It takes a village to raise a Premier League footballer, and Billy Gilmour has never forgotten it. His relatives and his coaches chart his rise from TASS Thistle to winning the Champions League with Chelsea and heading to the Euros with Scotland.      

Let’s begin by paraphrasing one of the great Scottish football questions: ‘Billy, how come you are so good?’ The insights and the analysis come from some of those who know Billy Gilmour best. 

It is a matter of nature versus nurture, about technical ability and mental fortitude, a story of a boy and man being guided in the right manner but also being single-minded in the pursuit of excellence. It will be for others to determine if Gilmour ever achieves his ambition of becoming the best player in the world. He is, without doubt, the most gifted Scot of his generation. 

Such a statement is not made with the benefit of hindsight or based on what Gilmour – a Champions League winner as a teenager – has achieved to date. Those who joined the Gilmour bandwagon when he moved from Rangers to Chelsea were already a decade behind the curve. By that stage, the midfielder was well on his way to becoming an accomplished operator for club and for country. His exploits since – from a breakthrough at Stamford Bridge under Frank Lampard to a rebirth at Brighton and Hove Albion – are testament to his quality and his character but there is no single X factor in Gilmour the player or the person. 

The Herald:  Gilmour of Chelsea with his parents Carrie and Billy Gilmour of Chelsea with his parents Carrie and Billy (Image: Getty)

His life and times since July 2017, when he joined Chelsea just weeks after his 16th birthday, are well known and well told. How did a kid with a dream become a midfielder who is living it out? It is a query with no definitive answer, a narrative that speaks to the exploits of a main protagonist who has been aided by a supporting cast from his first kick of a ball. 

It is perhaps somewhat cliché to say that a child was born to play football. It is a theory that James Grady doesn’t subscribe to. Grady worked with Gilmour at the Scottish FA Performance School at Grange Academy in Kilmarnock and has seen scores of young players, all with different strengths and weaknesses but all sharing the same ambition, come and go. Gilmour remains the most heralded alumni of the school and the system. 

“I don’t buy into natural talent,” said Grady. “I will argue with anyone about natural talent. Ultimately, you are born good at one thing and that is filling a nappy. Everything else is learned behaviour, for me, and that takes you to Billy’s biggest strength. He places so much demand on himself and he then puts that demand onto others that he trains with. They cannot take it personally. He fully accepts that if his standards fall below or if he is having a cheat day or is off it for whatever reason, he fully expects to get a wee jag and he recognises that it is not personal, it is professional. That is one of his biggest strengths. His training levels, his willingness to do hard work, knowing that it is not easy, is genuinely the best that I have worked with. For such a young person, it was brilliant to see. 

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“In the modern day, young people don’t like the idea of hard work. They like the idea of being a footballer, the trappings and the limelight, but they don’t recognise how many sacrifices you need to make behind the scenes. I often tell the boys at the school that the hardest work is unseen. Every time you are there with a coach or a team-mate, they can see what you do. But they don’t see what you are doing away from it and that is where you get the edge on everyone else.” 

The marginal gains all add up. Gilmour has been accumulating them since he was a small boy kicking a ball about the garden of the family home or on a local pitch in Ardrossan, where he started out, aged four, at mini-kickers. The tale of Gilmour cannot be told without the two main influences in his life and career and the input of parents Billy and Carrie must be recognised and acclaimed. Billy Snr was a Junior player with Ardrossan Winton Rovers and coached his boy at TASS Thistle, a local club that draws kids from the ‘Three Towns’ of Ardrossan, Stevenston and Saltcoats. He is also a lifelong Celtic supporter, but he encouraged ‘Wee Billy’ to stop training with the Hoops after just a couple of months to pursue opportunities at Rangers, mainly due to the way in which their under-age teams played a game that suited Gilmour’s style. There were also logistical issues at play and the journey from Ardrossan to Auchenhowie was easier than the one to Barrowfield. Club allegiances were never a consideration and it was what was best for Gilmour that was the priority. 

The grassroots are littered with examples of pushy parents, the dads who know better than the coaches and who utter profanities at referees, the mums who believe their kid is destined to be the next Law or Dalglish. Gilmour is the exception to the rule in so many ways as a player and his folks are an example to be followed. 

