All-Time Premier League: Burnley
Total Football at Turf Moor
Our tour of Lancastrian mill towns beginning with B concludes with the “Clarets” of Burnley – a club which qualifies for this competition by a quirk of the game’s history, but which has plenty of history of its own on which to draw.
In 1973, the Charity Shield was in trouble. For the third season in succession, neither the First Division champions nor the FA Cup winners cared to compete for the prize, and rather than cancel the Opening Day party, the Football Association looked down its list for alternative guests. Second Division champions Burnley beat Manchester City, the Shield’s holders, 1-0 for their fifth, and thus far their last, major honour. Thus, they meet the minimum needed for inclusion in this All-Time Premier League.
One is tempted to say that it shouldn’t count, but I’ve decided that it does – mainly because it’s less work that way. I toyed with the idea of leaving them out, and picking an all-star XI from the clubs that didn’t get in to make up the numbers, but I didn’t. By that point, I’d picked most of the Burnley team already; and, all things considered, I don’t think it’s significantly worse than the Bolton XI. So here we go.
1. Nick Pope, who last season became the second Burnley player to be named in the PFA’s Team of the Year for the top division, may yet earn this spot; but while he is ineligible the green jersey is contested by the only two goalkeepers to have won League championships with Burnley. Adam Blacklaw, an ever-present member of the ’59-’60 team, missed only two matches in six years from 1959 to 1965 – the first because Harry Potts wanted to rest his whole first XI for a European Cup tie, and the second because he was busy earning the first of his three international caps for Scotland. But among Burnley Number Ones, he is ranked Number 2. The substitutes’ bench would be an unfamiliar environment for him; but there he sits. Colin McDonald, the man he replaced, keeps him company – but they’ll need to be ready, because the man who puts them there is one to whom getting injured at inopportune moments is not unknown.
Jerry Dawson is Burnley’s all-time leading appearance-maker, with 569 in first-class competition between 1907 and 1929. Had it not been for the First World War, that total would have exceeded 700. Yet he is remembered most for a match he missed. On the eve of the FA Cup Final of 1914, Dawson was not feeling fully fit. He had been injured during a drawn semi-final match and had to be replaced for the replay. Dawson, it seemed, had recovered in time for the final; but his return to the team, a week before the big day, had come a week too early. He played in the club’s last League game before the Cup Final, only to get hurt again. Still sore six days later, and uncertain of his ability to play a whole ninety minutes, Dawson withdrew himself from the line-up. Burnley beat Liverpool 1-0; and although Dawson hadn’t played, both Burnley Football Club and the FA agreed that a twelfth winner’s medal be struck specially for him.
Seven years later, no special consideration was necessary as Dawson played his part in a record-breaking run. He was injured in the first game of the 1920-’21 season, which Burnley lost. Without him, and without centre-half Tommy Boyle, they lost the next two, falling to the foot of the table. For the fourth, both were reinstated, and both would remain in the team as they went unbeaten for their next 30 League matches, exceeding by eight the previous record. No team would have a longer such stretch in a single season until Arsenal’s “Invincibles” in 2003-’04. By season’s end, they had won the League by five points, and their total of 59 points had almost broken another record, set the season before by West Bromwich Albion with 60. Dawson did not miss another match all season, and his League Championship medal came with no asterisk attached. So did the two international caps he won the following season. Burnley were recognised as the best team in England, and Dawson as the best goalkeeper. For my money, he is the best in Burnley’s history.
2. At right-back is another record-holder. Among outfield players, no man made more first-class appearances for Burnley than John Angus. After signing professional forms for the club on his seventeenth birthday in 1955, Angus would wait a year and a day before being given his first-team debut against Everton. Up against Tommy Eglington, the birthday boy marked the Irish international outside-left out of the game.
It would be the first of his 521 appearances in first-class competition for Burnley, including 438 in the First Division. He was the first-choice right-back in the great team of the late fifties and early sixties, playing in all but one of the club’s 42 League matches in its championship-winning season of ’59-’60, five in the European Cup campaign that followed, and all eight in the cup run of ’61-’62. He played for England only once, but whether that was because he stood behind Jimmy Armfield and George Cohen in the queue or because he preferred to stay at home with his family is unclear.
