Capped by England at schoolboy and youth level, Willie started his career at Liverpool as a 16-year-old. He signed professional forms at Anfield in May 1958 and made his debut five months later. After leaving Anfield in 1962, he went on to make 445 appearances in all four divisions of the Football League, playing for Halifax Town, Carlisle United, Sheffield United, Derby County, Leicester City, Notts County and Cardiff City.
Speaking from his home in Derbyshire, Willie began by referring back to his schoolboy days in Liverpool: “I couldn’t believe I was picked for England Schoolboys. Each city, like Manchester or Liverpool, could only nominate two players for the England Boys trials.
"Liverpool’s left-back was brilliant and then I got through as an outside left, although I’d never played there! When our trainer told me I’d been picked, I didn’t believe him. He told me to buy a newspaper and when I did, I saw that the outside-left was J. Carlin. So I said: ‘That’s not me. I’m not J. Carlin.’
“When I was at school the next day, the headmaster said: ‘Congratulations! You are playing for England!’ I told him it wasn’t me who had been picked, it is a J. Carlin. Anyway he phoned up and then said: ‘No, you’re playing at Wembley at outside-left! We played Scotland and were beaten 2-1. David Gaskell (who played for Manchester United against Leicester City in the 1963 FA Cup Final) was in the side.”
Willie continued: “I went part-time rather than sign on at Liverpool as an apprentice, my parents said I had to have a trade. My dad didn’t want me to end up on the docks like he had, so I had six years on a building site, unlike my mates, who were apprentices.
“The greatest of these was a lad called Ian Callaghan (who went on to become a Liverpool legend and an England international). He was about 14 months younger than me. We both lived in Tower Gardens in Dingle, he went everywhere with me. Then, when I was at Liverpool, I got a phone call asking me what Callaghan was doing now.
"By that time, being at Liverpool had got me out of Tower Gardens. I was living in a lovely house with all my family in the country. So I went down to see his family and told them that Liverpool wanted Ian to go training with them on Tuesday and Thursday nights like me. His parents were made up but he never turned up.
After we’d been promoted, we beat Liverpool 4-0 at Anfield on a Bank Holiday. All my Liverpool supporting family went, they couldn’t believe it. After the game I went to this big pub outside Anfield. My family were there and wouldn’t speak to me!Willie Carlin
“So I went down to where he lived and took him to Melwood (Liverpool’s training ground). Just as we got to the gates, he started crying saying he wanted to go home. I got him by the neck and took him into Melwood and told him: ‘What’s wrong with you. Get in there! Stop messing around. You’re here now.’ I was a little git and he was a lovely lad. I looked after him. He went onto play over 850 games for Liverpool!
“I played two games for Liverpool, at outside right. I was no good as an outside-right and when Cally (Callaghan) came in, I was knocked back to the reserves.”
In August 1962, Willie signed for Third Division Halifax Town. That season saw the worst winter in Britain since 1740. The icy conditions caused a massive number of games to be postponed. The third round of the FA Cup took over two months to complete. Halifax Town weren’t able play their home games for three months. The pitch at their Shay Ground was so frozen, the club turned it into an ice rink for the public, charging people to use it.
“It was awful,” Willie continued. “The bad weather meant that there were no games played. I was top scorer in my second season there but that was because no one else could play, apart from me and Don McEvoy, the manager. We were relegated from the Third Division.
“Luckily, Alan Ashman, Carlisle’s manager, came in for me (in October 1964). It was the finest thing that ever happened to me.”
Willie spent three seasons at Carlisle. The Blues were promoted as Third Division champions at the end of Willie’s first season, more than held their own in the second tier the following season and then missed promotion to the top flight by one place in the season after that. One of Willie’s team-mates at Carlisle was the future Leicester City cult hero, the centre-forward, Frank Large.
“He was unbelievable,” Willie remembered. “He was a smashing lad. Really and truly, a good lad.”
Willie’s next move was to top-flight Sheffield United in October 1967, where a team-mate was Alan Birchenall, until his move to Chelsea a month later.
“John Harris signed me, he was a gentleman," Willie continued. "They had a really first-class set of players, like Alan Hodgkinson, Lenny Badger, Tony Currie, Alan Woodward and Tony Wagstaff. The players had great individual skills. The trouble was that some of them were kids from Sheffield and after a match they were in the pubs and the clubs. It was a shame because a lot of those lads could have really made it, I learned a lot from that.
“In those days, Bramall Lane only had three sides - the fourth side opened out to the cricket ground. If we were winning 1-0 we just kicked the ball into the cricket ground!”
