A Tribute to John Connelly
I can still remember school games lessons on Centre Vale Park when I was at Todmorden Grammar School as a spotty 15-year old. There was Philip Brown, Ed Cockcroft, Jammy Fielden, Winston Sutcliffe, Colin Walker, and a whole host of other lads like us who tore up and down in mud, rain, hail and on some days, snow. But one thing was always constant. One of us would always be Ray Pointer, one of us would always be Jimmy Mac, and one of us would always be John Connelly. It was just those three; nobody bothered about being Brian Miller or Jimmy Adamson, great players though they were, but the other three were always represented every Friday afternoon.
Somehow John Connelly was always ‘hip’. It must have been his hair, that luxuriant combed back thick hair and that good looking almost boyish face that was the appeal, plus of course his fabulous goal scoring ability. There was almost a touch of the Elvis about him. We give hero status to any centre forward these days who scores 20 in a season. He was a winger and scored 20. One of them still sticks in the mind when he cut in from the right wing and unleashed a 20-yard thunderbolt that was in the Spurs net before you could blink in a 2–0 win in ‘59/60. For good measure in that game he provided the rocket cross from which Pointer scored an equally bullet header. He was a totally class act.
Maybe the goal he will always be remembered for is the one at Reims in the European Cup. Burnley had won the first leg 2 – 0 at Turf Moor but it was his stunning goal in the second game that clinched the tie. Years later he vividly described it in an interview I did with him.
Fame and glory meant little to him when he finished playing. He had been a great footballer, an England international, a key member of the Man Utd side, but it was all over and done with. Bobby Charlton devoted four pages to him in his autobiography. He said he was strong-minded and one of the few players ever to stand up to Sir Alf Ramsey and was one of the few players ever at United to stand up for a better salary. He was a vital player in their title team, he wrote; he and Best complementing each other on the flanks. Connelly was able to make his presence felt and ‘elected himself to a tough group of survivors that included Terry Paine of Southampton and Johnny Morrissey of Everton. It was a small group of talented wingers who had learned that in an increasingly physical game they could not afford just to take the knocks, brush themselves down and return to the action. In my view though, Connelly was the best in this category. He wasn’t afraid of leaving his foot in; it produced instant respect in any marker’. He was perfectly equipped for the survival game. He was strong and quick and I rarely saw a winger who was happier to take on the challenge of unnerving a full-back. If he had a chance to move on goal, he was not reluctant to do so. His greatest contribution however was to get to the bye-line and cross accurately. John had a spiky quality, and like Johnny Giles he was to learn that the voice and judgement of Matt Busby was not wisely questioned if you wanted to make the United experience a long one.’
Charlton goes on to say how when he was in East Lancashire, he would make a point of trying to visit ‘Connelly’s Plaice’ chip shop. ‘As a magistrate he was not afraid of administering tough justice, and he would tell me how some of his regulars would come in the shop and complain if John and his colleagues had found them guilty and given them a stiff fine’.
John would have been a happy man to know that he had the ultimate respect of Bobby Charlton. ‘He was known for what he was at Old Trafford: a tough professional who always came to work with a most serious intent. Defenders knew what they were getting when they faced Connelly’.
I interviewed John in 2008 for the second volume of No Nay Never. It was a morning that sped by and the result was this:
‘To say that John Connelly is a modest man who likes a quiet life is an understatement. Today, he avoids the limelight. He is happy to play golf and take time away from home in his touring motor home and for many years he ran a successful fish and chip shop in Brierfield. All the Burnley players of yesteryear I have met have always come across as just the ‘bloke next door’ and John Connelly is no exception.
When I met him at his home near Barrowford, of course the marvellous solo goal he scored at Reims was mentioned … but by me not John. The morning flew by and I doubt we touched on a fraction of the stories he has to tell. When you have played with people like Best, Law and Charlton at Old Trafford, and all the great names who were his World Cup colleagues in 1966; when you have been in the game for as long as he has, for sure you have a tale or two to tell. As a result, he has been offered money to tell the kind of stories that ‘reveal all’ but he has no interest in that, or any kind of controversy.
Like most, if not all of his generation, John Connelly made no great fortune from the game and had to work for a living afterwards for many years. Even as a young player he had a ‘daytime’ job, working as a joiner for the National Coal Board instead of National Service. Training was after work or in the evenings. It’s hard to imagine that kind of routine now.