Harry Potts’ team played a prototypical form of total football, and it started at the back. Although first and foremost a defender, “Cool John Angus” was calm and constructive in possession; and when he won the ball from a wing-forward (which he almost always would), the carefully controlled passes that followed would frequently bear fruit further forward. In fifteen years of first-class football, he scored only four goals himself, but his colleagues could thank him for his part in many more. It is this understated attacking ability which elevates him above Arthur Woodruff, a member of the “Iron Curtain” defence of ’46-’47, which won promotion and reached the FA Cup Final, in the shortlist for the right-back position. Woodruff, who failed to score at all in 292 games for Burnley, takes a seat on the bench, with ’20-’21 title-winner Len Smelt (no goals in 248 games) left out altogether.
3. As on the right side of defence, so on the left: Woodruff’s partner Harry Mather plays second fiddle to Angus’ more attack-minded team-mate Alex Elder. Mather played in 329 games for Burnley, not counting wartime competitions, between 1938 and 1955, and like Woodruff did not score a single goal. Elder, who played for Burnley between 1959 and 1967, made one more first-class appearance in the club’s colours than Mather and scored 17 times.
Signed from Glentoran in January 1959, when he was anything but an elder, he would spend the rest of the ’58-’59 season in Burnley’s second and third teams before being promoted to twelfth man in the first team for ’59-’60. It took him until the eighth match of the season to make the first XI, but once he did, nobody would get him out of it. Before an away game at Preston, wing-half Bobby Seith declared himself ill with a poisoned foot, forcing Tommy Cummings to centre-half and opening the left-back position for the eighteen-year-old Elder. He couldn’t stop Tom Finney scoring the only goal of the game, but he played well enough to keep his place.
For manager Harry Potts, Elder would prove to be the last piece of the puzzle his predecessors had left him. After Finney, marking almost any other right-winger must have seemed an easy task by comparison. He missed only one more match for the rest of the campaign as Burnley won the League championship – and that in order to make his debut for his country. Playing for Northern Ireland against Wales, he found himself facing a test similarly tough to marking Finney, with Cliff Jones his direct opponent. As at Burnley, he kept his place in the team, and he would later opine that starting with an especially hard game was good for him. In his career, he won 40 caps for his country, and the 34 he won while on Burnley’s books have him tied for third place in the club’s international’s list.
His displays on the international stage, and in the European Cup for his club, carried his reputation beyond Britain and Ireland; and when a Rest of the World all-star team was selected to play England for the FA’s centenary celebration in 1963, Elder was chosen, ahead of Giacinto Facchetti and Nilton Santos, as a backup for Karl-Heinz Schnellinger. Although somewhat slow on the turn, he was, like Angus, an expert at timing his tackles and a constructive passer of the ball. He also advanced forward more frequently than Angus, earning renown for his raiding runs down the left wing. His best goal-scoring season was ’65-’66, when Elder, now the club captain, scored 6 goals for his club in 46 games, although none would be as memorable as the one which he scored against them in their last League game of the campaign. Elder’s misplaced back-pass became an own goal and gave Leeds the win that put them into second place. Burnley, whose 55 points equalled the total with which they had won the League six years previously, had to settle for third. That, however, was still good enough to qualify for the following season’s Inter-City Fairs Cup, the competition having been opened to towns without trade fairs. Elder played in 4 games in the Fairs Cup, and 33 in all competitions that season, scoring 3 goals, but ’66-’67 was his last at Turf Moor.
In the summer of 1967, Burnley sold him to Stoke City for £50,000 – ten times what they had paid for him. He was still just 26, and could reasonably be expected to enjoy several more seasons in his prime, but the football fates seem to have decreed otherwise. Before he had kicked a ball competitively for his new club, Elder suffered an injury from which he never fully recovered. He spent six seasons at Stoke, in and out of the first team, making 104 first-class appearances and scoring one goal. He may have been one of Tony Waddington’s worst signings, but his legacy at Turf Moor was undiminished.
