Burnley, Total Football and the pioneering title win of 1959/60

Burnley, Total Football and the pioneering title win of 1959/60

The words Total Football conjure up an image of the Dutch teams of the 1970’s playing awe-inspiring, fluent football with defenders and attackers seamlessly interchanging positions, displaying consummate confidence in their talents and dazzling supporters with their array of skills. Encouraged by pioneering managers such as Rinus Michels and Ernst Happel, the Ajax side of the early 1970s and the Dutch national teams from the 1974 and 1978 World Cups exhibited some of the finest displays of football ever witnessed, utilising their technical ability and spatial intelligence to maximum effect to create chances and overpower the opposition.

It is taken for granted that not many connoisseurs of the art of football would consider English teams to have influenced the development of the concept of Total Football. Few would associate a small-town club from a dreary northern English mill town to be one of the early exponents of such a playing style. Yet if you Google the term Total Football, you will be somewhat astonished to discover that Burnley Football Club are regarded as one of the early innovators of such a style, and their successful application of the system was deployed to devastating effect with their winning of the league title in the 1959/60 season.

When discussing the outfits that dominated the league in the 1960s, the achievements of clubs such as Everton, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester United appear to take prominence. One team that history seems to have collectively neglected is Burnley, yet from 1960 to 1964, Burnley finished top, fourth, second and third in the League. Only Manchester United in that decade managed more consecutive top four placings.

Burnley also reached the FA Cup final, the League Cup semi-final and the European Cup quarter-finals during that same period, nearly achieving the double during the 1961/62 campaign. However, outside of Burnley. the name of manager Harry Potts appears to have been consigned to history. Even in such a worthy chronicle of the game such as the esteemed Sunday Times Illustrated History of Football, the name of Harry Potts does not appear once, whereas the likes of Mike Walker do. It is a lack of respect for the man who introduced Total Football to England.


Burnley: the club and the town


Burnley were one of the original 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888 but it wasn’t until the period either side of World War One that they became a force in the game. At the start of the 1910/11 season, the decision was made to change from their green shirts, which had attracted a reputation amongst fans for being unlucky, to the Claret and Blue tops worn by the famous Aston Villa side of that era.

The move worked and Burnley won their first major honour by defeating Liverpool 1-0 to win the FA Cup at the old Crystal Palace Exhibition Stadium in 1914. In the 1920/21 season, Burnley collected their first league title, five points clear of runners-up Manchester City. This period of glory also coincided with an unprecedented boom in the prosperity of Burnley the town. The local textile and coal mining industries were at height of productivity and the urban population had soared to over 106,000 by 1911. Little did they realise how long they would have to wait for their next title.

Sadly, Burnley’s traditional industries experienced a long period of decline during the 1920s, and by 1939 the population had declined by 20 percent. Burnley FC also suffered a similar deterioration in fortunes, with the club relegated from the top flight at the end of the 1929/30 season and not returning until 1947. Despite a brief recovery in the early 1950s, stoked by postwar modernisation, the number of residents in Burnley declined by a further five percent. By the time of the 1959/60 campaign, the town now totalled 80,559 inhabitants. No English town had ever produced a title-winning side with such a small resident base. It was about to change.


The Maximum Wage


As L.P Harley once scribed, “The past is a foreign country.” As the 1960s approached, professional footballers were still subject to the stringent regulation of the maximum wage system, which meant that at the start of the 1959/60 season a player could expect to earn £20 a week during the season, dropping to £17 a week during the summer. In addition, they could expect to earn a bonus of £4 for a win and £2 for a draw.

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The fact that even international footballers such as Bobby Charlton were reduced to participating in a quiz show such as Double Your Money to boost their salaries demonstrated the impact of the maximum wage on salaries compared to other professions. Indeed famed English actress, Yvonne Buckingham, was moved to state publicly – after seeing Bobby Smith score four goals for Tottenham Hotspur – that, “They tell me Mr Smith only earns £20 a week. Why? I earned that in one day as a beginner in films.”