“Dad,” was the answer when Alex Tulloch, the founder of TASS Thistle, was asked by Herald Sport where the mentality that so many attribute as one of Gilmour’s main strengths comes from. “Billy came from his dad, he was a big influence on him. His dad helped with the coaching at that age group and then Billy moved on. Billy was just something else. You have got it in one, some dads are overpowering, they are overbearing, but Billy’s dad was an influence. He was a football player, so he knows the ups and downs and the ins and outs. 

“I feel I am a steady influence for the kids, I am not running about ranting and raving like a lunatic. If they are doing something wrong, I will explain it to them and help them to do it. It is not rocket science. I think some folk call it man management.” 

The Herald: Billy Gilmour playing against Celtic in 2017 at Rangers' Training CentreBilly Gilmour playing against Celtic in 2017 at Rangers' Training Centre (Image: SNS)

Gilmour is not the product of a family that has forced him down a road that he didn’t want to travel on. The teachings and the support that allowed him to become one of the finest up-and-coming players in the world are now benefiting his younger brother, Harvey. If Grady could fulfil a wish, it would be that he could bottle what Billy Snr and Carrie, with the support of the wider network of family and friends, have done with their two boys. 

“Billy was always a superstar,” said Steven Clifford, Billy’s cousin and a prominent Rangers blogger and podcaster. “Even at 11 years old, when he was at my wedding, we were joking about the youngster destined to be a superstar. He had everything. The stories of him dominating the adult games down the park were already well known. But Billy was always just Billy, never once has he given it the ‘big baws’ attitude, he’s a fun-loving family lad. Even when he has made it ‘big’ and was winning the Champions League, he’s never once not replied to a text or kept in contact. 

“His mum and dad sacrificed so much, providing him with a taxi all throughout his teenage years and they kept him grounded. His dad was a clear driver in his development as a boy and is now doing so as a man, but the fiery side comes from his mum and he has a determination to not give up. They have raised a tremendous young man, a young man who is just Billy to us and has never changed even though he’s Billy Gilmour to the rest of the world.” 

When Gilmour returned to the Brighton squad for the Premier League fixture with Wolverhampton Wanderers last April, the Seagulls posted a picture of his shirt and boots on their Twitter account. The initials ‘BCG’ – Billy Clifford Gilmour – were stitched into the orange footwear, while photographs from his career made up a collage on his shin-guards. One has Gilmour representing his country, while the other contains images of him with his brother and with his parents. 

Football has always been in Gilmour’s blood, and perhaps in his genes. The subject of ‘natural talent’ is an intriguing one but Grady subscribes to the nurture theory. He uses an example of a ball being thrown at a young child and it hits them square in the face. The next time, they will take action to avoid being hurt. That is learned behaviour. From his formative years, Gilmour has shown a thirst for knowledge that is matched by his work ethic. 

“They were genuine, they were real,” Grady said. “They knew that hard work was everything. They were always out with a ball and all the times that Billy was out there, that is where you learn. I always talk about the pitch down in Ardrossan where the actual game of football at night or at the weekends was a right good game because of everyone that played in it. Every single day after school, going to Rangers, any other time, he would be out on the pitch. Yes, he had a love for the game and you don’t get anything without that but it was his willingness to work hard and his willingness to learn that was the key to it.” 

The old adage about how hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard may be somewhat cliché these days and the sort of slogan that you see adorning the walls of gyms or used by motivational speakers, yet it does carry a weight of truth. Gilmour had, and still has, both attributes. He would not have made it from North Ayrshire to West London without the aptitude and personality of a once-in-a-generation footballer. 

His time at Grange Academy and Auchenhowie shaped Gilmour into the player and person that he is today. His diminutive frame houses a physical specimen, and his football brain allows him to see things that others simply do not have the cognitive wherewithal to process. His touch and vision are the style, while the substance comes from a drive and determination never to be beaten. No matter the plaudits and platitudes, and there have been many over the years, that have been bestowed on Gilmour, he has never lost sight of who he is or where he has come from. 