He was one of that fledgling group of young players signed by Alan Brown, when he joined from St Helen’s Town. He recalls the occasion when he signed and the imposing Alan Brown sent for him.
‘Put some kit on’, he was told. He obeyed and there in the dressing room was a photographer to record the event. ‘Now get your clothes on and come with me’, was the next command. Off they went to the station and Brown disappeared into the left-luggage office and then came out with a battered old suitcase, the shabbiest you could imagine. He gave it to Connelly. Then he handed him the grubbiest old raincoat you could imagine. ‘Put that on’, he was told. Connelly did as he was told. The photographer was there again and proceeded to take pictures of him with the tatty suitcase, standing by a steam train on the platform.
‘John Connelly arrives to sign for Burnley’, he thinks was the caption.
‘And my mother was mad as hell when she saw that picture’, Connelly laughed. ‘She thought I looked like a refugee’.
Not only did Connelly pose in a shabby old raincoat because he had been told to do so, he also signed a blank contract because he was told to do that as well. ‘Just put your name on that and we’ll do all the rest,’ said Brown. It was in his debut game that he saw how Brown could go ballistic when he was angry. But this was anger at the state of Connelly’s legs when he saw how many stitches he would need in a leg wound after his initiation into the world of over the top tackles and intimidation.
Before he joined Burnley, Connelly used to watch Everton one week and Liverpool the next. Billy Liddell was his idol and on meeting him years later at a charity event he remembers he was awestruck. He also remembers watching Harry Potts play when he was at Everton.
“Great diver,” he recalled, grinning.
“I just loved playing,” he said with another smile. He smiles a lot. Bearing in mind he was a winger who could score goals, and not particularly physically robust in his early days; he did well to avoid serious bodily harm in what was quite frankly a brutal age.
“I scored goals and that meant going in where it hurt. Probably the hardest opponent I faced was a chap called Don Megson from Sheffield Wednesday. When he walloped you, you knew about it. Bolton Wanderers had a big side and they had Tommy Banks at full-back. He was hard but I was lucky; he was just ending his career as I was starting. He was never fast and when I played against him, he was even slower. Mind you, there was one game when I thought I’d switch wings with Brian Pilkington to get away from him. Then I looked across and saw who it was on the other side. It was Roy Hartle. So, I stayed where I was. In those days you knew you were going to get wellied if the opponents got the chance but you just got up and got on with it. And the boots we wore back then were like concrete. They were so stiff and you had to break them in and wear them a few times at Gawthorpe to soften them before you could ever wear them for 90 minutes in a game. And we didn’t get a new pair every two weeks from sponsors. They were repaired over and over again at Cockers in Burnley.”
I mentioned the legendary Cup game in the mud at Bradford City in the early 60s. It’s a shame there is no archive film of this game to show people just what the conditions were like. John claimed both goals, scored in the last five minutes, the goals that salvaged a draw. The mud was so deep, the pitch was so bad that not a spectator was able to say with confidence exactly who scored as they slithered around in this thick oozing stuff covered from head to foot in it, their faces completely obliterated. All of them were totally unrecognisable.
“Sandra and her family were there to watch. I was only courting then. After the game I asked Harry if I could go home with them instead of on the team bus. To this day I can remember Harry’s beaming face and him telling me I could go wherever I wanted. I actually lost a boot in the mud. It just sucked it off and when I found it, it was half buried in the stuff. “
The mention of Sandra reminded him of a Bob Lord story. “He was a wonderful man who would do anything for his players and he looked after us well financially. When I got married in 1960, I’d arranged to hire a car and was supposed to collect it the day before the wedding. Then the hire firm decided I couldn’t have it. It was in the summer and Harry Potts was away on holiday so I phoned Bob Lord for help. I went to see him at his Lowerhouse factory. There he was in his white coat and cap.
‘What can I do for you?’ he asked.
“I explained about the wedding, the car and the honeymoon. ‘Well, what do you want me for?’ he said gruffly.
“Well,” I said. ‘If you can’t help me nobody can.’ That was exactly the kind of thing he liked to hear. People who made demands got nowhere. You had to set him a challenge. ‘Tell your lass not to worry. There’ll be a car for you if you come down the day before you marry’, he said.
“So down I went as instructed and there was the biggest Wolseley you’ve ever seen. I thought I’ll never drive that it’s so enormous. Anyway, I did and we went down to Newquay for the honeymoon thanks to Bob Lord. I think it took about two days to drive it there. There’s so much that he did for people that no-one knows about.”
