Lawrie Reilly was among the most prolific international marksmen in the history of Scottish football, with a strike-rate for his country superior to that of both Denis Law and Kenny Dalglish and a gilded Wembley tally of five goals against England in as many games At club level, too, the diminutive post-war predator was a paragon, the spearhead of Hibernian’s “Famous Five” forward line, the swashbuckling quintet which fired the Easter Road side to consecutive titles in the early 1950s and which earned widespread approbation as the most entertaining attack the League has known.
With his four comrades – right-winger Gordon Smith, inside-right Bobby Johnstone, inside-left Eddie Turnbull and left-winger Willie Ormond – already laid to rest, the Edinburgh-born centre-forward was the last surviving member of a revered company.
Crucially to the Hibs supporters who idolised him, Reilly was a one-club man. Though his childhood home was near Tynecastle, headquarters of local rivals Heart of Midlothian, and the Jambos attempted to sign him when he left school, he hailed from an Irish background on his father’s side, so his enthusiasm was always for the Easter Road brigade. As he put it, “I was born with a green jersey on my back, and that’s the only jersey I ever wanted to wear.”He was devoted to the cause at an early age, watching his favourites with passionate regularity, visiting every ground in the country as a boy, travelling on trains for nothing because his father was a railway guard.
So it was with alacrity that he enlisted with Hibernian in 1945, spending part of his £20 signing-on fee on an electric carpet cleaner for his mother, and made his senior debut as a 17-year-old in September 1946. In 1947 he scored the first of his 18 hat-tricks for the club, but was not yet a first-team regular when they were crowned Scottish champions in 1948. That status was his in 1948-49, when he was pressed into service on the left wing because Ormond was out with a broken leg.
Thereafter Reilly flourished in his favoured role, leading the attack, racking up 238 goals in more than 350 senior appearances and topping Hibs’ scoring chart in seven consecutive seasons from 1950-51. That term and the next he pocketed a title medal and nearly made it a hat-trick in 1952-53, when Rangers pipped the Edinburgh side by a single point. Personally, that was his most successful club campaign as he scored 30 times in 28 League games, breaking the Easter Road record and showcasing his comprehensive range of attributes to vivid effect.
Though standing only 5ft 7in and routinely policed by hulking markers, Reilly at his best was well-nigh ungovernable, a sturdy, pacy, restlessly aggressive goal-hunter, utterly fearless and ready to launch himself into any confrontation when a strike was in the offing, most of his chances being snapped up inside the six-yard box. Potent with either foot and remarkably successful in the air for such a small man, he was also unselfish and an inspired improviser, capable of turning the ball goalwards no matter at what angle it reached him.
Reilly was also immensely modest, maintaining that his goals were laid on a plate for him by his fellow forwards, and it was true that the “Five” consisted of an ideal blend, with Smith’s silky elegance complementing fellow wide man Ormond’s pace and resilience, while the darting skills and sharp football brain of Johnstone was the perfect match for his fellow inside man Turnbull’s powerhouse approach. What bewildered so many opponents was the way they switched positions so fluidly, all of them capable of creating mayhem wherever they popped up.
Reilly’s international career was also a thing of rare glory, encompassing 22 goals in 38 matches, a record which would have been even more impressive but for enforced retirement in 1958 at the age of 29 with a knee injury and consequent arthritis. In a reflection of the times, he was told of his initial call-up in 1948 by a fan at a bus stop.
He didn’t score on his debut, a 3-1 victory over Wales at Ninian Park in October 1948, but more than made up for it over the ensuing decade, being on the winning side in his first dozen internationals and never going more than four games without scoring. Sadly, though, Reilly was destined never to grace the World Cup finals, even though Scotland qualified three times during his span. In 1950, staggeringly, the Scottish FA declined to take up their allotted place in Brazil because they had not won the Home International title – they had finished second to England, enough to earn them a berth. Then he missed the 1954 tournament in Switzerland through a bout of pleurisy which rendered him dangerously ill, and his chronically gammy knee prevented participation in Sweden four years later.
The highlight of his service to Scotland, perhaps, was his brace of equalisers in the 2-2 draw with England at Wembley in April 1953, a contest in which the visitors had been reduced to 10 men for the last half-hour when defender Sammy Cox suffered a broken leg. The second of those strikes, a fierce rising drive 30 seconds from the final whistle, gave rise to his lasting sobriquet of “Last-Minute Reilly”. The Hibs striker, who remains the club’s most capped player, burnished his reputation still further with 14 goals in as many appearances for the Scottish League, prestigious fixtures which used to be accorded almost the same status as full internationals.
When he laid aside his boots, Reilly – an affable, wryly humorous, appealingly straight-talking individual – was offered a directorship by Hibernian but decided instead to concentrate on running the Bowler’s Rest in Leith, a pub popular with Hibernian fans on match days, even though he was a teetotaller himself.
In 2005 Reilly was inducted into the Scottish Football Hall of Fame at Hampden Park, and he was a regular visitor to his beloved Easter Road until the season before his death.
Lawrence Reilly, footballer: born Edinburgh 28 October 1928; played for Hibernian 1945-58; capped 38 times by Scotland 1948-57; married (one son); died Edinburgh 22 July 2013.