The dominance of big-city teams was yet to become the norm. In the 1950s, Preston North End finished as runners-up on three separate occasions. Close rivals Blackpool were also runners-up and finished in the top four on another two occasions. To demonstrate the impact of the removal of the maximum wage on this type of club, Preston have never competed in the top division since it was introduced and Blackpool have managed a total of eight campaigns since.

Burnley during the course of the decade, had slowly improved their position from a mid-table side to one that from 1955 onwards would finish in either sixth or seventh place. The end of the 1958/59 season saw Burnley reach seventh, a full 13points behind champions Wolves. Unfortunately, the removal of the maximum wage would also impact negatively on Burnley over the next decade.

It was also a period when Saturday morning working till midday or one o’clock was the norm for the majority of the population. Therefore, before the ubiquity of the motor car, the only option for most fans, if they wanted to attend a match, was to go and watch their local football team. Most social historians estimate that the majority of supporters lived close to the team they supported. This was evidenced by Liverpool, who, on being allocated a mere 8,000 tickets for their FA Cup final in 1950, organised a ballot in which only fans living within 25 miles of the ground could participate. If that criterion were applied today, many tickets would remain unsold.


Football in the 1950s


In league football, two teams had dominated the second half of the decade – Manchester United and Wolves. The latter were the overwhelming favourites to take the league title for the third time in a row at the end of the 1959/60 season. Their main rivals again appeared to be United, who were starting to re-establish themselves after the tragedy of Munich, and possibly Arsenal. Once again, the pundits were off beam.

The main rivals turned out to be Tottenham, who had finished 17th the previous season, and Burnley. Bill Nicholson had been appointed manager of the Londoners that season and started off with an incredible 10-4 defeat of Everton in his first game in charge. Having now added the intimidating steel of Dave Mackay from Hearts to his midfield, combined with the footballing skills of a certain Danny Blanchflower, they were ready for lift off.

In terms of the number of spectators passing through the turnstiles, Burnley were only the 12th best supported team in the league during the season, with an average attendance of 26,869. However, as Benjamin Disraeli once claimed, there are “lies, damned lies and statistics”. With a population of only 80,559, this actually meant that an incredible 33 percent of the town’s residents went to Turf Moor to support their local side. No other team in the division could come close to this level of loyalty.

The average for First division clubs for that season was 12 percent. Their rivals for the title, Wolves, who had won the league during the previous two seasons, attracted an average of 36,354 from a metropolis of 150,000. Therefore, with this ratio, not only were Burnley the smallest town ever to win the title, they were also the best supported in terms of population density.


The Chairman


The Burnley chairman at the time was a certain Bob Lord, who became a director of the club in 1951 and was elected to the position of chairman in 1955. Lord had been an ardent Burnley supporter all his life and his ambition for the club was painstakingly clear. In the words of the man himself: “I want Burnley the best. Not second best.” As a mission statement, it left no room for doubt. A butcher by trade, he had set up his business at the age of 19 and had established a mini-empire of shops in the Burnley area and beyond.

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Lord transported the image of the blunt-speaking Yorkshireman across to Lancashire. It is claimed that Timothy West used him as an inspiration for his portrayal of Bradley Hardacre in the sitcom Brass. Lord was antagonistic, autocratic, argumentative and belligerent and some who had crossed him would say these were amongst his better qualities. He brooked neither dissent nor argument from his fellow directors and, in an age when many chairmen were from a privileged upbringing who studiously avoided publicity, Lord ran the club in such an irascible fashion that he became arguably the first club owner to have a truly national profile.

He appeared to have a constant running battle with the press and many reporters from both national and local periodicals found themselves banned from the press box at Turf Moor. Arthur Hopcraft, in The Football Man, referred to him as the Khrushchev of Burnley, stating: “One of the reasons why Burnley’s press box is often less than packed is the readiness of its chairman to ban reporters from it.” Over 50 years later, it appears that those scars have still to heal. As recently as 2009, The Guardian ran this headline after Burnley’s promotion to the Premier League: ‘Burnley are back … and thankfully without caricature Chairman Bob Lord’.