Do many people know that John Connelly had the chance to come back to Burnley in 1966? It was in ’64 that he left for Manchester United and he was there for two years. At Old Trafford it was great players rather than great coaching or training that brought them trophies. Whereas Harry Potts was an ever-present at Gawthorpe, training and taking part in the 5-a-sides, Matt Busby was rarely seen at The Cliff. He would give a short team talk on a Friday and that was largely it. The Cliff was frequently waterlogged so makeshift training took place at Old Trafford, very often under the stands, when an impromptu obstacle course was laid out. At Burnley and Gawthorpe the training and facilities were so ahead of their time. There was a coach to collect the players from Turf Moor and take them to Gawthorpe. At Man Utd it was pile into your cars in muddy kit and go to wherever was available for training. Your car soon filled up with squelchy mud.
But with players like David Herd, Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and Nobby Stiles, and the simple instruction ‘just make sure you pass to a red shirt,’ the wins piled up and he more than held his own in this illustrious company. Connelly remembers it was an era when they played even when injured with the cortisone injections that were commonplace.
“You played even if you were unfit, but just about the only player who refused to play if he wasn’t fit was ‘the King’, Denis law. He was the only one who would stand up to Busby. If he wasn’t fit, he wouldn’t play, although that wasn’t very often.” Connelly’s memories of just how ad hoc the training was echo those of other players like Noel Cantwell who arrived and was astonished at what he found. But until John Connelly had a disagreement with Busby and asked for a transfer, he enjoyed his time there and scored 35 goals and is still in touch with people like Charlton and Stiles. He was in awe of Bobby Charlton he says and had great affection for George Best. He remembers one day his car was parked next to Best’s.
“George’s car and mine were covered in girls. But they were waiting for him not me and they’d daubed ‘George we love you’ all over his in lipstick.” After that he made sure he never parked next to George again.
In 1966 he was in the World Cup squad and played against Uruguay nearly scoring on a couple of occasions. But after the 0–0 draw Ramsey made changes and he was dropped.
He went to Blackburn after United, rather than Burnley who approached him, for something around £40,000. When Bob Lord found out that he was available he sent trainer Ray Bennion to see Connelly. Bennion turned up in a taxi and sounded him out. It went as far as Connelly visiting Lord at his home in Read, but he turned the chance down. Can it be as good if I go back, he asked himself? Is it wise to return to a former club? And by that time, he was aware that Jimmy Adamson had been appointed first team coach, and knew of the jockeying for position that was going on between Adamson and Potts and had no wish to be caught up in that. This was a period when players weren’t quite sure who was running the show.
“My one regret is that I was a bit hasty, not in asking for a move away from Old Trafford, but in not taking more time to choose where I went.”
In that magical early sixties spell where he had been part of a Burnley team that slammed in goals for fun, he remembers how Adamson even then would take charge of some aspects of training at Gawthorpe. “All of the throw-ins and free kick routines on the right-hand side of the pitch Jimmy would organise. Harry would do them on the other. Even at that stage before he became coach, he had a large input.”
“He was a natural captain and a good one, good at talking to younger players. But he never spoke about the England job. I was in Chile with him when he was assistant manager but he never talked about why he turned the job down.”
When I asked him to name the best eleven players that he had played with he would not be drawn into giving a firm answer. “I couldn’t do it; I’ve played with so many great players. But Bobby Charlton would be the first I’d pick and then there’s Jimmy Greaves, Jimmy McIlroy, George Best, and Johnny Haynes. Ted Phillips at Ipswich had the hardest ever shot. Alf Ramsey was the best manager. Harry Potts was a lovely man. Maybe Jimmy Adamson was a bit more ruthless. Players were scared of Alf Ramsey. He had this manner, like a headmaster, an aura, and a presence. We had to call him Alf; but if after a game you said ‘see you next time Alf’, he’d look at you and reply, ‘don’t be too sure about that’. He made sure you knew he’d drop you so that no-one was sure of a place.
“Jimmy Greaves was such a character though. There was one blackboard session with Alf and he was drawing diagrams with arrows here there and everywhere and pointing in every possible direction. None of this meant anything to Jimmy who suddenly piped up, ‘Alf which of us are the bloody Indians’.”
