Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection

Steve van Rensburg's big football adventure.

Steve van Rensburg's big football adventure.

Steve van Rensburg, a 22 year-old South African docked at Southampton on a cold January day in 1939, leaving behind a secure job, his disapproving parents, and a growing reputation in South African (white) football to join Second Division, Burnley FC as a professional footballer, a world away in every possible respect from his life up till then.

He was very much a novelty, although a small number of other South African players were trying their luck in English football at the same time, and his arrival was given extensive local press coverage. You can read an early interview with him in full on the website by clicking on his photo.

The Burnley Express of 7th January 1939 reports that he was brought to Burnley's notice by a Burnley man, Mr. Yeadon, who had stayed in South Africa after the Boer War. Van Rensburg worked as a clerk for Durban Railways, and played in the company team, there being no professional football in South Africa. He had also represented Natal, and was being talked of as a future International right half-back.

He arrived on 6th January 1939, was met by club officials, and taken to Nottingham to the hotel where the team was staying overnight, prior to a cup tie with Notts. County. On the way, he was given a brief tour of the sights of London, which made a big impression on the young man from "the Colonies".

He was given a professional contract until the end of the season, and the Club gave him a warm welcome but the weather could not have been much more unwelcoming. Volunteers had to clear several inches of snow off the Meadow Lane Ground for the game to go ahead in appalling conditions. Van Rensburg watched the game and was astonished, he told the Express that in South Africa if it even rained during a game, they all went off, and the pitches were like bowling greens. He was undaunted however, and prepared to do his best.

He made his debut on 14th January for the Reserves away at Newcastle, and his home debut on 17th January 1939 in a Northern Mid-Week League game against Liverpool, when second half rain turned the pitch into a mud bath. Between then and the end of the season, although signed as a right half-back, he was tried at outside right and inside right without success and then at his own request he was tried as a goalkeeper, his alternative position in South Africa, and played a few Reserve and Mid-week games in goal. Possibly he decided that diving in the mud might be better than trying to play football in it.

To no avail, he was released at the end of April, so he couldn't turn out for Burnley CC as planned. Burnley Reserves had a very poor season, and a letter to the Express blamed poor management, including the fact that Van Rensburg had been signed at the wrong time of the year, and had not been given a fair chance. The obviously likeable Van Rensburg, together with unsuccessful South African triallists from other clubs, sailed for home at the end of June.

As a footnote, the Sunday Post in August 1939 quoted him as saying that English professional footballers had far too much leisure time, and whereas in South Africa he would have been playing tennis or out in the sunshine, in Burnley he spent more time gambling and going to the cinema than he should have. However, he would gladly have stayed, if only he had been offered a contract.

And that is where we leave the smiling young South African, with the world on the brink of war.