Jackie McGrory


David Ross the editor of the scottishleague.net pays a personal tribute

Jackie McGrory was the first centre-half I ever saw play for Kilmarnock. Over forty years later he remains the best. Jackie, who died on Oct 11th 2004, aged 62, was one of the heroes of the 1965 championship-winning side and a club stalwart for over a decade. Yet his name will mean little to anyone under the age of 40. This article is a personal attempt to rectify that, for Jackie McGrory was as important a player for Kilmarnock as his sadly pre-deceased contemporaries Jim Baxter and Bobby Murdoch were for the Old Firm.

 McGrory started out playing either wing-half or inside-forward for Kilmarnock Amateurs and Dreghorn Juniors before being signed by Killie in May 1960 and converted to centre-half by manager Willie Waddell.

 First team opportunities were limited as the man in possession of the No. 5 shirt was Scottish international Willie Toner. Injuries to Toner and defensive partner Bobby Kennedy plus the unavailability through national service of regular back-up Pat O'Connor forced Waddell to make radical changes to his defence in a league match at Broomfield in November 1960.

Frank Beattie was moved from the right to the left-hand side of midfield and Jackie McGrory made his debut, ten days before his 19th birthday, in the heart of defence. It was the first outing for a pairing without which the League title would never have been won. But at the time it appeared as a makeshift selection which helped Killie to a 1-1 draw with Airdrie.

 Although the date was November 5th, it would be wrong to say Jackie's career started with a bang. Toner was back in position the next week and McGrory's only other outing that term came in a 1-0 away win over Third Lanark in March 1961.

 Chances were still few the next season. McGrory got a game at Tynecastle in the League Cup and made his Rugby Park debut in a 1-0 win over St Johnstone at the end of September 1961. But his career took a big step back in the following game when Killie were beaten 5-3 at Dens Park. Never mind that Dundee won the title that year. Never mind that Killie were one of five teams they scored five against. Never mind that Dundee put the same number past Rangers at Ibrox. Waddell prided himself on his team's defence. Someone had to pay for the defeat at Dens and that someone was McGrory.

 Waddell made the shock decision to move striker Andy Kerr to centre-half until Toner was able to return. It must have been a hard blow for the young McGrory to take but he returned to the reserves and waited for his chance to come again. He got a further three games under his belt in January 1962 and also appeared in the final match of the season - a 1-1 draw at Ibrox - but when 1962-63 opened, McGrory was still in the reserves.

 Suddenly it all took off for Jackie. Injury to Toner in the opening League Cup match gave him the breakthrough he had been waiting for. For the next 114 matches in League, Cup, League Cup and Europe the name of Jackie McGrory was pencilled in at centre-half. Between August 1962-December 1964 he didn't miss a game.

 Indeed over the next ten seasons he missed just thirteen league matches and five of those were due to contractual disputes with the club.

1962-63 proved to be yet another 'nearly' season for Kilmarnock. McGrory played in what was to be his only domestic Cup Final when Killie controversially lost the League Cup to Hearts - an equalising goal from Frank Beattie being ruled out for a 'handball' spotted by referee 'Tiny' Wharton but missed by 51,280 spectators, 22 players, both linesmen, the two benches, the entire bemused press box and TV crew, the ball-boys, the St Andrew's Ambulance and the vendors of the half-time pies!

 He also played in the Scottish Cup for the first time and experienced foreign opposition when Killie took on sides from England, Germany, Mexico, France, Italy and Brazil in a tournament in the USA.

 He was an ever-present in the League as he would be five times in all in the next seven seasons.

 It was so clear that he was the team's new defensive rock that Willie Toner, nearing the end of a distinguished career, was allowed to move on to Hibs.

 Killie had finished second in the league and they occupied the same position in 1963-64 when McGrory played in all 45 games in the three main competitions. There was very nearly another Hampden appearance but semi-final defeat by Dundee at Ibrox ended the Scottish Cup campaign.

 Jackie McGrory: A Killie legend

1964-65 saw the 'nearly men' tag finally dispelled as Killie won the title. On a personal level it was probably McGrory's finest season. He played his part on that famous night in September 1964 when - four goals down - Kilmarnock stormed back to beat Eintracht Frankfurt in the Fairs Cup. It was his free kick which allowed Jim McFadzean to bring Killie to within a goal of the Germans. As European debuts go it was the finest by any Scottish team.

