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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).

A certain amount of charisma attached itself to O’Rourke. At this time as he supplemented his income with some catwalk modelling. That is somewhat common nowadays among Premier League poseurs. But it was distinctly unusual back then - especially in Middlesbrough.

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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noel added 18:36 - Feb 24
Great blog thanks, really enjoyed it and the memories it bought back. This team was my first Ipswich team and I still remember them all vividly. One correction though, John O’Rourke did have his song, the same one used for Johnny Wark a few years later.

Daleyitfc added 18:41 - Feb 24
and 1967-68 was the promotion year ; 1968-69 was the first back in Division One, when McGarry beggared off to a 'bigger' club ...

Cakeman added 19:12 - Feb 24
A great read, thank you. I am old enough to remember the impact O’Rourke had on Town and what would he have been worth in today’s inflated prices?

Bluespeed225 added 19:39 - Feb 24
The first players name I could say as a 3 year old! It seemed like one word, and his exploits were told to me by my Old Man later on. He remembered the QPR game, and Churchmans chanting ‘Rodney Marsh is a fairy’ Salut John, however things turned out, I never forgot you.

Oldsmoker added 20:05 - Feb 24
Thanks for that - a good read and many memories.
Hegan, O'Rourke and Chopper were always crowd pleasers. Chopper Jeferson would play 1 game sit out 3 (banned) if he played today.
67/68 was the first season where I could attend every match apart from mid-week evening matches. Before then I had to go with my dad or older brother and they couldn't be bothered to go half the time.
2/- to get in! That was 10 No6. In todays money that would be about £6.
Those who sell an addictive product (Tobacco,football) have certainly exploited their customers for all their worth.

Steve_ITFC_Sweden added 20:34 - Feb 24
What a team that was. I remember John O'Rourke whipping in some mean crosses and corners for RC to head home. It was a team of different talents that complemented each other so well. Danny Hegan had skill to burn, Viljoen's eye for a pass was phenomenal, and Crawford hardly needs any further comment. TW really TD!

ClassicBlueTractor added 20:57 - Feb 24
Thanks for the memories of some great times and a great a Ipswich team. The days of queuing, standing, rosettes, scarfs and rattles. Lovely blogg and a great Ipswich player, shame his contribution is not celebrated as much as it should be.

pablovian added 01:21 - Feb 25
A great blog that brought back a lot of good memories! I would take the Eastern Counties 205 bus into Ipswich to attend games. The last bus home left just late enough that I could attend mid-week home games.

Colin Viljoen was local? I thought he was South African. I recall that before kick-off he would go through a comprehensive stretching routine that was unusual at the time. He possessed silky skills and worked very effectively with various midfield partners, including Danny Hegan, Peter Morris, Ian Collard, and Bryan Hamilton ...

After Bill McGarry left, it took a while for Bobby Robson to build 'his' team. Forward lines that included Charlie Woods and youngsters such as Clive Woods and Mick Lambert did not exactly terrorize opposing teams - but a back four that included Derek Jefferson and Geoff Hammond certainly did ...

ChrisFelix added 11:41 - Feb 25
Great memories. The Bill Mcgarry period is forgotten, not surprising when you recall what the Robson years which followed achieved.
However the Robson years probably wouldn't have happened without the platform Mcgarry provided. The man does get the credit he deserves. Not only were Wolves a bigger club but as a Potteries man he was virtually going home. Annoys me that Sheepshank at the time of his death didn't afford him a mins silence !

sushiboy added 12:57 - Feb 25
That's a nice blog. Although I'm pretty sure that Colin Viljoen was from a South African club. He was playing when my uncle started taking me to matches. My dad sawed the back off an old wooden fold-up chair for me to stand on (in Churchman's) but I was still too little to get much of a view. Seeing that perfect vivid green pitch for the first time is still imprinted on my mind for some reason.