4. The FA Cup Final of 1962, contested by Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur, was known as “The Chess Board Final” for the pattern-weaving play of both teams, and the grand masters on the pitch were the two right-halves. While Danny Blanchflower skippered the ’Spurs, Jimmy Adamson captained the Clarets. He was John Angus’ wing-half, partnering him on the right side of defence, and the two shared more in common than a pair of initials. Both had been born in Northumberland, Angus in Amble and Adamson in Ashington, the famed factory of football players that had produced the Milburns and the Charltons. Both had been stolen from under the noses of Newcastle United, whose scouts had either not seen fit to sign them or not seen them at all, and had signed their first professional forms for Burnley at seventeen years of age. And both were cultured, constructive footballers who fit perfectly into the pass-and-move style of soccer that Harry Potts wanted.
In personal terms, that ’61-’62 season was his best in a distinguished career. In ’60-’61, Tottenham had taken the pennant from Burnley and become the first team to win the League and Cup double in the twentieth century. In ’61-’62, Burnley set out to equal the feat and re-establish themselves as the best team in England. With the bar raised, they made a push for both prizes; and with less than a month of the season left, their chances looked good. With their clever, composed and commanding captain holding the team together from the half-back line, the Clarets had started the season superbly, not losing any League points until November. Although the newly-promoted Ipswich Town had gained ground with a winning streak of their own, Burnley had held their place at the top of the table. On 9 April, they beat Fulham in a replayed FA Cup semi-final, and the double was on. Down the stretch, however, Burnley faltered. Of their remaining eight League matches, they won only one and lost four. In the Cup Final, Adamson was as imperious as ever, but Burnley lost 3-1. Two contentious calls by the referee made the difference. Considering Cup and League play together, Burnley had probably been the best team in the country, but they went home from Wembley with nothing but losers’ medals. Adamson, however, picked up a personal prize, being voted the Footballer of the Year for his efforts.
His tactical intelligence was recognised by the England selectors that summer, when they picked him as a playing coach for the World Cup in Chile, although he never got onto the pitch in an international match. When Walter Winterbottom resigned from the England manager’s job in 1963, it was to Adamson that the FA turned to replace him. The Burnley captain refused the job, and it went instead to Alf Ramsey, whose Ipswich team had been Burnley’s conquerors in ’61-’62. Adamson stayed at Turf Moor, and upon his retirement in 1964 he joined his club’s coaching staff, becoming Burnley’s first-team manager when Harry Potts was promoted to General Manager. This intelligence, which allowed him to play equally effectively as a defensive or an attacking half-back, stands him in good stead in the all-time Burnley XI. Here, he plays a withdrawn role in the defence, stepping out to support the midfield where necessary. George Halley, a different kind of wing-half who won the FA Cup in 1914 and the League in 1921, is among the substitutes.
5. This allows me to select an advanced centre-half; and between 1911 and 1923, Burnley had one of the best specimens of the species in Tommy Boyle. Boyle, born in Hoyland, near Barnsley, had played for Hoyland Star, his home-town club, and Elsecar Athletic before Barnsley, his local League club, signed him in 1906. In five years with the “Tykes,” he played 175 games and scored 19 goals, helping the team to the FA Cup Final in 1910, before Burnley bought him for a club record fee of £1,150. His debut for his new club came against his old, less than a week after his transfer.
Boyle improved Burnley immediately, being appointed club captain by the end of October; and when one looks at the club’s history, and his own, no player seems to have embodied its identity, his fortunes and misfortunes mirroring the club’s, as clearly as he did thereafter.
In his first season at Turf Moor, 1911-’12, the Clarets narrowly missed promotion to the First Division. In his second, they achieved it, scoring more goals than anyone else in the Football League, and reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup. In his third, at the same stage, he scored the goal that beat Sheffield United in a replay; and when Burnley beat Liverpool in the final, Boyle became the first man to receive the Cup from the King. In 1914-’15, they couldn’t repeat their success in the Cup, but their League position improved from twelfth to fourth. Boyle, as courageous on one field as on another, fought in the First World War. He suffered injuries sufficiently severe that he was expected never to play again. Battling back, he proved his doctors wrong; and when first-class football resumed in 1919, he and his colleagues picked up where they had left off. Over the first three seasons after the war, Burnley were the best team in England, at least as far as the League was concerned. In 1919-’20, 1920-’21 and 1921-’22, they were knocked out of the Cup in the second, third and first rounds respectively; but in the League they finished in second place, first place and third place. No other team managed two top-three finishes in the same period. The long-lived half-back line of Halley, Boyle and Watson, all three of whom had played in the cup-winning team before the war, was famous throughout football, and their names are known today by Burnley fans who never saw them play.