“We were sitting in the office and doing a parent’s night for Billy in the school and we were chatting away about how well he was doing and so on and so forth,” Grady said. “I was waxing lyrical about the wee guy in terms of what he was giving us. But I said we had to make sure that we were still always striving to be the best every single day on that training pitch. If you have 11 players all giving their best, they are challenging each other. When I said that, his dad turned round and said ‘James, I tell him all the time. At this moment, he is only one step ahead of grassroots football.’ He was. He was at Rangers, but if he was released from there he was back down to TASS Thistle. 

(Image: SNS)

“They were just real. He would never be allowed to get carried away. Ultimately, football is a cruel game and you need to keep your feet on the ground in case he goes down a different path. They were such real parents, that is the best way to describe them. They were real, down to earth, not getting caught up in it. They tried to steer him in the best way possible, and I don’t think they have done a bad job.” 

Seeing their boy head off for a new life in the bright lights and big city would have been daunting for Billy Snr and Carrie but it was sanctioned knowing it was the best thing for him. It asked different questions of Gilmour socially, and perhaps took him further away from the mistake that many youngsters make and succumbing to peer pressure from childhood friends. A life in digs in Cobham, where trips to the cinema or rounds of golf were the pastimes of choice away from the game, kept Gilmour focused on the job in hand, just like he had been from the very start. 

That point about being down to earth certainly applies to one of the earliest influences on Gilmour. August 2023 marked Tulloch’s half century as a coach and the inspiration behind TASS Thistle continues to mould people and shape players. He jokes that his wife told him he was ‘off his bloody head’ and laughs with a hearty ‘aye!’ when asked if she was right. 

His stature within the community speaks volumes, though, and he can count Liam Morrison and Liam Smith, who moved to Bayern Munich and Manchester City respectively, alongside Gilmour as graduates from the TASS system. Tulloch never set out to produce a world-class midfielder. Indeed, his finest achievement is keeping kids off the streets in the three towns, changing lives through the power of sport, friendship and guidance. 

“From day one, I could tell you if a wean was a football player or a ballet dancer,” Tulloch said. “It is amazing. You throw a ball at them and it is how the kid deals with it. Do they catch it? Do they play it with their feet? It is about their attitude, how they address themselves. Billy was one of them. He has a natural ability. See if Billy Gilmour didn’t take up football, it wouldn’t have mattered if it was ballet dancing or swimming, Billy Gilmour would have been good at it.” 

For decades, Tulloch has been the first face that kids – boys and girls of all ages, abilities and upbringings – have seen when they arrive at TASS. In 2009, Gilmour was spotted by Scott Bryson, a scout for Rangers. The rest, as they say, is history. 

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Bryson can count the McCrorie brothers, Ross and Robby, and the likes of Jamie Ness and Barrie McKay on his list of recommendations that have gone on to make the grade. There are, of course, no guarantees, especially when players are as young. Gilmour was just eight years old when he was spotted one Saturday morning at Ardeer Recreational Park. 

“That wean was going to be a football player,” Tulloch said. “If a wean wants to play football, they are keen as mustard. They are like wee sponges, they take in everything you tell them. They either do it and have it or they don’t. I am still doing coaching at St Anthony’s now and sometimes you have got to stamp your authority, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. You just say to them ‘are you here to play football or here to carry on?’ The first words when they come into the gym are ‘have you left the silly heads outside the door and brought the football head in?’ It works. Billy, I never had a doubt about him and his younger brother, Harvey, is in the same mould.” 

That love for the game is a theme which permeates every conversation that Gilmour is the subject of. The dream of being a footballer is one which many youngsters have but there was something different about this kid that caught the eye, no matter at what age you first saw him. 

Those early days are still vivid for Craig Mulholland, the former head of academy at Rangers. Some players naturally stand out from the crowd, while others are late developers. Gilmour was always in a class of his own and academy staff would regularly watch age-group matches many years outside of their remit just to see him play. There was a freedom and youthful exuberance about the way that Gilmour operated at Under-10 and Under-11 level and it was a joyous, almost job re-affirming, experience for coaches to witness. 

