The Forgotten Prince of Strikers

 Jimmy Turnbull

Modern era League of Ireland fans will be familiar with the exploits of Brendan Bradley, Jason Byrne, Pat Morley and Glen Crowe, strikers who clocked up impressive career tallies in the goal-scoring stakes, but few will have heard of Jimmy Turnbull’s incredible season on Leeside when two amazing records were written and remain unmatched. Gerry Desmond recounts how the Englishman notched his phenomenal total and terrorised League of Ireland defences around the country. Indeed, Jimmy’s incredible tally would be out of the reach of many teams in the modern era, let alone individual strikers… ‌

Long before inscribing his name, quite possibly forever, in the annals of League of Ireland achievements Jimmy Turnbull’s nomadic career had its unlikely origin in America following his emigration there as a teenager. Football, though poorly organised in the States and modest compared to its mass appeal in Europe, still held a strong attraction for the burgeoning communities recently arrived from the old countries. Jimmy honed his natural skills to good effect on US soil before returning to his native land in 1932. Once back in England, he quickly sought an opportunity to try his hand in the Football League and readily accepted professional terms from Barnsley manager, Brough Fletcher. After two years with the Tykes, who won the old Third Division North with a club record 118-goal haul during his final season at Oakwell, Turnbull’s itchy feet saw him surprisingly moving on to his hometown side, Gateshead, which was then a league club and operated in the division that Barnsley had just been promoted from. However, Jimmy spent just one season on duty at RedheughPark before wanderlust hit him again and he crossed the Irish Sea, where his name would become legendary on both sides of the border. 

That was in the summer of 1935, when the directors of struggling Cork FC signed the unsettled English striker amid a clutch of other imports in a bid to sort out the club’s troublesome centre-forward berth. It was a gamble on the board’s part as Turnbull’s three years in the professional ranks had offered little hint of the prolific days that lay ahead for him in Ireland, while several comparatively highly paid British players had previously failed to deliver the goods on Leeside. But, in their wildest dreams, they could hardly have anticipated just how effective their new man would prove to be. The other newcomers were Billy Little, signed from Newry Town, Norman MacKay from Plymouth Argyle, Alex McKendrick from Darlington and John Laverty. The new arrivals were expected to blend with the best of the locals, who included goalkeeper Billy Harrington, set to be capped by December, Owen Madden who would follow him onto the Irish team twelve months later, Eugene Noonan and the very promising junior player, Finbarr Morley from Evergreen United. 

The Leesiders had just finished the 1934/35 campaign rooted to the foot of the table, winning a meagre three matches and barely hitting double figures on points. Bobby Buckle and Jim O’Neill had shared joint top spot with a paltry six goals apiece. But Turnbull’s arrival not only solved Cork’s net-finding problems it also shattered all existing League of Ireland goalscoring records and set standards, which, even today, nine decades later, are still beyond emulation. Indeed, Jimmy’s incredible tally would be out of the reach of many teams in the modern era, let alone individual strikers. 

He came to Leeside without a glowing reputation – he had not caused much of a stir in the lower reaches of the English leagues after all – and on Sunday, 25 August 1935, the Mardyke regulars got their first sight of Turnbull when Cork defeated a Munster selection 4-0 in a practice game. Jimmy obliged with two goals against the scratch outfit. The previous day he had lined out somewhat anonymously in a 0-2 League of Ireland Shield reverse versus Bohemians at Dalymount Park. But the following Sunday, on his competitive home debut, the new boy dropped his calling card in no uncertain fashion, notching half of Cork’s total in an astonishing 10-3 trouncing of Dolphin, the reigning league champions. It was an extraordinary way to open an account and sent an ominous signal to opposing defences. Nonetheless, Cork were not inspired by it and their Shield form remained erratic. They managed just four wins from eleven games, though fourteen of their twenty-eight goals in the competition bore Turnbull’s signature. Although he had averaged better than a goal per game in the competition, Cork Examiner match reports more frequently mentioned his poor form and his missed chances on those occasions when he drew a blank. 

