‘Inspiration’ Hilbert Willis (97) hits century total on Irish League pitch walk
Celebrated names from Loughgall’s proud past recently returned to Lakeview Park to honour the club contribution of 97-year-old Hilbert Willis - a figure manager Dean Smith considers “an inspiration” to his current squad.
Three of the most successful managers in club history made the journey back to Loughgall for the exhibition match, with Alfie Wylie and Jimmy Gardiner in the dugouts plus Niall Currie among the past players offering support to Willis.
With decades of dedication to Loughgall in roles ranging from groundsman to chairman, Willis has now had a stand renamed in recognition of such sterling service.
The focus of the weekend centred on Willis, surrounded by family and friends, completing 100 lengths of the Lakeview Park pitch as part of fundraising efforts to help his beloved Loughgall.
He set his special goal in recognition of the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic - with the former long-serving groundsman back out on the turf determined to turn his labour of love on such familiar territory into a welcome boost to club funds.
“The club is so important to me and such a big part of my life, so I was just keen to try and do something, anything really, to help,” said Willis last year at the start of his walk. “I’ve so many wonderful memories from my time involved with Loughgall and have so many friends thanks to this football club and others all over the country.
“Hopefully my small effort can help the club and the response has been great, with plenty of support from people at the club - along with a fair few laughs.”
And such a sustained display of devotion has served as a regular backdrop for Smith and his players.
“To complete 100 lengths is a credit to Hilbert, a phenomenal achievement really at his age,” said Smith, the current manager of the Championship club and a former striker. “He’s a club legend for so many reasons and this project can only stand as an inspiration to everyone else.
“It was a common talking point among the squad when so often we would see or hear of Hilbert taking on a few more lengths of his walk.
“It certainly helped to inspire the players and will continue to do so - when you have someone like Hilbert showing such commitment to the club it gives everyone that extra boost to double down and put in extra work.
“To name a stand at the ground in his honour is such a fitting tribute to someone who has devoted so much to this club over so many years.
“He still keeps an eye on the pitch and always loves a chat about football.
“Hilbert is always very positive about the club and extremely knowledgeable.
“He keeps up to speed with everything going on and is someone held in such high esteem by anyone connected to Loughgall.”
Smith and his squad will kick off the Championship season this weekend and he continues to draw inspiration from the support of people like Willis.
“A real strength in my whole time associated with Loughgall has been that aspect of a family club, with so many special people working so hard, united for a common cause,” said Smith. “Someone like Hilbert is at the heart of that commitment.
“Hilbert does not seem to have changed from when I first came to the club as a player to now I’m here as manager - he’s as sharp and witty as ever and always great company.
“His enthusiasm for Loughgall and football is amazing and he really helps symbolise the togetherness and spirit that makes this place so important to people.”
Anyone interested in donating can still visit the ‘Hilbert’s Goal’ page on GoFundMe.
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