John Byrom: The reluctant centre-forward who topped Burnden goal charts
HE may not have been in the Lionel Messi bracket when it comes to goals per season but former Wanderer John Byrom reckons he may have got a lot closer to the Argentine had he been able to grace the surfaces of the 21st century.
Byrom spent a decade with the Whites and was far from shy in front of goal, ending up the club’s leading scorer in five out of six seasons between 1968 and 1974.
He surpassed the 20-goal mark in three of those seasons and earned his place in the hearts of the Wanderers faithful – not bad totals considering he arrived as an inside forward and was not overly keen on the central role he switched to when Francis Lee, Wyn Davies and Freddie Hill departed for pastures new soon after he joined.
Byrom said: “I was a bit down after joining, simply because I was an inside forward and hated playing centre forward.
“I arrived and then Wyn, Franny and Freddie left not long after and I was suddenly the main striker.
“I didn’t like heading the ball and that’s why I preferred not being the central man.
“I saw myself as a more skilful player who liked to run with the ball, a bit like Messi. Of course, he is an unbelievable player and fantastic to watch and it’s difficult to compare anyone to him.
“But then maybe I would have been able to get nearer 50 goals a season if we had pitches like bowling greens to play on like they have these days.
“In our day, the best pitch was always Ipswich and we had some real heavy ones at times.
“I remember a cup tie at Southampton and I managed to score twice in a 3-3 draw, but it was like running in sludge as the rain poured down. I loved to get the ball down and play, but it wasn’t easy on those pitches.”
The surfaces of the 1960s and 1970s did not prevent Byrom finding the net with great regularity.
In the round before that Southampton tie in 1974, he had bagged a hat-trick in Wanderers’ first-ever Sunday fixture against Stoke and five years earlier he had opened up the 1969/70 campaign with two trebles in four days against Millwall and Rochdale in the League Cup.
But for injury, he believes he could have bagged even more than the 130 he got during his 10 years at Burnden Park.
His first blow came just months after joining in 1966 when he was the second victim of a hard tackle on Wanderers’ training ground that summer – the first being a certain Pele.
Byrom explains: “I had not long joined and got hurt in a tackle in pre-season.
“I cannot remember who it was but just a few months earlier he had been taken off in training with Brazil ahead of the World Cup for trying a similar challenge on Pele.
“It was a heavy tackle – like one of Roy Hartle’s – that caught me right on the kneecap.
“They played Martin Dobson at centre-forward after that until I got back and at one point I think the club thought they had bought someone injury-prone as I still felt it that first season.
“In the second season, I started really well and scored nine goals in 13 games and then I got injured again – this time at Portsmouth.
“It was a slim winger named Nicky Jennings who I cut off but he stepped on my toe and I felt my ankle crack.
“Bert Sproston (Wanderers trainer) came on and I said ‘I heard something crack’. He helped me off but I didn’t like showing I was in pain even though I couldn’t get my boot off in the dressing room.
“I was out until January and they were starting to nickname me ‘Jonny Cortizone’ because of all the injuries.
“I still didn’t feel right but we had an FA Cup tie at Nottingham Forest and Bert said the directors wanted me to play. I went out and could not turn one way on the ankle but I still played and we lost 4-2. That would not happen today; injuries are rarely rushed.”
Despite those early injury-hit years, Byrom went on to become something of a Whites stalwart, winning the Division Three title in 1973 and being made captain under Jimmy Armfield.
He returned to home-town club Blackburn in 1976, after being denied the chance to go to Preston by the man he signed for in the first place, Nat Lofthouse.
But in between those two spells with Rovers, he says he enjoyed his time with the Whites.
Byrom added: “When I left Blackburn, they wouldn’t tell me at first who was in for me and so I told them I would stay.
“They said it was Lofty and I signed almost straight away at the age of 21.
“There were no agents for me and I ended up on less pay because there were no loyalty bonuses at Bolton.
“But I went on to battle through the early injury problems and get a few goals.
“I enjoyed my time and think I served Bolton well.
“I scored a lot of goals, but until Jimmy Armfield arrived, we didn’t have that much success.
“He made me captain for a few games and I will never forget that, though Ian Greaves stripped me of it when he came in.
“But the fans were good to me and it’s nice that so many still remember me fondly.”
Byrom, now 68, certainly does have his place in Whites folklore and it is not just in England where his name still holds affection.
He added: “I remember a lad who lives in Chorley told me he saw a fella with a T-shirt saying ‘John Byrom Fan Club – Los Angeles’.
“He asked how many members there were and he replied ‘three’.
“That was 25 years ago and I know the lad now, he is originally from Farnworth.
“It just shows when you play for Bolton, it is not just remembered here in Lancashire.”