Greatest XI - 6. Central Midfielder
18th March 2016
With Billy Wilson joining Alan Lawrence in the wide midfield positions, it's time to find the central midfielders for our Greatest XI.
For the two central positions, we return to the voting format used for the central defenders; there are eight shortlisted players, and the winner of this week's poll goes into the Greatest XI. The next four most popular nominees go into next week's poll to find the second central midfielder.
With names such as Billy Price, Benny Cairns and Kenny Black just failing to make the cut, our panel came up with this shortlist of eight.
As always, voting closes at 12pm on Friday (25th March).
At least three of the Bennie brothers, from Slamannan, had played for Airdrieonians in the 1880’s and 1890’s, and it was somehow fitting that next-generation descendant Bobby should be wearing the famous Diamond jersey on the club’s greatest-ever day.
Our Cup Final “man of the match” started out in senior football with Third Lanark, and moved to Broomfield in December, 1920, as part of an exchange deal which involved the outgoing Alex Reid. Bobby was an inside-left at that point, but reverted to left-half to take over from Hunter Hart, transferred to Everton in January, 1922. He missed only five league fixtures over the next four seasons (1922/23 to 1925/26, as we finished runner-up in Division One on each occasion), two of those when he was playing for Scotland. In total, he made over 300 club appearances, scoring eight goals.
His efforts against Hibs at Ibrox on that magical day in 1924 brought fulsome praise from “Waverley” in the Daily Record, as he said “No half-back afield compared with Bobby Bennie, who was simply out on his own... he played grandly in both defence and attack.” The Scotsman, too, was complimentary – “Bennie, opposed to Ritchie and Dunn, was as virile as in the semi-final against Falkirk, and this meant much.”
Bobby was never the flamboyant type, but the fact that he won three full caps for Scotland while he was at Broomfield (he added a Scottish League appearance in 1928/29), captained the side for three seasons, and commanded a £2,300 transfer fee from Hearts (after more than seven years at Airdrie) in May, 1928, suggests that he was highly appreciated by team-mates and opponents alike.
Samuel Gourlay Goodwin signed for the Diamonds from Craigmark Burtonians in April 1965 and made his debut immediately. Such was his impact, he played in every game of the Summer Cup as the season drew to close.
He was equally at home at the back and in the middle of the park. His signing was at a time the club were relegated but he rarely missed a league match as the Diamonds won promotion in 1966. He was virtually an ever present in 1966/67 when the team were beaten League Cup semi-finalists. A first pick in the side in every season he was there. Season 1968/69 saw Airdrieonians finish in eighth place in the table and reach the Scottish Cup quarter final.
Sammy would weigh in with the occasional thunderbolt goal from a long range shot, but it was his ability to read the game that attracted top English clubs. His name is synonymous with one of the Diamonds' most famous line-ups - Goodwin, Black and Whiteford. He played in the epic 1970-71 Scottish Cup semi-final 3-3 draw with Celtic before losing out. His sterling performances in the Texaco Cup, included scoring at Maine Road in the 2-2 draw with Manchester City which led to him signing for Crystal Palace, a top division side, to his worth and for a fee of around £40,000 moving to Selhurst Park.
He returned to Scotland to play with Motherwell and Clydebank but his Diamond Days were his best in football. Sadly Sammy died in 2005 at the age of 62.
Signed for Airdrie in 1973 by Ian McMillan from Alloa Athletic for £5,000, McCulloch would go on to play a major role in many of Airdrie's most memorable moments over the next eight years.
McCulloch is fondly remembered by fans of this era due to his 100% attitude. A hard, tough tackling player who was equally as comfortable at centre forward as he was in the middle of the park. Good with both feet as well as his head, Willie was very much an all rounder but will always be remembered for his commitment and effort. Many will recall one memorable match on New Years day versus Hearts at Tynecastle, the team found themselves 2-0 down when McCulloch was brought on as a substitute. He scored twice as well as providing an assist for Jim Rodger to secure a 3-2 victory.
His first season with Airdrie was to see the club winning the 2nd Division title, scoring 102 goals in the process. His second season was equally as successful reaching the League Cup Semi-Final losing narrowly 1-0 to Celtic, and he would later face the Glasgow side once more at Hampden in the 1975 Scottish Cup Final, with McCulloch scoring in three previous rounds on route. Perhaps McCulloch's finest personal moment came in the 1976 Spring Cup Final when he scored two goals in a 4-2 victory over Clydebank.
McCulloch's time at the club would come to an end in 1981, after a work accident which saw him sidelined for around five months seeing him eventually join Berwick Rangers. In all he made 225 appearances and scored 47 goals for Airdrie. In 2006 McCulloch was inducted into the Airdrie Hall of Fame.
