Life is always full of ifs, buts and maybes – Jimmy Adamson’s life more than most. The Turf Moor great, who died on Tuesday at the age of 82, was a title-winning skipper at Burnley in 1960, a fine footballer and a thoroughly good bloke. But he might also have been the manager of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning team. Jim was only 33 years old when the FA offered him the chance to succeed Walter Winterbottom as England boss. When Jim told them he felt he was too inexperienced for the role, the FA bigwigs rang up their second choice, a bloke by the name of Alf Ramsey.
With such great players and with the huge bonus of home advantage, there’s every chance England would still have lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy had Jim been in charge. Despite still playing for the Clarets at the time, Jim was Walter’s assistant manager during the 1962 World Cup in Chile. For England, that meant a month spent halfway up a mountain in the grounds of a copper mine with such primitive resources that one of the boys ended up contracting dysentery.
In a month when the FA revealed their base for next summer’s Euros to be a plush city centre ‘boutique’ hotel in Krakow, it’s worth remembering just how bad things used to be. One of my clearest memories of that copper mine was of Adamson’s Burnley team-mate John Connelly sitting on a cornerstone on the training pitch, simply staring into space for hours on end. A five-star holiday resort this place was not. It was also, as a working mine, completely dry of alcohol.
But one evening, the boss tried to alleviate this crushing boredom by allowing us all out to the only bar within a 10-mile radius. As we got on the bus – thirsty for a taste of freedom – Adamson told us that, while we would be free to have a couple of jars, we were at a World Cup, we were representing our country and we had to act like ambassadors. Not that there were any blondes to grope or dwarves to toss in Rancagua. Anyway, a few hours later, as we clambered back onto the bus, Jimmy was standing at the front by the driver – this time leading the singing of salty songs on account of him being more inebriated than any of us!
When Jimmy did go into management with Burnley, Sunderland and Leeds, his record was not earth-shattering and it’s possible he might have been just too nice and too loyal a bloke to have made a great England boss. Had he taken the job, though, there’s no doubt that the Northumberland town of Ashington would have been officially crowned as England’s capital of football, as Jim hailed from there, as did the World Cup-winning Charlton brothers and their uncle Jackie Milburn.
Jimmy was part of a great Burnley team which, during the early 1960s, was vying with Tottenham to be regarded as the best side in the country. He was a one-club man as a player and, including his time as a coach and manager, he spent around 30 years at Turf Moor. These days, had any player half as good as Jim passed through the ranks at a club the size of Burnley, he’d have been snapped up by a larger outfit. But with no higher wages on offer elsewhere, this was a time when smalltown clubs could win titles.
When we travelled to Burnley, on the team coach after an overnight stay in Manchester’s Grand Hotel, the town used to rise from the mist like Brigadoon. And we always knew we would be in for a red-hot game, especially with a player as talented as Jim leading them out. He might never have enjoyed the worldwide fame of Sir Alf Ramsey, but in one Lancashire town at least, footballers don’t come any more legendary than Jimmy Adamson.