Sammy McIlroy on playing with his Old Trafford heroes and immense pride in pulling on NI shirt.
Imagine any of today’s pampered Premier League stars travelling by bus, while carrying their own boots, on their way to a first-team debut in one of the biggest games in the land aged just 17.
That was Sammy McIlroy 49 years ago, hopping aboard the local Stretford bus, bound for Old Trafford, looking forward to travelling on to support the team in the derby at the old Maine Road later that afternoon. He was virtually unrecognised and blissfully unaware he was about to make one of the most dramatic entrances in Manchester United history.
This was the United of Best, Law and Charlton, except on this day there was no Law, who was injured. Enter McIlroy.
His goalscoring debut in the Manchester derby of November 1971 is woven into club legend as the Belfast boy and future Northern Ireland captain went on to earn his own special place in United hearts, not least as the last of the celebrated Busby Babes, the final player signed by the great Matt Busby on his 15th birthday (August 2, 1969).
It was a journey that began in the shadow of The Oval in east Belfast and during our conversation Sammy recalled his childhood.
“I grew up in Severn Street in east Belfast with our family home no more than a few hundred yards away from The Oval. My dad, Samuel, played for Linfield Swifts, so you can imagine the stick I took from my mates, who were all Glentoran fans,” he said.
“As very young kids we never really had any football heroes across the Irish Sea. Our idols were local players such as Sammy Pavis of Linfield and Walter Bruce and Eric Ross who both played for Glentoran.
“Of course, everything changed when I was nine and George Best made his debut for Manchester United. I wanted to be just like George Best.
“From then on, Manchester United was my team and George Best was my hero. I went to school every day and practiced as hard as I could and went to bed every night dreaming that one day I would play alongside George for United and Northern Ireland.”
Sammy had already appeared four times for the Northern Ireland Schoolboys and was playing for Ashfield Secondary School in east Belfast when Bob Bishop, United’s legendary scout, spotted him, having famously discovered the young Best a few years previously. In fact, it was Bishop who bought the young McIlroy his first modern pair of football boots, the ones without toecaps in them.
Sammy fondly remembered: “Not long after George burst onto the English football scene, the word spread around my school and area that Bob Bishop was on the lookout for the next George Best.
“I first met Bob when I was nine and we got on really well. Bob was a really lovely man and very generous, almost like a grandfather figure to us. Obviously, I was still at Mersey Street Primary School at the time and far too young to become a footballer, so Bob told my parents that he would keep an eye on me and that if I developed then there was the possibility that I could follow George across the Irish Sea to get a trial with Manchester United.
“And Bob was true to his word, despite the fact that he had literally hundreds of young hopeful footballers to keep track of.”
The wise old talent spotter knew the 14-year-old McIlroy was a prodigious young talent after he became a regular attendee at Bishop’s weekend football camps at his cottage in Helen’s Bay, County Down, known as Boyland.
Eventually he was sent over to Manchester, and he recalled: “During the Easter holidays in 1969 I travelled to Manchester for a trial. I must have done alright because I was invited back over to Old Trafford in July 1969 and a few weeks later on August 2, the day of my 15th birthday, I got the present every boy dreamed of — an amateur contract with Manchester United.
“Matt Busby sent Joe Armstrong over to Belfast to sign me and I was the happiest kid in the world.”
He signed professional forms with the Reds on his 17th birthday and eventually Frank O’Farrell, who had taken over from Busby on the great manager’s retirement, handed the youngster his full debut on that fateful day.
But the game on November 6, 1971 was no ordinary debut — such was the confidence the manager had in McIlroy that he had no hesitation in throwing him into the white-hot atmosphere of a Manchester derby at Maine Road after Law had picked up his injury.
He revelled in the derby atmosphere, playing alongside Best and Tony Dunne in midfield. The match was a thriller and ended 3-3, with McIlroy scoring United’s opening goal (in a move started by Best) and setting up the other two for Alan Gowling and Brian Kidd. Unsurprisingly, the United fans took an instant shine to the young Irishman, who would go on to play for the Reds for another decade.
McIlroy recalled: “That Saturday, I did what I always did and took the bus to Old Trafford. I had my boots with me, as I always carried them around everywhere I went, and I was looking forward to enjoying the derby.