Boyle, the pivot, was the darling of local ladies, one of whom he married, and was appreciated at least as much by the men who packed the terraces at Turf Moor. A general of the Gerrard/Vieira/Keane type, he marshalled his men from the midfield, leading as much by example as by the encouragement he called out to his colleagues. He was a tough tackler; a precise passer; and, although he stood only 5’7, formidable in the air. He was also good going forward, scoring 7 goals in the championship-winning League campaign of 1920-’21 and 43 in 236 first-class appearances for Burnley in his career. He played in 29 League matches in 1919-’20, 38 in 1920-’21, and 26 in 1921-’22. The more often he played, the better Burnley performed; and how valuable he was to the team became even more apparent when he wasn’t there. After being injured in the ’21-’22 season, he spent ’22-’23 in the reserves, as Burnley fell to fifteenth place in the League table, before being sold to Wrexham in the summer. He and his club had started to slide simultaneously, though few could have anticipated how long the slide would be for either.
He would play just 7 games for Wrexham before becoming a coach and then a publican. Burnley spent the rest of the twenties struggling to survive in the First Division of football. Boyle; beset by familial, financial, behavioural and mental problems; struggled to stay in the first division of life. He lost his child, his livelihood, his marriage and eventually his sanity. In 1930, both Burnley and Boyle were relegated – one to the Second Division, the other to a psychiatric hospital. Each would spend the remainder of the decade there. Burnley would eventually emerge, being promoted in 1947. Boyle, who died in 1940, never would.
He is still revered today in Burnley, where even those who know nothing about football know what he looked like: his likeness can be seen on the inn-sign outside the Turf Hotel. His status as the finest centre-half in the club’s history has yet to be seriously challenged, and this wouldn’t be an all-time Burnley XI without him. He starts at Number 5, with more defensive options in Colin Waldron and Tommy Cummings available from the bench.
6. Billy Watson flanked Boyle on the left throughout his time at Turf Moor, and spent six more seasons playing for Burnley on top of this – three added on to either end of Boyle’s tenure at centre-half. He played 380 first-class games for the club, and probably would have had 500 had it not been for the First World War. In those games, he scored 20 goals and impressed the England selectors enough to be capped three times. On individual merit, he would be a worthy selection for this team, but to have him and Alex Elder in the same XI would weigh down the left side of the defence on the outside, with no-one to cover the inside unless a stopper centre-half were selected as well. For the sake of balance, the left-half position goes to Brian Miller, who made 455 first-class appearances for Burnley and 1 for England between 1955 and 1967. Like Watson, he could have had at least a half-century had it not been for bad fortune – in Miller’s case a knee injury that cut short his career when he was just thirty years old.
His closest comparison in today’s Burnley team is another BM who wears Number 6, and who captains the team (as did Miller for one season in ’64-’65); but Brian Miller was much more creative than Ben Mee. A withdrawn wing-half who could also play centre-half, Miller functioned as a fourth defender in Harry Potts’ team of the late fifties and early sixties. Out of possession, he played square with Jimmy Adamson or, more commonly, stopper centre-half Tommy Cummings, to form a flat back four. In possession, he became an extra man in the midfield, sometimes getting far enough forward to score. He played in all four of Burnley’s European Cup matches in ’60-’61, and in all eight of their Fairs Cup matches in ’66-’67, scoring three goals in those twelve matches. He scored 37 in his career, for an average of just over three goals per season.
The entirety of that career was spent at Burnley, and Brian Miller would not have wanted it any other way. Having been born in Hapton, three miles from Burnley, he was one of just three Lancastrians in the first XI of Harry Potts’ championship-winning team, and the only one who could be said to come from the club’s natural constituency. A cradle-to-grave Claret, Miller maintained his connection to the club after his playing career was over. He joined the club’s coaching staff, where he would fill several positions over the next 22 years, spending 7 of them as first-team manager. His achievements in that capacity were, in their own way, almost as impressive as his feats on the field had been, although they were accomplished at a much lower level of the league pyramid.
