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The life and career of Burnley legend John Connelly
A footballer from another generation, John Connelly - who died yesterday aged 74 - was adored wherever he went. Matt Donlan looks at his life and career . . .
AS the sad news about the death of John Connelly began to filter through yesterday morning, it seemed like the strangest of coincidences that an ‘on this day’ feature appeared on the internet.
It read that on October 25, 1961, goals from Burnley duo Ray Pointer and John Connelly gave England a 2-0 win over Portugal at Wembley.
As fans of a certain generation wiped away a tear of sadness, the fact that 51 years ago two Clarets scored the goals for the national team – in a match featuring legends on either side in the shape of Bobby Charlton and Eusebio – would be lost on followers of the game where the modern ‘heroes’ court as much front page news as they do back page headlines.
Back then the players finished the game, hit the bath and then went out on the town with their fans a couple of hours later.
It was football of, and for, a different generation – and John Connelly was a player from a different generation.
He was a joiner turned footballer turned Brierfield fish and chip shop owner who never forgot where he came from, and never forgot those who were there with him as he rose to glory.
John’s footballing career won him admirers at all of his clubs. During his time with Burnley, Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers and Bury he was a winger who could dazzle, while off the field he made lifelong friends along the way – and post-career garnered a whole new set of fans of his fish and chips.
Connelly’s Plaice became a mecca, a must-visit chippy with food just as good as the conversation.
Standing behind his counter, John would chew the fat with football fans while cod and chips fried.
He rarely broadcast his footballing career and would never enter debate about the merits or otherwise of the modern day wage – but you knew he had been there and you couldn’t miss the giant painting of the 1962 Cup Final between Burnley and Spurs hanging proudly on the wall.
The eagle eyed could spot in the picture that the man flying down the wing bedecked in claret and blue was the very same as was chatting away in his ‘chippy uniform’ of white coat and hat.
Over the years a few outsiders were open-mouthed when the realisation hit.
As a player, Connelly’s mesmeric skill earned the praise of no lesser light than George Best who was fulsome in his book. This was a man who was a League champion and an FA Cup runner-up with the Clarets. He also won the league with Manchester United and was with England for two World Cups – in 1962 and the winning 1996 side.
While at Old Trafford as a team-mate of Best, he was at the start of football’s celebrity culture.
A few years ago John’s wife Sandra appeared in a TV programme about the WAGS of 66. You got the feeling that sort of title didn’t sit too easily.
John was a man from humble beginnings in St Helens. He was spotted while playing for his hometown club in a game with Rolls Royce in Barnoldswick.
Burnley had sent scouts to watch another player but were so impressed with Connelly that they took him to Turf Moor and had him on a contract in days.
Aware of the fickle nature of football fate, his father insisted he kept up his work as a joiner and took a job at Bank Hall pit just in case football never worked out.
Because of that, John was viewed as ‘one of our own’ by the Longside. The fans adored him. The football world adored him.
Yet for all of his playing glory, outside this footballing hotbed of East Lancashire, many people connect his name with Alf Ramsay’s ‘wingless wonders’ of the 1966 World Cup.
John, by then a Manchester United player, took to the field in the first game of the tournament against Uruguay. But the South Americans showed no interest in attack and England couldn’t break through and the match finished 0-0.
Ramsay made changes to his team and John was left out and the rest, as they, is history.
He never pulled on the Three Lions shirt again. In later years he admitted to being ‘choked’ at his omission but was always fiercely proud at being part of the greatest time in the nation’s football history.
He didn’t get a winner’s medal in 1966 – but after decades of campaigning from fans, John and the rest of the squad members finally received their reward three years ago when it was decided they should finally be honoured.
John grinned at the reward, he was thrilled to bits with his part in that famous triumph at Wembley being rewarded.
The 40-odd year wait for a long overdue prize suddenly seemed worth it for a man regarded as one of the nice guys off the field and lethal on it.
For an outside half, a winger in modern parlance, John’s career goals came at a ratio of better than one in three games – a strike rate that many strikers now or at any time would envy.
Living in picturesque Pendleside for decades, John and his family were familiar faces and he always had the time of day for a chat.
He was also a man who put something back into the community that gave him all the adulation over the years and he helped keep the magistrates’ court system ticking over as he served as a Justice of the Peace, mainly at Reedley.
For years John and a couple of his old mates used to enjoy a Wednesday night out around Brierfield and Nelson.
One week he put a pub football bore in his place by digging into his pocket and pulling out an England cap.
From that moment on the bore listened rather than spouted when John spoke about football.
Once in the long gone and much missed Wagon and Horses pub, across the road from Connelly’s Plaice, the then Burnley player and Sunderland legend Gary Rowell was receiving the adulation of a group as he held court in the corner of the bar and recounted stories of his time in the game.
John walked in – and Rowell, a real student of the game, told the fans they should be looking at John.
“Now he WAS a footballer,” said Rowell. “And his chips are something else”.
Gary Rowell had hit the nail on the head.
LIFE AND TIMES OF A BURNLEY LEGEND JOHN CONNELLY
Born: July 18, 1938
Height: 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m)
Position: Outside forward Senior career: 1956–1964: Burnley 265 games 105 goals, 1964–1966: Manchester United 80 games 22 goals, 1966–1970: Blackburn Rovers: 149 games 36 goals, 1970–1973: Bury 128 games 37 goals National team: 1959–1966 England 20 games 7 goals Honours: Burnley: League Title 1960, FA Cup runner-up 1962, Manchester United: League Title 1965 JOHN Connelly was spotted by Burnley while playing Lancashire Combination football for St Helens, his hometown club.
He made his debut away at Leeds United on March 11, 1957, but it took two seasons for Connelly to gain a permanent place in the Burnley first team, which he did in the 1958–59 season, scoring 12 goals from 37 appearances, and ending the season as the team’s second top scorer.
He was predominantly a right winger who could also play on the left. For a winger, he was always a prolific goalscorer, scoring 105 times for Burnley in 265 appearances.
In the 1959–60 season, Connelly played a crucial part in helping Burnley to end as league champions. He scored 20 goals in 34 league appearances.
He missed the vital last game against Manchester City that gave Burnley the title as he was in hospital having a cartilage operation.
In the following three seasons, Connelly had a key role at the Clarets and scored plenty of goals to help Burnley finish fourth, second and third.
In addition to finishing second in the 1961–62 season, Burnley reached the FA Cup final where they were beaten 3-1 by Tottenham Hotspur.
In the 1963–64 season, the emergence of a Scottish winger Willie Morgan meant Connelly was forced to play on the left wing and in April 1964 he was sold to Manchester United for £56,000.
He stayed at Old Trafford for just over two seasons, making 113 appearances and scoring 35 goals.
At the start of the 1966–67 season, Connelly was transferred to newly relegated Blackburn Rovers for £40,000.
He played at Ewood Park for four years, but was unable to help get them back into the top flight. He was released by Blackburn in May 1970 and signed for Bury where he spent three years before retiring in May 1973.
Connelly made his England debut while still a Burnley player, on October 17 1959, against Wales at Ninian Park.
He played 20 games for England in all and scored seven goals. He was a member of the England squad in both the 1962 and 1966 World Cups
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