Belfast Telegraph

Former team-mates pay emotional tributes to 'wonderful man' Jimmy McIlroy

Jimmy McIlroy: 1931-2018

By Steven Beacom

Jimmy McIlroy was one of the greatest players in Irish football history, according to his former team-mate Harry Gregg.

Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Gregg paid the warmest of tributes to his 'dear friend' and fellow 1958 World Cup icon McIlroy, who has passed away at the age of 86.

McIlroy's beloved Burnley FC announced the sad news yesterday, declaring that he was their finest footballer ever.

Born in Lambeg, County Antrim in 1931, McIlroy started his career at Glentoran before joining Burnley in 1950.

For the next 13 years, the inside forward shone like a beacon at Turf Moor, inspiring the club to win the league title in 1960 and reach the quarter-finals of the European Cup a year later.

They also made it to the FA Cup final in 1962 in what was Burnley's most successful era.

Known as the 'Brain of Burnley' for the elegant, creative and stylish way he played, McIlroy made 497 appearances for the Clarets, scoring 131 goals.

He had opportunities to leave, with Manchester United and Italian outfit Sampdoria amongst those keen to sign him, but he stayed loyal before in 1962 moving to Stoke, achieving Second Division title success and making it to the 1964 League Cup final prior to ending a stellar playing career at Oldham.

He managed Oldham and Bolton, but Burnley was where his heart lay. He became club president and, such was the esteem in which he was held, had a stand named after him at Turf Moor. When made an MBE in 2011, he asked to be presented with his award at the stadium rather than Buckingham Palace!

He also wrote about golf and football in his local paper and was respected by all in the area and beyond.

For Northern Ireland he was an exceptional performer, winning 55 caps and scoring 10 goals between 1951 and 1965. He had a habit of scoring against England, but his favourite moments as an international came when the country reached the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup.

It is believed that along with another Northern Ireland legend, Danny Blanchflower, McIlroy was the first to pull off the 'pass penalty' in 1957 where one player pretends to take a spot-kick before passing to his team-mate to score.

Johan Cruyff, Thierry Henry and Lionel Messi have since tried to follow the Blanchflower/McIlroy example with various degrees of success.

Sad to hear about his pal's passing, Gregg (85) said: "Jimmy was a dear, dear friend. He was one hell of a player and so important to our Northern Ireland team. Jimmy was one of Ireland's greatest ever players and the best player in Burnley's history.

"When we played against him at club level I used to shout to our defenders not to let him get close to them because he could turn them inside out.

"Playing alongside him for Northern Ireland was much more enjoyable. He was brilliant to watch. I have great memories of him. I called him Smoothie because he was so smooth on the pitch and off it. He was good looking, his hair was always immaculate, he was smart and he was such a wonderful player and a wonderful man."

Burnley and Northern Ireland hero Alex Elder (77), who followed McIlroy from Glentoran to Turf Moor to enjoy the club's finest years, said: "He was a good friend and a legend to me and everyone else. He was also a gentleman and will be sadly missed."

Another Burnley and Northern Ireland ace, Willie Irvine (75), who joined the Turf Moor side on trial as a 16-year-old, added: "When I came across, Jimmy took me under his wing. He was like a father figure with me and I believe I got signed because of Mr McIlroy's influence.

"Burnley will remember him for years to come."

McIlroy led the way for the connection between Northern Ireland and Burnley. Ex-Glentoran boss Tommy Cassidy (67) said: "When I moved to Burnley from Newcastle, Jimmy gave me such a warm welcome and made me feel at home.

"As well as being an amazing man he was a truly great footballer. He was one of the best passers of a ball you've ever seen, he could dribble and he could score goals. He was loved at Turf Moor. Jimmy was Mr Burnley."

Former Northern Ireland team-mate and ex-Arsenal and Spurs boss Terry Neill (76) added: "When I came into the Northern Ireland team, Jimmy was a great mentor for me along with Harry Gregg, Danny Blanchflower, Bertie Peacock and Peter McParland and the manager Peter Doherty. How lucky could you be as a young kid?

"I learned so much from Jimmy. As a footballer he delivered masterclasses in control, passing and being calm. We became good friends and I loved talking with him. He was a great man."

Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill said: "Jimmy was one of the greatest ever players to have worn the green shirt of Northern Ireland.

"As well as being a hugely talented footballer who reached the highest levels of the game, he was also a fantastic person and anyone who ever met him was struck by his warmth, his humility and his passion for football."

McIlroy's wife predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter Anne and son Paul.

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