 In the league Killie got off to a terrific start and had gone fifteen games unbeaten before McGrory finally succumbed to injury. They won the first match he missed but the absence of the commanding McGrory was felt keenly in the next game when they were beaten 5-1 at Cappielow.

 Fortunately, those were his only absences. McGrory returned to play a full part in the title chase and was outstanding on the final day of the season when Killie needed to beat Hearts by two clear goals at Tynecastle to wrest the championship from the Edinburgh side's grasp.

 Two up within half an hour, Killie had to weather a constant Hearts barrage. McGrory was immense, as indeed were his defensive partners Andy King, Matt Watson and Frank Beattie. So too was Eric Murray, frequently called back to help out, and young goalkeeper Bobby Ferguson. 

 Kilmarnock held on to win the title by 0.04 of a goal, the closest finish in Scottish footballing history. Rangers 'hairsbreadth' win over Celtic in 2003 was by a margin 25 times as great.

 McGrory's emergence as a top-class stopper had already been recognised by Scotland at Under-23 level but in 1964-65 he deservedly made the breakthrough to the full international team, making his debut in a World Cup qualifier at Hampden. Killie keeper Campbell Forsyth was also in the side which beat Finland 3-1. (Scotland? World Cup qualifier? Victory? Aye, those were the days). He kept his place, as did Forsyth, for the next game, again at Hampden, when the Scots recovered from an early setback when George Best scored, to beat Northern Ireland 3-2.

 But Scottish caps were hard to come by in that era. As rivals for the centre-half position, McGrory had to contend with the likes of Old Firm pair Billy McNeill and Ronnie McKinnon, Arsenal's Ian Ure, Liverpool's Ron Yeats and, latterly, Bobby Moncur of Newcastle. He made just one further appearance, in a 1-0 defeat at Hampden in 1966 by the fine Portugal side which finished third in that year's World Cup.

Opinions are subjective, of course, and those offered on this page are somewhat biased. But it is this writer's view that of all his rivals, only McNeill - by virtue of his leadership qualities and his ability to go forward and snatch vital goals - was McGrory's superior.

 Even so, it was a tremendous achievement for a player from Kilmarnock to force his way into the international reckoning and be ranked alongside men from Celtic, Rangers, Arsenal, Liverpool and Newcastle.

With the pre-Stein Celtic in decline in the early Sixties, Kilmarnock, under Waddell, were the main challengers to Rangers’ dominance of Scottish football. McGrory, who joined Killie from feeder side Kilmarnock Amateurs in 1960, followed Scottish internationalists Bobby Dougan and Willie Toner into the number five shirt, when Waddell flung the youngster, whom he had converted from a wing half or inside forward to a centre half, into the side in 1963. 


He was such an immediate success, Willie Toner was allowed to depart to Hibs and his young replacement quickly broke into the Scotland Under-23 side, before winning the first of his three caps, on 21 October, 1964, when Scotland, under manager Ian McColl, kicked off their qualification campaign for the 1966 World Cup Finals, with a 3-1 Hampden win over Finland. McGrory replaced Liverpool’s Ron Yeats who carried the can for a 3-2 Home International defeat from Wales, in Cardiff, 18 days before and the young Kilmarnock pivot held his place for the visit of Northern Ireland to Hampden on 25 November, Scotland winning 3-2. 

For the next international, against England, at Wembley, Celtic’s Billy McNeill was back, as skipper, and with centre halves of the quality of the Celtic man, Ian Ure, Yeats and Rangers’ Ronnie McKinnon vying for the Scotland team, it seemed McGrory’s international days were past. However, in the summer of 1966, John Prentice recalled him to win a third and final cap in a 1-0 Hampden defeat from Portugal.

Although well off by comparison with most of their peers, footballers weren't particularly highly paid in the 1960s. For winning the championship the Kilmarnock team earned the princely bonus of £169 per man - before tax!

 Compared to the average wage that equates to roughly £4,000 in today's money. That's not four grand a match. That's the end of season bonus for winning the title. For further comparison there are men languishing in the reserves at Ibrox and Parkhead who probably wouldn't get out of bed if that's all that was on offer as a weekly wage.

 Little surprise then that some were unhappy with their lot. And Jackie was one of them. A contractual dispute with the club led to him missing the sectional League Cup matches and the first two League games of 1965-66. More importantly, by the time agreement was reached and he eventually re-signed, he was ineligible for Europe.

