Jimmy McIlroy on the World Cup, Wembley and turning down a move abroad: A Q&A with a Burnley and Northern Ireland legend
Back in 2008, the Sunday Life published a Q&A with Burnley and Northern Ireland legend Jimmy McIlroy.
Here's a look back at the humble gentleman's own take on his career and modern football, published on August 24, 2008:
Q. How did you end up at Burnley?
A. I was playing for Glentoran. Billy Bingham and I, who were just teenagers at the time, formed the right wing. I only played less than a season in the first team before I was told I was being watched by a couple of clubs. Burnley were the first to make an offer for me. I learned afterwards that I could have finished up at Tottenham, Rangers or Burnley and it turned out to be Burnely.
Q. When you look back do you wish you had of got the opportunity to play in London or Scotland?
A. The fact that I’ve lived in Burnley since 1950 answers that I think. Maybe it’s a case of being a big fish in a small pond, I don’t know, but I’ve always felt at home here. I remember meeting the manager of Italy’s Sampdoria football club the morning of the FA Cup final in 1962 when we played Spurs. He promised me all sorts..a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, an international school for my children, wages way beyond what I was getting in England. But when I went back to the hotel and told my wife she said to me, “What would we want to leave Burnley for?” I even had a chance to go to South America, River Plate in Argentina at the age of 31 when I went on tour with Stoke there. Again I rang my wife and said there’s good money here etc and she just said, “Sure what would we want to leave Burnley for?” I’ve never regretted it. From the moment I arrived it felt like home and it has been home.
Q.Your career at Burnley was very successful...you won the league in 1959/60, reached the FA Cup final in 1962 and you also played in Europe. What would you put the success of that team down to?
A. I look back from a personal point of view and think I was lucky throughout my career. When I got to Burnley they were a middle of the table First Division side — what is now the Premiership. But during the mid 50s they produced a number of young players, that had come through the A, B and reserve teams. From about 1956 onwards I was playing in a team that was getting better every year. We had some marvelous young players around like Jimmy Adamson, Ray Pointer and Alex Elder from Lisburn. At one stage we had nine internationals in the Burnley team. It was just wonderful to play with them all.
Q. Do you think Burnley will ever be as successful as that again?
A. No, it’s impossible because of the wage structure nowadays. Burnley fans and the club still have hopes of making the Premiership but if they did I think they would struggle to survive. They play in the Championship at the minute and I think they must count themselves fortunate to stay in a league like that because it’s such a small town. There’s only about 80,000 people in it and when you think they are competing with teams like Birmingham and big city clubs like that it’s very hard.
Q. What are your memories of the 3-1 ‘62 FA Cup Final defeat by Spurs?
A. I have two memories and both involve Danny Blanchflower. As both teams were walking out Danny turned to me and said “I bet you wonder what all the fuss was about?” After the semi-final there was quite a gap of a few weeks before the final when everyone wants you — it was like cuckoo land. It was everyone’s dream to reach the final but when I walked onto the field it suddenly hit me that it was just another match. The atmosphere was nothing like what you would have got in one of the earlier rounds. Say playing against a third division team, the ground would be packed and the fans would almost be on the touchline, that was electric. But Wembley to me was disappointing. I’m probably the only player that has ever said that but I had waited my whole life to play in an FA Cup final and yet when it happened it was a let down. The second memory is Spurs getting a penalty near the end and Danny was taking it. As he bent down to set the ball on the spot I started pointing out to our keeper where I thought he was going to kick it. Danny caught me on doing that and said to me, “Do you want to take the bloody thing?” He scored but apart from that I have very few memories. Spurs and Burnley were the two top teams in England at that time and we had had some wonderful games but that was the poorest out of the lot.
Q. Manchester United wanted to sign you before the Munich disaster happened..you must look back and think you were very lucky not to have moved?
A. Yes, I do. We were playing Manchester City and I was injured and sitting on the touchline. Man United’s assistant manager Jimmy Murphy came up to me. He looked around to make sure no-one was listening and said, “Our boss wants to sign you but he will only make a move for you if he thought you would want to come to us.” If that was today every player would jump at the chance. Instead I told him I was interested but I would let him know if I wanted to move. I decided not to and it was only a short time after that that the plane crash happened. That was tragic for United, they lost such top class players..the biggest one probably was Duncan Edwards, who I think would have ended up a top world class player.
Q. Internationally your biggest achievement was helping Northern Ireland get to the quarter finals of the 1958 World Cup after beating Italy, what was that experience like?
A. I do feel I was lucky in my career. When I was at Burnley they produced their own top class players in a short time. When I started playing for Northern Ireland they were just an ordinary side but then with Peter Doherty in charge there was an influx of top league players. Players like Danny Blanchflower, Billy Bingham, Bertie Peacock, Peter McParland – they all played in the top teams in Britain and many of them were the stars in their teams. So we had a very good squad. For what we achieved in reaching the quarter finals of the World Cup it really was amazing because when you look at a world map Northern Ireland is no bigger than a dot.
Q. After your playing career you went into management for a couple of years, why did you not stay in it longer?
A.That was the biggest mistake of my life! I wasn’t cut out for management, right from the very first match I realised that. Once the players crossed the line onto the field I was helpless, there was nothing I could do to improve things. If the players were good they would get you good results and that would make me a good manager but if they couldn’t play well, I couldn’t make them good players.
Q. How much has the game changed since you played?
A. The first big change is the pitch. I still find it unbelievable that I can go out mid-winter and it is still as green and firm as it was at the start of the season. In my day as the weeks went by the grass disappeared so towards the end the only
grass you saw was near the touchline and at the corner flags, the rest was just soil and mud. We played week after week in conditions that wouldn’t be acceptable today. It isn’t nearly as tiring for players now. The ball is so much lighter today too. In my day if you scored from the 18-yard line the goalkeeper got a rollicking, now they’re hitting them from 35 yards out and it’s in the net before the keeper can move! It’s so easy to bend as well. The other big change is the money.
Q. Do you think the players today get paid too much?
A. Someone told me the other day about a player on something like £9,000 a week and my first thought was “I feel sorry for him” because there are players on £100,000 a week! The money is incredible; but something tells me that this can’t go on. Transfer fees are getting bigger. I would say most clubs today are in debt and it’s the bank that owns them not the chairmen.
Q. You know Northern Ireland international Kyle Lafferty from his time at Burnley. Do you think his recent move to Rangers has come along at the right time for him?
A. Yes. He got his grounding at Burnley and if he is going to be a top player this is a good move for him. I feel he has a good future, just how far up the ladder he will climb I don’t know but at the minute he’s very promising. Maybe if he had gone to a top English club he might have progressed quicker, who knows. But I wish the lad well and I’m sure if he has ability they will bring it out of him at Rangers.