Lord had his detractors and his faults but what cannot be overlooked is the crucial part he played in Burnley’s success. He had the foresight, unlike many of his contemporaries, to realise the value of having outstanding training facilities for his players, and also to attract new recruits to the club. He set up a state of the art training complex at nearby Gawthorpe in July 1955.

At the time, for a football club to have a such a facility distant from the home stadium was unheard of. By comparison, local rivals Blackburn were forced to train on a piece of land adjacent to their ground on Nuttall Street, which was used on match days as a car park. Incredibly, many first team players such as Jimmy Adamson and Jimmy McIlroy helped to dig some of the ditches to boost their meagre summer wages.

When manager Alan Brown left Burnley to take up a post at Sunderland in 1957, coach Billy Dougall was given the job but it was short-lived due to health issues. That led to Lord making probably the best and most important decision in all his years at Turf Moor. He had installed a policy of only appointing former players to any management and coaching roles and he turned to another player from the immediate post-war era to become the new manager – a certain Harry Potts. Unlike many chairmen, Lord handed over total control of playing matters to the manager, providing he continued to meet Lord’s high standards.


The Manager


Potts hailed from Hetton-le-Hole in the north-east, the same coal mining village as the legendary Bob Paisley. Potts was born in 1920; Paisley the previous year. The two were actually close friends and their respective wives often referred to them as the “Likely Lads”. As an inside forward wearing the number 10 shirt, he made his name at Burnley, playing in the promotion-winning side of 1946/47 and in the FA Cup final against First Division Charlton.

In 1950 Everton broke their own transfer record to pay Burnley £20,000 for his services, despite the fact he was 30 years old. He remained with Everton until 1956 when injuries started to take their toll. Potts had begun to prepare for the end of his playing career by undertaking FA coaching courses at Lilleshall and spending the summer coaching aspiring youngsters at the Butlins holiday camps in Pwllheli and Filey. Stan Cullis appointed Potts to the coaching staff at Wolves in July 1956. Little could Cullis have realised that he was sowing the seeds of his own destruction as he was employing the man who would prevent his team from achieving three consecutive league titles just four years later.

Potts became the manager of Shrewsbury of the Third Division South during the summer of 1957. It was hardly an auspicious start; Shrewsbury were to finish in 17th, which meant they would form part of the newly created Fourth Division. However, in February of that season, in an unexpected and surprising move, Bob Lord brought Potts back to Burnley as manager.

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Potts first move was to retain the man he had just replaced, Billy Dougall, who had been at the club since 1932. Another member of the coaching staff, Ray Bennion, who had also been there since 1932, was kept on. As Micheal Walker noted in his book Up There, this triumvirate would meet after every training session in the room where the apprentices cleaned their boots. As Harry’s wife Margaret was to write: “Harry, Bill and Ray had a boot room long before Bill Shankly had ever thought of it.” Potts revitalised the atmosphere at the club immediately, inspiring a deep sense of the Burnley tradition and camaraderie amongst the players. He reminded the team to “play with a chuckle in your boots”.

Potts was far ahead of many of his contemporaries in his understanding of the game. He was arguably the first English manager to deploy tactical formations and strategies to enable the team as a collective to perform above their individual abilities. He utilised a 4-4-2 system enabling a team with few stars to outperform many of the so-called big boys.

Potts’s style of playing was heavily influenced by what he had learnt from watching the best international sides, especially Hungary who had destroyed England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953. After that victory, the president of the Hungarian dedicated that win to an English coach, Jimmy Hogan, saying that he “taught us everything we know about football”. Hogan had been born in nearby Nelson and grew up in Burnley.