“We have a lot of criteria that we grade players on and one of them is love of the game and there is a descriptor on how that is evidenced,” explained Mulholland, who moved to Nottingham Forest to take up the role of head of football development and talent management last summer. “It is about whether they bound into the building, do they have an enthusiasm to play? In the game, do they keep going with their energy, enthusiasm, brightness, regardless of what is happening? Do they approach training the right way? How do they interact with staff? All that kind of stuff. 

“What Billy had from that young age was this unbelievable, insatiable almost, love of the game. He just wanted to play. The staff used to go and watch games they wouldn’t usually because they just enjoyed it. The older sides have more pressure on them but it was just so natural and free and fun. Billy has got loads of strengths but all through his career, even when I bumped into him when Brighton were playing at the City Ground, he is just that same guy with that same smile, energy, brightness.” 

The Herald: Ex-Rangers manager Mark Warburton with Billy GilmourEx-Rangers manager Mark Warburton with Billy Gilmour (Image: SNS)

By the time Gilmour reached the age of 15, he was already training with the Rangers first team and he worked with both Mark Warburton and Pedro Caixinha before choosing to make the move to Chelsea. His name had been spoken about in youth development circles for some time, but it was only latterly at Ibrox that he became well known to the wider public. By then, it was clear that he was destined for bigger and better things than what Rangers could offer him. 

His boyhood club had not just given him the platform to perform, they had helped him reach a level that Chelsea believed would be the foundations for his career. Gilmour was playing for the Rangers Under-21 side at 15 and he made his Scotland Under-17 debut the same year. The step up to Under-19s came just months later and he was one level away from the full squad at 17. 

There are many moments that stand out for Mulholland and one of the most telling doesn’t involve Gilmour having the ball at his feet. An Under-14 fixture was the setting for an experiment. The previous week had seen one player, who Mulholland elects not to name given that he has since risen through the ranks at Ibrox, take the huff after being substituted. No words were spoken to the staff or high-fives exchanged with those on the bench. The process was repeated until the penny dropped and the attitude changed. 

“We did it with Billy and I remember it well,” Mulholland said. “Andy Kirk and Ricky Waddell were taking the team and we were up at Dundee United. I said ‘right, let’s take Billy off and see how he reacts’ and the two of them were looking at me saying ‘we don’t want to take our best player off’. It was part of his education, part of his development. Anyway, we only had to ever do that once with Billy. He came off and, as we expected, he high fived everyone on the bench and immediately starts supporting his team-mates who were on the pitch and shouted on to them with advice. That stuck in my mind. It is maybe a small story, but it is quite a big mentality statement.” 

Gilmour has made many over his career. He listened and learned but also questioned. His conversations with Grady were not one-way and the former striker – who enjoyed a fine career with the likes of Ayr United, Partick Thistle and Gretna – recalls a teenage Gilmour being ‘feisty’ during their debates. Gilmour wouldn’t just accept the words of his coaches as gospel and he challenged them to back up their advice and judgements, offering counters and sometimes emerging with his viewpoint being the way forward. 

“We had a training session at the Grange and Billy always wanted the ball, continually wanted the ball, no matter where it was on the pitch he would go after it and get it and get it again,” Grady said. “I said to him ‘Bill, come here a minute. Sometimes, maybe standing still and trusting your team-mate to get it from there to here leaves you in a better area to go and hurt a team. What do you think?’. He said ‘aye, right, I know, I know’. 

“I could see that he wasn’t fully taking it on board! So we talked it through and he gave me his reasons. And he said that in his head, he knew that no matter who he played against, they would give up running before he did. As a coach, I have got to step back and say ‘great, superb, I get that, I love that absolute drive, the determination that nobody is going to run more than you’. I couldn’t argue with that as a coach because the mentality was superb, but my job was to take a step back and then drip feed it in without him noticing.” 

Like Gilmour, Grady was never the most physically imposing player on a pitch. He jokes that his former student has the same ‘wee man syndrome’ that he possessed during his career before stating that ‘his frame is small, but his heart is massive’. The ‘dark arts’ is an aspect of the game that Grady speaks to his pupils about to this day as players are taught how to influence matches without actually touching the ball and Gilmour has learned how to flip situations so that the fortunes are weighted for him rather than against him. A goalless draw with Wolves may not be one of the standout fixtures of Gilmour’s career but it resonates with Grady as the football intelligence that was honed alongside his academic studies came to the fore in the most revered league in the game. 

