Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Down Memory Lane: McIlroy still the prince of Burnley

Manchester United’s legendary manager, the late Sir Matt Busby, rated him a genius . . . Sir Bobby Charlton’s description was a superstar . . . distinguished football journalist Brian Granville as unquestionably the best inside forward in Britain.

These are some of the tributes paid to Northern Ireland and Burnley’s Jimmy McIlroy who is currently celebrating a testimonial season at Turf Moor. A series of events, many already sold out, and a match are scheduled. Coinciding with this programme is the publication of his biography Jimmy Mac Prince Of Inside Forwards. His story, leavened by self-effacing modesty, is in the must read category — revealing, honest, entertaining.

The names Jimmy McIlroy, illustrious son of Lambeg, and Burnley are synonymous. He is an iconic figure in the Lancashire town with a stand named after him, his portrait along with other club greats is painted on a stadium wall, he was made a Freeman of the Borough and is instantly recognised — even by the younger generation whose parents have related the feats of this immaculately dressed genius with the film star profile, the most accomplished player in the history of ‘The Clarets’.

I’ve known McIlroy since his embryonic days at Glentoran, covered all his 55 international appearances, including that never-to-be-forgotten World Cup in Sweden in 1958; he possessed inspired excellence, all the attributes of the ultimate footballer.

His passing, movement on and off the ball, those sudden controlled bursts destroyed defences and, as Granville so correctly asserted, he could have found a place in any world side. I couldn’t agree more — he starred in the wrong era.

Burnley paid Glentoran a bargain price £7,000 for him in 1950 and he eventually made 439 appearances, scoring 116 goals. Instantly Burnley chairman and guru Bob Lord realised he had found a gem who remained with the club until 1962. Today McIlroy would be in the upper multi-million pound bracket and collecting an astronomical salary.

That is no exaggeration or a case of nostalgia for those days of yesteryear tainting judgment. Why he has never figured in the Queen’s Honours List is baffling.

The biography by Dave Thomas, lavishly illustrated with many photographs, captures the characteristics of “an absolute gentleman, a marvellous player and terrific opponent” as Bobby Charlton put it. Nothing is omitted from this tome.

He recalls “the worst day of my football career when I was called into manager Harry Pott’s office and informed I would be transfer-listed.”

Many theories have been advanced as the reason. Potts insisted it was all simply due to deteriorating form.

Fans were irate and felt that Burnley, short of cash after a prolonged winter spell without matches because of bad weather, shouldn’t sell their prize asset. Today almost half a century later the mystery remains.

Jimmy, always proud of his Northern Ireland roots, provides an insight into his international days as a member of a happy family — the most satisfying period of a distinguished career, although some contend his club form was more consistent than when wearing the green jersey.

When his father took him to his first match he gave him this advice: “Watch that red-haired fellow. That’s Peter Doherty. If you want to be a footballer study him . . . you won’t go far wrong.” Little did he know then Peter The Great would be his mentor and managerial mastermind of Sweden 58 — the launch pad for Northern Ireland to make an impact on the global scene.

Readers will enjoy the behind-the-scenes machinations of the infamous Northern Ireland-Italy Battle Of Belfast in 1957, when the match was reduced in status from a World Cup tie to a friendly as the Hungarian referee Istvan Zolt was delayed by fog in London and the Italians refused to accept a substitute.

They thought it was an Irish plot and insisted on a second game. A few weeks later they lost 2-1 at Windsor Park, were eliminated, and castigated by disillusioned and stunned supporters when they arrived home as Northern Ireland, the joker in the pack, went on to reach the quarter-finals.

McIlroy (78), whose wife Barbara died some years ago, had a spell at Oldham Athletic as player/manager and Stoke City followed by a period in sports journalism. He is now retired living in Burnley but commutes frequently to Spain to play golf, and relaxes by painting landscapes and portraits — a far cry from his immediate post-schooldays as a rookie bricklayer on Belfast building sites with his mate, the late Tommy Casey.

I leave the last words to the book sleeve notes: “From a poor humble boyhood in the 1930s to a Freeman, his story is one of modesty and embarrassment that he should be the subject of a biography.

“He thinks there are too many such books and most have little to say. His biography does. Years ago he was dubbed ‘The Prince Of Inside Forwards’ and many headlines referred to ‘The Magic of McIlroy’. This book tells why.”

Jimmy Mac A Biography, by Dave Thomas (Hudson and Pearson £19.95)

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