It meant he missed out on the opportunity to test himself against Real Madrid and add the names of Puskas and Gento to the list of illustrious forwards he contended with over his career.

 After missing a couple of other matches through injury, McGrory set off on another lengthy run of appearances. From the beginning of April 1966 to the end of August 1969 he made 108 consecutive League appearances, including three seasons in succession to equal a similar feat by goalkeeper Alex Craig at the turn of the 20th century when fewer matches were played. The run was only brought to an end by another contract dispute.

 In 1966-67 he turned out 50 times as Killie enjoyed their finest European campaign, reaching the semi-finals of the Fairs Cup where a narrow defeat by Leeds United prevented them from joining the Old Firm in European finals that season. The home match with Leeds attracted 24,831, a record for a European match at Rugby Park.

1967-68 also saw him turn out in every match in all competitions, part of a run of 103 in succession. By now Jackie had succeeded Frank Beattie as captain and his influence inspired Kilmarnock to 4th in 1968-69, a position they wouldn't attain again for almost 30 years.

 Two matches in particular stand out from that season. In January 1969 the title race looked remarkably open. Killie, in fifth, took on Rangers, just one place above. Both were within striking distance of Celtic and Dundee United at the top. In an enthralling encounter the Ibrox side took the lead three times and three times Killie equalised. On the face of it not the best of games for defenders but this game had a sub-text. Rangers had smashed the Scottish transfer record two months previously when Colin Stein became the first £100,000 player in Scottish football following his move from Hibs and the new boy was on fire. 

 Stein had scored twelve times in eleven games and McGrory's task was to make sure he didn't add to that tally. Even though the game finished 3-3, McGrory was so successful that Stein didn't get a sniff of goal that day. So frustrated was the Rangers player that he lashed out at Killie's Tommy McLean, prompting full-back Billy Dickson to wade in on behalf of the diminutive winger with an assault that resulted in both Dickson and Stein being sent off. 

There were 32,893 spectators inside Rugby Park that day, the most that ground has ever held for a Scottish League match.

 The second occasion was less fiery. In April 1969, Kilmarnock marked their centenary with a match against old rivals Eintracht. Killie celebrated in style. Hugh Taylor, Killie fan and the foremost football journalist of the day, produced a new history of the club, STV's Bill Tennent introduced a host of stars from days gone by, including members of the Scottish Cup winning teams of 1920 and 1929 and while the usual civic dignitaries enjoyed their lunch, the ball-boys weren't forgotten, receiving souvenirs including a tie, a badge, a copy of the new book and an autographed team photo before having another picture taken with manager Walter McCrae and team captain McGrory.

It was a proud moment for Jackie as he led Killie to a 1-1 draw against a team containing players of the calibre of Jurgen Grabowski and Bernd Holzenbein.

Yet just a few months later it looked like his Killie career was over. Thirteen players - virtually the entire first team squad - demanded transfers at the outset of 1969-70, claiming that bonuses promised for European qualification hadn't been paid

 McCrae's reaction was to strip Jackie of the captaincy and drop him from the team. But although the dispute rumbled on till October before being settled, the manager relented after a poor start to the season and re-instated McGrory to the first team and as skipper.

It was the right move. McGrory's first match back was in a 3-2 defeat in Zurich in the Fairs Cup but his re-appearance helped inspire the side to easy and welcome wins over traditional rivals Ayr United and St Mirren before the second leg against the Swiss.

 With the game at Rugby Park goalless and half-time looming, McGrory made a rare foray into opposing territory. It was unusual to see Jackie in the opposition half let alone the penalty area. But that's where he found himself when he fired in a powerful header to put Killie 1-0 up on the night and ahead on the away goals rule.

 They went on to win 3-1 and reached the last 32 of the competition but Jackie's header was more than just the springboard for victory that night. In the 476 times he pulled a Kilmarnock jersey over his head, this was the first, last and only occasion that Jackie McGrory ever scored a goal!

 It was a privilege for the 9,593 supporters there to be able to say they were present on that unique occasion.


 Jackie's only goal in 476 games came against Zurich

Hopes of adding to his championship medal vanished in a Scottish Cup semi-final defeat by Aberdeen. But there was some compensation for Jackie when his outstanding form over several seasons was recognised by the fans who made him Killie's 'Player of the Year.'