As a player, he had not spent a single season in even the Second Division. As a manager, he led the club into the Second Division from the Third in ’81-’82, before being sacked halfway through the ’82-’83 season. His dismissal came on the day of a League Cup quarter-final, to which he had taken the team against all expectations. Three years later, Burnley’s board of directors found itself in need of him again. Without him, the club had been relegated twice, back to the Third Division and then down to the Forth, and was in danger of falling out of the Football League altogether. Miller stewarded his men to safety before becoming a scout.
One could make a case for him as the manager of this team, but I’ve picked him as a player. Miller will mirror on the left Adamson’s role on the right, the two working out among themselves, play-by-play, which will step into midfield and which will stay back. They are certainly clever enough to do so; and with a half-back line constituting a college of captains, the full-backs and forwards will not want for instruction. If Miller is injured, or if the team needs a reshuffle of personnel and positions, Watson will be waiting to step in.
7. John Connelly, a colleague of Miller’s for eight years between 1956 and 1964, follows him on the team-sheet. Connelly was not quite the first of the semi-defensive wing-forwards, nor was he the first seen on British soil; but he was one of the first, and one of the best. Felix Lousteau, nicknamed “The Ventilator” for the way he gave air to his half-backs, was tracking back on the left wing for River Plate in 1941; and in 1948 at the latest the tactic was brought to Britain, with Manchester United manager Matt Busby instructing Charlie Mitten to play deep in that year’s Cup Final. (Did the then nine-year-old Connelly, one wonders, take inspiration?) Busby and Mitten’s manoeuvre was a one-off, designed to deal with the one-off wonder-winger that was Stanley Matthews. Matthews himself played deeper than the average wing-forward of his time, but he didn’t defend much. For him, as for the withdrawn wingers of Arthur Rowe’s Tottenham Hotspur team, playing deep was an almost entirely offensive move, designed to facilitate creative link-up play.
Connelly was different. He was a good attacker, capable of playing on either wing and beating his man on either side. If he went around on the outside, he could cross the ball with pinpoint accuracy for the strikers in the centre. If he cut inside, he could shoot with power and placement, and with either foot. He scored a team-leading 20 League goals in ’60-’61, and he is one of only eight players to score 100 or more goals for Burnley in first-class competition. But he was also as diligent in defence as he was dangerous on the attack. By tracking back to tackle, he provided protection for Angus and Adamson, which may have been almost as important as his forays forward.
His all-around excellence earned him a place in the England eleven in 1959, and he continued to win international caps even after the winger-unfriendly Alf Ramsey took over from Walter Winterbottom and his selection committee. In his career, Connelly scored 7 goals in 20 internationals His final cap came in the first game of the 1966 World Cup, a 0-0 draw with Uruguay. Although Connelly came as close to scoring as anyone, hitting the frame of the goal twice, Ramsey reshuffled his team for the match against Mexico and Connelly was out – for good. By then, he was a Manchester United player, and had won another League Championship on the right side of one of the most fluid forward lines in football history: Connelly, Charlton, Herd, Law, and Best. After the World Cup, however, he was sold to Blackburn Rovers and never played First Division football again. For which club Connelly played his best football may be open to debate, but it is a matter of record that he played the longest for Burnley. In my all-time Burnley XI, I’ve put him on the right wing, although he need not necessarily stay there. Willie Morgan, the man who replaced him there, and who made his own move to Manchester United in 1968, is his deputy.
8. Connelly’s right-wing partner is another man who scored 20 League goals in a championship-winning season. Bob Kelly is Burnley’s most-capped Englishman, and some who saw play him said that he was their best-ever player. In 1960, as Jimmy McIlroy staked his own claim to that honour, Kelly was one of fifty inside-forwards listed in Ivan Sharpe’s Personalities of the Field of Play. Sharpe described Kelly as “a faster and more mobile Raich Carter,” and said his style and efficiency as a playmaker rivalled that of David Jack. A look at the variety of cigarette cards, issued throughout his career, which bore his likeness, indicates that he was up for the fight physically as well. In 1922, the fresh-faced forward looked like a stereotypical poet or painter. A decade later, the same man resembled a prize-fighter. Wayne Rooney, perhaps, would be the closest comparison in recent times. When Burnley sold him to Sunderland in 1925, three years before Jack became the first five-figure footballer, Kelly himself commanded a transfer fee that broke the British record. His performances in the preceding twelve years were the reason why.
