9 October 1988. A day when the Geordie nation stopped. Its greatest hero had gone. Scott Robson remembers.
Statues and monuments are both evocative and provocative.
One stands in my home town, beside a very smart sports centre looking up a road which eventually will give you the thrills and spills of Home Bargains, Poundstretchers, and Wetherspoons. The statue is of arguably the greatest player in Newcastle United’s history.
John Edward Thompson Milburn. Wor Jackie. No introduction needed. Newcastle and Ashington legend.
In October 1988, Newcastle United were in turmoil. We were awful. The power struggle at board level was relentless. Four defeats in the first seven games started a disastrous season which only got worse. We were eventually relegated, breaking all sorts of unwanted records and going from 29 October until 10 December without scoring a goal.
The thing was, the plight of Newcastle paled into insignificance on 9 October. Our greatest goalscorer had died.
That weekend I remember watching a Sunday League game with my Grandad (who trialled at Newcastle the same time as Jackie who helped him throughout) and he said to his mate “Jackie’s gone. Things will never be the same again, will they? ‘’ That’s stuck with me forever. That’s how the whole area felt.
Newcastle’s predicament forced fans to hark back to the number nines of the glory days. Milburn, McDonald. Once Jackie had gone, there was nothing else to hang onto. The whole area seemed a lost mess in the aftermath.
The day before Jackie died, Newcastle lost 3-0 to Coventry. It was the last stand for Willie McFaul as manager. He got sacked the same day as Jackie died. McFaul rang the family up personally and said “Don’t think about me, think about Laura” (Jack’s wife).
That was a magnificent thing to say but it was only a reprise of the grief the whole club felt that day. Arthur Cox, Kevin Keegan, and, obviously, the Charltons all on the phone. Such as it is with people from working class areas – they don’t like a fuss.
Milburn did it all the way through his career. Sir Tom Finney was quoted as saying he had “an inferiority complex” and that was pretty much bang on . This school of thought even found its way to the funeral arrangements. It took a local funeral director to persuade the family not to just have the preferred quiet option.
The plan was hatched that his cortege would leave Ashington and travel the 15 miles to Newcastle and, after a service at the cathedral, he would snake past St James’ before the cremation on the West Road.
The scenes were awe-inspiring, unprecedented for anyone outside the royal family and befitting of a working class hero. Thousands lined the streets in Ashington and Newcastle. There are even tales of people standing on the hard shoulder of the dual carriageway Spine road.
Newcastle was at a standstill. Not a standstill like when the PSG fans walked up the other night – a REAL standstill.
A few days later Jack’s ashes were scattered on the pitch at St James’ in what was supposed to be a private affair. The TV and press (Jackie was a fully paid up member himself ) got wind of it and apparently that ruined it for the family, which was a shame really.
So why did NUFC fans fall in love with Jackie Milburn to the extent that his death caused such an extraordinary show of grief? Simply… He was one of us.
From getting up at 4am to play football in the street on Christmas day when he was young, only to find ten other kids already there, to having a trial at Newcastle in the late afternoon three hours after finishing a shift down the pit. Two meat pies later he outran Newcastle’s star striker Albert Stubbins in a race and scored six second-half goals.
Like having a sly tab before the 1951 Cup final in the toilets, only to not be able to get in, as four of his teammates were already doing just that.
Different eras, of course, but these sorts of stories resonated with people then and they still do now. A working class hero is something to be. Milburn was a flag bearer for all the people back home going down a pit shaft.
“I saw my Dad disappear down one day into the cold darkness and I vowed that I’d never go down there.” Jackie later said. He had to go the long way round, but he got his wish.
The CV Is decent.
Cup final wins in 1951, 1952 and 1955, including the fastest ever Wembley goal at 45 seconds, a record which lasted until 2007. And a career scoring record at NUFC of a nice round 200 goals. Milburn would have loved the fact that his record was beaten by Alan Shearer. Right up his street.
Milburn started his career on the wing, obviously because of THAT pace, but a big fall out between star man Charlie Wayman and the club saw Wayman vow never to play in black and white again. This was just before a 1947 cup semi final and Jackie was switched to centre forward. Manager George Martin must have had a cigar at that decision.
Twenty goals were followed by 25 the next two seasons and an average around the 21 per season mark in his Newcastle career. Give George Martin another cigar.
Ten goals in 13 England appearances as well, by the way, and in three years in the Irish league with Linfield he wound down his career with only 68 goals in 54 games.
Haaland, keep up.
Newcastle were pretty poor in the way they handled the departure of Milburn. They put it about and in the press several times that they had turned down bids for Jack in a bid to look popular, which turned heads.
Milburn eventually left for Northern Ireland but only after NUFC demanded a substantial transfer fee at the last minute. He was not immediately given the testimonial he deserved. This didn’t come until 1967 and still Jack didn’t think anyone would turn up. 45,504 did.
They saluted their idol.
Jackie was given an offer to play rugby League by Hunslet after Linfield, but went on to manage Ipswich and then become a journalist with the News of the World. Whether he worked on the David Mellor scoop is unclear, but he gave United some sorry reviews as we capitulated over the years to a succession of also-rans.
Jackie eventually died of lung cancer, probably not helped by the club giving him endless supplies of untipped Silk Cut. You could say Newcastle United killed him but in his eyes it was some way to go.