Potts introduced a swift passing game where possession was key and giving away the ball was frowned upon. The established practice at many clubs was for players to spend a whole week being drilled by ex-Army type trainers without seeing a football, the theory being that it would make them keener to get the ball on a Saturday. At Burnley, utilising their new training facilities with purposeful intent, Potts had his squad constantly practising playing routines, encouraging his side to be confident when they had possession and exploit space when they didn’t. The ball was only to be released when a colleague was available to receive it.

Potts encouraged his side to be comfortable on the ball, and this would pay dividends over the course of the 1959/60 season. His early incarnation of Total Football involved full-backs surging forward at every opportunity and centre-backs who could play their way out of trouble and deliver defence-splitting passes.

Wolves legend Billy Wright was impressed by the methodology of Potts, stating “every man [is] searching for space.” Jimmy Greaves was another admirer, describing the Burnley way as a “smooth, skilled football that was a warming advertisement for all that was best about British football.”


The Players


The final piece of the jigsaw was the excellent scouting system that Burnley had developed over the years. The Clarets seemed to be able to constantly unearth new seams of talent, particularly from the north-east, an area that the local teams such as Newcastle and Sunderland appeared to neglect.

Their chief scout was Jack Hixon, a railway clerk at Newcastle Central Station who, in later years, was to discover Alan Shearer. For Burnley, he regularly unearthed a stream of talented individuals who progressed to a first-team place. Jimmy Adamson, the Burnley captain,  was one such player, and he was not alone. John Angus, Tommy Cummings, Ray Pointer and Jimmy Robson were the others who hailed from the north-eastern corner of England.

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The club had suffered a massive blow before the season had even started when it was revealed that Colin McDonald, the goalkeeper who had been part of England’s 1958 World Cup squad, had been forced to retire at the age of 28 due to an injury he received while playing for England against Ireland in March 1959. Fortunately, this gave reserve team ‘keeper, Adam Blacklaw, the cousin of Alex Young of Everton, his opportunity. He went on to make over 400 appearances for the club.

Nevertheless, Potts had inherited the basis of a decent side with the playmaking combination of the two Jimmies, Adamson and McIlroy, and the scoring abilities of Connolly, Pointer and Robson. Undoubtedly the supporter’s favourite player was the inside forward, McIlroy, dubbed by the press as the “Brain of Burnley” with his uncanny ability to unlock defences with his skilful, precision passing.


The Title Challenge


On 22 August 1959 at 3pm, a crowd of 22,023 turned up at Elland Road to watch Burnley defeat Leeds 3-2, with goals from Pointer, Connolly and Pilkington. Three days later, Burnley overcame Everton 5-2, watched by 29,165. The Clarets were brought back to earth in the next game, losing 3-1 at home to West Ham. Potts enjoyed the luxury of being able to select the same starting line-up for the first seven games of the season. Potts then decided to replace left-back Tommy Cummings with the 18-year-old Alex Elder, who was Potts’ only signing prior to the new season. Elder made his debut marking none other than Tom Finney and kept his place for the rest of the campaign.

Tottenham were the early pacesetters and Burnley managed a credible 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane at the start of October. However, they then proceeded to win only one of their next four games and had dropped to seventh by the time Wolves arrived at Turf Moor on 7 November. In front of 27,793 spectators, Burnley returned to form in emphatic fashion, destroying the title holders 4-1. The next home game showed Burnley’s brilliance with the ball when the FA Cup holders Nottingham Forest came to Turf Moor and were annihilated 8-0, with Jimmy Robson scoring five of the goals.

As the end of the year approached, Burnley defeated Manchester United 2-1 at Old Trafford on Boxing Day. The return fixture was held at Turf Moor two days later and, boasting the best league crowd of the season, 47,696 packed the terraces to witness Burnley crash to a 4-1 defeat.

Only four points separated the top six sides in one of the most open contests for years. Burnley went to title rivals West Ham on 2 January and moved up to second place with a convincing 5-2 win, with John Connolly scoring twice. Burnley then went on a run of five wins and one draw in their next six league games, which included the table-topping clash against Tottenham at Turf Moor on 1 March.

