Donald Greenlees

First Spell

Signed: May 1897

Departed: April 1899 to Southampton

Appearances: 42

Goals: 2

Second Spell

Signed: May 1900 from Southampton

Departed: May 1907 to Greenock Morton

Appearances: 177

Goals 5

Total Appearances: 219

Total Goals: 7

  • Over 200 appearances for the club
  • 10 years’ service at Saints
  • Benefit match awarded by the board
  • Capped by the Scottish League

Donald Greenlees was born on the 14th January 1875 in the Glasgow area of Bridgeton, but around the time Saints were formed in 1877 his parents Joseph and Agnes returned to Renfrewshire where they were born and settled in Kilbarchan, the place of his mother’s birth.

Young Donald was the middle of five children who lived in the family home at 13 Barholm in the village and his parents both worked in the prolific weaving industry of Renfrewshire before his father Joseph changed occupation to employment at the local Paper Mill where eventually Donald and his brothers John and James had also found work by 1891.

The family home in Kilbarchan

Professional football was a still a couple of years away in Scotland and even turning full-time still decades from being the normal practice, therefore players during this period generally played for the love of the game, or when professionalism became accepted, they would do it for a few shillings and continue their day job. Young Donald was no different and when he signed for St Mirren in the late spring of 1897 (the start of what would be a ten-year association with Saints only broken by two years in English football) he continued to work at the local mill in Johnstone.

Initially Greenlees had played for Kilbarchan FC and Saints had been chasing the right sided half back since late 1896 according to The Referee newspaper. After singing for Saints in May 1897, Greenlees played in all forty-two St Mirren matches over the next few seasons scoring twice before he accepted a move to Southampton in controversial circumstances in April 1899.

The Kilbarchan boy had agreed extremely good terms with the southern English club of £5 per week and a £45 signing on fee which equates to around £700 every Friday and a £6,000 lump sum today, with his wage more than double the average weekly income in Scotland at the time, although this national average was based on working seven days per week, which of course young Donald wouldn’t have to do as he was now a full time footballer.

However, probably keen to agree the fantastic deal on offer, young Donald had failed to tell the Saints board of this move who were only informed via telegram by the English FA who stated one of their best players was no longer eligible to play for the club, and Saints board therefore took the case to the SFA.

In the hearing that followed, Saints were the clear winners with the English FA heavily criticised for their handling of the matter. Despite accepting the legitimacy of the transfer, St Mirren insisted that Greenlees play in the Renfrewshire Cup for the club and young Donald duly did so before boarding the train for England, however he had also received a two month ban from football at the hearing for swearing at the referee during a match with Port Glasgow Athletic in early 1899, so his Southampton career stalled somewhat at the beginning.

The wing half only played for one season at Southampton but met his wife Ethel during this period who was the daughter of a local merchant and the couple relocated to Scotland in 1900 when Donald signed once more for Saints, aged twenty-five. For the next seven seasons, Greenlees formed the backbone of the side firstly along with Andy Bennie but more long-term beside Michael McAvoy. Greenlees would also drop to defence on occasion and formed a solid partnership with club captain Thomas Jackson.

The half back was a fearless warrior on the park for Saints and on a couple of occasions suffered serious injury, both against Celtic when firstly he collapsed in the dressing room at half time during a match in 1903 after what can only be assumed was a head clash, but still managed to reappear in the second period to complete the match. Unthinkable now of course, but a common occurrence in football until late in the twentieth century before concussions became a more serious matter for player safety.

On another occasion in 1905 at Parkhead, Greenlees received a nasty thigh injury and was in some distress leaving the field, so much so it was widely reported the following day and much concern was evident regarding the wellbeing of Greenlees. This injury wouldn’t be a serious issue now but with the death of James Dunlop still relatively fresh in the mind back in 1905 only thirteen years later, the worry was understandable.

In the aftermath, the press seemed to write off Greenlees returning to football completely such was the severity of his wound, although any threat to life had now passed. Greenlees defied the doom merchants by returning to the first team within a few months however and for the next four seasons remained at the right or centre of Saints half back line.

Long before this point in his Saints career, Greenlees had been capped for the Scottish League against Ireland on the 27th February 1904 and received a testimonial from the club in a game against Rangers in 1907. Finding praise of the Saints man in the press is relatively easy, and his influence on the side unmistakable in the opinion of journalists who believed his mere presence on the football park was enough to make Saints a much better side.

It was reported in 1903 by the Scottish Referee that Greenlees was the best half back in Scotland along with John Cross of Third Lanark, and they should be capped almost immediately such was their ability. In particular, the Saints man was singled out for working like a “demon” on the park, and the “artistry” of his play which was considered a weakness by the journalist during a period where it was believed only forwards should be displaying skill, so Greenwood appears to have been a more modern thinking player. Both players however appeared the following year for the Scottish League XI and Cross received a full cap a year later, but it seems gaining international recognition while wearing the black and white was as difficult back then as it is now and Greenlees finished his career uncapped by the SFA.

In 1909, Greenlees left Saints for Morton aged thirty-four years of age after appearing in a total of 261 matches for the club scoring nine times. It can’t be stated enough however that the number of matches played during this period was nowhere near the level of today, and this level of consistency would have led to around between 400 and 500 in the modern game.

The following year Greenlees returned with his wife and young son, Donald junior, to Southampton where they settled in the village of Shirley on the outskirts of the city, an area which would be later consumed by the rapidly expanding port city. Donald worked in the docks during this period and played for Eastleigh FC to supplement his income, but when world war one broke out in 1914, Donald signed up almost immediately and joined the Royal Marine Labour Corps who combined fighting and labour (digging trenches and building structures etc) in the so called  ‘Theatres of War’ in Europe.

The former Saints man was initially a Private but promoted to Sergeant within a few years and his regiment formed part of the 63rd Royal Navy Division, who fought in many of the large battles of the war including Gallipoli, Passchendaele and the Hundred Days Offensive. Incredibly Donald survived it all and served in his Division between 1914 and 1920. His football field bravery was clearly transferrable to the battlefield.

Donald lived a long life after the war, and died in 1955 aged eighty in Leigh, Lancashire, many hundred miles from Paisley and Kilbarchan but with his indelible mark on St Mirren already made.

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