After several seasons in junior football, the Lancashire-born Kelly signed for the Clarets in November 1913, the month he turned 20. He made his Football League debut the same month, against Aston Villa, and scored; but he did not become a regular first-team player until the following season. He didn’t play in the FA Cup Final of 1914, but in 1914-’15 he scored 12 goals in 30 games. When first-class football resumed after the First World War, Kelly returned to his pre-war place in the Burnley team, where his performances impressed the England selection committee. He was handed his first international cap for a British Championship match against Scotland in April 1920. He scored twice in a 5-4 win later described by Jesse Pennington as the greatest game he ever played in. In ’20-’21, Kelly was the key that unlocked opposing defences as the Clarets won the League. By the time he left Burnley, he had played in 299 first-class games for the club, spread over eight seasons, in which he had scored 97 goals. Assists were not counted in those days, and how many goals he created for his colleagues will never be known.
After he left Burnley, he and his teams continued to play well, but he never reached the same heights he had scaled at Turf Moor. With Sunderland, and subsequently with Huddersfield Town, he finished in third place once and second place twice in the next two and a half seasons. He helped Huddersfield to the FA Cup Final twice, in 1928 and 1930, but they were beaten both times. He won three more international caps, two with Sunderland and one with Huddersfield, to go with the eleven he had earned as a Claret. After being transferred to Second Division Preston North End, he helped them into the First in 1934, but the next season found First Division football beyond him. He joined Carlisle United, for whom he played 12 games before retiring in 1936.
At his career’s end, he had done credit to every club he had played for; but if one has to pick one team for him, it’s a no-brainer. He played in more games, and scored more goals, for Burnley than for anyone else; it was while he was on Burnley’s books that he won most of his international caps; and it was at Burnley where he won his sole major honour. He takes the Number 8 jersey in the club’s all-time team, playing as a second striker alongside his centre-forward. If he drifts wide, Connelly can fill the space he vacates. The more direct Andy Lochhead, who scored 128 goals in 266 games for Burnley in the sixties, twice making five in a match, is on the bench.
9. Centre-forward is the most over-subscribed position in the eleven, and perhaps the most puzzling. The 32 “Clarets Legends” elected by Burnley fans in 2017 to have their images displayed outside the Turf Moor ground include four centre-forwards eligible for consideration. Joe Anderson, top scorer of the 1920-’21 team, is not included among them; and neither is Bill Holden, a star of the early fifties who scored 78 goals in 199 games for the club. Not knowing enough to pick a clear favourite, I will defer to the Burnley fans’ judgement and limit myself to the four that they honoured thus. In choosing between them, I will have to rely on crude statistics.
George Beel holds the club record for goals in first-class competition (188 in 337 games between 1923 and 1932), goals in the top division (142 in 252 games), and goals in a single season (35 in 39 games in ’27-’28). His First Division goals-per-game ratio of 0.563 compares favourably to Ray Pointer’s 0.529 (118 in 223 between 1957 and 1965) and Bert Freeman’s 0.417 (40 in 96 from 1913 to 1921). Willie Irvine, however, beats them all with an average of 0.619. Playing for Burnley between 1963 and 1968, Irvine scored 78 goals in 126 League matches, all in the First Division. In all first-class competitions, he scored 97 in 148. That he didn’t score more can be largely attributed to a slow start caused by a lack of opportunities, and to an injury he suffered in 1967 at the age of 23. It is true that Beel played at a high level for longer; but it is also true that Irvine earned 23 caps for Northern Ireland, whereas Beel never won international honours. When one considers that whereas Beel’s best goal-scoring feats were achieved in the topsy-turvy environment of the late twenties, Irvine’s were accomplished against the better-organised defences of the mid-sixties, I think Irvine emerges as the best.
He arrived at Turf Moor from Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, in 1960, having been invited to a trial by Jimmy McIlroy, and spent the next three seasons in the club’s youth and reserve teams. At first, with Pointer, Lochhead and Jimmy Robson ahead of him, he struggled to get a game even in the reserve team; but when Lochhead broke into the first XI, he cleared a path for Irvine in the second. So impressive was he there, and such was depth of talent at Turf Moor, that his first game in first-class football came not for his club for his country. In April 1963, before he had played a game in Burnley’s first team, he won his first international cap, representing Northern Ireland against Wales. Harry Potts could hardly ignore him for much longer; and when Lochhead was injured ahead of the team’s last away game of ’62-’63, he gave his young Irish international his big chance.