EatonBlue added 16:52 - Feb 25
Good blog thank you. I saw most of his home appearances. Prior to that, back in 1961 or 1962, I got to know him when he came to stay at my mum's B&B near Great Yarmouth. He was on Chelsea's books as a youngster at the time. As I recall, his girlfriend and her family were staying at a nearby holiday camp but he was not allowed to stay there as well!


Linkboy13 added 22:11 - Feb 25
He's here he's there he's every bleeding where john O'Rourke John O'Rourke remember it well then it was remixed when John Wark joined us lovely memories.


Reecex28 added 22:17 - Feb 25
He was my first goal scoring hero. Visited the training ground before first season back in Div 1 and had got every player’s autograph except John O’Rourke’s. Billy Baxter saw our long faces and asked what was wrong. When we told him he walked right across the training pitch, got O’Rourke to sign and then walked all the way back with a cherry ‘There you go lads’

minesapint added 22:30 - Feb 25
Thanks for the blog. 1967-68 was the first season I saw practically all home matches and I remember the impact O'Rourke had. Years later the expression "fox in the box" came to be used for some pretty ordinary strikers, but if ever a goalscorer really deserved the epithet it was John O'Rourke. If he had a chance he put it away, and his goals were crucial for us in the final weeks of that season. Unfortunately, he was also a lazy beggar. In a team doing well he was great, but in a struggling team that didn't create many chances he was a bit of a luxury. And a word about Bill McGarry. Can you imagine a player refusing to be substituted in McGarry's day? He would have run onto the pitch and dragged the arrogant so-and-so off the field. And in the privacy of the tunnel, things would have been clarified.

shaunmahony added 10:23 - Feb 26
67/68 was my first regular season age 13 - great memories. How times have changed. Was at Wigan Saturday - came away feeling more positive for the future than I had expected - team fought hard and harsh to criticize letting in the last minute goal - it certainly looks like we can't avoid another trip to Accrington next year but the nucleus of very good young players should get us back up again, providing they stay.

Old_Git added 10:56 - Feb 26
Very good.

RickOShea added 19:24 - Feb 26
You overlooked Jimmy Robertson who had a massive impact as well.
Was there in April 1968, 28,000 against QPR, great game, champions with a 1-1 v Blackburn.

RickOShea added 19:30 - Feb 26
Signed in 1969 I know,but a valuable addition none the less.

ChrisR added 11:52 - Feb 27
Great story , thanks . 67/68 was great season , eventual winners of Div 2 to give the proper name . I recall J O'R saying how much tighter the marking was in Div 1 , how for e g he could never score direct from a corner , then in next game at Coventry City that's just what he did , glancing in from near post. Also will never forget Morris long range hit against Everton , ball hitting underside of the bar , bouncing twice over the line leaving Gordon West flapping.

SpiritOfJohn added 18:31 - Feb 27
@ElephantintheRoom, another super blog. You have an amazing memory - like an elephant ;)

wezley53 added 10:26 - Mar 3
I remember going down to fratton park as 14 year old on the blue arrow, John O'Rourke scored two headers which clinched promotion to the old division one (1968). Portsmouth played over the loudspeakers "congratulations" by Cliff Richard which topped the charts at the time. He will always be a ITFC legend in my eyes.

distractored added 09:04 - Mar 11
"Was there in April 1968, 28,000 against QPR, great game, champions with a 1-1 v Blackburn."

I remember that game, on the steps of the East Stand, don't think I ever saw my father happier than that afternoon.

blackheath_blue added 20:21 - Mar 11
I will pass this on to John's son who I'm sure will appreciate this.

GREYBLUE added 10:43 - Mar 20
A very good blog that brings back many happy memories
A chant for John that I remember was simply
John John John O’Rourke
John John John O’Rourke

Meadowlark added 11:32 - Dec 1
Very interesting and well written and researched.
John O'Rourke scored the only Ipswich goal in the first match that I ever saw. Unfortunately a 1-4 home defeat to Newcastle in October 1968. Great player.
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