Billy Elliott’s seaside swan song
Those Clarets old enough to remember former Burnley left-winger, Billy Elliott, will probably regard him with respect and trepidation. Like the ultra-hard Kevin Ball, Billy took few prisoners. On 25 December 1951, his fiery clashes with Preston’s Willie Cunningham, raised the heat so high that the visitors’ captain, Tom Finney, felt compelled to switch his full backs to maintain ‘peace and good will’. In March 1952, Billy was dismissed at Maine Road for a ‘look of intent’. He could certainly summon a menacing stare. Billy was the only Burnley player to be dismissed during the forties and fifties.
Burnley’s distinguished playmaker, Jimmy McIlroy, recalled Billy losing his rag with his fellow forwards in one game. He described the occasion thus: ‘Having softened up his marker, Elliott proceeded to send over a series of head-height crosses at rocket-like speed. The ball was like concrete in those days, and, when wet, weighed a ton. The laces left a nice imprint on your forehead. Who the hell wanted to head the ball when it was driven with the power that Elliott imparted? Elliott became thoroughly fed up with this in one game. Glowering menacingly at us midget forwards he demanded: “Which one of you f***ers keeps f***ing ducking?” “I’m wasting my f***ing time here.”
Bradford-born Elliott signed for Burnley in August 1951. With 176 league games under his belt, including many played during war-time, the 26-year-old left winger did not come cheaply. The Clarets had to shell out a record £25,000 fee to Second Division Bradford Park Avenue, his parent club, a figure that is probably near to £25 million in today’s value.
Billy stayed at Turf Moor for just two seasons, completing 74 league games and scoring 14 goals, before moving onto Sunderland for £26,000, a tidy sum for a player in his late twenties. At this point he had been capped five times for England, scoring three goals.
As football writer, Ivan Ponting, explained when writing Billy’s obituary in January 2008, ‘In action [Billy] was a study in high-velocity pugnacity laced with deceptively subtle skills. His attacking speciality was racing beyond his marker to reach the by-line, then driving a low cross into the penalty area, often through a tangled forest of legs, for conversion by lurking marksmen.’ It was this ability which led to his selection for England’s European tour in the summer of 1952. His debut came in a 1-1 draw with Italy, in Florence, where the peerless Tom Finney was his wing partner. It was an insipid display, though. A Reuters’ correspondent wrote: ‘This game was one of the poorest internationals seen in years.’ While the Daily Express reporter, Peter Wilson, added: ‘Each year we hear from the players complaints that the season is getting more and more congested and that the strain of the domestic season is becoming more excoriating.’ How little has changed in sixty-four years.
Although inside right Ivor Broadis, provided an early lead, England’s attack relapsed quickly into sterility. Had Walter Winterbottom, been able to call upon another winger in his squad, Elliott might not have played In Austria. Fortunately, Billy survived, contributing significantly to a notable victory. For Austria were powerful and sophisticated opponents, featuring Ernst Ocwirk, a formidable attacking ‘centre half’. As proof of their strength, Austria had thrashed Yugoslavia, Hungary, Denmark, Belgium and Scotland in an unbeaten sixteen-game run.
The Prater Stadium was heaving and spiced with dissent. For many Austrians railed against the British Army’s occupation of their country. They roared their side on, hoping that their gifted players would inflict a humiliating defeat upon the English team just as they had upon a visiting Scottish side. The British squaddies presence only heightened the political tension. But Billy was not fazed by this, helping set up the opening goal. As well as Billy played, it was Lofthouse who earned the accolade of the British press for his brave, second, winning goal, achieved at the expense of a painful collision with the Austrian goalkeeper. This feat earned Lofthouse the moniker, ‘The Lion of Vienna’.
Sadly, Billy’s career declined during the late fifties as Sunderland became embroiled in an under-the-counter payment scandal in defiance of the Football League’s maximum wage ruling. This illegal practice had been sanctioned at Roker Park as a desperate measure to avert Sunderland’s decline. Former Burnley boss, Alan Brown, cleaned up the club’s act but with the team reeling in the ensuing turmoil Brown was unable to prevent Sunderland’s first relegation from the top flight, in May 1958. By this time Billy had lost his whizz that had made him such a dangerous opponent. He was assigned half-back and full-back duties instead.
Nevertheless, Billy remained at Sunderland for one more season. During his Roker career, he completed 212 games, scoring 26 goals. In the long, hot summer of 1959 Billy was offered the opportunity to play premier Southern League football at Wisbech Town who were then managed by Jesse Pye, a former Wolves hero. The standard of football promised to be good, roughly equivalent to that at the top of the current National League.
Like Elliott, Pye had an illustrious past. His brace of goals at Wembley in 1949 secured the FA Cup for Wolves. He had also been capped for England. Pye had ambitious plans for his fenland club, signing former Blackpool central defender, John Crossland, an FA Cup finalist in 1948. He cannily recruited ex-England goalkeeper, Bernard Streten, too, although he replaced him with Ken Nethercott, who had served Norwich with distinction during their amazing FA Cup run of 1958/59. Despite struggling with mounting financial pressures and flirting with relegation in March 1960, Wisbech made a stirring recovery to finish the 1959/60 season in mid-table. Billy decided to stay for a further year.
