Kevin Muscat’s assault on Melbourne Heart’s Adrian Zahra has seen the wild man of Australian football banned for eight games but left some commentators wondering what he needs to do to be banned for life. The term sine die is not heard too often these days but the last professional footballer to be banned for life in the UK was Glasgow Ranger’s Captain William ‘Willie’ Woodburn.
Willie Woodburn is a footballer who will forever be associated with the term sine die. A player, who amassed only four red cards in his career, was made an example of by the parochial Scottish Football Association when they suspended him for life.
To understand the circumstances behind Woodburn’s sine die ban, let us take a look back at the man’s career and ask how he came to be banned for life from the game he loved. Not wanting to sound all ‘This is your Life’ but William Woodburn was born in Edinburgh on 8 August 1919. Willie or ‘Big Ben’ as he was known to his teammate, was a 6 ft central-half, who signed for Rangers from Musselburgh Athletic in October 1937, making his debut the following year in a 2-2 draw in a league game against Motherwell.
His first of four championship medals followed the following year in 1939, just before World War II broke out. The war took six years off Woodburn’s career as he was mainly consigned to Ranger’s second string team (Rangers, along with other bigger clubs, were allowed to field two teams during the war).
After the war, Willie initially struggled to break into the Rangers first team on a regular basis but still managed to appear in the first ever Scottish League Cup Final in 1947, which saw Rangers beat Aberdeen 4-0. 1947 was also the year Woodburn received a 14-day ban for a clash with Motherwell’s Dave Mathie.
After serving his suspension Woodburn returned to the Rangers first team and became part of the defence which was known, in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s along with Bobby Brown, George Young, Jock Shaw, Ian McColl and Sammy Cox, as the Iron Curtain. Woodburn helped Rangers to four Scottish League titles, four Scottish Cups and two League Cups, including a domestic treble in 1948/49.
In 1953, Woodburn received a 21-day ban for punching Clyde striker Billy McPhil. Later that same year Woodburn was sent off for the third time in his career, after being expelled against Stirling Albion. The clubs were to meet again 1954, in a League Cup tie with disastrous consequences for Woodburn. Woodburn, playing with a knee injury, took exception to a challenge and retaliated by head-butting a Stirling player.
What happened next was unprecedented, the SFA convened a disciplinary hearing the following month, and the panel decided, taking just four minutes, to suspend Woodburn sine die. While many in the Scottish game at the time expected a lengthy ban, no one was prepared for a sine die suspension. The decision was only reached with the casting vote by the chairman of the referee’s committee, John Robbie of Aberdeen.
Supported by the Scottish Player’s Union, Woodburn had the option to take his case to the courts but declined to do so, mistakenly believing the SFA would rescind the ban. They did eventually rescind the ban, but not until three years had passed, by that time Woodburn was 37-years old and perhaps having lost some of his passion for game, decided to retire.
Woodburn was known as a hard player, who could certainly tackle with force but always did so fairly, he was no hatchet. He was a player whose skills as a ball-playing centre-half, who when under pressure would prefer to play his way out of trouble rather than kick his way out.
His fierce temper was also known but for the most part it would be directed at his teammates, particularly goalkeeper, Bobby Brown, when a goal was conceded. It is telling that none of his bans were for bad tackles but rather for Woodburn failing to control his temper
The SFA clearly wanted to make an example of Woodburn, perhaps to scare other players into cleaning up their act, but there is no doubt Woodburn’s draconian punishment was harsh.
Still four sending off’s in a 17-year career, the first not coming until Woodburn was 29, is not by any means a terrible disciplinary record. Tommy Finney, England international, who played against Woodburn in many England/Scotland games, called the ban a ‘great injustice’.
Woodburn ended his career having made 216 league appearances for Rangers, scoring twice, while he also turned out for Scotland on 24 occasions.
Since Woodburn’s sine die no other professional footballer has had to suffer the infamy of being banned for life.
So all in all, Kevin Muscat can count himself lucky he wasn’t a footballer in 1950’s Scotland otherwise he would have been banned sine die.