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Tom Wright takes a look back at Willie McCartney's career at Hibernian including the signing of one of the club's greatest...

By leading Hibernian to three league championship successes between 1948-1952 Hugh Shaw became the most successful manager in the clubs history. Shaw himself however would be the first to admit that the previous manager Willie McCartney had laid much of the groundwork for a side that would go on to dominate Scottish football in the immediate post war years. 

A big man both in stature and character, the articulate Willie McCartney was a great ambassador for the game. Rarely seen without his bowler hat and characteristic carnation in his buttonhole, the flamboyant and effervescent McCartney looked every inch the showbiz impresario. His cheery personality and infectious laugh made him a great favourite with officials, players and fans alike, and although he could be a strict disciplinarian his strictness was often tempered by a wonderful rich vein of humour.

Unlike his father John who had played for Cowlairs against Hibernian in the match to inaugurate Celtic’s new ground at Parkhead in 1887 before going on to sign for Rangers, Willie McCartney had never played the game at any serious level, a football injury sustained as a juvenile bringing a promising playing career to an end and instead he became a top class referee. 


Willie McCartney 7

Willie McCartney


As manager of St Mirren, his father John had led the Love Street side to the Scottish Cup final against Celtic in 1908 before leaving to manage Hearts in 1910. At Tynecastle he would guide the club through the turbulent war years when the Gorgie side had been the main challengers to the dominance of Celtic before accepting the post of manager at the former Southern League side Portsmouth who had just been promoted to the English Third Division.    

Willie McCartney had succeeded his father as manager of Hearts in 1919, the club narrowly escaping relegation at the end of the 1921-22 season, but although there would be no silverware during McCartney’s 19 years at Tynecastle, with the addition of players of the calibre of Tommy Walker and Barney Battles, Hearts would eventually gain a deserved reputation as one of the most colourful clubs in the land. However, in the summer of 1935 and just a few weeks after leading his side to third place in the league table for the second time in three years, McCartney would resign in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained, and it seemed obvious that some kind of dispute had taken place in the Tynecastle boardroom. 

In a move that would stun the football world, just under a year later McCartney would be unveiled as manager of Hearts greatest rivals Hibernian. Unknown to all but a trusted few, during the 1935-36 season he had been approached by the Hibs Chairman Harry Swan to take over from caretaker manager Johnny Halligan but had refused to accept the position until the relegation issue concerning the struggling Easter Road side had been settled, providing that is that Hibs remained in the top division. 

Safety was eventually secured and McCartney duly became the manager at Easter Road. One of his first tasks was to appoint the former Hibs player Hugh Shaw as first team trainer, a partnership that would pay huge dividends for the club in the years ahead. In some way hindered by Harry Swans then highly ambitious, some say rash, statement that given ten years he would make Hibs great again, McCartney set about rebuilding the side although his first few seasons at Easter Road would be difficult. However, with an eye for a player and a willingness to give youth its chance, there would soon be definite signs of improvement. It was during the war years however that McCartney would really start to make his mark, when not only did Hibs defeat Rangers in two of the three finals contested by the sides, they more than any would challenge the dominance of the Ibrox club in League fixtures, finishing second twice, third three times and fifth once. The skilful group of youngsters that had been signed pre-war by McCartney and others signed since would learn much from guest players such as Liverpool’s Matt Busby, Everton’s Jimmy Caskie and Middlesbrough’s Bobby Baxter and the foundations would be in place for what was soon to follow. Perhaps McCartney’s greatest signing however would be the 16-year-old Gordon Smith who would go on to grace Hibs colours for the next 19 years, winning three league championship medals with the Easter Road club before going on to create football history when winning further league medals with Hearts and Dundee. Then with Dundee North End Smith had first come to McCartney’s attention playing for a Junior XI against a Hibs/Hearts select in a game to officially open Lochee Harp’s Beechwood Park in 1941. Smith would later relate that he had been due to play a trial match for Hearts the team he had supported as a boy, but once approached by the Easter Road manager the McCartney magic had been so strong that he had signed for Hibs, and would later describe Willie McCartney as the most unforgettable person that he had ever met. 


1941 Summer Cup

The Hibernian party following the 1941 Summer Cup win
Back row left to right: Gallacher, Anderson, Smith, Cummings, Gilmartin, Fleming and Cuthbertson
Middle row left to right: Mr J. Drummond Shiels (Director), Adams, Shaw, Busby, Milne, Kean, Kerr, Hall and McColl (Assistant Trainer)
Front row left to right: Nutley, Caskie, Mr H. Swan (Chairman), Baxter, McCartney (Manager), Finnegan, Combe and Shaw (Trainer)

It was in the immediate post war years however that the club would come into its own with the emergence of yet another great side. Then, eventually fronted by the illustrious Famous Five forward line and watched by crowds in unprecedented numbers, Hibs would dominate the Scottish game, winning three league titles inside a five year period playing scintillating football.

McCartney however, would not live to see the fruits of his labours. In January 1948 Hibs were well on their way to winning its first league title since 1903 when at half-time during a Scottish Cup tie against Albion Rovers at Cliftonville the manager complained of feeling unwell. Ordered by a doctor to return home at once he was accompanied back to Edinburgh by Eddie Turnbull who was not playing that day and director Wilson Terris. Back in Edinburgh he seemed to have recovered sufficiently to be visited by Harry Swan on his way back from the game, but later that evening he suffered another massive heart-attack and passed away surrounded by his family.  

As expected, his funeral at Warriston Crematorium in midweek was attended by a huge crowd, many from the world of football including representatives from both the SFA and Scottish League, with floral tributes sent from almost every club in the country. Among the crowd were players and officials from Hearts including several of his former colleagues including Jack Harkness, Barney Battles and Alex Massie who had all come to pay their respects to a giant of a man who would be sorely missed throughout the game.  

Although several names had been mentioned as a successor to McCartney including the former Hibs player Matt Busby who was then manager of Manchester United, Harry Swan wasted no time in promoting the popular Hugh Shaw. One of the new Hibs manager’s first games in charge was a potential league decider against today’s opponents Rangers at Easter Road, a Johnny Cuthbertson goal in the very last minute of the game setting his side well on the way towards winning the championship.

In paying tribute to McCartney, Harry Swan would recall the anxiety on the late manager’s face when war was declared and football temporarily annulled, which was a sad blow to a man to whom the game meant everything. When it was eventually restarted on a restricted scale McCartney had stated that he appreciated the position of the club financially and was prepared to carry on for no salary just as long as we can keep the flag flying at Easter Road, a statement that perhaps demonstrated the true measure of the man.

McCartney was gone, but he had left behind a precious legacy of vision, vigour and optimism for the future. His personality had lit up the game as he had almost singlehandedly revolutionised Hibs fortunes from the dark days of the 1930’s, and although he would never see the incomparable Famous Five play together as a complete unit, all five had been signed by McCartney at one time or other, and that perhaps was his greatest legacy.


Written by Tom Wright

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