|John O’Rourke – Unsung Hero|
Written by ElephantintheRoom on Sunday, 24th Feb 2019 18:10
Town supporters of a certain age look back rather fondly at Bill McGarry’s promotion team of 1967/68. We may be grey. But our memories are vivid. That team of half a century ago signalled something of a rebirth and laid firm foundations for the many good times that lay ahead.
There was a firm connection with Ramsey’s champions in Bill Baxter and Ray Crawford. There was a sprinkling of local talent in Chopper Jefferson and Colin Viljoen. There were ball-playing Scots in Danny Hegan and Frank Brogan, that most teams seemed to have back then.
There were scrappy full-backs In Tommy Carroll and Billy Houghton who were plenty good enough to keep a young Mick Mills out of the side. There was real talent all over the pitch. But there was something missing – a bit of stardust perhaps.
QPR looked nailed-on for promotion that season. They were recently arrived upstarts from division three and had charisma, largely through a young extrovert Rodney Marsh. As the season reached the 60s equivalent of squeaky bum time (shrinking loons time?) Bill McGarry went shopping. And what he did must still rank as one of the best bits of transfer business in Town’s entire history. He came back with Diesel Morris – and John O’Rourke.
Peter Morris was a solid midfield engine, not exactly blessed with speed, as his nickname might suggest. But he was an effective and popular player who gave Town a wonderful midfield trio with Hegan and Viljoen.
But John O’Rourke was something else. He was good looking and had a bit of swagger about him. He was also a proven goalscorer. Better still he was to prove the perfect foil for Ray Crawford. With these two in tandem Town went on an unbeaten run that saw them surge to the top of the table. And such was O’Rourke’s impact that he comfortably outscored Crawford.
Within two years he was gone. Astonishingly, a few years ago, one of those meaningless 100 best players polls didn’t even mention him. But his impact on the club (and impressionable schoolboy me) was profound. To provide some modern context, he scored 31 goals in 69 games. Marcus Stewart scored 37 in 81 games. Their records, and impact on the club, are identical. But O’Rourke’s proved to be by far the more lasting legacy.
He joined from Middlesbrough, then basking in Third Division mediocrity. It helped that O’Rourke turned down the relative glamour of recent League Cup winners and promotion rivals, QPR, to join Town.
At Boro he was something of a folk hero, endearing himself to the chilly Ayrsome Park crowd by frequently notching hat-tricks. He signed for Boro from Luton where a goal return of 64 in just 84 games had marked him out as something special. Worth the gamble of £18,500 perhaps.
He became an instant hit at grim Ayresome Park where regulars on the long-gone Holgate sang ‘Give us a goal, John O’Rourke’ to the tune of Give It To Me, a long-forgotten Troggs song (except perhaps on Teesside).
His pace, movement and power in the air made him an instant hit on the Holgate and added a cutting edge to Stan Anderson’s upwardly mobile Boro outfit that raced to promotion. O’Rourke needless to say notched a hat-trick in a crucial game against Oxford. He was proving just as prolific in the third division and had notched an impressive 38 goals in 68 appearances when McGarry came a calling with a Town record fee of £30,000.
If hat-tricks were O’Rourke’s calling card at Middlesbrough, his goalscoring specialisation at Town was to be nonchalant braces, starting in his very first match against Cardiff.
He also scored in the pivotal game against QPR at packed, all-ticket Portman Road in the sunshine (my ticket for this epic encounter by the way cost 2/-, just 10p!).
The 2-2 draw suited both teams en route to promotion – Ray Crawford notching the other with a pulverising header from a Brogan cross (or maybe shot). Marsh had scored with a showman’s mazy run-up before planting a penalty past Ken Hancock. The other goal, if memory serves, was scored by Clive Allen’s dad, Les.
O’Rourke notched 12 goals in 15 games that season and carried on scoring from day one in the top division. His thumping header against Wolves being the first of 17 in Town’s impressive first season back in the promised land.
John O’Rourke was something of a poacher, but occasionally he would bring the house down with a truly astonishing goal. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 30-yard blast against Newcastle at sun-drenched Portman Road that also inspired Ron Wigg to score an unlikely long range goal in the same game.
That is still one of the best goals I have ever seen. But his forte was clinical headers – an impressive skill for such a slight figure. The result of good timing and an instinct for being in the right place at the right time.
Alas within a year the promotion team was breaking up. McGarry had departed for the mirage of potential of Wolves. Crawford, Baxter and Carroll departed – and the team and manager began to struggle for survival in the top division.
John O’Rourke, perhaps sensing he was at the pinnacle of his career, wanted away too in search of England caps. By the end he was effectively on strike and left under something of a cloud. One cheque for £80,000 later he was a Coventry City player.
That seems a bizarre choice now, but back then made a modicum of sense as Coventry had some fine players. His partner up front was goal machine Neil Martin (a considerable trade-up from Ron Wigg, it has to be said). And that sparkling Coventry team also included Willie Carr and Ernie Hunt (who combined for a memorable and now outlawed freekick, with John O’Rourke visible in the background).
In O’Rourke’s first season Coventry began as relegation favourites – but in Town-like fashion surged up the table and qualified for Europe, years before Town managed the same feat under Robson.
O’Rourke notched a hat-trick in the UEFA Cup and also scored against an up and coming Bayern Munich team that gave notice of their emerging greatness by responding to O’Rourke’s goal with seven of their own. John O’Rourke must have felt vindicated – and had seen his talent fulfilled.
Soon he was on his way again, this time to QPR and he was never to play at the top level again. As Town reached seemingly ever upwards, John O’Rourke drifted into obscurity, playing in South Africa and non-league football before earning a crust outside the game by running a newsagent and shift work at an airport. It’s all a far cry from the eye-watering salaries that virtual nonentities are ‘earning’ today.
He sadly died in July 2016, aged just 71. At the time, his passing warranted a few lines in the EADT and on the club web site. I was deeply moved to hear of his death, as he is burned into my conscious, forever young, scoring the goals that inspired me and fired Town upwards.
Games such as QPR, Leeds and Wolves, all decorated with trademark O’Rourke goals are seared into my Town supporting memories - and I suspect those of many more Town supporters who lived through those halcyon days of revival. I can relive those goals and O’Rourke’s arms raised in celebration now as clearly as though they were yesterday.
I googled John O’Rourke recently and was intrigued to discover fulsome stories of praise from Luton, Boro, Coventry and even Arsenal, where he spent his formative years. He was clearly a fine man as well as a fine player. At some of those clubs, where his stay was just as brief as his stopover at Town, he was considered a legend.
At Town he is largely forgotten. There was to be no song for John O’Rourke at Portman Road. But there have been few better goalscorers.
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