“Billy knew he wasn’t going to win the race, but he got into his line, slowed up and Cunha runs into him,” Grady says as he recalls the interactions between Gilmour and Matheus Cunha, the Brazilian forward. “Three times he did it and Cunha lost the plot with Billy. He ended up getting booked because of it.

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"That is Billy recognising again and problem solving. He knew if it was a flat foot race, Cunha would beat him. He did it three times. The crowd noticed it, but the refs didn’t notice it. Cunha certainly noticed it and he ended up getting a booking because he lost the plot with him. That fighting side of it, he knows his frame is small but he will take on anyone. He recognises when it can be a fair fight and when he has to stack the odds in his favour.” 

The way in which Gilmour manipulates the ball and his body, the deft touches, the simple passes and the continual scanning for space and for danger, allowed him to become an integral component of Lampard’s Chelsea side. He is not a midfielder who is bullied and he has never shirked a challenge, either physical or metaphorical. In more ways than one, Gilmour holds his own. 

As part of the Best v Best programme that Rangers put in place at youth level, Gilmour travelled to tournaments across the country and the continent. He did not just compete against top players, he was the top player. An overhead kick in a victory over Real Madrid in the Mundialito Tournament was evidence of his class. His performances at the revered Toulon Tournament in 2018 saw him named as Best Breakthrough Player as he earned a place in the Best XI in France. The following year, Gilmour collected the Academy Player of the Year prize at Chelsea. 

He had initially stood out from the crowd due to his relentless energy on the pitch, that willingness to always show for the ball. He was brave in possession and bold out of it, fully aware that he was a game changer and a match winner. As the seasons elapsed, his levels continued the upward trajectory. He dictated the tempo of matches, his composure and vision setting him apart. Gilmour could do the extraordinary, but it was the way in which he made the game look so effortless that made him such an influential operator. It was no surprise that when he first made the move south, he would look up to Cesc Fabregas and seek to implement elements of the Spaniard’s approach into his own repertoire. 

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When Mulholland made the decision to put him into a Reserve fixture against Dundee at Forthbank, it was a case of finding the balance between risk and reward. Rangers had no fears over Gilmour’s ability, but he was still diminutive and concerns over a potential injury were hard to shake from the mind. Indeed, they moved forward when the team sheet confirmed that Gilmour would be in the same area as James McPake while he used the occasion to step up his recovery from injury. 

Mulholland need not have worried. In his first ever game against men, Gilmour showed a maturity and intelligence beyond his years. Mulholland speaks of the way he knocked the ball round corners and how he evaded the eyeline of the opposition as he enthuses about an outing that only reaffirmed what Rangers had long believed - Gilmour was something special. Some of the biggest clubs in the game knew that as well. 

“We were playing through at Hibs and Jody Morris was up from Chelsea to come and watch him,” Mulholland said. “At that time, I am still half-hoping in my mind that Jody was there to watch someone else that wasn’t Billy! The game gets a bit raucous, and Billy was still young and you had that worry again that he was going to get hurt. He deals with it in a different way this time, he makes sure he is there first and he ends up getting himself sent off because he protected himself in a really competitive way. 

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“It showed a bit of his character that he wasn’t just this footballer, that he had a real competitive edge. The minute he got sent off, Jody Morris wasn’t very subtle. He got up and left the game as soon as Billy walked off. So if there was ever any doubt in my mind over who he was there to watch, that was it rubber-stamped!” 

It was a matter of time before Gilmour’s move to the Bridge was signed and sealed. Rangers made their case, but Gilmour looked at the bigger picture rather than the snapshot and backed himself – in the manner that he had done ever since he first stepped foot on a pitch – to be the best and beat the best. It was a deal that has earned Rangers more than £2 million in terms of the initial fee and subsequent add-ons. Warburton and David Weir had made a personal visit to the family to attempt to convince them that Gilmour was ideally served by remaining at Ibrox and Caixinha made a similar plea. 

