Together Again - The Dinner

As if we would. Tongue in cheek maybe, a little hint of a smile in his eyes, but nevertheless a sign of the nerves that he felt. Short of his wedding day, I’d hazard a guess that he felt that this was maybe the biggest day of his life – that’s how much it meant to him. Scorer of 37 goals in one season at Burnley FC it is still no easy job standing up in front of 200 people and speaking into a microphone.

Willie & Rita Irvine

He needn’t have worried, you could have heard a pin drop and the speech that he gave was so warm, so genuine, so heartfelt that there was more than one tearful eye in the audience. Once you’ve read his book you might say that life after football has not been overly kind to Willie but today he has it all back together again and he is a man who can be proud of his achievements. “Have I done alright?” is a question he will ask his wife, his sons, and myself on more than one occasion. He asked it after he had given his speech. He did more than alright.

These legends dinners are special and sometimes I wonder that one day they might fade away. For the moment there is a vast reservoir of supremely talented and international Burnley players who can be invited to attend as guests. A huge number of them still live locally or within easy driving distance of the club. Twenty years from now who will there be?

“There’s just such a family atmosphere here tonight” I heard one awe struck person say to his friend. A player overheard: “This is how it was all the time when we were here”, he said. A chap rang me the morning after to say he had got home and sat up till 3 in the morning just thinking about everything. Barbara Lord sent a thank you card and said just the same thing that when she got home she sat up into the small hours reliving the evening.

The players were superb. They mixed, talked, laughed and why shouldn’t they. The blokes from the 60s and 70s were still very much the bloke next door, approachable, affable, grateful for the football gifts that God had given them. Compare them to the pampered, protected, prima donna Premiership players of today who live in secure gated mansions, or converted barns in acres of land, with an agent to get past before you can even look at them. Will Chaplow and Blake et al say what Brian O’Neil said as the evening ended?

“Dave when I drove up this morning, the rain poured down, the motorway was a nightmare, but I was happy. I was coming back, coming back to Burnley”.

Willie with his old team mate Ralph Coates

So the players sat two to every other table. If you weren’t on their table, you did get to rub shoulders from the next one. Their wives sat together on their own table discussing handbags and dresses and what they’d been doing over the last 12 months while the men talked about important matters. It never ceases to amaze me that grown men in the 50s and 60s (including me) will dash round with their pictures and programmes having them signed. The bottom line is we are all just little boys. We mix with the footballers that we would have loved to have been ourselves.

The atmosphere, the buzz, didn’t lift all night, from the moment each legend is introduced and walks down the carpet to his place, right to the end when bleary eyed punters and players are sprawled at tables still engrossed in who scored this goal, and how we won that game, this is 5 hours of pure nostalgia and glory.

Throughout the evening there are intervals so that people are free to wander and mix. Before Willie gave his speech, Mike Summerbee took the microphone for the guest spot: another Burnley favourite even though he was only here for a short while.

He limited his F words to just five, trying to cut down he said. He was droll, dry and pithy, told some good tales and had us in stitches several times.

But the star of the night was certainly Willie who didn’t start drinking until after his speech, now there’s nerves for you. A large contingent of his family was there, including his brother Bobby. He and Willie had not spoken for ten years until just a few weekends ago; the book brought them together again. They were still in The Sparrowhawk at 4 a.m. wandering down memory lane.

The daughter of his deceased brother Joey arrived from Wiltshire. We knew she and her family were coming, Willie didn’t. He was just amazed. The story of why Joey and Willie stopped speaking is in the book.

A sprinkling of the legends stood up to pay tribute to Willie. None was better than Jimmy Mac.

The meal was coq au vin. Cue the usual Bird Flu jokes. “Don’t worry it’s not from Thailand”. “Tomorrow’s wedding party are having the Greek chicken”. “You’ll have heard about the parrot with Bird Flu? If your coq au vin jumps up and starts whistling pretty Polly, pretty Polly, I think you’ve got a problem”.

You might think £30 is a bit pricey for a ‘do’ like this. In fact these dinners are not cheap to put on. It’s only the auctions that stopped this one from losing money. There are guests to pay for, the meal, guest speaker, MC, advertising and printing. It’s a misconception that they are moneymakers, far from it.

The year will come when we might just have to say, “this is the final legends dinner”. But the next one… Should be autumn next year. Start saving.

Connelly, Miller, O’Neil, Pointer, Jimmy Mac, Lochhead, Bellamy, Ray Ternent, Les Latcham, Coates, Dobson and Blacklaw were at this one. There are a dozen more we could have asked. Get to the next one, in a few years time there may not be many more.

Signed copies of the book are still available from
Dave Thomas, 12 Moorland View, Rodley, Leeds, LS13 1PU Yorkshire at £22 inc postage.