Sunday 4 September 2022

Jackie Milburn: When The Geordie Hero Became a Superstar Across the Irish Sea In Belfast

It was arguably Tommy Hammill who was the hero of the match but it was in many ways player-manager Jackie Milburn’s night. After all, Milburn’s Linfield side had not only managed an impressive 3-3 draw against top quality English opposition. But not only that, the visitors to Belfast’s Windsor Park that evening, for what was an exhibition match, were Newcastle United the side where ‘wor Jackie’ (our Jackie), as he was affectionately known to the Geordies, had previously become a living legend. Now he was a Linfield idol, however, and as the Belfast Telegraph would exclaim the following morning: “Few other players, if any, have won the hearts of Northern Ireland's soccer public as has Milburn.”

Jackie Milburn is a name synonymous with Newcastle United and his 200 goals in all competitions for the Magpies was a club record that stood for almost 50 years until a more recent star by the name of Alan Shearer, once the world’s most expensive footballer, broke it. But, of course, it is not just at Newcastle United, where he won the FA Cup three times, that Milburn holds legendary status.

In June 1957, after 14 years of playing football for the club based just 17 miles from his hometown of Ashington in Northumberland, 33-year-old wor Jackie moved across the Irish Sea to increase his earnings as player-manager at Belfast side Linfield. Three years later he would leave having won both an Irish League title and an Irish Cup, whilst also having helped Linfield become the first ever Northern Irish side to win a European Cup match when he scored both goals as they defeated IFK Göteborg 2-1 at home

Such was his popularity that the Linfield faithful who clearly idolised Milburn, in his name coined a terrace chant to the tune of Geordie anthem ‘The Blaydon Races’.

Before he joined, Milburn had impressed those at Linfield whilst partaking in a couple of exhibition games at their Windsor Park home, including one match played in front of 35,000 spectators for the opening of the stadium’s new floodlight system. After witnessing those performances the powers that be soon enquired about his availability to move across the Irish Sea on a permanent basis. By offering an increase in wages from £17 per week to £25 alongside a £1,000 signing-on fee and a four bedroom house, they were eventually able to get their man and the rest was, as they say, history.

The Irish League had seen big name stars before, usually players past their best and winding down their careers whilst earning a few extra pounds before retirement. Jackie Milburn, however, was definitely the exception to the rule on that front - wor Jackie was certainly no has been when he arrived at Linfield. His performances on the field in the previous season showed he very much still had lots to offer Linfield and Northern Irish football, whilst United’s shock £10,000 asking price, which nearly scuppered the deal, showed they weren’t prepared to part with him that easily. The dismay amongst United fans at his departure also showed that they felt he could still have been a major asset to their beloved black and whites.

Milburn became not just the most commanding player in the Linfield side but by far and large the most dominant in the whole Irish League. Such was his dominance that after that aforementioned European Cup win against the Swedes the Belfast Telegraph argued that “If any of his fellow forwards had possessed the same ability the opposition would have been hit for six”

When wor Jackie found the net from the penalty spot in the game against Newcastle, the following morning the Belfast Telegraph reported that it was his 100th goal for Linfield. Nowadays, however, the records only show that he scored 68 goals in 64 league games. But, of course, he would have no doubt scored many more outside those league matches. 

That match against the Tynesiders came in February 1959 in what was Milburn’s second season in Irish football with Linfield riding high and heading for the title. Milburn was in sublime scoring form and would end the campaign as the league’s top goalscorer just as he had done the previous season of 1957-58 despite having missed numerous games through injury towards the end of the campaign.

Despite a fifth placed league finish and a defeat in the cup final, Milburn had been voted Ulster Footballer of the Year and was seemingly the league's best performer in his first season at the club. When one match report in the Belfast Telegraph during that campaign opened with “MAGNIFICENT... THAT IS THE ONLY WAY I can describe Jackie Milburn's display last night” it was hardly anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, in another game, a 6-2 away win at Portadown, Milburn found the net four times and away at Cliftonville he scored another three as the visitors won 7-1.