Irvine took it, scoring the game’s first goal as Burnley beat Arsenal 3-2. He remained in the team for their last home game of the campaign, and scored a hat-tick as Birmingham City were beaten 3-1. He played only infrequently in ’63-’64, but showed his promise in his few outings, scoring 4 goals in 7 games. In ’64-’65, the Irvine/Lochhead problem was resolved as Potts played them both. Irvine was installed as the first-choice centre-forward, with Lochhead moving to inside-right. The partnership proved be highly fruitful, and any fears the manager had had that the two were too similar to play together must have been quickly forgotten. Lochhead scored 21 goals, Irvine 22. In ’65-’66, they were even better, shooting the club back into continental competition with a combined 60. Lochhead made 23 goals, Irvine an astounding 37. His 29 League goals led the First Division and set a record for all seasons since World War II. Halfway through ’66-’67, he had a decent chance of breaking his own record when he was injured in a cup-tie against Everton. He missed the rest of the season as Burnley fell to fourteenth-place finish and were knocked out of the Fairs Cup in the fourth round.
He returned to the team at the start of ’67-’68, but his special touch had gone. 6 goals in 17 League matches constituted a respectable return, and he made history when he became the first Burnley player to score as a substitute; but whereas he had once been a great goal-scorer, now he was merely good. His relationship with Harry Potts became strained, and he was transferred to Preston North End in March. For Preston, and subsequently for Brighton and Hove Albion, he scored several goals in the lower divisions, but he never played in the First Division again. By the time he was 30, he was out of professional football altogether.
Burnley fans may rightly wonder what he could have done had it not been for that tackle at Goodison Park; but even in a career as short as his, he did enough to earn a place in the club’s all-time XI. Fed by Connelly’s crosses and Kelly’s creative inside passing, he spearheads the attack. Beel and Pointer both get substitutes’ seats, with Freeman omitted.
10. The English Football Hall of Fame contains five men who played for Burnley, and only one who can be principally identified with the club. Mike Summerbee, Ian Wright and Paul Gascoigne spent short spells at the club near the end of their careers; and Tommy Lawton, who graduated from the ground staff at Turf Moor, played 25 games in the Second Division before being sold upwards to Everton. Wright has already been seen in the Arsenal squad, and Gascoigne and Summerbee will be considered for Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City. There can be no doubt, however, that the Clarets can claim Jimmy McIlroy as their own.
Born in Antrim in 1931, the young McIlroy was as serious a student as a sportsman, and at seventeen was tempted to take a tuition-paid place at a technical school. Because his family needed the bonus, however, he instead accepted another offer – to play professional soccer. The engineering profession’s loss would be the beautiful game’s gain. After eighteen games for Glentoran in the Irish Football League, he had made it clear to connoisseurs of the sport that they were witnessing something special. The Clarets came calling in March 1950, and for £7,000 they took him to England.
Within a matter of months, McIlroy made his debut in Burnley’s first team, replacing Harry Potts at inside-left days before his nineteenth birthday. From that day, for more than twelve years, he would prove impossible to dislodge from the team – injuries and internationals notwithstanding. Those international honours were quick to come, the Northern Ireland selectors clearly keeping a close watch on him from across the sea. His earned his first cap for his country in 1951, playing against England in the British International Championship. He would not miss another match in that tournament until 1960.
By then, he had helped his country reach its first ever World Cup, the 1958 tournament in Sweden. McIlroy had scored a goal as Northern Ireland beat Italy in a play-off to qualify; and in Sweden had shown his skill on soccer’s grandest stage. He and his compatriots beat Czechoslovakia, then a great power in the game, twice, and drew 2-2 with West Germany. McParland scored five goals, but it was the midfield partnership of McIlroy and Danny Blanchflower that made the team tick.
