When I followed the Heart of Midlothian around Scotland's bonnie football grounds (the word 'bonnie' must be taken on trust here) I was young and foolish enough to express my opinion regarding a players ability in a full and frank manner. Knowing what I was talking about did not appear to matter much. Ernie Winchester, who died on the 8th of May, was one such player.
Ernie began his long career with Aberdeen in 1962 and became something of a cult hero. A big strong centre forward he banged in seventy goals in a hundred and twenty four appearances. He then moved to the NASL and played for Chicago Spurs, who moved following the strange US franchise system to Kansas and became the Kansas City Spurs. He scored regularly there also. Then his life improved. From 1968 until 1972 Ernie achieved the greatest height any footballer can attain, he joined the Heart of Midlothian! Playing alongside the great Donald Ford for the most part Ernie offered a bustling heavyweight up front. As I recall he was not a great goalscorer for the Heart of Midlothian, instead many at the time decried him a carthorse, a waste of space and simply there to pose for the action shots of the photographers. This I recall was a general opinion at the time, however I note fans forums today have many claiming they 'always liked him.' Aye, right!
One Wednesday night we travelled through to Glasgow to play Rangers. Once again these so called 'Glasgow Giants' were going through a bad patch and a mere 13270 turned out. The 'loyal' are only 'loyal' when they are winning. Rangers one only one game in 13 during this spell, and it was this one! The bus I travelled on, being more sensible types than others, chose to stand in the enclosure for this game. Many Hearts fans did likewise and we were rewarded with a display of ineptitude that would grace an 'Idiots Anonymous' meeting. Withing 20 minutes we were two goals down and the fight left the side. After one hour in was 3-0 and half the players may well have died as they appeared to have disappeared. One vexation was being made well known in the vast, near empty arena. This mood was not lessened by the sight of Ernie Winchester, our one substitute in those days, warming up. As he ran up and down in front of where we stood we gave him hell. We made our thoughts clear that he was inept, the team poor, and as we were three nil down and the game entering the final ten minutes we wished him to retain his seat as we gave vent to our feelings that he would not change things. He heard every word.
With ten minutes remaining he entered the game. Almost immediately he galvanised the side and scored a goal! Four minutes later he enabled big Jim Irvine to score a second! The next six minutes of play, plus injury time, showed the entire Rangers team inside their own six yard box with almost the entire Hearts side desperate to get the equaliser! We cheered every move and almost expected to win let alone draw.
As the teams left the field those around me did not give much support to the players, we all felt ashamed, but were too macho to admit this. One of my football regrets is that I did not climb over the wall and apologise to Winchesters face. I still feel bad about that today, he deserved an apology. His attacking style did not change, but my appreciation of the man himself did. Then one day his luck changed. Jim Townsend, our midfield general, indicated to a Celtic player at a home match that he ought not to kick him. The referee took action, he sent Townsend off! This required altering the team and big Ernie moved into midfield where he was a revelation! It transpired that at heart he was a defender and had only become a forward at Aberdeen's then managers bidding. He continued from then on as an attacking midfielder, and one he left Heart he played centre half for Arbroath. He scored 14 goals in 75 games for the Hearts, but making some of us look fools was the best thing he ever did. They used to say 'Play the man' in spite of what others say or do to you, Ernie Winchester 'played the man' that miserable night at Ibrox and almost saved the game.
We need more like you in this world Ernie. RIP.
18 May 1944 - 8 May 2013