An eminent authority, with an OBE for his work in medicine and sport. Professor Stewart Hillis also happens to like country and western music.
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Hillis has worked in football for 40 years, a lifetime of anecdotes, adventures and time in the company of some of the most charismatic figures the Scottish game has known. He was Jock Stein’s mate and experienced the horror of being unable to save his friend that night in Cardiff. Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith are among other famous pals. If Scotland doctors were awarded caps “The Prof” would have 282 of them, having treated and tended to the national under-21 teams since 1976 and the senior side since 1982. He has been a face in team photographs during the reigns of Stein, Ferguson, Andy Roxburgh, Craig Brown, Berti Vogts, Smith, Alex McLeish, George Burley and Craig Levein. Last week it was announced that, at 66, his long run as national team doctor had come to an end. And what does he tend to get recognised for above all? What is the episode which some smart alec is likely to bring up when he leasts expects it? The Daniel Prodan medical.
He isn’t the type to worry about that. It’s just another tale, after all. Rangers bought Prodan from Atletico Madrid for £2.2m in 1998. It remains the worst transfer in their history. The perception is that the Romanian international defender had a medical under Hillis’s supervision and somehow passed despite having a knee like a rotten apple. Prodan’s knee looked fine on the outside, of course, but the ligaments were so damaged he never played a competitive game for Rangers in his two-and-a-half years there.
There’s no need to worry about the awkward matter of how to raise the Prodan debacle with Hillis. He readily volunteers anecdotes about “my worst injury” and tells them with practised, easy charm. In a nutshell, Rangers were sent papers which lied about the seriousness of Prodan’s injury and the Ibrox club was so eager to rush through a deal they didn’t give Hillis the time to check him properly. “We weren’t given time to do the medical. He came in and his medical information was wrong. It was falsified. They said he had a trivial cartilage thing. He was going to sign for Tottenham that afternoon so Mr Murray [Rangers owner Sir David] said, ‘Look, I’m sorry, we don’t have the time to do a medical, will you look at the notes?’ I said, ‘Well if the notes are correct it should be okay.’ But that wasn’t the way to do things ideally. Mr Murray said to me, ‘There’s a press conference in 45 minutes.’
“When it later became apparent that there was more to it than that they wheeled me out in front of the press. It was a quiet news day! So they asked: who’s fault is this? And I said, ‘Well I’m responsible, because I’m the head doc.’ The Herald headline was ‘I made a mistake: Hillis’. Of course Hillis is an unusual name so the following week all my patients were bringing in The Herald and saying ‘oh aye …’ It went all the way down to the Daily Sport which had ‘Silly Hilly’ on the back.
“Maybe I should have said to them, ‘I want nothing at all to do with this, I’m walking away from it because I’ve not had the time to do the medical.’ But that’s another matter. You make judgments. A ‘retrospectivescope’ is a great thing to have …”
Hillis describes his career as a life of privilege, a working existence as “a punter on the bench”. He is an honorary senior research fellow at Glasgow University, continues to work at the Western Infirmary, has an honorary position at the Golden Jubilee Hospital in Clydebank and has written respected papers on various aspects of medicine. One of his co-authors on some of them was a fellow cardiologist who became well-known in tragic circumstances: Gerry McCann, father of Madeleine. Hillis and McCann met through sports medicine work years before Madeleine disappeared in 2007. “Obviously the whole period has been tragic. On a personal level I don’t know if they’ll ever get completion. He’s an outstanding cardiologist. It’s terrible.” Hillis called in a favour and telephoned Ferguson. A high-profile appeal for information on Madeleine was staged at a Manchester United game and Cristiano Ronaldo recorded a message to be broadcast in Portugal, where she went missing.
Football has been Hillis’s constant backdrop. He became Clydebank’s team doctor in 1970 before being called up by the SFA to work with the under-21s. Stein appointed him as the senior team doctor after the 1982 World Cup and it was in that role that he later got to know Smith and was invited to become Rangers’ doctor.
“I’ve been all over the world. Very lucky. For 20-odd years at Clydebank I was given six whisky glasses, two brandy glasses – I don’t know why they gave me them – and a suitcase. And a turkey at Christmas. But that was at the start of sports medicine becoming a professional interest. Since then we’ve tried to create a more professional aspect around it. I’ve noticed a huge difference.”
The two worst player incidents he had to deal with Scotland were the broken leg suffered by Ally McCoist in the 5-0 World Cup qualifier defeat against Portugal in 1993 and the knee ligament damage which effectively ended John Kennedy’s career in a friendly against Romania in 2004.
McCoist was in great pain until Hillis found some old-fashioned anaesthetic which helped make the flight home from Lisbon bearable. “That was the famous time when I managed to find two bottles of Beaujolais in my medical case.” What happened to Kennedy was no laughing matter. “His was the most high-profile injury. The referee didn’t really think it was a foul, but we thought it was a bad one. It was a career-ruining injury. Horrible.”
The darkest night of all was September 10, 1985. Hillis had been in Stein’s social circle for years. They were pals who would blether into the wee small hours. That night Hillis was powerless to save his life. Stein collapsed near the end of an unbearably tense, claustrophobic World Cup qualifier at Ninian Park. Scotland had dug out the draw they needed to reach the play-offs, but despite Hillis’s desperate attempts Stein died in a tiny medical room at the ground.
“We had a cardiac arrest team there, but it was heart failure rather than a heart attack as such. It’s bad to not be successful in a resuscitation attempt, it’s even worse when it’s someone that you know very well. We had what we needed. We had all the equipment. But it was a lost cause. The last thing Jock said to me was, ‘It’s a whole lot better now, doc.’
“I’d known Jock for years. He had been a patient of mine. It was often said he had a heart attack in Cardiff, but he didn’t have a heart attack as such. He had heart muscle disease. Normally he would have taken water tablets, but on the day of the game he hadn’t taken them. He was his own man.”
Years later a young idiot, a child, recognised Hillis in the street and shouted, ‘That’s the man that killed Jock Stein.’ He shakes his head at the spectacular level of ignorance of such a hurtful remark. The prejudice and conspiracy theories evident among football supporters never cease to amaze him. He was once criticised for treating Mo Johnston in hospital after the player had suffered a bruised kidney on Scotland duty.
“I took him back to the Western. The problem with an ordinary hospital is the whispering. Someone always knows someone at The Herald or the Record. I got pelters for taking him into a cardiac bed although he was a kidney patient. It would’ve been a Rangers punter having a go because he was a Celtic player at the time. Just someone causing trouble. Was I stopping a heart attack patient getting treatment? No. He was an NHS patient, I took him into an NHS bed, he wasn’t stopping anyone else being treated.”
Hillis will still work for the SFA on doping matters. He is involved in heart screening initiatives for young athletes and remains vice-chairman of Uefa’s medical committee. There will be more stories for him to collect. But none, surely, to return on him like Prodan does.
“I was in Brodick on Arran one time. I went into a shop on the High Street. We bought something and as the guy’s making out the receipt he said, ‘Aye, you made a right **** of that Prodan transfer, didn’t you?’ “Mind you, I was coming out of the cup final once and some Celtic punters were coming out too. They said, ‘Haw, you did us two great favours, you signed that Prodan and you said John Hartson wasn’t fit to sign for Rangers’.”
This time he had an answer. “I wasn’t the Rangers doctor at that time. I was glad to be able to say, ‘I had nothing to do with John Hartson…’ ”