Northern Ireland

Deep love for local football team sustains Co Armagh centenarian

Never mind Cristiano Ronaldo, forget Lionel Messi, Hilbert Willis, 100, would rather watch his own Loughgall FC.

Centenarian Hilbert Willis at Lakeview Park home of Loughgall Football Club
Centenarian Hilbert Willis at Lakeview Park home of Loughgall Football Club (Liam McBurney/PA)

A deep love for his local football team has sustained a Co Armagh centenarian to his 100th year.

Hilbert Willis has devotedly followed Loughgall Football Club all his life, serving as groundsman for 30 years and as chairman for almost a decade.

He further cemented his stalwart status over the coronavirus lockdown by walking 100 laps of the Lakeview Park ground to raise £28,000 for the club.

His legacy has already been marked with a stand named after him.

To honour his 100th birthday this week, the club gave that love back with a series of celebrations of Mr Willis’s life.

He was even hailed as an “absolute champion of the Irish League” by rival Larne FC’s chairman Gareth Clements and presented with a cake at Loughgall’s away match at Inver Park on Friday night.

The main party came back in Loughgall over the weekend with a video message from Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill among others, but there was a further surprise on Monday with a mention at the recently resurrected Stormont Assembly.

DUP Upper Bann MLA Jonathan Buckley paid tribute to Mr Willis as a “living legend” before the MLAs.

But the modest pensioner has taken it all in his stride, even joking that he is glad all the celebrations are coming to an end.

“It’s been going on now for over a week, dinner on Saturday evening and a big day here on Sunday. Too good a time, and everyone was all after me, everyone talking about me,” he said.

Despite his status in the club as an honorary member, Mr Willis said he still insists on paying at the turnstile for every match as he continues to faithfully attend every match whatever the weather.

“I’ve been an honorary member now for 20 years, and entitled to go into every match without paying, but I paid at the turnstile, and if I came to the turnstile and no-one was there, I wait until they come back and still pay,” he said.

Mr Willis has been a lifelong supporter and was previously the club’s groundskeeper for 30 years and chairman for almost a decade
Mr Willis has been a lifelong supporter and was previously the club’s groundskeeper for 30 years and chairman for almost a decade (Liam McBurney/PA)

Loughgall Football Club has made a journey in recent years to return to the top tier of the Irish League after relegation in 2007.

The semi-professional side based in a village of just a few hundred residents secured their place in Northern Ireland’s premiership last season.

Mr Willis hailed the players as having done “more than well”, fighting their way to sixth in the table against many clubs where players are full-time professionals.

“There’s at least four or five professional teams in the Irish League who do nothing else only play football, and we’re expected to cope with them, but we’ll beat the best of them,” he said.

“I thought we might get a hammering but it wasn’t so. We’re sixth in the league and we’re only into it.”

While football fans across the world revere players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Northern Ireland’s own George Best, Mr Willis said he would rather watch his own team.

“I would come to see our team playing before I would watch a higher standard of player playing down the road. I’ll watch my own. Just for the love of them,” he said.

“It’s just naturally in you, to want to help them. I was groundsman here for years, and took it out of my own pocket.

“I just love the place. I remember when we didn’t own a single blade of grass. We have to be proud of the club, what they have achieved, our stadium here is second to none.

“It means a lot to me to still be coming here today. I remember the times when we didn’t own a blade of grass. I remember when we used to train down here, we were rolling the pitch one day, a man in the village came up and stopped and asked who gave us permission to roll the pitch, we don’t have to ask anyone now.

“It’s really brilliant to see.”

Asked the secret of getting to 100, Mr Willis laughed, saying: “I don’t know, I got it very hard to get to where I am.

“I worked very hard in my youthful days and no money for it either. Pulling flax, inside two minutes you’re wet through. Next day you did the same again, 22 days after another.”