Willie Cunningham 1964-67
After taking over as manager, Jock Stein recognised the need for an experienced player with whom he could work in bringing a more professional approach to the club, share his enthusiasm for new ideas and tactics and then bring them to fruition on the pitch. Using his personal friendship with Leicester City manager Matt Gillies, Stein made what was perhaps his most significant signing - Willie Cunningham.
Born in Mallusk, County Antrim on 20th February 1930, Willie moved to Scotland as a teenager and played juvenile football with Renfrew Waverley before stepping up to the juniors with Tranent and Ardrossan Winton Rovers, from whom St. Mirren signed him in October 1948.After National Service, he became a first-team regular and earned the first of thirty caps for Northern Ireland in March 1951. His defensive abilities attracted the attention of Leicester City, who signed him in December 1954 for a fee of £4,750. Leicester were relegated at the end of that season but went on to lift the Second Division title in 1956/57 with Willie establishing himself in the Northern Ireland side. He went on to play for his country in the 1958 World Cup Finals where they reached the quarter-finals.
Willie was growing increasingly unhappy at Filbert Street and, following a spell out of the team, Stein moved in and paid £1,850 to bring him back to Scotland. Immediately appointed captain, Willie was a key member of the 1961 Cup winning team but nowhere was his influence felt more strongly than in Europe, where he became the first player in Scotland to perform as sweeper, a tactic that Dunfermline used very successfully.
While at East End Willie gained three caps, becoming the first Pars player since Andy Wilson to gain international recognition. When injury finally brought an end to his playing career he was already doing coaching work at the club and Stein had no hesitation in handing him a full-time position.
When Stein left in the spring of 1964, Willie was seen as the ideal replacement, a decision that was entirely vindicated over the next three seasons. In his first full season, the Pars should have won the league title; a draw against St. Johnstone in the penultimate match ensured that they finished one point behind champions Kilmarnock. There was further heartbreak in the Scottish Cup Final when Celtic came from behind to win 3-2.
Willie's record of 89 wins and 34 draws from 162 competitive matches (excluding the Summer Cup) makes him, statistically at least, Dunfermline's most successful manager although this doesn't really get across the quality of the team's play under him.
After a spell of ill health, Willie resigned in 1967, totally disillusioned with the game. However, he subsequently took over at Falkirk in October 1968 and was so highly regarded that, in 1971, he became the first non-Scot to be offered the job of Scotland manager. He declined and returned to his first club, St. Mirren, the following year, recommending Alex Ferguson as his successor when he finally quit the game in 1974.
Before retirement he ran a sports shop in Dunfermline and living close to McKane Park followed the fortunes of the local rugby and cricket teams until his death on 31st August 2007.
Sir Alex Ferguson's Tribute to Willie Cunningham
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