NORTHERN Ireland international Willie Irvine has encountered the highs and lows in life and I would urge anyone who hasn’t yet read his autobiography, Together Again (written by Dave Thomas) to add it to their book collection.
The Albion provided a platform for a brief resurgence in Willie’s career in the early 1970s but in the mid Sixties he was a big star scoring goals for fun as Burnley strutted their stuff amongst English football’s elite.
He scored 78 goals in 126 games for the Lancashire side between 1962 and 1968 and in the 1965-66 season notched 29 goals in what was the equivalent of today’s Premiership.
Sadly his highly-promising career at Burnley was never the same after he suffered a broken leg in a tackle with Johnny Morrissey in a FA Cup third round match at Everton in 1967.
A year later, the Turf Moor club turfed him out, transferring him to nearby Preston North End. By 1971, he was surplus to requirements there, and Pat Saward brought him to Third Division Albion on loan.
His first game, on the evening of March 10 1971 at home to Fulham, couldn’t have gone much better because he marked his debut by scoring two in a 3-2 win.
They were the first of 27 goals in 69 appearances for the Albion and, after he’d signed on a permanent basis, the following season saw him play a key role as Brighton secured promotion to the second tier as runners-up to champions Aston Villa.
However, those fans of a certain vintage will recall a memorable goalscoring season for Irvine was capped off (literally!) by a most magical strike against Aston Villa in front of the Match of the Day cameras.
Willie’s goal was judged by the legendary manager Jock Stein as the third best goal of the season shown on Match of the Day and Brighton went on to win promotion.
It was the first time I had experienced the excitement of going up, but there was one further thrill in store for me before the season came to a complete close.
In those days, there was an end-of-season tournament played between the “home” nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). I had already been to a couple of England internationals at Wembley but the England international on May 23 1972 was extra special because lining up for Northern Ireland was Albion’s very own Willie Irvine.
Now, I had not been a football supporter for very long, but even I knew that it was virtually unheard of for Third Division teams to have current international players playing for them.
Irvine had played for Northern Ireland during his earlier career, but I never dreamt – and, on reading the autobiography many years later, neither had he – that he would re-appear for his country in the twilight of his career.
My allegiances were split that day and I have to say it didn’t really upset me that Northern Ireland ended up 1-0 winners thanks to player-manager Terry Neill’s solitary goal – laid on by Irvine!
Here is how The Official FA Year Book (1972-73) described the goal: “From Hegan’s corner, Irvine beat Shilton to the ball and headed it down to Neill, the Irish player-manager, playing in his 50th international, to shoot into an empty net from two yards range.”
The game saw England give international debuts to Colin Todd and Tony Currie, and Colin Bell was England captain in the absence of Bobby Moore. Two players who would later join the Albion – Martin Chivers, as a substitute for Malcolm Macdonald, and Sammy Nelson, the Arsenal left-back – were also on show.
Irvine acquitted himself well, playing in all of Ireland’s games in that year’s tournament, but he wasn’t selected again.
Life has been rather unkind to Irvine since his glory days but, as the title of the book implies, he has got it back together after reaching a very low ebb.
Together Again reveals how it all turned sour for him at the Albion in the following season when his relationship with manager Pat Saward deteriorated badly.
Eventually, against his wishes, he was transferred to Halifax Town in part exchange for Lammie Robertson.
On reading that he had no memorabilia of his time at the Goldstone, 35 years after he left the Albion, I sent him my copy of the Albion programme for that famous win over Villa and he kindly returned an autographed photo showing him in action with Chris Nicholl, which I had sent with the programme.
There have been other strikers over the years who’ve worn the colours of both teams – like Kurt Nogan, Ade Akinbiyi, Chris Iwelumo and, in more recent times, Sam Vokes and Ashley Barnes – but none stir the memories for me quite like Willie Irvine.