Scott Willis was something of a maverick, a player who is best known for aspects of his life and career that he probably wouldn’t thank you for.
For instance, it is well-known he was Cilla Black’s nephew, but who remembers his winning goal against Exeter City? We all remember a red card (or two), but what of his impact in the play-off campaign? If you only remember the mercurial talents of the scouse midfielder for the wrong reasons, here is your chance to address that.
To start the Scott Willis story, we have to go back to the summer of 2002. Grant Brown, Justin Walker, David Cameron and Lee Thorpe were all first team regulars in the 2001/2 season but financial difficulties meant they all left the club. They were replaced by non-league hopefuls, such as Simon Yeo, Ben Futcher, Simon Weaver and Dene Cropper. As pre-season began to head ominously into a season of unknowns, Keith brought in a lad on trial called Scott Willis.
He was a 20-year-old with bags of potential. He had started his career off at Wigan Athletic before making a move to Mansfield Town, where he struggled to settle. Carlisle came in for him, and no sooner had he arrived than he was off again, this time to non-league Droylsden.
He eventually signed a deal with the Imps after impressing in pre-season, and his impressive form continued into the 2002/03 season. Initially, Keith played a four man midfield, Willis joining Peter Gain, Paul Smith and Ben Sedgemore. Willis scored his first goal for the Imps against Macclesfield Town, stabbing home a cross give the Imps a two-gola lead in a game we won 3-0. It was also the first game Keith switched to a back five, with Willis and Sedgemore in a two-man midfield, and Yeo, Cropper and Gain playing across a front three. On paper, it looked a big game for Willis, but in reality it signalled the beginning of a changing Lincoln side he would find it hard to adapt to.
Still, I was hooked. There was something about Willis I loved, an air of unpredictability which had you thinking any minute he would produce a moment of wonder, or one of utter madness. At first, it was all wonder, and after five weeks of Imps action he was being eyed by bigger clubs, including Stockport County. They had not long been relegated to the third tier under Carlton Palmer, and would have a chance to watch Willis close up as we met in the League Cup.
Did he make an impression? Yes, but not the right one. He received his first red card for the Imps when he allegedly spat on a Stockport defender after seeing a goal ruled out. In his absence, City got one point from a possible nine. City took maximum points in his comeback game as he conjured up a 25-yard effort to beat Exeter City 1-0.
His attitude on the field might have been a little gung-ho, but he was certainly committed and that impressed supporters. In his first 20 matches he scored twice, was sent off once and collected eight yellow cards. He was a battler, but rumours began to circulate about his off the field habits. On more than one occasion, he was spotted having a cheeky cigarette, and if you were to believe the rumour mill he was getting through 30 or so a day.
His 21st game in a City shirt was perhaps a defining one for him. After dropping out of the side, he was forced to come off the bench to have an impact, and he did so against Cambridge United in an ill-tempered affair. They had gone ahead early though Luke Gutteridge (who would later help send us down with Aldershot), before Richard Butcher got a leveller. In the second half, Terry Fleming was sent off for the visitors, Simon Weaver put us 2-1 up and Gutterdige was also dismissed. Nine-man Cambridge got a leveller through Paul Wanless, another former Imp who had been on for just two minutes. With six minutes remaining Keith sent on an eager, fired-up Willis, and four minutes later, he was sent off.
A high ball (who would have thought) saw Wanless go up for a header, but his head only collided with the boot of Willis. With no intention of winning the ball, his kung-fu style kick resulted in a straight red, and he seemed to be the only one surprised when he was sent off. Back then, players didn’t serve a suspension straight away, and he got 14 minutes as we drew 1-1 with York City before getting all of January off through suspension.
He returned in style at Carlisle United on Tuesday, February 4. The Imps had already lost twice to the Cumbrians that season, once in the league in the infamous game which saw a mass brawl break out and four players get sent off, and again in the FA Cup. It was third-time lucky for Keith’s Imps, who were were winning 1-0 on a very cold night at Brunton Park when Willis showed his potential. He collected the ball on the half way line, and ran at the Carlisle defence. He got all the way into the area before lifting a tremendous looping shot past the keeper. It was a moment of real brilliance, and one which had some fans wondering if Willis might be on his way back. He wasn’t, Richard Butcher had been signed from Kettering not long before and it was clear to many that he was a replacement for Willis. Butcher was grounded, predictable, focused and talented, whereas Willis was just talented. Sadly, that wasn’t ever going to be enough.
He didn’t score again for the Imps, but crucially he wasn’t sent off either. In fact, he cleaned up his act, but it was too little, too late. Up until his January lay-off, he amassed eight yellow cards and two reds, but he picked up just one yellow in his last 14 matches, seven of which were starts. The beginning of the end was obvious: he was withdrawn at half time away at Exeter, then again after an hour away at Bury. By the beginning of April he was nothing more than a bit-part player, although he did appear in our 5-3 home win over Scunthorpe and came on as a late substitute in the play-off final.
The following season he played just three league games for City, 0-0 draws with Orient and Doncaster and a 3-0 thrashing at the KC Stadium. He was still very much a fan favourite, but Keith no longer wanted him in the first team. The style had evolved, we looked more like a 5-2-3 rather than the 4-4-2 which started the previous season, and there simply wasn’t room for the youngster.
He was loaned out to Keith Alexander’s old side, Northwich Victoria, but his performances were described as “lacklustre at best” and his 100% losing run in league games continued as he lost all four of his games at Northwich. His next loan was to Hereford united, who won 9-0 on his debut with him in midfield. It all seemed to be going well, he bagged against Margate and Barnet, but was sent off later in the game against the Bees. That led to his loan being cut short for a ‘serious breach of discipline’. He wasn’t wanted at Edgar Street, he wasn’t wanted at Sincil Bank, and still only 22, he was cut adrift.
His later career took in Halifax Town, Droylsden, Runcorn Halton, Stalybridge Celtic, Vauxhall Motors, Workington, Leigh RMI, AFC Telford and Witton Albion, but he never reappeared in the Football League.
I’d love to know what he’s doing now, as I bet he has a few stories to tell!