The championship campaign began with little inkling that his scoring rate would continue. Reds United, on their league debut having been elected when Shelbourne dropped out of league football, stole a 2-0 win at the ‘Dyke although Jimmy gleaned his first goal in the side’s next outing at the Iveagh Grounds in a 3-2 success against St James’s Gate. A single goal return in 180 minutes hardly set the world on fire but then, at the end of November, the Turnbull goal machine suddenly hit full throttle. Sligo’s visit to the ‘Dyke may have ended 3-3 but all the home side’s goals were Turnbull’s and he went one better within a week at Kilcohan Park where Waterford were downed 4-1. Dundalk managed to shackle him at the Athletic Grounds but over the next three months there wasn’t a defensive unit in the country that could hold him as the goals rained in from all angles. The prolific sequence included another four-goal haul against Bray Unknowns, while he plundered further hat-tricks against Shamrock Rovers and Dolphin. 

Cork stormed up the table on the strength of Jimmy’s avalanche of goals, casting aside their re-election form of the previous year and getting within shouting distance of the crown at one stage before ultimately coming apart against Bohemians when they crashed 1-4 at Dalymount Park as the Gypsies clinched the title. Third spot was secured, however, a huge improvement in twelve months.

Match reports around the country were invariably subtitled, “Two more for Turnbull” or, “Turnbull gets his usual brace”. Cork scored 61 league goals compared to 30 the previous season, Turnbull responsible for a phenomenal 37, of which six were penalties. The previous League of Ireland (or, the Football League of the Irish Free State as it was more correctly known until 1937/38) record had been set five seasons earlier by a Scot, Alex ‘Sandy’ Hair, who registered 29 in Shelbourne’s colours. To date, only one other player, another Scot, Jimmy Gauld, has reached 30 league goals in a season. Gauld achieved this distinction with Waterford in 1954/55, before becoming involved in a notorious match-fixing scandal in England some years later. 

Cork’s improved league form and the almost guaranteed goal or two from the irrepressible Turnbull saw the side begin a run that eventually brought them to the FAI Cup final as practical certainties to win. 

They had started shakily enough though against Bray Unknowns, a club still awaiting its first league win of the season at that point. Turnbull supplied the ammunition for a two-goal lead, but Bray surprisingly hauled back the deficit.  Jimmy, however, added two more in the 6-1 replay win at the Carlisle Grounds. A trip to Bohemians, the Cup holders and league champions elect, was the team’s dubious reward and once again Cork relied on their goal merchant to score at Dalymount and bring the replay to the Mardyke where he claimed another couple in the homesters’ 3-2 win. Drumcondra were knocked out 5-2 at the first time of asking in the semi final at the Mardyke where Jimmy bagged three to install his side as red-hot favourites for the showdown with Shamrock Rovers. In three league meetings with the Hoops that season the Leesiders had come out tops each time and Turnbull had rammed home five goals in the process despite missing the last league clash at Milltown through injury. 

Cork arrived at the decider with a decent pedigree in the competition: they had won it just two years earlier, although the cost of building that successful team had all but crippled the club. Now Cork was torn by internal strife in the week of the final when the directors discovered that Owen Madden had signed a private deal with Norwich City after the semi final win over Drums without their consent, and the atmosphere in the dressing room was not ideal for a big match build-up. Madden lined out against Rovers in the decider but subsequently incurred a ban from the FAI which meant he couldn’t play either in Ireland or for Ireland, a decision that left him, ironically, with little alternative but to complete his move to Norwich. 

Turnbull had bagged ten goals in the cup run and it seemed inevitable that he would add to his total. History relates that almost 31,000 witnessed him register his FAI Cup final strike with ten minutes remaining but earlier goals from Rovers’ legend Paddy Moore and Charlie Reid ensured the Glenmalure Park side’s name went on the famous trophy for the seventh time. Consolation for Jimmy was his eleven-goal Cup haul, another record that still stands. 

Jimmy Turnbull wound up the season with a successful penalty against Glasgow Celtic in a testimonial match for Johnny Paton, a former Celt, who had skippered Cork to FAI Cup glory against St James’s Gate in 1934. It turned out to be Jimmy’s last goal for the club, at the end of a whirlwind season. 

