This weekend 60 years ago, Burnley were crowned league champions after a last-day victory at Manchester City, just the excuse needed to finally post about former Clarets star and England international Brian Pilkington, a near-neighbour and old friend who died in February.
It’s now 10 weeks since I joined a packed congregation at St Andrew’s Church, Leyland for Brian’s funeral, the same day St Patrick’s Church in Coleraine was rammed for Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeping legend Harry Gregg, a year older than Pilky. That wet afternoon seems a lifetime ago in light of all that’s followed, but I felt it only right that I should brave the elements to pay my respects, around 300 mourners (downstairs and upstairs full) including Brian’s Burnley team-mates Jimmy Robson and Trevor Meredith, fellow Clarets and England international John Connelly’s widow, and Brian’s Barrow team-mate Mick Wearmouth, who I knew from my newspaper days reporting on Chorley FC, where Pilky was on the board and Mick was groundsman.
It was at Chorley, where his association began at the back end of his playing career in 1967/68 (when I was doing some dribbling of my own, as a newborn), that I got to know Brian. In fact, those are the memories I cherish most regarding Pilky, not least evenings when he’d cadge a lift back from away games rather than use the team coach, telling me tales from his footballing past en route.
I also visited the house he shared with his beloved Maureen, just across the wall from Worden Park, Leyland, and recently rediscovered the resultant feature I wrote about him. Suffice to say, he proudly had his club and representative medals and England cap by his side that day, the latter awarded after featuring for a home international side that triumphed 2-0 over Northern Ireland (Johnny Haynes and Don Revie scoring) at Windsor Park, Belfast, in October 1954, outside left Brian one of seven England debutants playing in front of 60,000, Walter Winterbottom’s side captained by Billy Wright and also including Nat Lofthouse and Stanley Matthews.
Brian’s story is real Roy of the Rovers in places, and I love the fact that on the day he married (at the same Leyland church where we said our farewells) on March 15th, 1958, the wedding was arranged early so he could travel 25 miles to Turf Moor straight after to be part of a Clarets side that beat Manchester United 3-0. Jimmy McIlroy (in that Irish side against England four years earlier), Alan Shackleton and Albert Cheesebrough got the second-half goals, but it was Brian interviewed by future This is Your Life presenter Eamonn Andrews for his TV show that evening, his wedding night.
I’ve only seen a few clips of him playing, but Brian was a gifted player for sure, and arguably it was only that he was competing against Preston North End’s England legend Tom Finney for a place that Brian missed out on more caps. He did add a couple of England B caps though, scoring once, his teammates including Brian Clough. He was also on standby for the 1954 and 1958 World Cup finals.
Perhaps part of the reason his story resonates is that he was just a year younger than my Dad, part of that generation having to undergo National Service. While Surrey lad Bob Wyatt got his basic RAF training at Padgate, Warrington, then moved on to Weeton, near Blackpool (later switching to St Mawgan, Cornwall, where we had family links), Brian wasn’t so far off, based at Kirkham and putting in representative duties along the way. By his own admission, in an era that national servicemen became embroiled in the Korean War and the Suez crisis, he had it relatively easy, the merits of his fitness and sporting prowess recognised in high places.
There were more links, and he told me he grew up a few doors from the Victorian terrace house I shared with my better half in Leyland at the time, albeit half a century or so before. What’s more, his daughter-in-law Helen showed us around the house we now live in, by which time she’d taken over the day-to-day running of Brian Pilkington Estate Agents in the town he so loved.
He wasn’t the first in his family to shine at football, telling me his Dad, William, played for PNE in the late 1920s, that team also featuring Scottish international Alex James. Brian was an apprentice at Leyland Motors and played for the works team in the Lancashire Combination when he signed for Burnley in 1951, for a £10 fee. He carried on as a coach-painter at first, becoming a first-team regular in the 1953/54 season before his call-up. He went on to make around 350 appearances for Harry Potts’ team, scoring 77 goals, missing just one of 60 matches in the year the Clarets won that 1959/60 league title, scoring 11 goals. Not a bad return for a fella earning £20 a week at the time.
That season they won the title – their first in 39 years – by a point over Wolverhampton Wanderers, it was a Pilky strike at Birmingham City that took the championship to the final game, 66,000 at Maine Road on that last day as he put the hosts ahead, his fourth-minute cross turned into the net by City legend Bert Trautmann. The Burnley Express match report recalled, “It came from the eighth throw-in (that in itself being an indication of the liveliness of the ball as against the subdued skill of the players). Elder and Robson pushed it on and Pilkington cut in along near the bye-line, hit a low centre across the face of the goal, the ball appearing to touch Trautmann, who had moved too near the post, and it finished inside the net by the far upright.”