Of course, the one question I wanted to ask more than any other was what happened at the end of season ‘61/62. It was the season when Burnley looked certain to do the double. In the first 30 or so league games they were simply superb and had already scored over 90 goals, playing magical football. And then it all went wrong and they ended up being pipped at the post by Ipswich Town. Was it just one win in the last ten games? Ask any member of that team exactly what happened and none of them have any firm, clear idea. Jimmy McIlroy thinks that the adrenalin just stopped flowing, their legs had gone and they were just worn out. Ray Pointer thinks that nerves crept in. John Connelly had no answer but remembers how gutted he felt.
The Cup Final he thought was wonderful and a footballing memory on a par with the World Cup. Coming out onto the pitch for the opening ceremonies of both games was a magnificent experience. You could forgive him if he felt a little miffed that he was dropped after the first World Cup game, missed out on the last game of the title season at Maine Road because of injury and lost in the FA Cup semi-final. But he was philosophical. “That’s life,” he shrugged and smiled.
In the FA Cup Final Burnley just didn’t play well at all. “I’m not saying we should have won but before they scored from their penalty there was a free kick that should have been awarded to us,” he commented.
There was another game I wanted to ask about, but John mentioned it before I did. Clearly it was still in his mind. In ‘60/61 it had been Spurs that did the double as Burnley attempted to win all four trophies that season. Burnley and Spurs seemed to meet regularly and once more they met in the Cup semi-final. Spurs were worried about Burnley that day and admired them greatly.
“I didn’t like Villa Park,” said John. “And we lost 3–0. But Jimmy Robson had a perfectly good goal disallowed. It was a perfect goal. Afterwards, Maurice Norman their centre half came to me and said that it was the biggest injustice of the day that it was disallowed. We played in front of some huge crowds in those days. At Everton one Christmas it was 75,000.”
I told him I’d been there. I was about 15 and mentioned the score was 3–0 to Burnley. “Did I score?” he asked with a cheeky grin. I told him I couldn’t remember.
“Tell you one person who will and that’s Jimmy Robson. He knows every goal that’s ever been scored. And the goal that Jimmy Greaves scored in the Final against us. Every time I see him, I tell him he just miskicked it and it just bobbled in. No, he meant it he tells me. There’s a ’66 re-union every year and we all meet up. This year it’s in Harrogate and it’s Norman Hunter’s turn to organise it.”
If he describes THAT goal at Reims, it is then that John Connelly is at his most diffident and self-effacing. It’s always fun talking about things like the greatest ever goal. Was it Tommy Cummings at Turf Moor or Ashley Hoskin at Swansea? Or maybe it was John Connelly at Reims because this goal had the added edge of taking Burnley into the next round of the European Cup at a ground that was so hostile that they were afraid for their safety. He laughs about it now.
“I’ve never known a place so hostile and I was reminded of it when I saw Lille versus Manchester United last week. At Reims they were sending fireworks across the pitch. And cheating, I’ve never known cheating like it. Every free kick as soon as the referee’s back was turned, they were moving the ball forward ten yards every chance. When I took one corner I stood with my arms over my head as the bottles came over the netting. I’d never even seen netting round a pitch before. And the goal I scored… all I could do was keep running. I knew there were players behind and I knew if I stopped or slowed to look for a man to pass to, I’d be trampled. So I just kept running and let fly. It went in. Somebody gave me a video of it a while back – but I’ve never watched it.”
When his wife Sandra returned from a trip into town, I looked at my watch and was astonished to see that I had been there nearly two hours. One final comment he made gives a picture of the man. I asked him if he still went to games at Turf Moor.
“Yes, I have a friend with a box in the James Hargreaves Stand and I enjoy that when I go. But what I don’t like is being in the Bob Lord Stand. Sometimes people will shout out to me that I should be playing and I could do better than this lot. It’s embarrassing and makes me cringe.”
Not unsurprisingly, he looks at the state of the pitches today and envies the players who have the chance to play on them, especially with the balls that dip and swerve and change direction unpredictably. The thought of John Connelly playing in these conditions today is just mouth-watering. In an age when a 20-yard goal was far less common because of muddy balls that weighed a ton, and on pitches that today would be deemed unplayable, he still managed to score screamers from the edge of the box with ease in so many games.
A winger who could score 20 goals a season? What price today? Who knows? But clubs like Arsenal, Chelsea and Man City would be beating a path to his door. When I got home, I looked to see if he had scored in the 3–0 win at Everton. Jimmy Robson scored two… and who got the other… John Connelly… I should have known.
The interview took place in 2008. John Connelly sadly passed away on 25th October 2012 at the age of 74.Share this page :