1948-1958 / 1964-1966
Airdrieonians’ most celebrated son. Born John Livingstone McMillan on 18th March 1931, ‘Ian’ grew up a stone’s throw away from the Diamonds’ Broomfield Park home. His long association with the club he supported as a boy began in July 1948 when, at the age of 17, he left Airdrie Academy to sign professional forms.
Over the next decade, the unassuming yet enthusiastic teenager blossomed into possibly the greatest talent ever to grace the famous ‘Diamond’. From a lightning football brain that enabled him to pick out precise defence-splitting passes at will to his brilliant dribbling style, Ian quite simply had everything. His skill at orchestrating the entire flow of a game (allied to the fact that he shared his surname with the country’s incumbent prime minister) quickly earned him the nickname of “Wee Prime Minister”. Far from being merely an individual, however, Ian was also known as a superb team player, this by virtue principally of his highly creative attacking partnership with fellow inside-forward Jimmy Welsh and free-scoring centre Hughie Baird.
Local hero status already cemented, Ian’s renown beyond the town broadened when, in April 1952, he gained his first of five full Scotland caps as a Diamond. A crowd of over 134,000 packed into Hampden Park to watch Scotland lose 2-1 to England while, later the same month, Ian shrugged off that debut disappointment to net a brace in the 6-0 defeat of the U.S.A. Unsurprisingly, as his glowing spell at Broomfield approached the ten-year mark, Ian began to attract serious interest on the transfer market. Rangers eventually won the race for his signature and, in October 1958, he moved to Ibrox in a deal worth £10,300. His maturity as an inside forward of real quality continued to blossom and during the six years he remained with the Glasgow giants, the honours, including three league championship, three Scottish Cup and two League Cup winners’ medals as well as an appearance in the 1961 European Cup-winners’ Cup final, stacked up lavishly. He also added a further Scotland cap to the five gained with Airdrie as well as picking up other ‘B’ and League honours.
In December 1964, however, there would be a much-celebrated homecoming when Airdrie paid £5000 to bring him back to Broomfield. Unfortunately, it was to be a short-lived return with persistent injury problems forcing his retiral from the playing side during the summer of 1967. Returning to successfully manage the Diamonds between 1970 and 1976, Ian then joined the board as vice-chairman. In 2002, he was named Honorary President, a distinction thoroughly merited in recognition of a truly outstanding career.
1919-1928 / 1931-1932
Willie, already capped by Junior Scotland, became a Diamond during the close season of 1919, when he made the step up from Parkhead Juniors, although he wasn’t available to play until he was discharged from the armed forces in October, 1919. He went straight into our first-team, and remained a big favourite until his transfer to Ayr United shortly after the start of 1928/29.
He was comfortable at right-half or inside-right, but had made the former position his own during 1922/23, when Tommy Preston’s full-time studies severely restricted his availability. Willie continued at right-half at the beginning of 1923/24, until an injury sustained in early October forced him out of the side. It was eventually decided that he needed a cartilage operation, and he underwent that in mid-December. By the time he was ready to return, Tommy Preston was immoveable from our half-back line, and Willie was unable to get back into our starting XI, although he did play a few games in the run-up to our Scottish Cup triumph when we experienced a period of considerable fixture congestion.
Tommy’s continuous consistency led to Willie making his home at inside-right after Willie Russell’s transfer to Preston in August, 1925. He was quite capable of helping out at centre-forward too, as he was renowned for his football brain, and, in one such spell towards the close of 1926/27, he netted nine goals in six outings at the head of our attack. That short stint included one of three hat-tricks he recorded for the club. Willie Neil had made almost 290 appearances, and scored more than 40 goals, by the time he left Broomfield in August, 1928.
He turned out for the Scottish League at inside-right against the Irish League in 1927/28, and he was back at Broomfield for a time in 1931/32, being finally released at the end of that campaign “due to financial constraints.”
Born in Arbroath in 1952, Walker joined his hometown team, playing for the Red Lichties from 1969 to 1972 before Ian McMillan signed him as a replacement for Sam Goodwin for a then club record transfer fee of £16,000. He took no time in settling into the team and on his third appearance he scored a 25 yard free kick in the last minute to secure a 1-1 draw versus Hearts at Tyncastle.
Strong and good on the ball with an excellent work rate, Walker is considered as one as one of the most cultured players to represent the Diamonds in the modern era. He was as easily able to pick out a 40 yard cross field pass as he was at finding a defence splitting pass to set up numerous goal scoring opportunities.
