He was a last-minute replacement for Ken Leek, who was controversially dropped on the eve of the final. Today, Hugh lives in Carlisle, where he is so highly regarded that a statue of him has been erected outside United’s Brunton Park ground.
He started by explaining his background: “When I left school at 15, like most people where I come from, I went into the Greenock shipyards and I finished up as a ship painter and decorator. The shipyards were a big thing then but now there is nothing there at all. When I was 19, whilst I was playing with a local team called Port Glasgow Rovers, this fellow came up, said he was a scout from Leicester City and asked if I would like to go down there for a trial. I was a bit taken aback! He then came to our home to talk to my family, as well as seeing the manager of my local team.
“In July 1959, I went to Leicester for a fortnight and stayed in a little hotel on New Walk. I trained with the B team, who played in the local league. There was also a third team, the reserve team and then the 1st team so when you were training there were about 30 of us.
“After the fortnight’s trial the manager, Matt Gillies, said he would like to sign me on. I was really homesick. I’d never really been outside Port Glasgow. So he told me to go back home, have a chat with my parents, come back down to Leicester, and if I was still homesick at Christmas, to go back home and he would fix me up with a Scottish Club. So I went down to Leicester again in August. The first game I played was against Hinckley, in the third team. Luckily for me, I went into digs at Mr and Mrs Marvin’s house with three other young players. One was John Sjoberg from Aberdeen, and another was Ian White from Glasgow. I settled down with them. When I came to Leicester about half of their players were Scottish.
“I also got friendly with Frank McLintock from Glasgow, Jackie Lornie from Aberdeen and Dave Agnew who went to Notts County so there were plenty of Scots people to help me settle down.
“Growing up, it had never entered my head to be a professional footballer. When I first went down in 1959, the team playing then had the likes of Dave McLaren, Joe Baillie, Willie Cunningham, Tommy McDonald and John Ogilvie. I remember during my trial period training up at Saffron Lane and I had a couple of games to see what I could do. I played against John Ogilvie, who was playing at centre-half. Looking back, I am sure he let me go by him because we were both Scottish and he knew I was on trial.
Leicester City are greeted by royalty ahead of the final.
“Within about six months all these players had gone, replaced by players like Gordon Banks, Len Chalmers, Richie Norman, Frank McLintock, Ian King, Colin Appleton, Howard Riley, Jimmy Walsh, Ken Keyworth, Albert Cheesebrough and Gordon Wills.”
Hugh graduated to the reserve team, where he became top scorer in 1960/61 with 19 goals in 20 games. His first team debut was in April 1961 against West Ham United. Newspaper reports said that on his debut, he was calm, had poised running, challenged with much spirit, produced a mature display, and had first-class distribution and positioning.
Modestly, Hugh recalls: ‘‘I remember my first team debut against West Ham, especially as I scored my first goal in that game! My goal was a simple goal. The goalkeeper pushed the ball out in front of me about two or three yards from goal and I put it in. You never forget your first goal. I think we beat them 5-1. They had a young left-half playing called Geoff Hurst.”
Including his debut game, Hugh had a run of seven matches in the four weeks leading up to the 1961 FA Cup Final against Tottenham Hotspur, scoring four goals. A newspaper report during this this time said that to deserve his place back in the Leicester team, the injured Ken Leek would have to play very well indeed as Hugh was performing well with 'sound linking'.
In the event, Leek, who had scored in every round of the FA Cup leading to the Wembley final, was sensationally dropped, for reasons which still haven’t been made public over half a century later.
There was a comedian and some speeches, but nobody was bothered about it. It was as flat as a pancake. That’s how we felt. It’s easier nowadays for a player to get to play at Wembley, but in those days, it was a one in a million chance.Hugh McIlmoyle
Hugh took his place: “I never thought I’d replace Ken. He had scored in every game up the final and then was dropped just before the final which is why I played. You hear all sorts of stories and rumours as to why he was dropped. It never entered my head that I would be playing. We were training on the Thursday before the final. Gillies came out whilst we were training. He was always smartly dressed, as if he had just come out of a Burton Menswear window. He very rarely watched us training. He called Leek over. You could see them in conversation and then Ken cleared off down the tunnel and we were all wondering what had happened. Then he called me over and told me I was playing in the final on Saturday! You can imagine how felt. That was it. Ken later went to Newcastle. I saw him and played against him quite a few times later on in both of our careers. He later went to Birmingham and Northampton. He was a hell of a nice fellow. He used to take the micky out of me because I was Scottish but I didn’t accept that because he was Welsh!”
