Gordon Whitelaw signed for St Johnstone in the summer of 1964 as Manager Bobby Brown looked to add much needed fire power to the forward line. I suspect that at that time no-one would have thought his career would blossom in the way that it did. After 9 seasons at Perth he is now of legendary status.
Saints had finished the 1963/64 season in 6th bottom position and whilst relegation had not been a major concern, what was a concern, was the lack of goals scored in the final weeks of that season.
So in July 1964 Gordon arrived at Muirton Park from Airdrie in a swap deal with Ken Brownlee going in the opposite direction. A very shrewd piece of business by the then Saints manager. Prior to his time at Airdrie, Gordon had started his career at Partick Thistle where he established a good playing relationship with Neil Duffy who some time later would also join up at Muirton Park.
Interestingly, Gordon had played at Muirton in 1963 in a Scotland Amateur International match against Wales and had also represented Scotland at basketball.
His first team debut for Saints would, unfortunately, be delayed for a few months as he sustained a bad ankle ligament injury playing for the reserves at Paisley in the first match of the season. A subsequent matchday programme commented that prior to his injury his play that day had been outstanding.
Gordon eventually regained full fitness and made his first start on 7th October 1964 against Rangers at Muirton Park. Rangers won 1 – 0 that Wednesday evening in front of 6,700 supporters.
The team that night was: – Harry Fallon, Charlie McFadyen, Willie Coburn, Bill McCarry, Ron McKinven, Willie Renton, John Flanagan, Jimmy Harrower, Gordon Whitelaw, Jim Kerray, Bobby Kemp.
During that first year he was mainly used at inside right or at centre forward.
Two highlights for me in games in which Gordon appeared were, firstly, against Dundee in the Scottish Cup at Muirton Park. A crowd of 17,000 saw Neil Duffy score a special goal in Saints 1 – 0 victory. The second, when the Whitelaw – Duffy partnership combined for Duffy to score the only goal in a League match with Celtic at Parkhead. Halcyon days.
In that first season (1964/65) Gordon made 26 appearances and scored 9 goals.
The following season would see his partnership with Duffy continue and when a young Alex MacDonald broke into the first team the name of Whitelaw was always beside his on the teamsheet. New arrivals Ian McPhee and Benny Rooney would be important in the future, as would Jimmy Donaldson making his first team debut that year. Bill McCarry and Willie Coburn were already firmly established. In Season 1965/66 Gordon made 28 appearances again scoring 9 goals.
The following campaign saw him emerge as a clinical goalscorer. In 40 starts he scored 20 goals and he alongwith John Kilgannon scored nearly half of the team’s total goals for that Season.
Another of these never to be forgotten highlights was on Christmas Eve 1966 when Saints travelled to Edinburgh to meet Hibernian in a League match at Easter Road. Saints form in the lead up this game was not good with no wins and only 1 draw recorded in the previous 6 matches. So when the news came through to Perth that Saints had won 5 – 2 it was a major surprise. Not only a win but Gordon Whitelaw had scored a hat trick. Brilliant.
The P.A. report headline states “Whitelaw Stars in Easter Road Triumph”
Ground conditions were extremely bad with hard frost and snow making the pitch slippery. However, this did not deter our hero who had chosen the correct boots for the surface and who took only 30 seconds to put Saints ahead. The P.A. further states “The man who opened the scoring – Gordon Whitelaw – far and away the man of the match, with a display of grafting and sharp-shooting which made one wish there had been a bigger Perth support to witness it.”
Gordon scored a further two goals that afternoon ( and hit the post in the last minute ) with Willie Coburn and Alex MacDonald adding the other two. Incidentally, Jim O’Rourke scored the Hibs second goal 5 minutes from time.
In February 1967 Bobby Brown would leave St Johnstone to take up the role of Manager of the Scotland International team and at the end of March Willie Ormond took over the vacant Manager’s position at Muirton Park.
Ormond’s first game in charge was a thriller against Rangers at Ibrox in which Saints finally went down 4 – 3. Scorers were Whitelaw and Aitken (2).
The team was: – Jimmy Donaldson, Drew Michie, Willie Coburn, Bill McCarry, Benny Rooney, Ian McPhee, Drew Johnston, Gordon Whitelaw, Tom Wilson, Jim Townsend, Fred Aitken. Sub: Alex MacDonald.