“Strangely, one man on the bus recognised me and when I was just about to get off at the ground he looked at me and said, ‘All the best today, kid’.
“I had no idea why he took the time to speak to me until I walked into Old Trafford around 11am and was told that Frank O’Farrell wanted to see me. As I walked to his office, I was wracking my brain thinking what I could have done, but before I could find an answer the manager told me that Denis Law had failed a fitness test and he was giving me my debut.
“I think I must have been as close to fainting as someone could be without collapsing. I thanked Mr O’Farrell and walked towards the changing room areas with butterflies doing Riverdance in my stomach.
“For a brief moment I thought I must be dreaming, but no, it was true because the team sheet was up on the wall outside the changing rooms and there was my name, No.10 McIlroy, sandwiched between Charlton No.9 and Best No.11. Now I was dreaming!
“The game went by in an instant and ended 3-3 and I scored one of our goals. ‘Could things get any better?’, I thought to myself.”
And yet, McIlroy almost never made it as a United player. When he first arrived in Manchester he was deeply homesick, and in his autobiography, Manchester United My Team, he reveals that he went home to Belfast at every opportunity and would have gladly settled for a career in Irish League football.
He missed his family and his friends, but thankfully he persevered. A week after the derby draw, he scored on his home debut in United’s 3-1 win over Tottenham, with a fit-again Law grabbing the other two goals. The Manchester Evening News headline read: ‘Sorcerer Law and his Apprentice Bewitch Spurs’.
McIlroy can recall how tough those early days were: “I found the start of a new life in Manchester was not all it was cracked up to be. I mean, I was a 15-year-old kid from Belfast and several hundred miles away from my family and friends. I could not help but wonder how George coped with this transformation in his life, and he helped me get over my homesickness.
“The first three months were the worst and I ended up in three different lodging houses. I just could not settle in a leafy suburb of Manchester and missed the noisy, bustling streets of east Belfast. Our family home was off the Newtownards Road and thousands of men had to walk up and down my street every day on their way to work in the shipyard.
“Saturdays were particularly busy when Glentoran had a home game. But, in the end, I settled in Manchester thanks to two wonderful landladies, Mrs Thomas and Mrs Barrett.
“The good thing about playing for United was that they often played friendlies back home and it was lovely to return and play in front of your own people. I can recall playing for United in a friendly in Dublin some 10 months before I made my competitive debut for the club.
“It was a January friendly against Bohemians at Dalymount Park. I was just 16 and named as one of the substitutes and I remember sitting in the dugout and looking around the ground and thinking this is just like a home game.
“There were 30,000 people inside the ground and everywhere I looked I could see red and white scarves and fans wearing Manchester United rosettes. Brian Kidd had put us 1-0 up and I was sent on to replace John Aston and scored our second goal in a 2-0 win. Not a bad start to my United career, I thought.”
Within three months of his United debut, his country called upon his services and awarded him his first full international cap against Spain in February 1972 at Boothferry Park, Hull, then managed by Terry Neill.
Looking back, McIlroy said: “It was a home game for us, but Uefa moved the game away from Belfast because of the Troubles. I managed to get my mum and dad to the game, but it was a long haul for them because the motorway system in England was not as developed back then.
“We drew 1-1 with Spain and I can remember someone pointing out to me that, at the time, I became the third youngest player to represent Northern Ireland. I was 17 years and 198 days old and I must admit that was a proud night for me. Indeed, I am extremely proud to say that I played 88 times for my country.”
A later managerial spell was, alas, less spectacular than his international playing career
McIlroy made 419 appearances and scored 71 goals for his beloved United before being sold to Stoke City for £350,000 in February 1982, becoming the most expensive player in the Potters’ history at the time.
Ron Atkinson sold him as he had paid a British record fee of £1.5m to West Bromwich Albion for a certain Bryan Robson to replace him in the United midfield.
I was there the day Robson was unveiled to the United fans when he sat at a table on the pitch at Old Trafford to sign his contract before the First Division game against Wolves on October 3, 1981.
McIlroy played that day in a 5-0 win. Oh, and by the way, he scored a hat-trick, bowing out as he had began in a blaze of glory.