Hugh remembers the cup final very clearly: “Events happened too quickly for me to be nervous. I must admit, though, coming out onto the pitch and standing there before the game was a bit nerve-racking. For a normal game, you just ran onto the pitch, warm up don’t look at the crowd, but at Wembley when you walk out there is just a big roar and you can’t avoid looking at the fans. You then stand in a line and get introduced to royalty. I must admit, I was a bit nervous then. If I’d just run out as normal I would have been okay.
“Len Chalmers (City’s right-back) was chopped down and had a bad injury early on, but Spurs were such a good team, it would have been hard enough even if we had 11 men. There were no substitutes in those days. Playing with 10 men changed the whole outlook on the game. McLintock went to full back, and Riley more or less played in the half-back line. We did okay but once they had scored their first goal, 20 minutes from the end, that was it. We were tired. I had a couple of chances, which, on a normal day, I would have taken.
“After the game, it was complete disappointment. We went to some big posh hotel (The Dorchester). There was a comedian and some speeches, but nobody was bothered about it. It was as flat as a pancake. That’s how we felt. It’s easier nowadays for a player to get to play at Wembley, but in those days, it was a one in a million chance.”
At the beginning of the next season, Hugh started in the side but by the end of the season, had gone to Rotherham United.
He added: “In those days, the Club was very strict. If you stepped out of line, like Ken Leek had, no matter who you were, off you went. Centre-half Tony Knapp was the same. He stepped out of line and was sold. It happened to me. My brother was getting married in Scotland and he suggested, as I was getting married, to make it a double wedding. I agreed. I asked the manager for a couple of days off for this wedding. He just looked at me. He didn’t laugh. He told me that I couldn’t get married during the football season. He said: ‘You go up and do what you want, but if you do, you will be finished here.’ I couldn’t tell my brother to cancel the double wedding, so I went to Scotland, got married and came back the next day. I never got spoken to again and that was it. It was January or February time and that was me finished. It was hanging over me for the rest of the season. I was dropped down to the reserves. Nothing like that would happen today. All I wanted to do was play football.
“It was so strict that we weren’t supposed to ride a bike as a player, so a couple of players would come down on their bikes and put them in the café just across the road at Filbert Street. Very few players had cars in those days. You had to be smartly dressed. You had to have a collar and tie at all times.
Hugh McIlmoyle statue
Hugh's statue in Carlisle, outside United's stadium.
“I signed for Rotherham in July 1962, but the manager of Rotherham, who had signed me on the Friday, went to manage Grimsby Town on the Monday! The reserve team manager took over and he wanted to bring all these youngsters through. Then we had that bad winter of 1962/63. We hardly played. Carlisle were interested and I more or less signed for them there and then in March 1963. I played my first game against Notts County, whose strikers were Jeff Astle and Tony Hateley! We won 4-2 and I scored. When I went to Carlisle I felt that I was at home. The football was brilliant. In 1963/64, I scored 44 league and cup goals for them. They gave me a clock to commemorate this at the end of the season and I have just had it mended, 50 years later.”
Between 1964 and 1975, Hugh also played for Wolverhampton Wanderers, Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Preston and Greenock Morton, (the local club Hugh used to support as a boy) as well as having two more spells at Carlisle.
He concluded: “When I finished playing, I didn’t want to coach or manage. I came back to Leicester and got a job at Walkers Crisps for 22/23 years.
“I always had it in mind to come back to Carlisle when I retired. We moved back up here 13 years ago. A builder called Fred Story took over the Club and he wanted to put a statue of me outside the ground because of what I had achieved at the Club.
“I remember him picking me up and driving to North Yorkshire for a fellow to take an outline of me for the statue. Whenever we pass it on match day, my wife always rubs the statue’s boot!”
Today Hugh is still living in Carlisle, and has written a weekly football column for The Cumberland News.
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