Season 1967/68 would start well and Gordon scored a hat trick in a 5 – 0 win over Queen’s Park at Hampden as Saints advanced to the semi finals of the League Cup. Dundee were the opponents at a neutral Tannadice. Gordon scored the opening goal but ultimately two own goals by the unfortunate George Miller would see this chance of Final glory pass as Saints went down 3 – 1. Somewhat ironically, the following Saturday, Saints trounced the ‘Dee 4 – 1 at Dens Park in the League!
Despite a bit of a struggle against relegation that year Saints also made it to the semi finals of the Scottish Cup where they were drawn against Dunfermline Athletic. The first match at Tynecastle ended in a 1 – 1 draw ( Not that I’m bitter but photographic evidence later showed that a Fred Aitken corner was clearly over the goal line but neither Referee Wharton nor his linesman saw it! ) so both sides were back in the Capital on the following Wednesday night. Again it was 1 – 1 after 90 minutes and after extra time during which Derek Robertson saved a penalty a very late goal gave the Pars a 2 – 1 passage to the Final. A great opportunity missed as Dunfermline went on to beat Hearts 3 – 1 at Hampden and win the Cup.
Gordon was on the bench for both of these matches coming on for Bill McCarry in the replay.
The final match of the Season was against Motherwell at Muirton when a young John Connolly made his debut and scored the only goal of the game. Who was his wing partner? Yes, you got it– Gordon Whitelaw.
Gordon would again finish the season as top scorer – one ahead of Alex MacDonald – with 15 goals from 39 starts plus 5 subs.
The 1968/69 season would see Saints finish in 6th place in the League. Sadly, it also saw Gordon sustain a serious knee injury in a Scottish Cup tie at East Stirling. Although he scored Saints goal that day in a 1 – 1 draw it was his final appearance for the Season. He did make 27 starts plus 1 sub and scored 9 goals. His absence, however, provided the opportunity for the Hall and Connolly partnership to flourish.
The first half of the 1969/70 Season saw the team virtually sweep away everything in front of them as Hall and Connolly ran riot scoring almost at will. Gordon had to be content with a place on the bench and, quite remarkably, had the number 12 shirt in 14 of the first 15 matches. Patiently, he waited his opportunity and when he did get a rare start, against Morton ( when he filled in for the injured Connolly ) he scored 2 goals and was man of the match in a 4 – 0 win.
The following Saturday, when the League Cup Final came along, he was back on the bench. He was, however, called upon to replace the injured Bill McCarry when “Buck” was forced to limp off with a badly cut knee. As Saints tried valiantly to get on level terms Gordon saw Fallon the Celtic keeper make a great save from his fierce shot. The game would end 1 – 0 to Celtic but Saints team that day deserved more. ( See my earlier blog for more details of this match ).
He started 13 matches, came on as sub in 6, and scored 5 goals.
In 1970/71 he was moved back into more of a midfield role and whilst only making 9 starts plus 3 subs he did play in the famous 2 – 0 win at Ibrox when Saints clinched 3rd place in the Division meaning that they qualified for Europe the following season. For the only time in his Saints career he did not score a single goal.
This move to midfield seemed to revive his career and he played an integral part in the UEFA Cup campaign in 1971/72. He started 5 of the 6 matches and scored a fabulous goal with a rocket shot in the 3 – 0 win over SV Hamburg at Muirton. Possibly the best night ever in Saints history. ( see my earlier blog on this match for fuller details ).
In that 1971/72 season he started 21 games plus 4 subs and scored 3 goals.
The 1972/73 Season would see Gordon start in only 3 matches before moving on to Raith Rovers.
His final Saints appearance on 2 September 1972 was at Tynecastle in a 1 – 0 loss to Hearts. Saints team was: – Jimmy Donaldson, John Lambie, Billy McManus, Andy Kinnell, Alex Rennie, Benny Rooney, Kenny Aird, Gordon Whitelaw, John Muir, Henry Hall, Fred Aitken. Sub Jim Pearson.
In total Gordon Whitelaw made 225 ( 206 + 19 ) appearances and scored 70 goals. He is 32nd in the Saints all time appearances list and 8th equal with Harry Ferguson and Joe Carr in the all time goalscorers list.
During his Saints career he was a stylish, skillful player, with a good temperament who knew where the goal was. He gave his all for the team wherever he was asked to play and clearly had a positive influence on the careers of many young players.
I had the privilege of watching him play and met him at a recent Saints function. He remains an extremely popular with both teammates and fans alike.
He still has a strong love for the club and, in my view, is one of the “Great Saints” – a true legend.