Back in the late 1880s, a player called R W (Bob) Mackie turned out for Montrose FC and he was the first of that side to turn professional when he signed for Newcastle West End in about 1890. There were no full time footballers in those days and Mackie tried his hand at a number of jobs before becoming a journalist, the career he followed virtually up until his death in 1957, aged 88. One of the tales he was fond of telling was as much about superstition as football.
Bob was waiting for his train at Waverley Station one afternoon when he was hailed by two friends. One was a Montrose born journalist and the other, the then Hibernian and Scotland goalkeeper, Harry Rennie.
Rennie had started his footballing career playing as a half-back in junior football in Greenock before eventually finding that he had a natural talent as a goalkeeper, the position in which he won 13 Scottish caps and a Scottish Cup winnerâ€™s medal.
But there was much more to Rennie than just his ability. He was among the first, possibly because of his training as an engineer, to consciously apply technical aspects such as angles and positioning to his craft. Always keen to try out something different, he is also said to have on occasion played up field in front of his full backs, a tactic that apparently led to the laws of the game being revised.
Bobâ€™s fellow journalist announced that he had brought Harry to meet another friend of his, Billington, the hangman. Unfortunately, in recounting his story, Bob gave no clue as to the year or even to the actual identity of Billington, saying only that he was coming from Inverness. This makes it difficult to identify the individual involved, as hanging was something of a family business for the Billingtons. James Billington, well known as a hangman, was followed into the â€˜professionâ€™ by his three sons, Thomas, William and John.
The writerâ€™s efforts to trace a hanging in the Highland capital during Rennieâ€™s career have unfortunately come to nought so the visit may not have been professional. What is certain however is that both James and Thomas Billington were dead by 1901 and 1902 respectively, William is reputed to have retired from his grim work in 1905 and John died in the same year.
As the express train came to a stop at the platform, one of the group spotted Billington sitting in one of the first class compartments. There, in Bobâ€™s words, â€œsat a dapper wee man, wearing a bowler hat – a man who didnâ€™t look as if he could hang a mouse.â€
Whichever member of the family it was, according to Bob, he knew his football and enjoyed the company of many of the top football players of the time. So understandably, he was delighted to add Harry Rennie to his list of acquaintances.
Soon Rennie and Billington were engaged in conversation, with the goalkeeper telling the hangman how Hibs were going through a particularly bad spell. The team had a lot of skill but somehow werenâ€™t getting the rub of the green that was needed to win matches. In fact, such was their run of bad form that they were in danger of relegation.
When the time came for the two to say goodbye, Billington gave him a coin saying, â€œHere you are Rennie, take the hangmanâ€™s lucky penny to bring the Hibernian club good luck.â€
Harry Rennie left with the penny, convinced that the teamâ€™s luck was now bound to change.
And change it did â€“ for the worse. The Clubâ€™s poor run of form continued until the team were at the bottom of the League with relegation to the Second Division looking a distinct possibility.
Relating this tale years later, Bob Mackie gave no clue as to the date and it may be that by then he was unsure as to when the events actually took place. It would appear however from Hibsâ€™ League records that season 1905-06 was the likeliest to fit the bill. During the early part of that season Hibs spent a number of weeks at the bottom of the League, only rising from their basement spot in November 1905.
Anyway, after yet another defeat, Harry left the dressing room and threw the â€˜lucky pennyâ€™ out of the ground. Even as he did so he somehow felt relieved within himself. His own form had been slipping of late and, unbeknown to him, the Directors, who, in those far off days selected the team, had been considering dropping him altogether.
As he left the ground that day he saw a halfpenny lying on the ground. He picked it up, thinking it might just be the talisman he needed to replace the hangmanâ€™s penny which seemed to have brought nothing but bad luck.
Whether it was the change of coin or perhaps just the change in the goalkeeperâ€™s thinking, we’ll never know, but from the following Saturday the Clubâ€™s fortunes changed dramatically. They won that day and proceeded to win most of their remaining games, drew some but more importantly lost only a couple so that they slowly climbed up the league table to safety.
Harry Rennie won the last of his caps in 1908, the year he joined Rangers. He died in 1954, a football star who had brought technique to the art of goalkeeping yet still believed in the powers of a lucky halfpenny.