Back in 1927/28 Everton’s Dixie Dean had set a Football League record with 60 goals in 39 matches; Turnbull had just finished his maiden campaign on Leeside with 63 competitive strikes from 40 games. Despite favourable comparison with Dean, albeit at a lower level of competition, the Cork directors felt Turnbull did not justify the £50 signing-on fee he sought for the upcoming season. It may seem a trivial sum now but back in the hungry 1930s it was a significant amount of money. Nonetheless, the club’s finances must have been in a reasonably healthy state as big crowds had been flocking to the Dyke each week as the goals flowed. The visit of Dolphin in April had brought 13,000 to the old venue; the Cup semi final with Drumcondra the previous month had attracted 12,000. However, in hindsight there can be little doubt that the Cork board erred in letting such a prolific striker depart so easily. Within a short period the club was back in the doldrums, out of contention for honours, struggling once more for goals and points and by February 1938 it was out of football forever, collapsing in mid-season. 

The famous Elisha Scott, however, just retired from a lengthy career between the posts for Liverpool and Northern Ireland, and now concentrating on full-time management, swiftly lured Jimmy to Belfast Celtic when Cork dithered over his terms. Cork’s loss was certainly Celtic’s gain as he hit an amazing 82 goals in his first season up North, including 43 in the league and a hat-trick in the Irish Cup final against Linfield. The following year, as Celtic completed back-to-back doubles, Turnbull chalked up another 36 league goals and brought his all-competitions total to 144 in just two seasons in Ulster! Turnbull had proved that his season on Leeside had not been a flash in the pan. Cork FC had left a jewel go for the sake of fifty quid. 

In July 1939 he returned south, signing for Cork City FC, which had replaced Cork FC. On St Stephen’s Day he became the first player to claim a Munster Senior Cup final hat-trick when Limerick were beaten 4-0 on his old stomping ground at the Mardyke. That provincial cup win proved to be City’s only trophy as the club sensationally folded in mid-season at the end of January, maintaining the disastrous trend in Cork throughout the impoverished decade. It also proved to be Turnbull’s last great moment as, dogged by ongoing poor health, he drifted to Munster Senior League football with Evergreen United, returning for a couple of interrupted seasons with Cork United before retiring around 1941. He shared United’s top scorer spot with Liam O’Neill in 1939-40, with just eight goals…

Jimmy Turnbull in his heyday was lethal with both feet and with his head; he also had a sharp football brain, but possibly his greatest asset was his natural speed – he had been a sprint champion in England’s North East – and he possessed the true hallmark of all great strikers: an insatiable appetite for goals.

Sadly, his outstanding achievements are consigned to the yellowing pages of history and seldom-seen statisticians’ ledgers. Indeed, many supporters will never even have heard his name mentioned – unlike that of his contemporary, Dixie Dean, which is still legendary in British football. The clubs Jimmy played for – Cork FC, Belfast Celtic, the original Cork City and Cork United – have long departed the game, as have many of the clubs who suffered because of his gift. Several of the grounds where he created his record – Harold’s Cross, Dolphin Park, the Dundalk Athletic Grounds, The Iveagh Grounds, Kilcohan Park, even The Mardyke itself – have also been lost to the earlier chapters of the League of Ireland story. All that remains are his awesome feats though the likelihood is that they, at least, will survive for quite some time yet. They are now ninety years written and the ink is well dry on them, if a little faded. In that one glorious campaign Jimmy Turnbull scored against every team in the country. He hit seven hat-tricks or better. He scored 37 goals in 21 league games, 11 in half a dozen FAI Cup outings – not too far shy of two goals per game over the whole season. Although the League of Ireland only fleetingly saw him at his best, his double record is ample testimony to the phenomenon that was Jimmy Turnbull.

Jimmy’s Goals

 

League

FAI cup

Shield

DC Cup

 

 

H

A

H

A

H

A

H

A

 

Bohemians

1

1

2

1

-

-

-

-

5

Bray Unknowns

4

1

2

2

-

-

-

-

9

Brideville

2

2

-

-

-

-

-

 

4

Dolphin

2

3

-

-

5

-

-

-

10

Drumcondra

2

-

3

-

-

-

-

-

5

Dundalk

1

-

-

-

-

1

-

-

2

Reds United

-

1

-

-

2

-

-

-

3

St James’s Gate

2

1

-

-

-

1

-

-

4

Shamrock Rovers

3

-

-

1

2

-

-

-

8

Sligo Rovers

3

2

-

-

2

-

1

-

8

Waterford

2

4

-

-

-

1

-

-

7

Totals

22

15

7

4

11

3

1

-

63‌

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