At the end of Willie’s first season at Sheffield United, John Harris became general manager and in August 1968, Arthur Rowley, who had scored 265 goals for Leicester City between 1950 and 1958, became team manager.
He added: “I would have left anyway because of an offer I got from Cloughy (Derby County manager, Brian Clough). He’d been tracking me since he’d been manager at Hartlepool when I was at Carlisle, but I’d told him that there was no way I was going to Hartlepool.
“John Harris told me that he wanted to see me at Bramall Lane. When I got there, he told me Cloughy was there. Then he said: ‘Oh, you’re going to Derby!‘ I told him I wasn’t and that I was going to buy a house in Sheffield because my family was still in Carlisle. Cloughy was in the office. I knocked on the door, went in and Clough said, even though he knew I was going to buy a house: ‘You’re coming to Derby with me.’
“What had happened was that Arthur, who had just been appointed as team manager, had told Cloughy that he was getting rid of me. I realised I had to go, so I went to Derby.”
Willie was at the Baseball Ground for just over two seasons (August 1968 until November 1970). In his first season, the Rams were second tier champions and, the following season, they finished fourth in the old First Division behind Everton, Leeds United and Chelsea.
“Cloughy was fantastic,” Willie recalled. “He’d just brought in Dave Mackay (the Scotland international who’d had trophy-laden spells at Heart of Midlothian and Tottenham Hotspur). Everyone respected him, he could talk on the pitch. We looked after him on the pitch and Roy McFarland, who was about 21, played alongside him.
“After we’d been promoted, we beat Liverpool 4-0 at Anfield on a Bank Holiday. All my Liverpool-supporting family went, they couldn’t believe it! After the game I went to this big pub outside Anfield. My family were there and wouldn’t speak to me!”
Frank was a gentleman, not like the other fellow, Cloughy! You had to take notice of Cloughy otherwise you’d get your head knocked! He was brilliant.Willie Carlin
In October 1970, Frank O’Farrell signed Willie for Leicester City, who had just missed promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt in 1970, finishing third. O’Farrell also signed another midfielder, Bristol City’s Bobby Kellard, who sadly died earlier this year.
O’Farrell referred to Willie, who is 5ft 4in tall, as his ‘little street fighter’.
He knew that Leicester had some very good players but he felt they were a bit quiet and lacked nastiness. He wanted Willie and Bobby Kellard, with their energetic and combative midfield play, ‘to provide a different mix’ by adding aggression and competitiveness to the side.
This pragmatic approach worked. City returned to the top flight as the 1971 Second Division champions.
“I got a phone call from Frank about moving to Leicester,” Willie recalled. “But I’d reached an age where my kids were at school and I wanted to stay living in Derby. By this time, though, Cloughy had brought in Archie Gemmill to take over from me, so I moved to Leicester, but I had to travel every time from Derby and it wasn’t good.
“Bobby was good to play with, he was a good lad. The Leicester lads were too nice! I sometimes felt some of them were a bit too easy going once the game was over. I felt that they didn’t worry enough about the game, but we did well and I got another promotion under my belt.
“Frank was a gentleman, not like the other fellow, Cloughy! You had to take notice of Cloughy otherwise you’d get your head knocked! He was brilliant.”
The Foxes returned to the top flight in 1971 as Second Division Champions.
Following promotion, O’Farrell was appointed to the manager’s post at Manchester United. He was replaced by Leyton Orient’s manager, the ex-Arsenal star Jimmy Bloomfield, who brought in Jon Sammels, Alan Birchenall and Keith Weller.
“Frank had to take the Manchester United job, didn’t he?” said Willie. “Jimmy came in, but then (in September 1971) Jimmy Sirrel signed me for Notts County. There were a lot of young lads there and, after just missing promotion to the Second Division in 1972, we won promotion in 1973.”
In November 1973, Willie moved to his last club, second tier Cardiff City, managed by O’Farrell.
“I was promised a coaching job at Cardiff and I found a house for the family to move into. But then O’Farrell left and I was left on my own, living all week in a hotel, with my family back in Derby. So I just said: ‘I’ve had enough of this'. I went home and that was it. That was the end of my playing career.
“A pal of mine got me a newsagent’s job in Melbourne and then I opened a bar in Majorca. I had all the football photographs up. I was there for about 15 years. It was unbelievable. My lad Matt grew up there, he loved it. Then, I came back to Derbyshire and I worked again as a newsagent before I retired.”
It was a pleasure talking to Willie. His tenacious, combative and aggressive performances alongside Bobby Kellard in the impressive Second Division title-winning season of 1971 are an important part of Leicester City’s folklore and history.
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