Denis Law levelled for City, but then came a winner from John Connelly’s stand-in, Trevor Meredith, the Burnley Express revealing, “Strangely enough, each trainer made only a brief appearance. The players were too busy to note their bruises. No doubt they could count them afterwards, though the Burnley boys were too happy to bother. Most serious casualty was Pilkington, the Burnley outside left, who had been a constant worry to the City right flank. He is an expert at the acrobatic fall and he executed it with full dramatics on two occasions – to the baffled fury of the home crowd when the referee have free kicks in acknowledgement of justice, pain and suffering. However, it was the final occasion, a few minutes before the end, when he was brought down and the injury was actual and serious and left him limping with a damaged ankle.”
The following season Burnley reached the European Cup quarter-finals, and many moons ago Brian leant me a video tape of that last-eight showdown from the BBC coverage, a dreadful Turf Moor pitch helping the hosts on a freezing cold mid-January 1961 night in East Lancashire against SV Hamburg. Typically, he played down his part, telling me it was ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. But there’s no denying he was a star that night, scoring twice, the second a cracker by any standards, while Jimmy Robson – whose daughter Dany went on to train as a journalist with me in Preston in the mid-1990s – added a third in a 3-1 victory. The Clarets went out after the second leg though, losing 4-1 in Germany in front of 70,000.
Brian also played in September 1957 for Burnley against Brazilian champions Flamengo at the official opening of the Nou Camp in Barcelona. But by 1961, the year my Dad swapped steam loco firing duties to be a postman down in Guildford, Brian’s Clarets days were over, sold supposedly without his knowledge for £30,000 to Bolton Wanderers by chairman Bob Lord. He also told me he belatedly learned he was tapped up by Manchester United but turned down by his club in 1958, again without his knowledge, to come into their depleted side in place of David Pegg, one of the ill-fated Busby Babes so cruelly lost in the Munich air disaster.
Brian later moved on to Gigg Lane, Bury, then Holker Street, Barrow, where he helped win the Division Four title, his teammates including the afore-mentioned Mick Wearmouth, another lovely, extremely approachable fella I got to know during my Chorley Guardian and Lancashire Evening Post days. In fact, I recall Brian coming up to me and Mick one Saturday afternoon while we were chatting at half time over a cuppa and a custard cream in the boardroom beneath the main stand, reaching up to our shoulders (he was five foot four and a half) and announcing, ‘Centre-halves’. I’ll take that, any day, being talent-spotted by Pilky.
Also paying their respects to the National League club’s life president at the funeral were Magpies boss Jamie Vermiglio and chairman Ken Wright, respectively player and manager in the days I covered Chorley. And Brian’s love for the game never diminished, carrying on training in his Clarets days with Leyland Motors and retaining links with regional football throughout his career. I’ve heard several first-hand accounts of Leyland lads star-struck by him coming along to help coach them at boyhood park sides, joined by Clarets teammate Trevor Meredith, a Shropshire lad who taught in Preston after his playing days and settled in Leyland.
Soon enough, Brian had another role, success selling houses for local businessman (and future Chorley FC owner and Grand National-wining racehorse owner) Trevor Hemmings leading to his post-professional football career change.
I saw him less often in later years, but now and again we’d chat, either while he sneaked in a cuppa at his old Leyland office, passing on words of wisdom to his daughter-in-law, or walking around a nearby supermarket. In time, it became clear he’d succumbed to dementia, and I felt for his wife and family as well as Brian. He died in a care home in Adlington in early February after a long battle with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
His legacy lives on though. Just this morning, my pal Keith Bradshaw mentioned how he’d travel over from Morecambe by bus to see that feted Clarets side in his youth, telling me, ‘I loved that team and saw most home games in the Championship-winning season. I even owned a claret and blue rattle, which is now with Sporting Memories’. And Brian’s close friend Keith McIntosh, a key player in Lancashire’s Sporting Memories Foundation group, a charity setting out to ‘tackle dementia, depression and loneliness through the power of sport’, paid a personal tribute at the funeral to a fella he clearly knew well. There’s also a stand at the Lancashire FA headquarters named after him these days, and through family, friends and the fellowship of football it’s fair to say Brian will never be forgotten.
With thanks to Dany Robson for casting her eyes over the finished feature, Keith McIntosh for his photographs, and Keith Bradshaw for his own Clarets’ memories.
For more details about the Sporting Memories Foundation, follow this link.