Prior to the start of the 1958/59 season, there was talk of new training methods at Linfield and an increased emphasis on ball control. This was inspired by what Milburn had seen at that summer's World Cup in Sweden where he was scouting for the Northern Ireland national side. Despite these fresh ideas, however, it was actually classic Milburn goalscoring that was the key to the Blues’ success that season.

A crowd of 15,000 were in attendance for the opening game of the season at Windsor Park in mid-August to see a 4-1 win for the hosts. Milburn was on the scoresheet with a typical Milburn drive.

Milburn scored a hat-trick against Ards at the end of the month with the Saturday evening sports paper Ireland's Saturday Night describing his performance as “magic”. That was nothing, however, compared to the six goals he scored in a 9-1 victory over Crusaders less than a month later. This was not just magic this was “Milburn’s finest individual performance since he came to Windsor Park from Newcastle United.” 

Linfield truly were a free scoring side and although Milburn may have been the star player many others were able to find the net too and like Milburn sometimes several times in the same match. An October 8-3 win at home to Cliftonville saw Milburn only manage to find the net once with Tommy Dickson scoring five times whilst in a November affair described as “farcically one-sided”, Milburn scored twice but Jim Gibson four times as Linfield won 8-1 away at Distillery. Milburn had his side playing dominant attacking football and that season it really paid off.


However, Linfield were not the only team in fine form and they were three points off top at Christmas. There had been a couple of defeats on the road and the first home defeat would come at the end of January whilst a defeat at arch rivals Glentoran would follow later in the campaign. But those few difficult moments aside there was no stopping the Blues and Milburn as the season wore on and every match seemed to deliver Milburn’s best performance yet.

“MILBURN has never done a better afternoon's work for Linfield than he did today” were high words of praise given to Milburn in those Saturday night sports pages after a February hat-trick that helped Linfield see off Portadown just days before that visit of Milburn’s old pals from Newcastle. 

“Linfield’s performance was of which all in the Irish League can feel proud,” was what the Belfast Telegraph had to say about that meeting with the Geordies as their excellent league form also shone through against far more illustrious opposition than they were used to facing. That sublime form continued a few days later when they were once again back in League action.

Shortly after facing the Magpies, a 4-2 win over Ards saw Milburn score two well taken goals. Linfield followed that up with a 6-2 win at Glenavon but it was Tommy Dickson who was the star of the show, scoring five as Milburn failed to find the net in what was a rare quiet afternoon for him. 

As you can obviously see, yes when he wasn’t scoring, Milburn still had a side who were usually rampant in front of goal but he was never off the scoresheet for long. In another brilliant performance in front of goal, Milburn again scored twice against Bangor in late March as the season drew to a close.

With the championship seemingly never in doubt, an early April 4-0 victory at Cliftonville secured the league title as Milburn scored a lone goal from the penalty spot. Milburn and his Linfield side had been in outstanding form for virtually the whole season and impressed crowds up and down the country - it was a very much well deserved league triumph. 

Sadly, Linfield would not repeat the feat the following season though Milburn missing much of it through injury did not help. However, he would return later in the campaign to help his side to Irish Cup glory. But there was no such luck in the European Cup sadly when, before his injury, that home victory against IFK Göteborg was followed by defeat in the second leg that saw them bow out 7-3 on aggregate.

But up against a side that amongst their ranks had two players, Bengt Berndtasson and Sven Owe Ohlsson, who had been part of the Sweden squad that reached the World Cup final a year earlier it was always going to be a tough ask.

After his return, Distillery were defeated 5-3 in the semi-finals of the Irish Cup and although Milburn failed to find the net he would score two goals in the final as Ards were destroyed 5-1.

Milburn left Linfield after that cup final triumph bringing an end to a successful three seasons at the club. He would go on to briefly play non-league football back in England before retiring as a player and having a short spell as manager of Ipswich Town. 

The rumours at the time were that Milburn left Belfast due to his wife's ill health which is ironic as she would go on to far outlive him. Whilst Jackie died of lung cancer in 1988, Laura passed away barely more than a month ago aged 94. Neither will be forgotten.

These days Geordies rarely see the likes of Milburn adorn their famous black and white jersey whilst in Belfast, I’m not sure they’ve ever actually seen the likes of him since! 

Some of the information in and researched for this article came from the British Newspaper Archive (

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