I-I-Irvine-Irvine-I and it’s 50 years
On 21st August 1965, Burnley kicked off the new football season with a 1-1 draw at Chelsea. It was a Chelsea side that included the likes of Chopper Harris at the back, Peter Bonetti in goal as well as future Arsenal manager George Graham along with Terry Venables who went on to manage Spurs, Barcelona and England.
Venables it was who gave Chelsea a first half lead with Arthur Bellamy scoring our goal to earn a point, but this story is not about Chelsea or Venables, neither is it of Bellamy; it’s about the 22-year-old centre forward we had in the team that day, a certain Northern Irishman by the name of Willie Irvine.
Irvine was, at the time, just a couple of months past his 22nd birthday when the season kicked off. He’d just about been able to claim a regular place in the team after making his debut right at the end of the 1962/63 season. He came in for the last two games of that season, opening the scoring in a 3-2 win at Arsenal on his debut and then hitting all three as we beat Birmingham at home 3-1 to finish off the season.
I suppose it was no surprise that he got those goals. This young centre forward had arrived at Burnley as a 17-year-old and had been a prolific scorer in all the junior teams. He scored a hat trick on his reserve team debut, and missed a penalty and had another goal disallowed. He had even made his full debut for Northern Ireland against Wales at Windsor Park in Belfast, lining up alongside club team mate Alex Elder and former Claret Jimmy McIlroy who was making his first international appearance as a Stoke player.
Four goals in two games didn’t win Irvine a regular first team place and in the next season he scored another four league goals in just seven appearances. He couldn’t be held back any longer and the 1964/65 season was his breakthrough season. He played in 33 of the 42 league games and scored 22 goals; he also added three more goals in four FA Cup appearances.
But, if 1964/65 was his breakthrough season, then 1965/66 was a season he must still want to recall with real affection some fifty years on.
He didn’t score in that draw at Chelsea but he scored our third as we raced into a 3-0 lead in half an hour in the first home game of the season against Blackpool. Four days later, against Arsenal at home, he and Ian Towers made Burnley history. This was the season when substitutes were first introduced, although changes could only be made in case of injury, and Towers came on for the injured Irvine at the start of the second half after 45 minutes of being kicked senseless by the Gunners.
I recall one early season game against Northampton and it’s hard to believe now that we played them in a top flight game. We led 1-0 at half time with an own goal from Theo Foley who had previously been a Burnley player. Goalscorers miss chances; Irvine had missed plenty during that first half, enough for some bloke next to me and my dad to suggest he wasn’t good enough to be near to playing in the first team.
The final score that night was Burnley 4 Northampton 1 – do I need to tell you that Irvine scored a second half hat trick?
He scored our goal in a 1-1 draw at Leeds at the end of October on what was my first ever visit to Elland Road. That kicked off a run of seven games in which he scored in every one. A hat trick against Fulham brought the run to an end but he did have the opportunity to make it eight, a club record, in the next game but declined the invitation to take a penalty. Not confident with penalties, and 2-1 down at the time, he allowed Elder to take it; Elder scored and we went on to win 4-2.
That hat trick had taken him to 17 goals in 20 league games and there was much talk of records being broken, but goalscorers often have lean spells and there were only three more in the next thirteen games.
That left him needing eight goals in the last nine games of the season to break Ray Pointer’s post-war record of 27 league goals in a season, achieved in 1958/59. There seemed little likelihood of that but incredibly he got them with four games to spare. He kicked it off with another hat trick against Nottingham Forest and by the time we got to this date fifty years ago he was just one short of the target.
Like today, we were playing in Birmingham, although this one was at our bogy ground of Villa Park. As was often the case there, we lost the game. It ended 2-1 but not before Irvine had given us a third minute lead. A few Burnley supporters ran on to celebrate with him and one 14-year-old Burnley fan received a blow from a police sergeant’s stick.
Willie scored again a week later in a home win against Liverpool to stretch the record to 29 and fifty years on that record still stands.
He played all 42 league games that season but to add to the 29 goals, he also scored five in three FA Cup ties and three in four League Cup ties taking his grand total to 37 goals in 49 games.
Three of the FA Cup goals had come in a fourth round tie at Spurs which we lost 4-3. So impressed with Irvine was he that director Dr David Iven presented him with his hat (see above). Chairman Bob Lord promised him his hat should he break Pointer’s record. Now Bob Lord was a butcher, he wore a butcher’s hat, and when he wore it back to front he looked a ******* ****. I hope it wasn’t his butcher’s hat that Willie received.
What’s incredible is that Andy Lochhead, who was, shall we say, a bit more physical than Irvine, also netted 23 goals, 15 of them in the league.
At the age of 22, this really should be no more than the beginning of the story of Burnley’s finest ever goalscorer, but sadly it was to be his last full season in top flight football. He’d scored another 16 in 28 games in the next season before having his leg broken for him by Johnny Morrissey in a cup replay at Everton in January 1967 which ruled him out for the rest of the season.
He was back at the start of the 1967/68 season, scoring in the opening day win against Coventry. He scored 11 goals in 21 starts that season but this was not the same Irvine, the injury had lessened his impact. He moved on to Preston, Brighton and then Halifax. He never played in the top division again and retired from the professional game aged just 29.
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Willie Irvine is the finest goalscorer I’ve ever seen in a Burnley shirt and I’d be surprised if I ever see anyone better. I always wonder just how many goals he might have scored for us but for the injury; Bob Lord might have been thinking how much we could have got for him in the transfer market.
Records are meant to be broken. Incredibly, no one even hit twenty league goals in a season for us again until Mike Conroy did so in the Fourth Division in 1991/92, some 26 years later. Andy Payton has come the closest to catching him, scoring 27 in 1999/2000 but Willie still sits there proudly as the record holder today fifty years after that goal at Villa Park.
He’s still a record holder and still very much a Claret who will be cheering us on this afternoon some three miles from where he scored that record breaking goal.
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