Jimmy Sirrel

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Sir Jimmy Sirrel

Footballer and manager who in 1981 led Notts County into the top flight for the first time since the 1920s


By Ivan Ponting

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Like Sir Matt Busby and Bill Shankly before him, Jimmy Sirrel was a performer of football miracles, albeit in a more modest arena than his illustrious fellow Scots.

Whereas Busby and Shankly each took over clubs in the doldrums, transforming Manchester United and Liverpool respectively into sporting leviathans whose fame penetrated most corners of the planet, the ebullient, passionate, sometimes wickedly acerbic little Glaswegian lifted unfashionable Notts County from the basement division of the English professional game to its top flight, a feat all the more astounding because it was achieved on such a niggardly budget.

Yet while Sirrel was invariably short of cash as he strove ceaselessly to guide the Magpies ever higher up the Football League ladder, he never lacked confidence in his own ability. That much he demonstrated eloquently on his first day at Meadow Lane in September 1969, when he declared with characteristic brio: "Ask any kid what he knows about Notts County and he'll tell you they're the oldest football team in the world. By the time I've finished, he'll know a lot more."

That he was to prove as good as his word came as no surprise to those who knew him best. As his long-time friend Sir Alex Ferguson put it: "I'd be confident in Jimmy Sirrel managing any team I supported, and that would be the general opinion from all the managers in the game."

Having commenced his career with Renfrew Juniors while working as a coppersmith's apprentice, Sirrel spent the Second World War in the Royal Navy, working in shipyards in Cairo and Mombasa, before signing for Celtic as a diminutive but clever and industrious inside forward on the last day of 1945. Ankle injuries and a sciatic nerve condition limited his progress, but such had been his promise that many fans were upset when he was freed to join Bradford Park Avenue of the English second flight in May 1949.

His impact in Yorkshire was minimal and fitness problems which reduced his pace continued to plague him through stints with Brighton and Hove Albion and Aldershot, both of the Third Division (South), in the first half of the 1950s. In mid-decade, aged 34, Sirrel became a trainer and coach with the Hampshire club, work to which his sharp, inventive mind and lively personality fitted him admirably, and it was no surprise when he moved into management with Fourth Division Brentford in 1967.

It proved a tough first assignment at Griffin Park, with the club heavily in debt, but he put in prodigiously long hours and within two years had reinvigorated the team and dramatically reduced the overdraft. In November 1969, though, he left freshly buoyant Brentford to join Notts County, the club with the longest history of all but by then ailing, having sunk so low that in recent seasons they had only narrowly avoided having to apply for re-election to the Football League, of which they had been proud founder members in the previous century.

Supported by the club's progressive new chairman Jack Dunnett, a local Labour MP, Sirrel rebuilt the team around the sumptuously gifted Scottish playmaker Don Masson. That season he stabilised the club and in 1970-71, having brought the former County striker Tony Hateley back to Meadow Lane, he inspired the Magpies to a runaway Fourth Division title triumph, completing an unbeaten home record in the process.

Sirrel's mission continued to gather momentum, with County promoted from the Third Division as runners-up to Bolton Wanderers in 1972-73. Then came two terms of consolidation in the Second before he shocked the Meadow Lane faithful by accepting the job of reviving the top-tier whipping boys, Sheffield United.

The Blades were at the foot of the First Division when he took over in October 1975, but the rot at Bramall Lane was too entrenched for a speedy renaissance and they were relegated as bottom club. There followed a mid-table finish in 1976-77, but with United struggling at the outset of the subsequent campaign, Sirrel was sacked.

After only two weeks out of work, he returned to Notts County in October 1977, just in time to arrest a slide towards demotion to the Third Division. Two more seasons of reconstruction followed – which included the re-signing of Masson, who had been on his travels to Queen's Park Rangers and Derby County – before Sirrel experienced arguably his finest hour.

In 1980-81, aided by the coaching expertise of Howard Wilkinson – who was destined to manage Leeds United to the League title then become the Football Association's technical director and England's caretaker manager – Sirrel led the Magpies to second place in the Second Division, behind West Ham, ensuring a place among the elite for the first time since 1926.

At a time when Brian Clough was the talk of football for his staggering attainments across the Trent with Nottingham Forest, the older club's rise offered at least a slice of bragging rights to long-downtrodden County fans. Against many expectations Sirrel's side, bolstered by several new signings, including the gifted Nigerian winger John Chiedozie, held their own in the First Division, finishing the season in a highly respectable 15th place.

Now 60, Sirrel moved "upstairs" to become general manager, with first Wilkinson, then Larry Lloyd and eventually Richie Barker becoming team manager, but the Magpies were relegated in 1984 and again in 1985, at which point Sirrel, by now also a director of the club, resumed the reins. Thereafter he kept County in the top half of the Third Division for two more seasons before retiring in 1987.

From then on he remained part of the fabric of the club. He had a stand named after him in 1993, and in 2007 his portrait was commissioned to hang at the entrance of Meadow Lane. As he had promised nearly four decades ago, the world knew considerably more about Notts County by the time Jimmy Sirrel had finished.

James Sirrel, footballer and football club manager; born Glasgow 2 February 1922; played for Celtic 1945-49, Bradford Park Avenue 1949-51, Brighton and Hove Albion 1951-54, Aldershot 1954-57; managed Brentford 1967-69, Notts County 1969-75, 1977-82 and 1985-87, Sheffield United 1975-77; married (one son, one daughter); died Nottingham 25 September 2008.

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Please find me ANY ex football player, whoever they are, or played for, or however doubtfully educated, could produce an emotive piece like that. Dave, you were never a regular first team player, but you did your bloody best for the team, and did it well, whenever I saw you. The article is a little stilted, but it is the dogs, no one could have done it better, well done, a proper, understanding tribute from someone who was part of the Sirrell set up, I applaud you both.

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Surprised how many managers etc at the service? though fergie looked like he'd been in the bar at meadow lane? and who knows where Pleat had been! Mcmenemy looked good for age, by the way anyone know what team he played for? Anyway a good send off, lets hope the lads continue their run, who knows we may have a local derby next season!

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McMenemy played for the Coldstream Guards

Thanks for the link Rob, made me cry again !!

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  • 3 years later...

Echoing a long term friendship that Jimmy alluded to when I had the honour of talking to him a few years ago, I read today the Sir Alex Ferguson has donated £3000 towards a proposed statue of Jimmy and his assistant, Jack Wheeler.

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  • 3 years later...
  • 5 months later...
  • 4 years later...

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