Date of birth: 10.4.41, Born: Glasgow
Height: 6ft 0in, Position: Defender/Midfield
City appearances: League: 23(1), Total: 23(1)
John Kurila was a footballer who in his career attracted epithets which ranged from ‘uncompromising’, through ‘rugged’, ‘granite-tough’ and ‘monster’ to ‘would kick his grandmother’, writes Malcolm Johnson.
Of Lithuanian descent, Kurila’s grandparents had moved to Scotland during the First World War and he was born in Glasgow and raised in the Gorbals area, which also produced such notable players as Pat Crerand, Tommy Docherty and Frank McKlintock.
As a schoolboy he had played as a goalkeeper but then became a tough-tackling central defender, playing for the St Francis Boys Guild youth club and in 1957 joining Scottish Junior football side Blantyre Victoria.
In August 1958 John Kurila joined Celtic, making his first-team debut at right-back two days before his eighteenth birthday in April 1959. That was his sole appearance that season and he only made one more the following season as he found first-team opportunities limited due to the presence of later European Cup winner Billy McNeill. He did manage a run of five league and cup games in the early part of the 1959/60 season deputising for McNeill, when his play was described as ‘lacking a bit on the technical side, but very physical’, which led to supporters nicknaming him ‘Kurila the Gorilla’.
Despite being an outstanding skipper of a successful reserve side Kurila’s first team opportunities at Celtic remained few and far between, although another testimonial to his qualities came from a young centre forward of the time named Alex Ferguson who stated in his autobiography that the Celtic reserve Kurila was one of the hardest defenders he ever faced
In all, Kurila appeared in a total of only nine league and cup games for Celtic, only one of which (a League Cup tie) resulted in a win, so in order to aid his career he was released by them in May 1962 at the age of 21 and spent the summer playing for Hamilton Steelers in the Eastern Canada Professional Soccer League.
Returning to England, Kurila joined Northampton Town for the start of the 1962/63 season, helping them become champions of the Third Division (now League One), making 43 league and cup appearances and scoring one goal. However, he left the Cobblers at the end of the season for another summer in Canada with Hamilton Steelers and on his return joined Third Division side Bristol City. It was a good bit of business by the Ashton Gate club, as within three months and after just six games they picked up a fee of £5,000 for the player as he returned to Northampton.
Kurila made 18 appearances and scored one goal for Northampton in the 1963/64 season as they finished in mid-table in the Second Division (Championship). However, he was only able to play one league and one cup game the following season as the Cobblers won promotion to the First Division.
Partnering later Imps player Terry Branston in defence, Kurila passed into Northampton Town legend as a member of the side that competed in football’s top flight for the only season in their history. It was here that he earned the second of his nicknames, being referred to by fans as ‘Killer Kurila’. However, he played in fewer than half of Northampton’s games that season, appearing 20 times in the league, scoring one goal, and once in the League Cup as the Cobblers finished next to bottom and were relegated straight back to Division Two. Further relegation came the following season as Northampton again finished in 21st place to return to the Third Division, Kurila making 37 league appearances with one goal, plus playing in one FA Cup and three League Cup ties.
Southend & Colchester
Northampton escaped a third successive relegation in the 1967/68 season, finishing 17th, Kurila playing in 32 league and 2 cup games, but he was released at the end of it, joining Fourth Division side Southend United. He had a successful season at Roots Hall, playing in every league game, scoring one goal, and in six cup games, being voted Player of the Season as Southend finished in seventh place.
The 1969/70 season was less successful for the Shrimpers as they suffered a fall of ten places to finish 17th, Kurila playing in 42 league and eight cup games before being released at the end of the season to join local Fourth Division rivals Colchester United.
Colchester were the second club to earn Kurila ‘legend’ status as he was part of the side that pulled off one of the great FA Cup shocks beating league leaders Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road in the Fifth Round in February 1971.
Away from the FA Cup, Colchester were no more than a solid mid-table side, finishing the 1970/71 season in 10th place as Kurila played in 44 league games, scoring two goals, and 10 cup games, including seven in the FA Cup campaign as after the win over Leeds Colchester were knocked out by Everton in the quarter-finals, losing 5-0 at Goodison Park.
From the start of the 1971/72 season Kurila had only appeared in nine league and cup games, scoring two goals when he was allowed to leave by Colchester, joining Lincoln City in mid-December. The Imps at the time were just outside the promotion places in Division Four but were undergoing something of an injury crisis in defence with Terry Branston and Derek Trevis, who had formed a good early-season partnership both injured. This had had seen long-serving reserve defender Alan Pilgrim brought into the side for his first game in a season and a half, but after a solitary game, and with the usual back-up, young ex-Leeds United reserve David Kennedy being found wanting, manager David Herd gave the squad some much-needed strengthening by signing the 30-year-old Kurila.
By now, Kurila had something of a reputation amongst supporters of the teams he had played against, but upon joining City, while the player admitted to being ‘a bit ruthless at times’, he pointed out that he had only ever been sent off once in his career and had been booked just once in the current season so far – ironically against City in the match at Layer Road.
But as Echo reporter Maurice Burton said, “Somehow, I think most of the City players will be pleased to have Kurila playing with them rather than against them”.
He took over from Kennedy in the side and made his debut in a 2-1 win at home to Stockport on 18 Dec 1971 as City fielded a new defensive partnership following the signing of Terry Cooper on loan from Notts County. Kurila remained in defence for two more games, renewing his old Northampton Town partnership with Terry Branston for the last of these.
City then signed centre half Tommy Spencer from Workington for £10,000 and the new man went straight into the side alongside Branston with Kurila moved to midfield. Herd had successfully employed a 4-3-3 formation earlier in the season with Trevor Meath supplying the strength in the centre of the midfield three which allowed Frankie McMahon and Dave Smith to work their magic. With a recurrence of his knee injury effectively ending Meath’s career a couple of months earlier Kurila’s hard-tackling in the same role enabled City to go on to become real promotion contenders.
With Kurila giving some fine displays in midfield the Imps were looking good in second place at the end of March but then results started to deteriorate, especially at home, and after a poor performance in a home defeat by Darlington Kurila lost his place in the starting line-up for the next three games, making just a brief substitute appearance in the second of these. He returned for the last game of the season, reverting to the centre of the defence alongside Branston in a 4-0 win over Chester as City just missed out on promotion in fifth place.
Although he’d been left out of the side for some of the last few games it was still something of a surprise when Kurila was released at the end of the season after appearing in 24 games including one as substitute. It was perhaps something that Herd came to regret, as without a strong player in midfield City made a poor start to the following season. However, Kurila then dropped into the non-league, joining Dover who had just finished third in the Southern League Premier Division which at that time was one step below the Football League.
Dover again finished in third place, and after a couple of mid-table finishes by the Kent club Kurila then returned to the Midlands in 1975 to finish his playing career with Atherstone Town, also in the Southern League Premier Division.
Kurila returned to the Northampton area, putting his hobby of woodworking to good use by working in the building trade as a qualified carpenter and a self-employed handyman. He had two sons who both played at a good level of non-league football around the Midlands area in the 1990s. Mick Kurila spent time with Nuneaton Borough and both Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds, while his brother Alan appeared for several clubs, including Bromsgrove Rovers, Kidderminster Harriers, Burton Albion and several others.
John Kurila died in March 2018 at the age of 76. He made a total of 319 appearances in the Football League, scoring 9 goals.
Thanks to Gary Parle for providing some of the information used in this article