belt in true Motherwell tradition.
Of course this was a philosophy that had worked well in previous generations, which included producing league winners Stevenson, Ferrier and McFadyen.
That close season would see the first moves to support the new thinking at Fir Park. Youngsters Bert McCann, William Cowie, Pat Holton and ‘keeper Alan Wylie all arrived from Queens’ Park, Kilsyth Rangers, Hamilton Accies and Penicuik respectively.
To make way for the intake of exciting talent, nine players were freed including some Motherwell legends such as Wilson Humphries and Willie Redpath, who between them had made over 620 appearances for ‘Well, scoring 131 goals and winning the League Cup, the Scottish Cup, as well as delivering a Division B Championship.
Whilst the named four signings went on to contribute to a decent season for the Fir Parkers, it was probably the youngster who had signed on from Edinburgh Norton, a year later that would go on to make his name in claret and amber shine more brightly than the others.
That man was the aforementioned William Hunter.
Within months it had became clear that the manager had snapped up a dazzling footballer who was both a brilliant ball player and a determined performer.
As Willie was coming through Fir Park’s front door, another couple of Motherwell legends were heading out. Willie Kilmarnock and Johnny Aitkenhead had been at the club for 30 years between them, and when they left the average age of the first team dropped dramatically from 31 to 25.
Willie began his Motherwell career playing, and starring, for the Fir Park reserves alongside fellow teenager Ian St. John.
Such was the friendship that the young duo struck up “Sinjy” would often spend his Saturday nights in Edinburgh staying over with Hunter until the following day.
On the Sunday afternoons they’d often play matches on waste ground against neighbouring “streets”, cultivating a partnership that would terrorise Scottish football for years to come. The highly enjoyable Sunday kickabouts came to a premature end the afternoon that the ball flew over a fence, and when the young laddie Hunter went to retrieve it, he found his manager Ancell holding the ball.
Somebody had ‘grassed’ the young teammates in, and that was the end of the fun.
Weeks later, he was brought into the first team at Dens Park in mid-October 1957. Although the result didn’t go to the liking of the travelling ‘Well fans, they had taken some solace from the performance of the young Edinburgh lad who had made the jump from amateur football to top division action within a couple of months with ease.
His first appearance on Fir Park came a fortnight later when Falkirk visited and left with the points following a 5-2 defeat of the hosts. Despite the loss, the name of Willie Hunter was on the lips of every Motherwell fan as they made their way home the wet Saturday evening.
His first goal came at Parkhead in April when netted the opener in a thrilling 2-2 draw between the teams. Eleven appearances for Motherwell was a good debut season for Hunter, as he tried to earn a berth in a terrific developing Fir Park squad under the guidance of Ancell.
The summer of 1958 saw the last of the 1952 cup winners leave with the departures of Charlie Cox, Andy Paton and Archie Shaw, which brought the average age down again to a little over 22.
When the team was announced for the opening day of the new season at home to Partick Thistle, Hunter’s name was included. Although it was goals from Ian St. John, twice, and Jim Forrest which won the game, it was Hunter who was man of the match having produced a sublime display.
The start of the season had been promising, with only one defeat in the first six fixtures before Third Lanark arrived in North Lanarkshire. The team that day would always be remembered as a typical Ancell Babes XI: Hastie Weir, McSeveney, Holton, Aitken, Martis, McCann, Hunter, Sammy Reid, St. John, Quinn and Andy Weir.
The Babes were on fire that afternoon, winning 8-1 as the Fir Park crowd began to realise their favourites were developing into something very special indeed.
The young inside forward Hunter only missed four games in that season, scoring 13 goals, which saw Motherwell narrowly miss out on the league title.
International honours were also on their way, with eight players being recognised in various squads, including Hunter who was capped for the Scottish league.
Willie had become a forward of uncommon grace, which had won over the Motherwell fans with performances that could not be measured merely in goals and assists, but that glistened with the flair of an artist who could deceive defenders with a subtle touch or shimmy.
The following season saw ground improvements at Fir Park raising the capacity to 40,000 and a training pitch at the Motherwell stadium to help protect the Fir Park surface, keeping it in top condition instigated by Ancell’s football ideals.
Once again the Babes delighted people the length and breadth of the country, with Hunter an integral part of the team. Indeed Willie only missed one competitive game, a Scottish Cup firs round rout of Highland League side Keith, netting another seven times.
Whilst it was another good season for the club, finishing fifth, it was arguably two glamour friendlies in April that summed up the season for the Fir Park faithful.
18,000 punters clicked through the Fir Park turnstiles to see Athletic Bilbao despite torrential rain hammering down throughout the 90 minutes. A delightful Willie Hunter goal put Motherwell two goals up after just 25 minutes, before the visitors stunned the large crowd by levelling before the interval.
