Willie Irvine: My story, part one

WILLIE Irvine stood at the end of Andy Lochhead’s hospital bed in total disbelief.

As strike partners in the mid-1960s, the Burnley duo were some of the best in the business.

Together, they were formidable, scoring 118 goals between them in three seaons, and Lochhead was one of the most fearsome competitors of his generation.

Yet, there he was, lying gravely ill and overcome with emotion as soon as he saw his old pal walk through the door.

“The big man was in tears with his arms around me,” said Irvine, recalling the serious health scare Lochhead suffered 10 years ago.

“I was heartbroken to see him like that. But I said to him ‘Come on’, and thankfully, he eventually came round.”

A decade on, Irvine’s eyes still well up when he recounts that day.

Irvine came from a big family. Little did he know that, on leaving home at 16 in 1958, an even bigger one was awaiting him at Burnley.

Their bond was more like a brotherhood. Neither was ready to part with the other, and Lochhead made a full recovery.

Times were tough in the Irvine household when he was a boy. He was the youngest of 18 children. Growing up in the seaside town of Carrickfergus, 12 miles north of Belfast, he lived with seven siblings and his mother, Agnes.

His father Alec had died when he was only young, following an accident during the Blitz in Belfast. After that, his mother took it upon herself to be all things to all children.

“My mother was tremendous with me, although she was out at work for most of the day to earn enough money to look after us.

“We lived off the main road connecting Larne and Belfast and when she wasn’t working she would sit by the roadside and mend the bicycles of people passing by to earn extra money.”

His brothers and sisters were a great support unit too, although he was wary of his brother, Bobby.

Had it not been for his scare tactics, though, perhaps Irvine would have followed an altogether different career path.

Good at maths, chemistry and German at school, he was urged to go to university but limited family finances meant that wasn’t an option, plus football was his passion.

Yet the prolific centre forward started out as a goalkeeper, until brother Bobby threatened him.

Irvine caught the eye playing for Sunnylands Primary School and got invited for trials with Northern Ireland schoolboys. But he never went.

“Bobby’s a year and five months older than me and he said he would batter me if I went. That’s when I started to play outfield,” smiled Irvine, who went on to play for Linfield third team and the reserves, Linfield Swifts, as well as local amateur side Barn United before being selected for trials with Burnley.

As he waited for the boat from Belfast to Heysham, along with 32 others hoping to become professional footballers in England - with money from his brothers and sisters in his pocket, dressed in a blazer with too-short sleeves – the daily newspaper drew his attention.

On the back page were individual pen pictures of each of the better trialists, with the Belfast Telegraph’s verdict on who would, and wouldn’t, get a deal.

They predicted only one would return without a contract. Him.

“According to them, I was the only one of the 33 that wasn’t going to get a deal,” he said.

“I didn’t let it bother me. I just came over and did my trial. It didn’t make me want to do any to prove people wrong.

“I was too young to take it all in I suppose, I just thought I’d go there and do my best.

“After the trial we all got called in to see Harry Potts. One by one the lads were coming out and putting their thumbs down.

“I was about halfway down the line and expected to do the same. But Harry said ‘I’d like to offer you a contract. I want you to stay at Burnley Football Club’.

“I was chuffed to bits.”

The Clarets weren’t an Academy in the modern day sense, but their reputation for youth development had spread far and wide.

Which is why, out of a host of teams that had taken an interest in the young Irvine during a Northern Ireland amateur team trial when he was just 15, including Manchester United, Arsenal, Wolves and Bristol City, his mentor, former Fleetwood Town boss Jimmy Murphy steered Irvine in the direction of Turf Moor.

“There were some really good players around me,” said Irvine.

But it was a key, senior figure that had the biggest impact on his early career.

“The first person I met when I got down to Gawthorpe was Jimmy McIlroy,” he recalled, “and the first thing he said was ‘How can you play football in those boots?’ “They were the old fashioned ones with the strap across and hammered-in studs. I couldn’t afford new ones.

“He gave me a pair of his own when I got up to the ground. He took me under his wing really.

“He soon enlisted me as his babysitter. He and his wife, Barbara, were wonderful, and I’m still friends with his children, Paul and Ann “I think the world about Jimmy. And what a tremendous footballer he was. Right up there among the best.

“I never played with him for Burnley but he was a Northern Ireland team-mate.

“I used to love watching him though.

“Because the youth team kicked off at 2pm at Gawthorpe we would always make it back to the ground to catch the last 20 minutes or so of the home games.

“In one game against Spurs, Jimmy had the ball in the corner flag, Tony Marchi was trying to get it off him but Jimmy was just standing there, swaying from side to side. Dave Mackay came flying along the touchline screaming that he was going to ‘do him’ but Jimmy just shoved the ball between Marchi’s and Mackay’s legs at the same time, went off the pitch and crossed for Ray Pointer to stick it in at the far post.

“Those were the wee tricks he had. He was so gifted.

“I tried it a couple of times and the crowd starting booing me, although Willie Morgan did score with a header from it once. That was a one-off for me, but it was even more rare for Willie to score with his head!

“He was one of the greatest wingers I’ve ever seen, very similar to Stanley Matthews with the way he could beat a man, but I thought Willie was far superior.

“It’s always the goalscorer who takes the glory, but he did a lot for me getting to the byeline and putting the crosses in.”

In team-mate Lochhead, he found one of his greatest friends, and the best strike partnership he ever experienced.

“I broke into the first team when Andy had been left out. I’d been playing with Ray Pointer and Jimmy Robson then Andy came back in and we hit on something,” said Irvine.

“He was a tremendous player and used to take all the weight off me.”

The bond they shared off the pitch was paramount to their success on it.

“He came up to me one day after training and said ‘What are you doing tonight?’” Irvine continued.

“We were going to a place above Great Harwood and he asked if he could come.

“After that we went everywhere together - even on holiday.

“We both do the ground tours on matchdays and always bump into each other. Our groups end up going around together and the banter always flies. We had a really close relationship and it’s still going to this day.”

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