Obituary: Matt Gillies

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The Independent Culture
MATT GILLIES was as seminally important to Leicester City during the 1960s as were his famous fellow Scots Matt Busby and Bill Shankly to Manchester United and Liverpool.

Certainly both held Gillies in immense esteem and believed he had deserved better than his single 1964 League Cup triumph with the unfashionable Foxes, so inspired was his work. Indeed, Gillies transformed Leicester from a club which had yo-yoed dizzily between the First and Second Divisions during the second half of the 1950s into one of the elite flight's more solid citizens.

Apart from that one trophy success, between 1961 and 1967 there were four top-eight League finishes, the first European foray in the club's history, FA Cup Final appearances in 1961 and 1963 and a second League Cup Final outing in 1965. This was a rapturously impressive record.

In personality, Gillies resembled the stately Busby more closely than the abrasively excitable Shankly. Gentlemanly, unassuming and a silver-tongued diplomat, he rejoiced in the respect of most players, possessing the priceless knack - from Leicester's viewpoint - of deflecting wage demands with pure charm, footballers left his office with smiles but with little extra in their pockets.

He was a shrewd judge of raw talent, too, a gift illustrated most vividly by his assessment of the rookie Frank McLintock. After an inconclusive trial, the club was about to reject the scrawny, Gorbals-raised teenager, but Gillies saw something in him others had missed. McLintock stayed and matured into one of Leicester's most influential performers, going on to star for Arsenal.

Gillies was a canny operator in the transfer market, his most vaunted transaction being the pounds 7,000 acquisition of Gordon Banks, a youthful goalkeeper destined for greatness, from Chesterfield in 1959. There were other bargains, notably the Scottish play-maker Davie Gibson and the winger Mike Stringfellow, but he was not afraid to invest boldly, either, as he proved by paying Fulham a British record pounds 150,000 fee for the marksman Allan Clarke in 1968.

Indeed, Gillies was never less than decisive. For instance, in 1961 he astounded the soccer world by axing his prolific centre-forward, Ken Leek, for the FA Cup Final meeting with mighty Spurs, opting instead to field the inexperienced Hugh McIlmoyle. Six years later his faith in the unproven Peter Shilton prompted him to sell the world's best goalkeeper, Banks, to Stoke City. Shilton went on to play more League games and make more appearances for England than anyone in the history of the game. Finally, Gillies even left Leicester on a point of principle, resigning after the board had sacked his trusted coach, Bert Johnson, following a lean spell of results which was to culminate in relegation.

Though Gillies spent his working life in football, in his teens he was bent on a career in medicine. His studies were interrupted by war and he became a navigator in RAF Bomber Command. Meanwhile he had emerged as a promising half-back and served Motherwell as an amateur before signing for Bolton Wanderers in 1942. After the conflict he broke into the Trotters' senior side at right half, then became a reliable centre-half and captain before losing out to younger men.

In January 1952 Gillies joined Leicester for pounds 9,500 and was the regular stopper in the side that lifted the Second Division Championship in 1954. His playing days drew to a close during the subsequent disappointing First Division campaign and in 1956, after contemplating a future in physiotherapy, he turned to coaching.

Then, when David Halliday vacated the boss's chair in November 1958, Gillies became caretaker manager, accepting the job permanently two months later. Working closely with Bert Johnson, he turned around the fortunes of the struggling First Division outfit, his success based on a formidably sound defence.

The team reached its peak in 1962/63 when, for a time, there was a possibility of the hallowed League and FA Cup double, and Leicester were favourites to win the Wembley meeting with Manchester United. The following season brought compensation with a two-legged League Cup Final victory over Stoke, and City came close to retaining the trophy in 1964/65, being beaten by Chelsea in the final after that. Gillies' Foxes remained splendidly competitive until 1968/69, when a poor start to the season precipitated Johnson's dismissal and the manager's departure.

Towards the end of his Filbert Street tenure Gillies had become careworn and many were surprised when he took charge of Nottingham Forest, then struggling near the foot of the First Division - though he remained at the City Ground for nearly four years, it proved an unhappy reign. The club seemed intent on selling its best players, the replacements proved inadequate and they were relegated in 1971/72. In October 1972, with Forest doing poorly in the Second Division, Gillies resigned. It was a sadly anti-climactic ending to an accomplished career.

Matthew Muirhead Gillies, footballer and manager: born Loganlea, West Lothian 12 August 1921; played for Bolton Wanderers 1942-52, Leicester City 1952-56; managed Leicester City 1958-68, Nottingham Forest 1969-72; married (one son, one daughter); died Nottingham 24 December 1998.