Three days earlier, Tottenham had appeared to be on their way to the title after a convincing 4-1 away win at Blackburn. Fate, however, was to intervene. John White, Tottenham’s midfield maestro, was still seeing out his period of National Service at Berwick-upon-Tweed and was unable to arrive at the game on time. Tottenham missed him and Burnley took full advantage to keep themselves in the race with a convincing 2-0 victory, which kept them in the hunt in third place just behind Spurs and Wolves.

Incredibly, Burnley were still harbouring hopes of a league and cup double. They had progressed to the quarter-finals of the FA Cup by beating Lincoln, Swansea and Bradford, each victory requiring a replay. The highest attendance of the season – 52,850 – had witnessed Burnley overcome lowly Bradford from the Third Division 5-0 with Pointer and Robson both scoring a brace.

The draw for the next round gave Burnley a home tie with rivals Blackburn. The two teams met on 12 March in a classic derby encounter in front of 51,501 fans which ended in a 3-3 draw. Sadly for the Clarets, their dreams of a double ended in an ignominious 2-0 defeat to their rivals the following Wednesday.

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Burnley now faced their most difficult game of the season away at the Wolves on 30 March, which would prove to be a real examination of their title-chasing pretensions. Burnley were unfortunate to meet a Wolves team playing at the height of their powers as the Clarets’ defence put in their least convincing performance of the season. Within 15 minutes the hosts had stormed to a 2-0 lead. Pointer pulled a goal back for Burnley but to no avail; by half-time they were trailing 4-1. The second half showed no improvement and Wolves added a further two goals to complete a devasting victory over their rivals and severely damage Burnley’s goal average. For manager Stan Cullis it was sweet revenge for the defeat his team had suffered at Turf Moor earlier in the season.

The side managed to recover from that defeat and embarked on a sequence that saw them lose only one of their final 10 fixtures. At the same time, Tottenham lost three games from four over the Easter period to dent their title hopes, but they were still to have an enormous influence on the eventual destination of the trophy.

Wolves had already booked their place in the FA Cup final, where they were due to face Blackburn, and were now strongly fancied not only to win the title for the third consecutive time but also to become the first team this century to achieve the league and cup double. Nevertheless, Burnley had kept the pressure on Wolves, refusing to yield the title and still maintained hopes of snatching the trophy. On 23 April, Wolves played their final home game of the season against Tottenham, where a win would virtually guarantee the title.

Blanchflower was determined to stop Wolves from doing the double for purely selfish reasons. He had his sights set on Spurs doing the double too – but next season. Stopping Wolves would hopefully allow Spurs to become the first side to achieve this unique. In a statement of intent, the captain decided to hold his pre-match talkon the pitch and fired up his players to achieve a 3-1 victory. This meant that even if Wolves won their final game of the season – which they did, 5-1 at Chelsea, Burnley could still overtake them.


The Final Countdown


Wolves completed their final fixture of the campaign with that resounding victory on 30 April meaning they had amassed 54 points and were top of the table. Tottenham had also played their final fixture and had finished in second place with 53 points. Burnley could only manage a frustrating 0-0 draw at home to Fulham so they were lying in third place with 53 points and an inferior goal average. Notwithstanding, Burnley still had one game to play to conclude their campaign.

Two days later, on the evening of 2 May, they were to visit Lancashire rivals Manchester City where every Burnley schoolboy could confirm that the mathematics involved was deadly simple. Win and the title was heading to the Clarets; draw and superior goal average would transport the title to Molineux. Bizarrely, if Burnley were to claim the title, it would be the first time all season that they had topped the table.

Amazingly there exists no footage of the match that decided the title. On that Monday evening, a massive crowd of 65,981 crammed into the “cold arena of draughts and concrete”, as picturesquely described by the Burnley Express. Manchester City’s previous home fixture against Preston had attracted a crowd of 29,821, which indicated that the away contingent for this final encounter of the season was possibly over 30,000. There were suspiciously unusual levels of absence in many workplaces and schools that day. The gates were closed before kick-off and many thousands of Clarets were unable to gain access and spent the entire 90 minutes listening to the match outside Maine Road on their radios.