However, an Ian St. John shot two minutes into the second period was enough to give the home side a deserved win.
A couple of weeks later, it was Brazilian giants Flamengo who turned up at Fir Park on the back of an impressive 5-0 win over Manchester United. After the visitors opened the scoring six minutes in, the 25,000 crowd were saluting a wonderful goal by Hunter which seemed to inspire the Steelmen.
A St. John hat trick and a Pat Quinn penalty were soon forgotten when Hunter produced a sublime finish to leave the Fir Parkers 6-1 up, and thoroughly entertaining a by now ecstatic home support.
Another hat trick by St. John left the Brazilians shell-shocked as Motherwell trooped of the pitch having trounced the tourists 9-2. At the end of that season there was a definite air of disappointment that such a talented outfit could only finish fifth despite many memorable displays throughout the campaign.
These inconsistencies remained over the next couple of years with fifth and then ninth place finishes, however it didn’t deter Hunter from turning in impeccable displays week in and week out.
Only four games were missed by the Motherwell magician over these two seasons as he became a model of consistency within a talented squad. His good run of form came to an abrupt end in October 1962 at Fir Park during a 2-0 defeat to Celtic, when he fractured his forearm which kept him out of action for a full calendar year, where his recovery had to be aided with a bone being taken from his hip.
When eventually he was welcomed back into the first team, it was amid a seven-goal thriller at Fir Park with the Steelmen edging out the visiting Hibees.
Sadly his fitness lasted barely a month before he was back in the physio room, where he remained for the rest of that campaign. Season 1964/65 saw Willie getting back to his best, in an albeit declining Motherwell side, with 30 appearances before injury struck again in March 1965, leaving him sidelined once more until the December of that year.
By the time he was available for selection to Ancell, Motherwell were struggling having only won twice in the league, and firmly entrenched in a relegation battle.
Almost immediately the Fir Parkers saw an upturn in their fortunes with their talisman back in the fold, winning 10 games to finish 13th in the 18-team top division.
The new season, in the wake of England’s World Cup triumph, would be Hunter’s last at Fir Park. Despite a 5-0 win over St. Mirren in Paisley, with Bobby Campbell scoring all five goals and hitting Dunfermline for six at Fir Park with Dixie Deans scoring a treble and Hunter notching a double, things weren’t looking great for the Steelmen as New Year approached.
Hunter scored his final goals in claret and amber down at Somerset Park in March 1967 in a exciting 3-3 draw, before his final game at home to Hearts on the last game of that season, a game in which Deans scored the only goal.
Relegation had never been a real threat that season, but it was obvious to everybody that an end of an era was upon us, and Ancell left for Dundee.
Always amongst the goals for Motherwell, Hunter had in fact laid on far more than he had scored, which was a proud claim since he bagged more than 50 competitive goals for the Steelmen.
Whilst at Fir Park he won three full Scotland caps, four Under 23 caps and four appearances for the Scottish League.
The only black spot in his glittering Fir Park career was a string of troublesome injuries that prevented Hunter from hitting the 300 mark for appearances. He finally left North Lanarkshire in 1967, when Detroit Cougars paid £14,000 for his signature as the inaugural North American Soccer League was about to kick off.
A little more than a year later, after the Cougars had folded, Willie came back home to his local club, who he’d always supported, when Hibernian snapped him up.
Willie Hunter was a inside Ffrward who usually played on the left hand side, with the experience and knowledge of playing as a winger; a real craftsman, skilled in ball control and distribution.
His coup de grace though was a marvellous body swerve, better according to many aficionados of the time, than the legendary Gordon Smith. After his playing career had come to an end following a brief stint in South Africa, Willie was appointed assistant manager to his friend and fellow ‘Well legend Ian St. John at Portsmouth.
After three years on the south coast he took the opportunity to manage Queen of the South in 1978, which didn’t last long before his final stint as a manager took him to Inverness as he took over the reins of Caledonian in the Highland League.
After he finished with the beautiful game, Willie showed he was just as comfortable with a pen as he had been through the years with a ball, writing a book about a trek his wife and he had made.
More recently, Willie spent some time being an ambassador for Football Memories, the charity that seeks to help those with dementia find a link to the past through reminiscence of games, memorabilia and photographs.
Willie had a brilliant football career in what was undoubtedly a tough school. His generous gifts to the game gave him little financial rewards, yet he continued to give to the game and his colleagues afterwards.
He was a man of substance and opinions, who was the subject of much praise from those who played with, against, or indeed, watched him.
This magical footballer was perhaps the most complete ever to pull our famous colours over his head, and is someone this club is proud to have played a large part in his life.