Adam Blacklaw: Scottish international goalkeeper who helped Burnley win the League title in 1960
Saturday 13 March 2010
Adam Blacklaw was the bold, fearless, sometimes spellbindingly brilliant last-ditch bastion of the Burnley rearguard as the team from the East Lancashire cotton town of around 80,000 inhabitants defied the big-city battalions to lift the Football League championship half a century ago this spring.
When the pressure on the Clarets' goal was at its most intense, the Scottish international goalkeeper appeared to loom larger, seeking to command his entire penalty box, let alone his recognised domain immediately in front of his posts. A burly six-footer, he would hurl himself into the action, ready to clatter his way through his own defenders as well as opposition attackers, if that's what it took to claim the ball in his capacious hands.
Dependability and consistency were his watchwords – he missed only two League games in five seasons during his pomp, once through an international call-up and once when he was rested ahead of a European Cup tie – but Blacklaw was no mere stolid bulwark. He offered remarkable agility for such a big man, exceptional reflexes and a sound positional sense which made some of his shrewdest interventions appear deceptively simple. As a character he was jovial and forthright, excellent for dressing-room morale, which tended to be high anyway during his time at Turf Moor. The quietly inspirational manager Harry Potts fostered, and his players embraced enthusiastically, an indomitable one-for-all-and-all-for-one ethos.
Blacklaw spoke of this team spirit in Tim Quelch's splendid account of the title triumph, Never Had It So Good (Know The Score Books, 2009): "We had no real stars, but we worked hard for each other. If any of us was having an off day, everyone else would dig in even deeper to help him through it. We played for each other – that was the secret of our success." In fact, the notion that Potts' side was devoid of stars was debatable, with the sublimely creative Northern Irish inside-forward Jimmy McIlroy, the dashing England winger John Connelly and influential wing-half Jimmy Adamson among their number, but the relevance of the togetherness factor was impossible to exaggerate.
The son of a ship's carpenter, Blacklaw grew up playing football on the cobbled streets of Aberdeen and turned out for his home town's schoolboy team as a bustling centre-forward. But a far-sighted teacher believed he could shine between the sticks, and soon he was representing Scotland schoolboys and the Banks O'Dee club in his new position.
Talent scouts from a clutch of high-ranking English clubs noted his progress, and in that era before the oil boom he concluded that he would have to leave Scotland to make his living. Leicester City expressed particular interest, but it was little Burnley who prevailed, even though he had no idea where the town was located.
Blacklaw turned professional at Turf Moor in 1954, serving an apprenticeship as a bricklayer as insurance against failing to make the grade as a footballer, while honing his skills as a rookie keeper. At first he had to be patient about making further strides as the Clarets were blessed with one of the finest goalkeepers of the day in Colin McDonald, but eventually, when the England international was injured, the Aberdonian made his senior debut as a 19-year-old in a 6-2 home victory over Cardiff City on a foggy Turf Moor afternoon in December 1956.
There followed a lengthy interlude as understudy, but then McDonald, who was nearly seven years Blacklaw's senior, suffered atrocious misfortune, his career ended by a broken leg sustained while playing for the Football League in March 1959. Now Blacklaw stepped into the breach, performing so securely that he became an automatic selection throughout the most illustrious half-decade in the Clarets' history. In 1959-60, during which he rose to Scotland under-23 status, he missed only one game as Burnley pipped mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers to the title on the last day of the season.
Next came the challenge of the European Cup, and after he did well as the French club, Reims, were overcome, he excelled against the German champions, Hamburg, making one save from Uwe Seeler that was so sensational that the great centre-forward was moved to join in the crowd's rapturous applause.
In 1961-62 Burnley went agonisingly close to emulating Tottenham Hotspur, who had just become the first club in the 20th century to win the League and FA Cup double. They finished as runners-up in the championship race to Alf Ramsey's surprise packet Ipswich Town, then lost 3-1 to Spurs at Wembley.
On the way to that final, Blacklaw had been in wonderful form, notably against Sheffield United at Bramall Lane in the last eight. The game finished 1-0 to Burnley, one of countless narrow victories down the years in which he was as much the match-winner as the men who supplied the goals at the other end.
Like any keeper Blacklaw suffered his embarrassments, never more excruciating than when he cannoned a clearance into the onrushing Liverpool centre-forward Ian St John during extra-time in a 1963 FA Cup encounter, then pulled down his fellow Scot, thus conceding the penalty which resulted in the Clarets' elimination. That summer, though, his customary efficiency was rewarded by a full international call, though the occasion was marred for him by a 4-3 defeat by Norway in Bergen, suffered despite a hat-trick from his fellow Aberdonian Denis Law.
There followed appearances against Spain, the 6-2 triumph still Scotland's biggest away success in Europe, and a 3-0 defeat by Italy in a World Cup qualifier in 1965, his lack of further opportunities proving a mystery to all at Turf Moor. However, in the spring of that year he had been unseated at club level by his countryman Harry Thomson following a 5-1 reverse at Leeds, and he could never count on his place again, the pair battling for the jersey over the next two campaigns.
Still Blacklaw remained a Burnley loyalist, as he demonstrated when rescuing Thomson, who had just starred in a goalless draw in a bruising Fairs Cup contest in Napoli in February 1967, from an aggressive opponent at the final whistle. Blacklaw, once a promising amateur boxer, ended up in a six-man scuffle, throwing one assailant down a flight of steps and being confronted by a gun-toting policeman before finding refuge in the dressing room.
That summer, in his 30th year and accepting that he was now in Thomson's shadow, he was transferred to local rivals Blackburn Rovers, performing competently for three Second Division seasons before finishing his League career with a single outing for Blackpool, where once again he found himself vying with Thomson, in October 1970. Thereafter Blacklaw played for non-League Great Harwood Town, alongside former Blackburn luminaries Ronnie Clayton, Bryan Douglas and Roy Vernon, before managing Clitheroe Town, with whom he once demonstrated his undiminished passion for the game by running on to the pitch to grab the referee.
After leaving professional football, Blacklaw worked as a newsagent in Burnley, as steward of Burnley Cricket Club, ran the Cross Keys pub at Barnoldswick near the town, and had a spell as a caretaker at Nelson and Colne College. In 2009, when dealing with the onset of both Alzheimer's and Motor Neurone Disease, he was delighted to travel to Hampden Park to receive a Scotland cap. Oddly by modern standards, before 1975 the ceremonial headgear was awarded only for British Championship matches, but lobbying by friends secured this much-deserved honour in his 73rd year.
Adam Smith Blacklaw, footballer; born Aberdeen 2 September 1937; played for Burnley 1954-67, Blackburn Rovers 1967-70, Blackpool 1970; capped three times for Scotland, 1963-65; married (one son, two daughters); died Barnoldswick, Lancashire 28 February 2010.
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