On 20th August 1960 I saw Billy Elliott play for the first and last time. I had just moved to Hastings and decided to lend my support to my new home town club. Upon arrival at Hastings United’s lofty ground, it was apparent that a sizeable crowd had gathered. Boosted by the stars on show, the attendance figure was 3,749, respectable by modern League Two standards. Most supporters chose to bask on the grass bank which ran the length of the eastern flank, shielding their eyes from the dazzling sun, as they surveyed the verdant pitch, the distant Sussex downs and the glittering sea. It was hardly the weather for football.
A flag bearing the Town’s ancient crest fluttered in a welcome breeze which wafted the tinny, tannoy music around in wavering volume. It was my introduction to ‘Ladies of Calcutta’, one of three records in the club’s possession. The others were ’76 Trombones’ and the patriotic rallying cry of ‘Sussex by the Sea’. It wasn’t exactly ‘Expresso Bongo’. Only with the infiltration of the Mersey beat, in 1963, did the club concede that the sixties had arrived.
The local Royal Mail strapline read: ‘Popular with visitors since 1066’. Given the average age of the two teams, it seemed apposite. While Jesse Pye, Billy Elliott, John Crosland and Ken Nethercott led the veteran parade for the ‘Fenmen’, Len Duquemin, a 1951 Football League champion, with Spurs, led the home contingent, accompanied by Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup ‘keeper, Norman Uprichard.
These stars of yesteryear were then in their mid or late thirties – Billy was 35. Wisbech’s player / manager, Jesse Pye, topped 40. Judging by their photos in the Hastings programme, many seemed twenty or more years older than their actual ages. Of course, their generation experienced inferior nutritional standards, poorer housing and less advanced healthcare, compared with those that followed. Moreover, war had scarred the lives of many of them, if not by trauma, then by lost opportunities and truncated careers, as happened with Jesse Pye. Billy’s furrowed ‘mud and bullets’ expression was not out of place.
Although Billy Elliott had lost his former pace, he was far too quick for Hastings’ lumbering, disorganised defenders. Without really knowing, then, who he was, a sharp image of his daunting presence remains. Even sixty years after the event, I can still see him, grim-faced and fiercely-focused, accelerating along the left flank in the blinding glare of the sun, fizzing one low centre after another across the hapless Hastings box. Elliott might have learnt his Turf Moor lesson the hard way, but he’d learnt it well. On this afternoon he was unstoppable, exhibiting finesse rather than force, while playing largely to feet.
After just 90 seconds, Wisbech were ahead as Jessie Pye rifled home a free-kick. His shot was so venomous that the ball cannoned off the board behind the goal and back into play before anyone had quite realised what had happened. Almost from the re-start, Elliott crossed for Pye to nimbly side-step several inept challenges, and flick in his second. With only fifteen minutes gone, Elliott was the provider once more as Pye completed his hat-trick with a vicious, low volley. Hastings’ goalkeeper, Norman Uprichard, could only admire Pye’s finishing power. Capitalising on Elliott’s raking crosses, there was no need of Pye in the sky. Although Hastings retaliated, Wisbech remained in the box seat, winning 5-2. They won the return game at Fenland Park, too.
Alas, both teams were relegated in May 1961, having slugged through interminable mud, in one of the wettest seasons I can remember. Billy then hung up his boots to manage the Libyan national side for two years, before returning to the UK at the end of 1963 to scout for Sheffield Wednesday then managed by his former Sunderland boss, Alan Brown. But in 1964 he decided to take up a coaching role with the US forces teams in Germany. He remained here for two years before being appointed as manager of the Belgian side Daring in 1966. He stayed here for two years also, until offered a coaching role at Sunderland by the returning Alan Brown. When Brown was sacked in 1972, Billy briefly had caretaker managerial responsibility for the first team, until Bob Stokoe arrived, whereupon he reverted to a coaching role under Stokoe. Despite his intimidating reputation as a footballer, Billy proved to be an excellent coach, thoughtful and supportive, as Sunderland FA Cup winner, Mick Horswill, and Roker Park’s legendary centre half, Charlie Hurley, testify.
However, after Sunderland won the FA Cup in 1973, Billy moved to Norway where he coached at Brann for four years, returning in December 1978 to manage Sunderland. He remained in charge at Roker Park until the end of the season, almost guiding his side to promotion. Unfortunately, the Sunderland board decided they wanted a younger boss, replacing Billy with coach, Ken Knighton. Billy’s last assignment before retirement was at Darlington whom he managed from June 1979, until June 1983. He died in Sunderland on 21 January 2008, aged 82. Loyal and committed wherever he was employed, Billy will be remembered at Turf Moor as a feisty, combative winger who played with a growl in his boots.Follow UpTheClarets:
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