Pastor Billy Kennedy gave up football for his faith
YOU would have to have been a very special kind of man to have folk come to your funeral in Carluke from as far away as India.
Pastor Billy Kennedy was that kind of man.
His death at the age of 79 last month saw not only the passing of an era in Christian worship in Carluke but also the closing of a chapter in what many now regard as the Golden Age of Scottish football.
Those who know the story of Billy Kennedy wouldn’t have been in the least surprised that his funeral service at the town’s Baptist Church was packed out; after all, here was a man who quite literally gave up a potential life of fame and riches to follow his faith.
Born in Lurgan in Northern Ireland, he was one of a family of nine, orphaned when dad was killed in action in World War Two.
His mum, somehow, brought up the brood as a lone parent, the young Billy’s determination to start bringing some money into the household leading him to start a college course to get a decent job with a good pay.
However, fate intervened and Billy’s obvious footballing talents were spotted and he was soon ‘head-hunted’ by Portadown Football Club.
He went on to make his own wee bit of footballing history in 1954, turning professional with Linfield FC for a-then-unheard of signing fee of £800; in these days, the maximum pay for even the top English professionals was £20 per week!
It proved money well spent by the club, Billy becoming its top goal-scorer with 27 nettings in his first season.
He was soon being picked for Amateur and Junior International squads and all looked set fair for Billy to go on to a highly lucrative career as a footballing legend.
However, something – or rather Someone – brought that shining career to a premature halt. God.
Although the phrase ‘born-again Christian’ probably wasn’t in use at the time, that is what Billy became during his second season with Linfield, inspired by a Baptist pastor called Willy Mullen who had beaten alcoholism and from living a life sleeping rough, built up one of Northern Ireland’s biggest congregations.
In 1956 Billy gave up football, the reason given in Linfield’s records as “for religious reasons”.
His Scots connection started with his studies at Bible College in Glasgow where he met his Liverpudlian wife Brenda. They then went to her home city where Billy served the Bethel Church for seven years before returning to Northern Ireland for five years at a church there.
He returned to Scotland to take charge of Coatbridge Baptist Church from where he answered a call to ‘spread the word’ around the world.
His travels saw him preaching in India, Chile, Argentina, the USA, Croatia and Poland. He was tireless in his work with schools, spreading the anti-drink and drugs message through the Hope Trust.
He was to spend the last seven years of his life in Carluke, making many new friends here and throwing himself into community life; he was a keen Crawforddyke Bowling Club member.
A brain tumour was diagnosed last December and Billy died on March 23, survived by his wife of 55 years, five children and 12 grandchildren.
The packed funeral service – with an international congregation – was a fitting tribute to a man who very much put his Faith above personal glory and profit.