An experience with Graeme Murty left a sour taste in the mouth. After being called back from Scotland duty at Oriam, Gilmour expected to be in the squad for a fixture at home to Morton. When the team was confirmed, his name was not there. He was close, but not close enough in Murty’s eyes and a debut for Rangers evaded him. A potential outing against Hamilton Accies also never materialised and Murty later admitted his regret that he did not give Gilmour the chance to feature at Ibrox. 

Gilmour had been involved with the squad in the previous weeks, with captain Lee Wallace and Kenny Miller two of the mentors that took Billy the kid under their wing, inviting the youngster to sit with them and Wes Foderingham at the top of the breakfast table on his first day in that Auchenhowie environment. That day at Ibrox was as close as he would come to pulling on the blue of Rangers. 

The lure of the Premier League, the level that Gilmour had always aspired to reach, was ultimately decisive. The final selection was his to make, it had to be, but his parents and brother had a say. The family sat down one evening and talked it through, compiling a list of pros and cons for each club as points were raised and debated. In the end, Chelsea came out on top. 

When the call was made to Mulholland, it came as no real surprise, but his heart still sank. He had spent the evening at Cappielow checking on the progress of Andy Murdoch when Billy Snr phoned to tell him his son was leaving. Rangers had remained in the race after Arsenal dropped out of the running and attentions soon turned to maximising the arrangement for the benefit of all parties. History shows that Rangers and Gilmour were right in their respective decisions. 

“When we were trying to keep him, we gave him all the statistics about how the majority of players who move before they are 18 are much less likely to make it at the top level and that is evidenced by thousands of players that have been involved in two or three different studies,” Mulholland said. “Billy is an outlier, he is an outlier. What he has achieved goes against all of the research, against all of the statistics and data. It has probably skewed it for other young players because they think ‘I will go and do what Billy Gilmour has done’. But, actually, the majority of them don’t. 

“It is about that mentality. That winning mentality, that desire to be top, everything comes from the strong family background. He was brought into Rangers where, with whatever age-group, there is a demand and a winning mentality and that helped. But the drive he has means that he has managed to buck the trend, overcome the odds and be more successful than all of the studies suggest that he should be. With that love of the game, I am not surprised by that.” 

The move to Chelsea took the Gilmour name and reputation into new households at home and abroad. It didn’t change the boy from Ardrossan, though. His career - the good and the bad, the highs and the lows - has been charted in black and white and on social media ever since. He now acts as an inspiration, but he has never forgotten where he has come from or what it has taken to get him to such a level for club and country. 

The Herald: Gilmour scores for Chelsea from the penalty spot during a match with West Ham United U18 in April 2018Gilmour scores for Chelsea from the penalty spot during a match with West Ham United U18 in April 2018 (Image: Getty)

He returned to Grange Academy to complete his maths exam shortly after leaving the family home for London. When he is back up the road these days, he messages Grady to ask if he can come in and train on the pitches where he honed his prodigious talent. The fact that he asks rather than assumes he can just turn up in a ‘don’t you know who I am?’ style speaks volumes. Grady chuckles at some of the ‘dodgy gear’ the 22-year-old wears but says that Gilmour is ‘gold dust’ for the coaches that are working to produce the Scotland stars of the future. Like so many of the Performance School graduates, Gilmour is grateful for the system and the staff. After starring for Scotland at Wembley during the last European Championship, Gilmour stopped by Winton Park to present medals to players on his dad’s old stomping ground. Last summer, he pulled on his boots at Glenafton in preparation for the new Premier League campaign. 

“He is still Billy from Ardrossan,” Tulloch said. “If we have a prize giving, I ask him to come along and present to the kids. They just love it. It is ‘Billy Gilmour! I need to get my photie taken with him!’ He has been a big help. He turns up, he watches the games and the coaching and gives them a bit of moral support. He is a standard-bearer for TASS, definitely, and a credit to himself. I can’t thank the kid enough, you know? 

“It is just magic to think of him as a five-year-old and then now to see him with the kids. They think ‘he can do that, so how do I do that?’ He was five when we started him. His ability overcame his height. He would run past kids like they weren’t there, he was gone. He is definitely one of the best to come through the club. There have been others but he sticks out like a sore thumb.” 

Gilmour always has. It is why he is so good, after all.