His combination in the Burnley team with Jimmy Adamson was no less effective. McIlroy was described as “Burnley’s brain” in the sporting press; and if that was unfair to Adamson, the two might more accurately be described as twin lobes of that powerful organ. Adamson, the conservative and calculating right-half, was the left lobe who held the team together; McIlroy, the quick-witted, creative schemer, was the right lobe who pulled their opponents apart. In ’61-’62, the year Adamson won the Footballer of the Year award, McIlroy was runner-up. Had he not been injured near the end of that season; he might have beaten his colleague to the award, and the Clarets could have won the double. He missed five of the team’s last ten League matches, and played through the pain for the other five. Burnley won only one of those ten matches, and lost the Cup Final with McIlroy still playing at reduced capacity. That season, probably his best, would be his last full season in Burnley’s colours. He had fallen foul of Bob Lord, the Burnley chairman, by making friends with a rival director; and in February 1963 he was sold to Stoke City, sacrificed on the altar of boardroom politics. He had made 439 First Division appearances for Burnley, still a club record for outfield players, in which he had scored 116 goals. He was, and still is, Burnley’s most-capped player, with 51 internationals.
He would enjoy two and a half successful seasons at Stoke. Alongside Stanley Matthews and Dennis Viollet, he won promotion in 1963 and reached the League Cup Final in 1964. But Burnley was where he belonged, and when he left football after a few years in club management, it was there that he settled. There, “The Prince of Inside-Forwards” became a bricklayer, before the Burnley Express made him a sportswriter. A Claret to his dying day, he could frequently be seen at Turf Moor, where a stand was named after him in 1999.
In the all-time Burnley XI, I have no hesitation in putting him on the pitch. One can argue about who should play in most positions; but McIlroy is one man whom this team cannot do without. Martin Dobson, a Charity Shield winner in 1973, is in the squad as a substitute inside-left, but I suspect his opportunities will be limited.
11. At outside-left, one cannot be so certain. Here, there are five candidates, not one of which is clearly better than the others. Among those who played the position, Brian Pilkington, who played exactly 300 League games for Burnley between 1951 and 1961, is the club’s leading appearance-maker in the top division. Gordon “Bomber” Harris, who replaced him, played in slightly fewer first-class games for the Clarets (313, between 1959 and 1967, to Pilkington’s 340) but scored slightly more goals (81 to 77). Each won one England cap, filling in for a far more famous player who happened to be injured.
Neither of these men were chosen in the “Clarets Legends” vote, but Ralph Coates and Leighton James were. James, in three different spells covering nine years between 1970 and 1989, made 335 League appearances in the club’s colours; and although most were in the lower divisions, he did make it into the PFA’s First Division Team of the Year in 1975. While registered at Burnley, he also won 23 of his 54 caps for Wales. Coates, whose emergence in the first team forced Harris inside, made fewer appearances (261) and scored fewer goals (32) than any of his competitors for the position, but his creativity and versatility make him a strong candidate nonetheless. From his first-team debut in 1963 to his departure for Tottenham Hotspur in 1971, he played every forward position except centre-forward. With John Connelly capable of switching from the right wing to the left and back again, having another wing-forward who could do the same would help the team to get the best out of both.
But there’s another way for a winger to complement Connelly, and that’s by cutting inside when he switches flanks. With Kelly capable of dropping back into midfield, the space will be there for Louis Page to do just that. Page, capped seven times for England, is the club’s highest-scoring left-winger, with 115 goals in 259 games between 1925 and 1932. If one restricts oneself to First Division games, that tally is reduced to 97 in 199, still more than any of his competitors managed in all first-class competition. In 1926, manager Albert Pickles put Page at centre-forward, leaving out Beel, for a match against Birmingham City. Page was said to be angry at being played out of position, but ended up scoring six goals in that game, setting a club record that still stands. I suspect he wasn’t so upset after the game, and perhaps came away with a new-found confidence in his ability to play multiple positions. That’s what I’m banking on in picking him at outside-left. As is the case with most wing-forwards of his time, questions remain of how well he would do his defensive duties; but with Connelly shuttling up and down the right wing, and with Kelly capable of becoming an extra man in the midfield, this matters less than it otherwise would. If it doesn’t work, Coates can come off the bench.
The formation can be considered a cross between those of the club’s two First Division title-winning teams. In defence mode, the shape is roughly the 4-4-2 of 1960. In attack, with full-backs or wing-halves advancing, and McIlroy moving upfield to join his fellow forwards, it may resemble the 2-3-5 of 1921. Harry Potts is the man charged with managing the transition between the two.