« Maurice Gillis taught me the tricks of the trade. As one of the first stars of the team, he guided us young players, en allowed us all the flourish on the pitch. »
– Jean Capelle, Standard Liège top goalscorer in history
When Maurice Gillis is dropped into the first team at the age of 19, Belgium is in the middle of the First World War. A large part of the Standard Liège first team had already left the club by that time to strengthen the front line. Key players such as Paul Bouttiau, Maurice Grignard, Edmond ‘t Kint de Roodenbeke and Marcel Deltour who had put the club on the rails to the first division never returned, and passed away at too young an age.
It was against this background that young Maurice grew up in Liège. At the age of 14 he enrolled at Standard. “I grew up in Coronmeuse, and went to school at the Saint-Barthélemy Institute. Both Jean Dupont and Jacques Pirlot were in my class. Incredible to know that we would play together for Standard a couple of year later.” he smiles. “My parents didn’t allow me to play football however in those early years. I did secretly play during school tournaments, and went I got home injured one day, I can assure you that emotions were running high at home. I had to pauze my footballing activities immediately. Only a while later I was allowed to play with my friends in the local neighbourhood. And I did quite well, as Standard management came around asking me to rejoin the club that I did already belong to! My only question was to play on the Sunday morning, which the club refused. As I didn’t accept the FA decided to ban me for life.”
In the meanwhile Standard was a club with an ever growing popularity following the promotion to the first division in 1909. Despite the daily violence of the war and the harsh conditions, the Liège people continued as much as possible to rally Sclessin. After all, people needed to get away from it all. “One day I attended one of the Standard games and i was immediately sold. It was clear that my heart was red and white, and the very next day I knocked on their door again, and was quickly reinstated.” And so Maurice continued through the wartimes to train and go through all the youth ranks to finally play his first match five years further on in 1917, in the annual Standard Liège Whitsun tournament against Royal Antwerp F.C..
In occupied Belgium, these games were exclusively practice matches, as the Belgian F.A. had stopped the national league games for obvious reasons. As a result Standard played in the regional league of Liège, whilst also organising many matches for the benefit of the war victims and their families. Indeed, solidarity has been one of the core values of the club since the very beginning.
It was Camille Van Hoorden who gave Maurice Gillis his debut. Van Hoorden was an ex-international and earned his stripes in Brussels football with Racing Club de Bruxelles. He would guide the Rouches through the war period, relying largely on the rising star that Maurice quickly became.
The striker was a scourge for many defenders in the province. Under his impulse, the Rouches gradually began to crawl out of the hole they ended up in after the only relegation in the club’s history. Magnified by the war, the club was in a sporting and financial malaise. But with the help of among others Maurice Gillis, Marcellin Waroux and René Dohet, the Rouches started florishing again to become a formidable opponent.
At first this led to a title in the regional league, but the big leap came just after the war when the national league had resumed. It’s 1921 when the Rouches finally qualify for promotion to first division. A level they would never leave since then. A record that still stands to this day!
The team that secured the promotion was built around Gillis. The Liège born striker didn’t stop scoring and would consistently record double digits in the following seasons. Something that no striker had ever achieved in the young history of the club, and which made him the first real top striker for the Rouches. It was therefore no surprise that it was his goals in the deciding matches in Mechelen and Leuven that secured the promotion.
His talent was not limited to Liège area. When the national competition was resumed, Maurice was also noticed by the national coach and started a career as a Belgian international in 1922. “I made my debut for the Red Devils in Amsterdam on May 7th 1922 against Holland. Belgium won that game 1:2 and I scored my first goal.” He would play a total of 23 games for the Red Devils, in which he scored 8 times. He also came played for Belgium during the Summer Olympics in Paris, in 1924.
With the Rouches he missed out of the Belgian title at two occassions. In both 1926 and 1928, Standard had to settle for the title of vice-champion, each time behind Beerschot.
At the then blessed age of 31, and after a serious knee operation, Gillis decided in 1929 to draw a line under his active playing career. Physical fatigue and an incident in the game against Racing Club de Gand resulted in an unjustified lifelong suspension. Something that his lawyer Oscar Vankesbeeck, later chairman of Racing Club Mechelen, managed to reduce to one season. But to no avail, Maurice quit his playing career.
However, his departure, and especially the lack of his important goals, left a big gap. The Rouches go from a fight for the title very quickly to a fight against relegation. To accompany the new generation, Maurice agrees to exchange his position as a member of the Board of Directors at Standard to put on his football boots once more. In a more withdrawn position, he brings the young team, including the debuting Roger Petit, back to calm waters. He also keeps an eye on launching the career of his true successor, Jean Cappelle, who would make it the top scorer of all time for the Liège based club.
For Maurice, more than anything else, it is the signal to celebrate his final farewell in 1935, after a career that saw him score 135 goals in 275 games. It makes him the 15th player in the eternal ranking in terms of played league matches. Maurice was quite a character, on and off the pitch. When he return playing in 1931, the club paid its players 500 Belgian Francs (12 euro) in case of a victory. “Yes that’s true, but I always refused that money, because I played for fun, not to be paid.” Also on the pitch, Maurice wasn’t the easiest person. “I remember especially the games with referee van Praag. He was the reason i got suspended. From then on he tried to make things up. When i saw he would be the referee of one of our games, I gave my captain’s band to someone else so I didn’t have to shake his hand. I also remember that one day he awarded me a penalty we didn’t deserve, so I just kicked it towards the corner flag.”, he smiles.
(c) Marc Coudijzer – November 2020
Date of birth: 5 November 1897, In Liége
Deceased: 22 March 1980, In Liège
Affiliated at Standard: 6 May 1912- 30 September 1960
Trophies with Standard: 0 – promotion to 1st division (1921)
International games / goals: 23 / 8
1912 – 1917
Standard Club Liégeois (16)
1917 – 1935
Royal Standard Club Liégeois (16)
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup
Belgian F.A. Cup
Belgian League Cup