Jimmy Adamson: Footballer and manager who led Burnley to their greatest successes


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It is a question which can never be answered, but it is a compelling one in any examination of Jimmy Adamson's life and work. Would England have won the World Cup in 1966 if the unobtrusive but authoritative North-easterner had accepted the invitation to become manager of the national team? After he rejected the opportunity, the job of replacing Walter Winterbottom went to Alf Ramsey instead, and the result was the most glorious triumph in the history of the English game.

Footballer of the Year in 1962, Adamson was respected for his inspired long-term captaincy of Burnley and was establishing a reputation as an enterprising coach. But he had no experience of management, and it was debatable whether he possessed the ruthless drive and determination of Ramsey, who had lifted humble Ipswich Town from the old Third Division South to become unlikely League champions.

Still fit and ambitious as a 33-year-old who had just missed leading the Clarets to the League and FA Cup double, Adamson was not ready to lay aside his boots. In addition, he pondered the wisdom of cutting his managerial teeth on such an onerous post – and he might not have been impressed by the cavalier manner in which his predecessor had been treated by interfering FA officials and committee members.

Having travelled to the 1962 World Cup finals in Chile as coach and assistant to Winterbottom – he was expected to play, too, though that didn't happen and he retired without a cap – he had seen the media pressure faced by the manager. The job was hardly given added lustre by handsome material rewards, Winterbottom having been paid around £40 per week.

Hailing from Ashington in Northumberland, the same pit village as Bobby and Jackie Charlton, Adamson was the sixth son of a miner and toiled below ground as a teenager. Spotted by a Burnley scout in a kickabout, Adamson enlisted in October 1946 and turned professional three months later. Tall and composed, he had been a school centre-half, but soon the Burnley coaches converted him into an inside-forward.

But it was not until a second positional switch, to wing-half, following his return from National Service in the RAF, that he began to realise his potential, making his First Division debut in 1951. Though he was unassuming, there was an unyielding strength and lively intelligence about Adamson which marked him out as a natural leader, and soon he was captaining the Clarets, who were moulded into a solidly efficient side by manager Allan Brown.

Adamson returned to centre-half, and also featured at left-half before reverting to right-half towards the end of the memorable 1959-60 campaign when small-town Burnley were battling for the League title with champions Wolverhampton, and Tottenham Hotspur.

Now managed by Harry Potts, the Clarets had developed into a terrific side, industrious and well-drilled and dusted with flair, notably in the shape of the Irish playmaker Jimmy McIlroy, England winger John Connelly and the cultured Adamson. Unfashionable Burnley lifted the crown by a single point on the final day thanks to a stout rearguard action which secured victory at Manchester City.

It was a phenomenal achievement, and few played a more integral part than the captain. Operating as a deep-lying midfield anchorman, he was adept at reading the game, winning the ball and using it perceptively. Though he was not a shouter of the odds he was an effective motivator and a shrewd tactician. In 1960-61 he led Burnley proudly into the European Cup, where they beat Reims of France before bowing outto Hamburg. In 1961-62 they went close to winning the double, finishing as First Division runners-up to Ipswich Town and losing to Spurs at Wembley.

After making his decision not to take charge of England, Adamson played for two more seasons before becoming club coach in 1964 and manager in 1970. He talked enthusiastically about Burnley becoming "the team of the '70s" with such gifted young performers as Dave Thomas and Leighton James, but they were relegated. The board retained faith in him and were repaid with the Second Division title in 1972-73, and sixth place in the top flight in 1973-74.

Sadly, the cash constraints which haunt most clubs of Burnley's size dictated the sale of their star player Martin Dobson and other promising rookies, and Adamson departed, disillusioned, in January 1976. There followed a fleeting spell in charge of Sparta Rotterdam before he replaced Bobby Stokoe as manager of a lacklustre Sunderland team in November 1976. He could not prevent relegation but began a reconstruction programme which resulted in a decent sixth-place Second-Division showing in 1977-78.

Next, to the surprise of some, he was handed the reins of mighty Leeds United, seeking a steady hand following the rapid arrival and departure of Jock Stein. Adamson led his new charges into Europe but then came a limp Uefa Cup exit in 1979-80. Fans were disgruntled at the sale of favourites such as Tony Currie and Frank Gray, and the team became ordinary. Attendances dropped, and in October 1980 he bowed to popular demand by resigning. Though still only 51, Jimmy Adamson never returned to the professional game. It was an exit as poignant as it was premature.

Ivan Ponting

James Adamson, footballer and manager: born Ashington, Northumberland 4 April 1929; married May (deceased; two daughters, deceased); died 8 November 2011.


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