Saturday, 19 January 2013

Football Art: Jackie Milburn

"I was born in the upstairs flat of my grandparents' home at 14 Sixth Row, Ashington," John Edward Thompson Milburn wrote in his Newcastle United Scrapbook.  "From my bedroom you could see the pit yard and the shaft leading down to the coalface...the money to be made down the pit and the beer it could buy spoilt many a promising football career."

The Milburns were a footballing dynasty. Jack Milburn made almost 400 appearances at full-back for Leeds United, scoring 15 penalties between 1934 and 1936.  His three brothers, George, Jim and Stan, played league football for Leeds, Chesterfield, Leicester City, Bradford and Rochdale.  Their father, Tanner Milburn, had kept goal for Ashington, where his brother, Alec, also played after turning down the chance to sign for Tottenham Hotspur.  "He preferred to stay at home and drink his ale," his son later wrote.

John Milburn was 19 years old when he read an advert in the North Mail newspaper offering public trials at Newcastle United. He'd worked briefly as a pantry boy in Dorking, played football for Hirst East Old Boys and Ashington YMCA, been rejected for military service due to his height and trained as an apprentice fitter for the Ashington Coal Company, where "boys just disappeared into the ground to work for the rest of their lives as miners". He turned up at St James' Park on a Wednesday afternoon in 1943 with a pie and a pair of borrowed boots, scored two goals and did well enough to be invited back the following weekend.  After forty-five minutes of his second trial game Milburn's team were trailing by three goals and he'd barely had a kick. "Come on lad, snap out of it," barked the unimpressed coach. "Show us what you did last week."  He did. Six goals in the second half persuaded Stan Seymour to offer a £10 signing-on fee and £1.50 a game. "I'd never seen so much money in my life," said Milburn.  Seymour, who'd played alongside Hughie Gallacher, been capped for England and won a league title and three FA Cups with Newcastle, had no doubts: "I knew there and then he'd be a star."

The teenager quickly set about proving Seymour right, scoring within two minutes of his home debut, striking twice against Barnsley in his first match after the war, and smashing a hat-trick at Bury when he was converted from outside-right into a reluctant centre-forward, his twenty goals in thirty-nine games helping Newcastle back into the First Division after an absence of fourteen years. Milburn still worked part-time at Hazlerigg Colliery, breaking new boots in down pit shafts and travelling to home games after shifts until his fellow workers voted unaminously in favour of strike action unless he was given Saturday mornings off. 

Capped thirteen times for England, Wor Jackie was always more comfortable the closer he was to home.  "The only time I'm really happy is when I come back over the Tyne Bridge and smell the pit heaps," he wrote. His Newcastle scoring record of 200 goals was finally broken by Alan Shearer in 2006, though Milburn's total excludes the 38 goals he netted between a debut strike against Bradford City and the resumption of the Football League proper in 1946-47.  "I was brought up being told how great Jackie Milburn was," Shearer said. "He was a man of the people...nobody had a bad word to say about him."

Three Wembley victories in the space of five seasons cemented Milburn's status as a Newcastle legend. He scored in every round of the 1951 FA Cup,  including two in five minutes against Blackpool in the final.  A hat-trick in the quarter-final at Portsmouth helped the Magpies retain their trophy. Three years later, it took just forty-five seconds for Milburn to head past Manchester City's Bert Trautmann and set  Newcastle on the way to a 3-1 win. "He meant a lot to me," remembered Sir Bobby Robson, who grew up watching Milburn at St James' Park and later managed England and Barcelona.  "He used to remind me of a wave breaking," said Sir Bobby Charlton, World and European champion and yet another member of the Milburn clan. "He would just surge past defenders with his incredible pace. Everybody loved watching him." "He was the most exciting thing I have seen on a football pitch," said Bob Stokoe, a Cup winner as both player and manager. "The most natural striker of a ball I've ever seen," thought Charlie Crowe, another of the North Mail trialists and left-half in the 1951 FA Cup winning side.

Wor Jackie.  In Honour of John Edward Thompson Milburn, Footballer & Gentleman.

Aged 33, Milburn  left Newcastle for Linfield, where he scored over a century of goals in two seasons as player-manager and netted twice as the Blues beat IFK Gothenburg in the European Cup, before an ill-fated spell in charge of Ipswich Town saw an ageing side relegated the season after lifting the First Division title. "There are a lot of good lads in football but you always get one or two bad ones, about five per cent that do all the damage, and believe you me, they do a lot of damage. It led really to the players becoming a little bit greedy, which is a bad thing in sport," he later explained. 

In a mark of the esteem he was held in on Tyneside, 45,000 fans turned up for Milburn's testimonial game in 1967 and tens of thousands of mourners gathered outside the city's St Nicholas' Cathedral for his funeral in 1988.  The west stand at St James' is named in his honour, and on the first anniversary of his death Newcastle Evening Chronicle readers raised £35,000 to pay for a 12-foot bronze statue by Susanna Robinson.

Originally sited in Northumberland Street, the sculpture was relocated to St James' Boulevard in 1999, where it stood at a road junction beside a tyre factory and a brick wall behind the now demolished Tyne Brewery.  Moved again in April 2012 to the south-east corner of St James' Park, it shows Milburn - posed by a ballet dancer, the only model Robinson could find able to keep their leg raised while she worked - aiming a thunderous kick down the hill towards the city centre and the Sir Bobby Robson Memorial Garden. "It's great news that the statue has been moved," said Jack Milburn Jnr.  “He was in a dark shadow where he was but now he’s back at his favourite end of St James’ Park. That’s where he wanted his ashes scattered, at the Gallowgate End, and that’s what we did 23 years ago. I have no doubt that if he’s looking down he’ll be thinking ‘that’s a great spot’."

Jackie Milburn: footballer, gentleman, Geordie legend. 

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