Willie Irvine: How Promotion Was Won in ’72

willieirvine

In ‘Together Again,’ the autobiography of former Burnley, Preston, Brighton and Halifax hotshot Willie Irvine, he recounts the story of how Albion’s scintillating all-out attacking play achieved promotion from Division Three in 1971/72. Alongside the equally prolific Kit Napier, his sixteen League goals made him the club’s joint top scorer. Irvine’s strikes against Torquay, Halifax, Walsall (FA Cup) and Bristol Rovers were all in the dying minutes, earning him the nickname ‘Late Goal Willie.’ He also scored this incredible goal against Aston Villa:

More on that later!

Unusually, but effectively, the classy Northern Ireland international reminisces about the famous season through the context of a booklet from those times:

Among my few bits and pieces of memorabilia is a torn, battered, moth-eaten copy of a little programme-sized souvenir booklet produced by Chris Bale, who was sports editor of the Brighton and Hove Gazette. It’s a story in pictures of that memorable season, one of the happiest and most rewarding I spent.

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I look at it now and all the best memories come back as if the 30 years and that have passed by since that year have melted away. It says on the blurb it was the most exciting season since Albion had won promotion from the Third Division 14 years earlier.

I flick through the pages and am reminded of the chairman Tom Whiting, Pat Saward’s right-hand man Mike Yaxley, Ray Crawford the coach, and a bloke called Joe Wilson who had been at the club in one capacity or other since Noah’s Ark first hit the waves.

The pages of the booklet aren’t even numbered but there I am on the first page that hits you, scoring against Bradford City, soaring like an eagle, eyes on the ball, shirt flapping, hair flying. Bang, back of the net, bloody magic.

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Next page, scoring the winning goal on our home ground, seizing on a faulty back pass and going round their keeper to make sure it goes in. “Willie’s coolness in these situations shows his international class”. Chris Bales’ words, not mine.

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Next page: two pictures of me, one back to the camera, slim, muscular, striped shirt, number 9 big and bold on the back, Bertie Lutton slamming the ball home. Under that one is me talking a pot shot, great picture, almost horizontal above the ground; damn, missed.

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Next page, after 7 games, seventh in the table, five points behind Bournemouth at the top, Albion’s most unusual goal comes next and I’m responsible for it; a goalmouth scramble, me in the middle of it, the Chesterfield goalkeeper thinks I have fouled him and stops playing and puts the ball down for a free kick. He walks back a couple of yards to take the free kick and everyone bar just one player walks back to take up new positions. But that’s just one problem. The referee hasn’t blown for any foul so Kit Napier, cool as you like, puts the ball into the back of the net. Mayhem, stunned Chesterfield players. Stunned Brighton players for that matter; Albion 2 Chesterfield 1. Who gets the other? Me.

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Nearly half-way through the booklet: 22 games played, Brighton fifth, five points behind Notts County, Brian Bromley scores; me, arms raised in joy, and a dejected Mansfield number 5.

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The middle pages of the souvenir have us all smiling and holding champagne glasses. I’ve wangled myself a position in the centre of the picture, hair all over my face. Pat Saward, just to my left, looking cool and calm as if this kind of thing happens every day, but as a former male model this could be his photograph face. Good-looking fella.

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Page whatever it is – it’s a bugger they’re not numbered – and we go second: Albion 3 Wrexham 2, one from me.

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And then the big one, the promotion crunch game, at home to Villa. It was a win that really made us think and believe we could do it: win promotion and get our names into Brighton history books. There were a few drinks that night. The BBC cameras were there for that game and there, next to the Villa page, there’s a picture of me scoring and the goal was voted by BBC viewers into Goal of the Season runners-up.

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Next page, Ken Beamish is pictured with a flying header. He was a £35,000 bargain and demonstrated that the saying “the early bird catches the worm” is absolutely true. Pat Saward left Brighton at 5am one morning to sign him. I’ve half an idea he signed him from Tranmere, who we played the next day.

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Albion 3 Blackburn 0 and I scored. I always seemed to score against Blackburn so when I see their old centre half Derek Fazakerley, I always say, “You won’t recognise me now, will you?” He always asks why. “Because all you ever saw was my back and you could never keep up,” I reply.

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Now here’s the back end of the booklet. Did we by some quirk play Rochdale twice in the final two games?

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The final table reads: Aston Villa top with 70 points and then us in second place with 65 points, just three ahead of Bournemouth. Absolute jubilation.

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It’s a priceless memento – in spite of my ridiculous Mexican bandit moustache, plus the obligatory ’70s hairstyle. Eat your heart out, Omar Sharif. We all had those big hairstyles then. I just wish I had some left today and didn’t look quite so old.”

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Such was Willie Irvine’s tremendous form in 1971/72 for the Albion that he fought his way back into the Northern Ireland team in the summer of 1972. Here, he gets an assist for Terry Neill’s winner against England at Wembley in the Home Internationals:

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One thought on “Willie Irvine: How Promotion Was Won in ’72

  1. Steve Cowdry says:

    A fascinating read – wonderful stuff!

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