Walker quickly established himself in the first team squad, and in his first season he represented the club in both legs of the Texaco Cup Final against Derby County. However after two seasons at Airdrie he would return to Arbroath on loan for the 1973/74 season to assist him with his University studies. When he returned to the club the following season he would represent them at Hampden on two occasions firstly the League Cup Semi-Final and then the Scottish Cup Final.
Tommy would also have a starring role the following season when he scored once in the 4-2 victory of the Spring Cup Final in 1976. Walker would continue to be an influential player for Airdrie for a number of years, and he had the distinction of scoring Airdrie's first ever Premier League goal in a 1-1 draw versus Rangers on the opening day of the 1980/81 season. He would go on to play one more season before joining Stirling Albion in 1982. In total he made 391 appearances and scored a total of 38 goals.
Centre forwards are often only as good as the support they receive from those around them. And deadly as he was, there is little doubt the quality of support garnered from cultured colleagues such as Willie McCulloch, Ian McMillan and Jimmy Welsh did make the great Hughie Baird’s job a whole lot easier. The cultured prompting of “Wee Prime Minister” McMillan alone would have been sheer luxury for any goal-hungry predator, but to throw another talent like Jimmy Welsh into the mix must have handed Baird the kind of advantage enjoyed by few other centres in the game at the time.
Jimmy became a Diamond when he moved from juvenile local side Coatbridge St. Patrick’s in September 1950. By the middle of the decade he had established himself as one of the country’s most entertaining propositions in his field, and certainly a vital cog in manager Willie Steel’s appealing line-up of the day. After a rather up and down spell in which they seemed to flit between Divisions A and B, season 1954-55 ended with promotion to the top flight once again, this time as champions, while a superb run in the Scottish Cup reached as far as the semi-final stage before defeat to Celtic after a replay wrapped up their involvement. The initial ninety minutes had, of course, finished all square, with Jimmy providing Airdrie’s second after fellow Hall of Famer John Reid had famously fired the Diamonds ahead straight from kick-off.
Although Jimmy failed, for whatever reason, to match McMillan and Baird’s accomplishments in attracting full international recognition, he did represent the Scottish League in a match staged against the League of Ireland in 1952.
Seen more as architect than executioner, Jimmy’s scoring rate of almost a goal every three games was respectable nonetheless and, to the Broomfield faithful, it must have felt like the end of an extraordinary era indeed when, in November 1957, he moved to Third Lanark for a nominal fee. McMillan’s departure to Ibrox a few months later would have done nothing to lift the gloom around Broomfield at what must have been a frustrating time for the supporters. Spells with Ards, Bedford Town and Derry City followed but, tragically, his life was cut short in April 1967, at the age of just 36. Like John Martin and Brian McKeown, Jimmy remains one of the few Airdrieonians in modern times to have been awarded a testimonial.
As a youth with Hibernian in the early sixties Derek gained Scotland honours at that level including representing his country in the 1965 tournament in Germany. However when he signed for his local side in June 1967, the Diamonds had themselves an absolute gem. He soon became the figurehead of the club and quickly earned the reputation of a highly influential player and superb skipper who led the club with great distinction. As fate would have it, Derek scored the only goal in the 1968 Scottish win over his former club. He always believed Airdrie had rescued his playing career.
Between 1967 and 1977 he scored 116 goals in 438 appearances, an extraordinary scoring rate for a midfield player. His ability to hang in the air to meet aerial passes was incredible and his well timed runs into the box provided a constant threat that opponents could not handle. His stature across all of Scottish football was akin to Old firm captains McNeill and Greig. He led the club to some of their greatest achievements during that highly successful period. His roll of honour included: 1969 Scottish Cup quarter finalists, 1971 Scottish Cup semi-finalists, 1972 Texaco Cup runners up, 1973 League Cup and Scottish Cup quarter finalists, 1974 Second Division Champions, 1974/75 League Cup semi-finalists and Scottish Cup runners up and the 1976 Spring Cup winners.
In 1977 manager Jackie Stewart foolishly allowed Derek to move, a step he had no wish to take. With Dumbarton Derek outscored all of the Diamonds strikers at that time and the fans could only look on with envy after his new side finished well above Airdrieonians that season. He returned to manage the club for a season in the mid-eighties simply because he wanted to reconnect with the club. His beaming smile as he took the field for the Broomfield farewell in 1994 was met with the one of loudest cheers of the day.
Derek was an instant inductee at the initial Hall of Fame in June 2002 where the profile for him described him as Mr Airdrie, a truly fitting description. In the Herald, five months earlier, the words of the late Bob Crampsey stated ”The early onset of his cruel illness deprived us of one who at the age of 54 still had much to give football”. A true legend.