John Connelly: Winger who won the league with Burnley and Manchester United


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The Independent Online

John Connelly was one of the most penetrative goal-scoring wingers English football has seen since the war. A potent fusion of flair and industry, he played crucial roles in two League championship teams, first with Burnley and then with Manchester United, and he was more than a trifle unlucky not to take his place in the most successful England side of all time.

Connelly's Turf Moor triumph was in 1959-60, when the unfashionable Clarets pipped much-fancied Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur to the First Division title on the last day of the season. He he picked up his second Championship medal five years later, holding his own as a Red Devil alongside the stellar likes of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton.

Then, in the summer of 1966, he was the sole orthodox wide man in Alf Ramsey's team for the World Cup finals curtain-raiser against Uruguay, only to slip blamelessly out of contention as the England manager varied his strategy by doing away with wingers. Yet arguably the most commendable of the likeable Lancastrian's attributes was his supreme professionalism. Whether on the international stage or grafting in humbler surroundings with Blackburn Rovers and Bury, he strained every sinew.

As a sporty youngster raised in the rugby league heartland of St Helens, Connelly might have gravitated to the oval ball, but he was drawn to football, enlisting briefly with Southport of the Third Division North as an amateur triallist, then serving his non-League home town club before signing part-time professional terms for Burnley as an 18-year-old in November 1956.

Despite continuing with an apprenticeship as a joiner, Connelly progressed at a meteoric rate, making his senior debut a few months after arriving at Turf Moor, then ousting the experienced Scot Doug Newlands to claim a regular place on the right flank during 1958-59. The youngster's speed and appetite for honest toil – he was chasing back in the manner of modern midfielders when countless contemporary wingers were content to hug the touchline, waiting for the perfect pass – was ideal for Harry Potts' efficient, methodical side. He was a prolific marksman and skilful, too, his right-flank partnership with the gifted Irish playmaker Jimmy McIlroy both pleasing to the eye and effective.

It impressed the England manager Walter Winterbottom, who selected Connelly in autumn 1959 against Wales at Ninian Park while he was still a part-timer. The game was drawn 1-1, but the debutant performed tellingly enough in a forward line which included Jimmy Greaves, Brian Clough and Bobby Charlton to retain his place for three matches before being injured.

That knock, suffered in a tense victory over Leicester City in April 1960, also removed the hard-running outside-right from the climax of the most momentous League campaign Burnley would ever know. After scoring 20 times in 34 League outings, a fabulous return for a winger, he was out of the last six games as his team-mates scrapped for the championship. They prevailed, thanks to a rousing rearguard action which secured a win against Manchester City in the last game; no member of the side deserved his medal more than Connelly.

He was unfortunate that his England replacement, fellow Lancastrian Bryan Douglas of Blackburn, a less direct but rather more tricky winger, struck a rich vein of form. Thus, though Connelly remained in Winterbottom's thoughts and made the trip to Chile for the 1962 World Cup, he did not feature.

He continued to thrive at club level, however, excelling as the Clarets finished as runners-up to Ipswich and lost the FA Cup final to Tottenham in 1962, after which the side began gradually to decline. At this point Connelly was still in his prime, and in 1963-64 he demonstrated his versatility by switching to Burnley's left flank to accommodate the emergence of the precocious young Scot, Willie Morgan.

Morgan later joined Manchester United, but in the spring of 1964 the Old Trafford manager Matt Busby, with the rookie George Best supplying all the youthful exuberance he needed, was looking for experience on his right wing, so he turned to Connelly. After a £56,000 transfer, the 26-year-old slotted smoothly into the most gifted forward line British club football has ever known: Connelly, Charlton, David Herd, Law and Best.

The newcomer's straightforward approach offered ideal balance to the instinctive brilliance of "the glorious trinity", and by season's end United were champions for the first time since 1957. As well as contributing 15 League goals, the former Claret scored five times in the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (later the Uefa Cup) and delivered a supply of precision crosses on which his eminent fellow raiders feasted.

Memorably, he was a central figure in a key spring-time triumph over chief championship rivals Leeds United at Elland Road, poaching the game's only goal and reducing the Yorkshiremen's combative schemer, Bobby Collins, to ineffectiveness by his constant harrying. His input showed no sign of lessening in 1965-66, when United finished fourth in the League, and he scored six times as they reached the semi-finals of the European Cup, only to lose unexpectedly to Partizan Belgrade.

That summer his stature was confirmed by the award of his 20th cap in England's opening game of the World Cup finals at Wembley, and it was his misfortune to be caught up in one of the most sterile goalless draws in living memory. Even so he escaped his Uruguayan markers to hit the woodwork twice; if either of those efforts had found the net he might have retained his place and gone on to earn sporting immortality. As it was Alf Ramsey shuffled his pack, Connelly never played for his country again and, to widespread astonishment, his Old Trafford days were numbered, too.

Early in the new season there was an irreconcilable difference of opinion with the United manager and the 28-year-old was sold to Blackburn Rovers, recently demoted to the Second Division, for £40,000. It was not in Connelly's character to allow his career to fizzle out lamely, and he flourished for four seasons at Ewood Park, though Rovers proved unable to return to the top flight. There followed a spirited three-year stint for Bury.

On leaving the game in 1973 he ran a fish-and-chip restaurant in the small town of Brierfield on the edge of the Lancashire Moors. It was called Connelly's Plaice and, not surprisingly to anyone who had witnessed the proprietor in action on a football pitch, it offered impeccable value for money.

Ivan Ponting

John Michael Connelly, footballer: born St Helens, Lancashire 18 July 1938; played for Burnley 1956-64, Manchester United 1964-66, Blackburn Rovers 1966-70, Bury 1970-73; capped 20 times by England 1959-66; married (three children); died Barrowford, Lancashire 25 October 2012.