From Crystal Palace to Lunatic Asylum: The Life and Death of a Local Hero

Review of:

Tommy Boyle – Broken Hero

The Story of a Football Legend

by Mike Smith

Grosvenor House Publishing Ltd., 2011

[This is an extended version of a book review that appears in When Saturday Comes]

Until 2004, when Arsenal’s ‘Invincibles’ went unbeaten through a full Premier League season, Burnley held the record for the longest undefeated run in a single season of England’s top tier of the professional game; this small-town Lancashire club avoided defeat for thirty successive League games, going on to take its first championship in 1921. At the heart of this achievement was a gritty, combative Yorkshire-born midfield dynamo of Irish Catholic parentage, Tommy Boyle.

As Burnley advanced towards its second First Division title in the spring of 1960, the refrain of ‘Halley, Boyle and Watson’, architects of the astonishing success of the club almost forty years earlier, haunted the historical consciousness and hopes of Burnley fans. Could Adamson, Cummings and Miller match that legendary trio? How had Burnley set such a record, and also been led to its FA Cup Final triumph over Liverpool in 1914? Such thoughts were put aside as Burnley pipped Wolves and Spurs for its second title; a new set of names could adorn the bars and stands at the Lancashire club’s ground, Turf Moor. But Mike Smith’s compellingly related, and minutely researched, biography makes some of Burney’s mid-century heroes look like pampered softies alongside Tommy Boyle.

Boyle was a mere 5ft 7inches but dominated the teams that he led and captained, with a physical and psychological presence that willed his team-mates to victory. He cajoled, in part bullied, and consistently inspired the players at Burnley, and before that at Barnsley, to the highest levels of competitive performance. Boyle worked as a miner from the age of 12 to 20, when signing professional terms for Barnsley; he led the Yorkshire side to an FA Cup Final against Newcastle United, before a move to Burnley, where high-spending local backers were building, under secretary-manager John Haworth, one of the teams that would dominate English professional football either side of the Great War. Boyle won one England international cap as well as captaining Burnley to Cup triumph and League glory. He received the FA Cup from George V at Crystal Palace, the first time that a monarch deigned to attend the Cup Final; he was injured, as Bombardier Boyle, by flying shrapnel in no-man’s-land on the French front at Messines Ridge, in 1917. He recovered health and fitness to be called back to service before resuming his position as captain at Burnley, where 8 of the 1914 Cup-winning team reunited to build towards the record-setting 1920-21 feats. For a time, Boyle had it all: the adulation of the ‘lasses’ of the Lancashire mill-town (one of whom he married), money way beyond the reach of working men, the status of the local hero, acceptance and patronage of the local elite. But the peak of 1921 was achieved in a climate of post-war industrial decline, and as his ageing body became less able to cope with the wear and tear of the top-flight game, his world fell apart. Fiery and brief spells as trainer at Wrexham, and in Berlin, were followed by the collapse of his marriage (after the tragic loss of an only child), unemployment and drink-fuelled aggression and violence. Boyle was a talented sportsman, and after his playing days could win good prize-money on the crown green bowls circuit, but this soon went on drink in the bars of Blackpool, where he would arraign anybody with the inclination to listen with stories of how he’d shaken the hand of the King.

Drunken incidents and violent outbursts became routine to the former Burnley captain, and he lost the sympathy and patronage of the local elite. Eventually, Boyle’s former admirers in Burnley put in place the necessary processes to hide him away, with little publicity and so no stain on the reputation of the local community. Committal to the former Lancashire County Lunatic Asylum, under the new Mental Health Act of 1930, followed within days of a muted and forlorn appearance by Boyle at the launch event of the Burnley Supporters’ Club. Boyle died after almost eight years of incarceration, the broken hero of Smith’s subtitle, aged just 53.

This is a tragic story, well told and with much revealing detail. A delicious aside is Smith’s portrait of Lady Ottoline Morrell, a lover of philosopher Bertrand Russell, and wife of Burnley’s Liberal Member of Parliament Philip. Ottoline, flowing close-to-6-feet-tall Bloomsbury figure and Virginia Woolf lookalike, must have cut a pretty exotic dash at Turf Moor in the years preceding the Great War. She went to the match a few times and saw it as some kind of compensation for the lack of ‘mental culture’ available to the population in the town. The physicality of the professional game and the tribal energy of the crowd certainly excited her, and she wrote of the atmosphere at and after the game with an almost sexual sense of the physicality of the moment: what Tommy Boyle thought of this patronage though is not documented.

Burnley’s slide down the football hierarchy in the later 1920s matched Boyle’s personal decline, with unemployment escalating in the mill town, and Smith draws on an impressive range of sources in conveying this connection between the life of a community and the decline of one of its local heroes. The attribution of thoughts and reflections to Boyle is not always convincing, though, and some parts of the narrative are, as Smith concedes in a ‘disclaimer’, based on anecdote, fired by the author’s empathetic imagination. And it’s a long read with a lot of match reportage and name-listing, for instance, that can jar the narrative flow. But Smith is to be congratulated for bringing alive the fuller story of a figure so dramatically typical of the fluctuating fortunes of early professional footballers for whom the problems of adjustment after the glories of the playing days so often proved insurmountable. And it’s hardly a mere historical curiosity; time after time in reading this haunting tale, I was reminded of Paul Gascoigne’s life story after the magic was gone.

Alan Tomlinson       


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