Willie Irvine: My story, part two

Lancashire Telegraph: MEMORIES: Willie Irvine MEMORIES: Willie Irvine

Burnley legend Willie Irvine played with some of the best players of his generation, in the second part of his life story he talks about his time with George Best and how he heard about his international call-up through a late night knock on the door.

“THEY call people from Carrickfergus ‘characters’,” smiled Willie Irvine. He couldn’t have had a more appropriate birthplace.

He didn’t just love to entertain on the pitch, making crowds go wild with the goals he scored, he’s a born entertainer off it, if the bar at his Worsthorne home is anything to go by.

Clarets legend Ian Britton can often be found ‘chez Irvine’ on matchdays, with the pair dissecting that afternoon’s game, probably with the host’s favourite band, Boyzone, providing the soundtrack.

Irvine has lived in England three times longer than he did in Carrickfergus, but he has always stayed true to his roots.

The 66-year-old’s soft Irish accent has always stayed intact.

“I was only 16 years and two weeks in Ireland and I’ve been nearly 51 over here, but I haven’t tried to lose my accent,” he said.

“I never gave it a thought. I was just myself. I’m an Irishman, and I should talk Irish.”

Irvine hadn’t played higher than Burnley’s reserves – scoring for fun in the Central League and winning the 1962/63 title – when he earned his first Northern Ireland cap, and the call-up came out of the blue.

He was 18 at the time, living in digs on the top floor of a three-storey house in Piccadilly Road in Burnley, when he heard a bang on the door at half past midnight.

He poked his head out of the window to find well-known local reporter Noel Wild standing on the doorstep.

“He shouted up: ‘Are you Willie Irvine? Do you know you’ve been picked for Northern Ireland?’ “I didn’t. I hadn’t even played for Burnley’s first team, but it was all down to Jimmy McIlroy.

“He had a column in Northern Ireland’s equivalent of the News of the World every Sunday, like I do in the Lancashire Telegraph now ... giving his opinion on things and what have you. He kept mentioning my name, usually when I’d scored for the reserves that week.”

Irvine made his debut in a 4-1 defeat to Wales, in Belfast, in 1963, and it was on international duty that he met George Best. The two became room-mates and firm friends. “I was 18, George was only 16, so because we were the babies in the team they put us together,” said Irvine, who was unaware of the demons that would haunt Best later on, and ultimately cost him his life.

“I never saw him with an alcoholic drink. All that must have happened after he stopped playing.

“He was addicted to women though!

“But he was the kindest, nicest lad you could ever meet in your life.

“People adored him. I’ve even seen people cutting pieces of his hair off for keepsakes, but he would just shrug his shoulders.

“George Best was without doubt an amazing footballer. You had to get on his wavelength, but that was difficult because he was way above everyone else. He picked me out two or three times and helped me score.

“When we were with Northern Ireland a friend of mine would hire me a car and, on our day off, George, Jimmy Nicholson and myself would head out on our day off and see our families.

“That was our ritual, and was typical of the Northern Ireland lads.”

Family is everything to Irvine, who entered Northern Ireland's Hall of Fame in 2005.

He married Burnley girl Rita 44 years ago this year, made his home in Worsthorne and had three sons, Darren, Stephen and Jonathan, who all live nearby. When they’re not working, the couple love spending time with their eight grandchildren.

Irvine is employed by Aeropia Ltd but is still involved in football, looking after guests at Turf Moor every home game.

Conducting the ground tours brings memories of his early Burnley days flooding back.

“I was in charge of the first team dressing room all week. On matchdays I was playing myself in the morning so on the Friday afternoon I would put out all the jerseys. There were no names on them back then,” he recalled.

“I’d get the boots ready, cleaning them all up and putting them in the pigeon holes opposite the dressing room door. I would put all the training gear out then train myself, then I would come back and go round making sure the first team lads didn’t want anything.

“After that I’d get all the kits washed while the other youth team lads would be sorting the pitch out and sweeping the terraces.

“The players were great with me, and it was good to be around them, talking to them all.”

He didn’t have long to wait to become one of them.

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