Burnley had been without their top scorer John Connolly for the final six fixtures due to injury and reserve winger Trevor Meredith, who had broken his leg earlier in the season, had taken his place, scoring two goals in that period. Although Meredith was to spend four further years at Burnley, he only played in 37 games. However, tonight was to be his night.

City had endured a torrid campaign, avoiding relegation by a point. Nevertheless, on their day they were a match for anyone. Earlier in the season, they had pushed Wolves all the way in a pulsating encounter which they lost 6-4 and, just two weeks earlier, they had won 1-0 away to Tottenham. They had within their ranks an upcoming star by the name of Denis Law.

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Burnley made the best possible start to settle their nerves. After just four minutes, winger Pilkington cut in from the byline and fired a powerful shot which deflected off goalkeeper Bert Trautmann and the post to hit the back of the net. Three minutes later, Pilkington fired a shot narrowly wide when it seemed easier to score. It looked like a costly miss. Just two minutes later, Law miskicked in the Burnley penalty area but the ball found its way to Joe Hayes who prodded home the equalizer.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Meredith had spent two years languishing in the reserves. On 31 minutes, during a melee in the goalmouth, he suddenly found himself with the ball at his feet and volleyed a shot sweetly past the despairing Trautmann. The title was now Burnley’s to lose.

City threw everything at the Clarets during the second half but the defence held its nerve. Adam Blacklaw made several crucial saves, which became more problematic as both the crowd and players were having issues seeing the ball under the peculiarity of the Maine Road floodlights.

The Burnley defence stood resolute knowing one slip would cost them the title. With six minutes remaining, Law had an opportunity to score but failed to convert it. Three minutes later, Alan Oakes was through on goal but Blacklaw pulled off another brilliant save. Burnley were hanging on desperately. Then, match official Mr T. Gerrard blew his whistle. The game was over and, for the very first time that season, Burnley were top of the table. It was a run timed to perfection.


The Aftermath


As Burnley fans broke through the police cordon to mob their heroes, in the sanctuary of the dressing room Bob Lord cracked open the champagne and proclaimed: Wwe are very worthy champions and I am very happy about it.” Stan Cullis, who had been watching from the stands, was more restrained as he dealt with this deep setback to his side’s ambitions. Cullis was to put the icing on Burnley’s cake as his side were to defeat their rivals Blackburn in the FA Cup final. Burnley were the unchallenged kings of Lancashire. Bill Nicholson summed up the feelings of many by saying, “Burnley fully deserved their championship.”

It took a while for the significance of what they had achieved and what it meant to the town of Burnley to sink in. As the team coach made its way back to Burnley, they were accompanied by a cavalcade of cars and coaches packed with supporters waving their scarves and tooting their horns. Upon reaching the outskirts of Burnley they noticed the hoardes of cheering people gathering on the pavements.

A police escort was required to enable the bus to transport the players to the town hall, where an exuberant crowd was vociferously chanting for them. The Lord Mayor brought the victorious 11 onto the balcony where Bob Lord took the utmost pleasure in introducing each player to the adoring gathering. The cheers could be heard miles away.

Jimmy Adamson summed up the feelings of the team: “It is the happiest moment of my football life. I feel very grateful to the boys for playing so well and making our delight possible. It is something we share and will never forget. We owe this success to our manager. He is a wonderful fellow and has worked so hard for our benefit.”

Burnley utilised a total of just 19 players that campaign, Ray Pointer, Brain Miller and Jimmy Adamson appeared in every match. John Connolly top scored with 20 goals, followed by Ray Pointer on 19 and Jimmy Robson on 18. As Harry Potts’ wife, Margaret, so eloquently elucidated when assessing her husband’s momentous achievement, “He had done something magical for this tiny place. [He brought] Glory and distinction to our little town of cotton and coal.” 

By Paul Mc Parlan @paulmcparlan

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