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Archive - Saturday, 30 June 2001
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Willie repaid Clarets faith
Legends: Willie Irvine
IF portions of humble pie were served in direct relation to the size of the gaffe, the newspaper reporter who wrote off Willie Irvine's professional career before it had started should have been tucking in for years.
Irvine, a schoolboy international, had caught the eye of the Burnley scouting network while playing amateur football in Northern Ireland in the late 1950s.
And despite overtures from Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Arsenal, the teenager decided to try his luck at Turf Moor.
Irvine was just one of a posse of young hopefuls to make the trip across the Irish Sea but the Clarets had evidently seen something not spotted by the man at the Belfast Telegraph.
"There were 33 trialists came over to England and on the back page of the Belfast Telegraph there was a profile of all the players. The reporter said I would be the only one who wouldn't getting picked. He was nearly right, I was the only one that did," said Irvine.
Perhaps the critic's view had been coloured by the fact that Irvine was playing only for local side Barne United, having left Linfield, then managed by Jackie Milburn.
Irvine had been a member of the reserve side at Linfield but didn't hang around where he felt not wanted.
"I was in the showers and I overheard them saying I was only playing because my brother was in the first-team.
"I thought 'I'm not having that' so I went and played for Barne United," he said.
Having pitched up for his trial with Burnley he was taken on after a month as a groundstaff boy in 1959, just as the Clarets were about to embark on their First Division championship-winning season.
The 16-year-old listened and learned from the likes of Jimmy Adamson and Jimmy McIlroy, but his future was not to be as an wing-half or inside forward. "I started as a midfield player and maybe I wasn't suited to being a midfielder. I was mediocre then Burnley put me up to centre-forward against Liverpool's 'C' team and I got a hat-trick.
"They kept me there then and I just carried on. I seemed to score goals as I went along," he said.
Irvine was a natural goalscorer and in one season with the Clarets' 'A', 'B' and reserve sides he found the net 66 times.
His debut for the reserves saw him bag a hat-trick, although he had to wait another three or four months to play at that level again.
"That was the beauty of Burnley. They looked after you and didn't push too much."
The Clarets didn't push him into the first-team either, but sneaked him in the back door when Harry Potts obviously felt he was ready at the end of the 1962/63 season when he was almost 20.
Burnley were away at Arsenal in their penultimate game and Irvine was chosen to make the trip, although in his mind only to help sponge man Ray Bennion carry the kit and smooth the preparations for the likes of Adamson, John Connelly, John Angus and Alex Elder.
He explained: "I had never been to London but away we went and we went straight from the train to the Black and White Minstrel Show. "I remember it so well and I was only there for the sightseeing. On the Saturday morning Ray said 'have a big breakfast' and then we took a taxi to Highbury.
"We got the kit sorted out then I had a tour of the stadium and I never thought anything about it.
"We went back to have lunch and Ray said 'don't have any fish and chips because the players will all be starving.'
"When we got back to Highbury I got the tie-ups out and I was changing studs here and there when Harry Potts came in at about half-past-two and read the team out.
"I thought he had mentioned my name and asked Ray if he had done, in a whisper.
"He said he had done and they'd done it this way not to make me nervous. We won 3-2 and I scored my first goal. That was my baptism."
Irvine played in the next game as well and scored a hat-trick against Birmingham City at Turf Moor as Burnley finished third in Division One. The goalscoring legend had been born.
Irvine still had to be patient, however, as Jimmy Robson and Andy Lochhead kept him out of the side at the start of the following year.
But despite playing just seven League games that season he still scored four times -- a sign of things to come during a phenomenal Clarets career that saw him score 97 goals in 144 starts and four susbtitute's appearances.
By the 1964/65 campaign he was becoming a regular and had also launched his international career.
Irvine and his brother Bobby had both been capped at schoolboy level, Bobby as a goalkeeper after Willie had relinquished the gloves, and Willie as an inside left where he was once marked by Terry Venables in a game at Watford's Vicarage Road. His full debut came in 1963 against Wales and of his 23 caps, 17 were earned with Burnley before he joined Preston North End in March, 1968.
He scored six goals for his country and couldn't stop finding the net for Burnley.
In the three seasons from 1964/5 Irvine plundered 78 goals and in partnership with Lochhead scored 118 times in the First Division.
It was the perfect partnership on and off the pitch and still thrives today, the pair set to work together again as match-day hosts at Turf Moor next season and also embarking on an after-dinner speaking routine.
"If it hadn't been for the likes of Alan Gilzean, Andy Lochhead should have had a lot of international caps. He was the strongest and hardest centre-forward I have ever seen.
"I could compliment him as much as he could me. We were a great double act," said Irvine.
In the 1965/66 season, Irvine scored 29 League goals as Burnley finished third in the table.
Only Geoff Hurst and Ron Davies with 30 each scored more.
However, Irvine's 37 in all competitions remains the the sixth-best post-war record haul and level with Jimmy Robson (1960/61) as a Burnley best.
"Scoring goals is instinctive. It's the best feeling in the world for a centre-forward and I never got tired of it," he said. "I always said I was deadly from two yards. I could lose a defender and worked hard on getting away from him. Andy and I used to work on our game during training and talk about whatever positions we would have on the park during a game.
"The chances came and they used to say to me if you get 10 chances and score one you've done your job.
"An awful lot of it is anticipation. You think you know where the ball is going to drop and you go for it. It doesn't always drop there but when it does, it's up to you then.
"It was down to concentration, as well. You have to blank out the crowd. And I went in where it hurts and that's how come my nose was broken nearly 15 times!"
Irvine rated Jimmy Greaves as the best finisher he had seen and of the current crop of strikers has plenty of time for Alan Shearer, Robbie Fowler and Burnley's current goal-getter Andy Payton, who has his sights on overhauling Irvine's record as the club's ninth leading scorer of all time.
Irvine's strike-rate is untouched, however.
"I always said I played in a great side. It was my hobby and I loved playing for Burnley," he added.
"I had some great moments and scored some great goals which I will never forget. I enjoyed every moment of it and I wouldn't dwell on any one particular goal.
"I played with some great players and I suppose I must have had something because I scored at international level as well. To do it at international level you've got to have a bit of a gift there somewhere.
"I'm not a big-headed lad at all but as the years have gone by people have said 'you were simply the best'. It's lovely to hear that, but when I was playing I was just playing for the best side."