 Although he missed just one League game in 1970-71, this wasn't a happy campaign for Jackie. Problems on and off the pitch resulted in Killie dropping into the bottom half of the table for the first time in fifteen years and Fairs Cup defeat by Coleraine compounded the misery.

 With Frank Beattie receiving a testimonial game, Jim McLean retiring, brother Tommy transferred to Rangers and players whose contracts expired being offered part-time terms there was the feeling that an era was coming to an end at Rugby Park.

 But Jackie McGrory, ever-reliable Jackie, was still on hand to remind Killie supporters of the great days of the past and to offer hope for the future. 1971-72 again saw the stalwart at his best. Killie had struggled to find a replacement for Beattie alongside McGrory in the heart of the defence. Hugh Strachan, 'Chopper' MacDonald and others had at times filled the gap but with Brian Rodman emerging as a fine stopper in his own right, at last McGrory had a regular partner once more.

 He missed just one of the 44 games played and helped inspire Killie on another Scottish Cup run. The campaign came to an end at Hampden in the semi-finals as Killie strove valiantly before succumbing 3-1 to Celtic. For Jackie this was the sixth time he had been on the losing side in a major semi-final. It was also to be the last.

1972-73 kicked off with Jackie one of just four remaining full-time players at Kilmarnock. With Parkhead undergoing refurbishment, Killie's season began at Hampden against Celtic. Sadly for Jackie this was to be his last first-team outing. He received an injury in that game which forced him to leave the field. It was the only occasion in his illustrious career that he was substituted.

 For a player who had remained largely injury-free over ten years it was a hard blow to take but Jackie refused to admit defeat. He tried to make a comeback in the reserves but a further injury at Dumbarton on November 11th 1972 proved to be the end of a remarkable career. It started on Bonfire Night and ended on Armistice Day.

 Amazingly, this magnificent club servant - the last of the 1965 side to leave Kilmarnock - was simply allowed to walk away from Rugby Park without recognition. As Kilmarnock slid towards relegation the name of Jackie McGrory vanished from view. Within weeks of retiring his name and seasonal details had even been removed from the match programme.

It was an ill-fitting end to the career of one of the greatest players ever to wear blue and white stripes.

 All told, Jackie McGrory played 476 first class matches for Kilmarnock, consisting of 336 Scottish League (all top division), 35 Scottish Cup, 59 League Cup, 20 Fairs Cup, 13 Summer Cup and 13 in the New York international tournaments. 

 How then to sum up Jackie McGrory to a generation which never saw him play? Perhaps those too young to remember Bobby Moore or Franz Beckenbauer will be familiar with tales of those players attributes or have seen them on grainy old film. The ability to read a game, positional sense, to know when to tackle and when to leave well alone, to gauge a jump to perfection, to head firmly and to pass accurately.

 I don't pretend he was of a comparable standard to those world-class legends but that was Jackie McGrory's game. There were no frills because he didn't need any. And few fouls because he didn't need those either. I won't say he was the best player I ever saw in Killie colours - that was Tommy McLean. Nor would I claim he was my favourite - a position reserved for Eddie Morrison. But I will say that Jackie McGrory wasn't far behind either of that pair. 

 He played against the best Scotland had to offer - at a time when Scotland had a lot to offer - and took on superstars like George Best and Eusebio as well. Not only did forwards rarely get the better of him, no matter how illustrious the opposition Jackie McGrory always looked as if he belonged on the same pitch as his opposite number.

 For over ten years his was a name that appeared on the Kilmarnock team sheet week in week out. A name that inspired those alongside him and guaranteed respect - as well as apprehension - amongst opponents.

 Perhaps the best way to sum him up is in the way we used to in the old covered terrace when “going in the middle” meant both a shelter from the rain and a place to sing lustily in praise of our heroes. Football fans show great ingenuity in adapting songs to suit their needs. None more so than when a piece of outdated, imperialistic claptrap was turned into a paean of praise to Jackie.

Just because it rhymed.

“Land of hope and glory
 Home of Kilmarnock FC
 We shall never be beaten
 On to victory

 Men like Jackie McGrory
 Boys like Tommy McLean
 Here in the west of Scotland
 We'll bring Ayrshire fame”

Men like Jackie McGrory. There's not many, we could do with more and, sadly, there's now one less.

Born: 15 November, 1941.

Died: 12 October, 2004, aged 62. 

Jackie McGrory 1941-2004 RIP

Jackie McGrory One-club man and hero of the Kilmarnock legions


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