Forward turned wing half Willie Groves was born in Leith and began his football career in 1884 with junior team Stella Maris CYMS before joining Hibernian later the same year. Groves, initially an inside forward, first broke into the Hibernian squad as a 16-year-old during the 1885-86 season. He featured prominently as Hibs won The Scottish Cup the following year, beating Dumbarton 2-1 in the Final at Hampden Park, with Groves scoring in the first round, second round replay and semi-final. Vale of Leven, Hibs’ opponents in the semi-final, protested that Groves had accepted a payment from Hibs, which would have been illegal as the Scottish game was still amateur at the time. The protest was not heard until after Hibs had defeated Dumbarton in the Final. Vale of Leven only presented hearsay as evidence, but it took the casting vote of the committee chairman to exonerate Hibs. In the following year, Groves made his international debut, in a 1888 British Home Championship match against Wales. Groves scored the fourth goal in a 5–1 win for Scotland at Hibernian Park, Hibs’ home ground.
By August 1888, Groves was one of several Hibs players who moved to the newly formed Celtic. After several friendly outings for the Bhoys his competitive debut came in the club’s first Scottish Cup tie – a 5-1 victory over Shettleston on September 1st 1888 at the original Parkhead. Willie Groves was to be among the very first to don the Celtic shirt and was certainly one of the earliest idols of the support. An exceptionally quick player with a rocket shot, Willie was also a mazy dribbler and his twisting runs with the ball would have the fans in raptures. He didn’t have the big bould build of the standard burly, bruising centre-forward of the day, but was described as ‘dainty and rather timid’. His scoring success shows the last description was timid compared to the truth. He scored ten goals in the club’s 1888-89 Scottish Cup campaign.
Groves made two further appearances for the Scotland national football team while with Celtic. In one of those appearances he scored a hat-trick against Ireland in the 1889 British Home Championship. He then helped push Celtic to the Scottish Cup Final in 1889-90 with an incredible nine goals in the run (possibly more as records were imperfect), only to lose the Final to Queen’s Park. However, in 1890 three days after his 22nd birthday he played his part to help the First XI in Celtic’s first ever Scottish League match in a 5-0 win against Hearts scoring twice.
A fortnight later his status as a Celtic hero was sealed in a fresh Scottish Cup campaign. The opposition this time was Rangers, the first time the clubs would be competing against each other for major honours and the birth of the famous Glasgow rivalry is evident from a Scottish Sport report in September 1890:
“When Groves scored the goal, T. Maley (brother of Willie), who was umpiring, waved his flag in jubilation. The Rangers players stared in blank amazement, the Celtic players shook hands effusively, the stands rose bareheaded to a man cheering vociferously, the crowds lining the railing did much the same thing, and the noise that little manoeuvre of Groves evoked could have been heard at Ibrox Park; it rose and swelled to one ground-note of triumph that bore in its tone the delighted response of 10,000 thankful hearts.”
He was tempted south to Football League club West Bromwich Albion in October 1890 and he helped Albion win the 1892 FA Cup Final, playing at half-back as Aston Villa were defeated 3-0. After 10 goals in 67 appearances WBA were to transfer him to Everton in 1893 but Villa made him the first £100 transfer and had to pay a £50 fine on top to get him.
Spells followed at Aston Villa where he won the League Championship in 1893-94, his only season at Villa Park, scoring 3 goals in 26 appearances for The Villains, and Hibernian. During this second spell he played in the 1896 Scottish Cup Final, which Hibs lost 3-1 to Edinburgh derby rivals Hearts at New Logie Green in Edinburgh. This Final is perhaps best known for being the only Scottish Cup Final to be played outside Glasgow. He returned to Celtic in November 1896 when he played twice more for the Bhoys. By then Groves was past his best – having suffered from tubercculosis and other illnesses. He was never forgotten by his colleagues at Celtic, and when he was very ill by around Sep 1899, Willie Maley opened a subscription list on his behalf. Willie Groves played 18 times for Celtic in the League & cup and scored 16 goals.
He went on to play for Rushden in 1898 before quitting football.
Willie and his family later moved to Edinburgh. and began working as a labourer for Edinburgh Corporation. However life was hard and he died prematurely in utter penury in 1908, aged just 39.
In an obituary on Willie in the Glasgow Observor, it described him wonderfully as follows:
“…tall, sinewy and graceful on the ball, his work was beautifully close, artful and deceptive. He was a picturesque figure, a sort of Romeo in the sport with his raven locks and classic-cut features. His career in all its varied spheres is one of the most romantic, and his personality will long remain as one of the most unique in British football.”
Willie was referred to in the ‘Bould, Bould Celts’ poem written about the Celtic team of 1888:
There’s one that wants a watching they call him Willie Groves
He’s wonderful to look at as round the field he roves
Oh! he beats my comprehension: admiration I have felt
He’s a dasher, he’s a smasher, he’s a bould, bould Celt.