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'My world just emptied': Sammy McIlroy on losing his mother before 1986 World Cup, doubts over becoming Northern Ireland manager and hopes for a bright future


Sammy McIlroy

Sammy McIlroy

Sammy McIlroy

Former Northern Ireland boss Sammy McIlroy has confessed that when the job offer to manage his country came, he thought: "I'm not too sure I'm ready for this."

In a wide-ranging interview on Eamon Holmes' podcast, he also said that new gaffer Ian Baraclough is in the best position ever to take charge of the national team and he opened up about the heartbreaking moment Billy Bingham broke the news of his mother's death on the eve of the 1986 World Cup.

Belfast-born McIlroy, 65, said: "To be totally honest with you, I've never, ever, ever said this before publicly.

"When that job offer came, deep down inside - I was at Macclesfield and we were doing well - I knew deep down inside, 'Oh, am I ready for this? I'm not too sure I'm ready for this'.

"But how could I turn down an offer of managing my country when I'd been in two World Cups and we'd won the British Championship twice and they want me to take over as manager?

"Right away I said, 'Yeah', didn't even talk about what the money was - give me the job, I couldn't turn it down. And it was a great honour to manage my country."

The ex-Manchester United ace admitted that he found it a difficult task bossing Northern Ireland from 2000 to 2003 with a limited pool of players to choose from.

He explained: "When I took over, I took over from big Lawrie McMenemy who wished me all the best - fantastic football man, big Lawrie - and he said to me, 'Listen, this is a hell of a hard job for you'.


"People came and surrendered their international career as well when I took over and I'm thinking, 'Yeah, this is going to be difficult' because I couldn't go and buy somebody, I had to look at what I had.

"The first tournament, the first 18 months, wasn't too bad with Neil Lennon, Jim Magilton, (Steve) Lomas, big Gerry Taggart, people like that. We did okay, we finished up with 11 points.

"Once they started leaving, that's when the problems started to happen because I had to stick a load of young kids in who weren't ready and it was so difficult.

"Managers were pulling players out of friendly games where they were going for promotion or fighting relegation.

"Some managers let me down who actually were players for Northern Ireland and wouldn't let me have players at certain times, especially friendly games."

But Sammy Mac, capped 88 times by his country, believes that the new man at the helm, Baraclough, has a completely different playing field.

He said: "He is in a better position than any other Northern Ireland manager I can think of taking over the national team, because the bulk of his side is there, there are some fantastic young players coming through.

"Michael O'Neill's done a fantastic job with the time that he had. He went through a difficult phase early on and turned it round, got to the European Championship and had a fantastic time with the fans and everything, built the squad up there and added these young players.

"And I think the boy Baraclough has got a fantastic opportunity of actually keeping going and having Northern Ireland fighting for qualification for the next tournament, I really do."

McIlroy was a key figure in the glory years of the 1980s when Northern Ireland punched above their weight to make it to two World Cups - and said that even the IFA didn't believe they would get out of the group stage in Spain 1982 because they had booked early flights home.

He revealed: "It was unbelievable. For a small country like Northern Ireland, first of all to qualify, to get there was incredible.

"But from 1980 to 1986, we had a bunch of lads, the majority saw it all the way through, it was like a club spirit, it was unbelievable how we got on together - big Pat (Jennings), Jimmy Nicholl, David McCreery, Gerry Armstrong, people like that, and we got on ever so well.

"That 1982 qualification to Spain was unbelievable and we actually warmed up and did our preparation in Brighton.

"Billy Bingham took us to Brighton for two weeks to prepare to go to Spain and the lads were laughing their heads off because we were looking at countries who were going to Dubai, to Portugal and everywhere - and we went to Brighton.

"Bingham was unbelievable in preparation, he had everything sorted out and, luckily enough as well, there was a bit of a heatwave in Brighton while we were there, so it felt like Dubai with the sun and everything.

"Even the manager touched lucky as well because he owned a little shop in Southport, a little chemist, and he even brought the sun tan lotion and the aftersun and everything, and he actually sold it to the players.

"We went to Spain, obviously as underdogs. In that group with Spain, Honduras, Yugoslavia - we were just there, see you, play your games and home the next day after the group stage.

"We even shocked the Irish FA because they had us booked the day after we played Spain to come back home, so they had to change the arrangements."

But it was an altogether different experience before the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, when 'Our Sammy' - by this time the captain - was shattered by the tragic news that his mother had died while the squad were at their training base in Albuquerque.

But when he told me that my mother had died, my world just emptied - unbelievable, she was never ill in her life.

He said: "I actually left home in '86 knowing that my father was dying of throat cancer and I had this on my mind and I talked to my mother at the time before I left, 'Mum, what do you think?'

"And she was saying, 'Son, go - because it will keep your dad going, it will keep him interested, it will keep him watching the football, he's proud as punch that you're the captain, you're going, just go and do your best and try to think about football'.

"In Albuquerque, we had a training session and then, when we got back to the hotel, Billy Bingham phoned me and said, 'Can I have a word with you in my room?'

"I said, 'Yeah, no problem boss, can you tell me what it's about?' He said, 'Just come up and we'll have a chat'.

"And Billy just... when I got to his room, I could see there was something wrong with Billy and he couldn't really talk to me, he was on about 'How's things going? How do you think the squad's doing?' How do you think this, how do you think that and I was thinking, 'Yeah, no problem'."

"All of a sudden, he said, 'Listen, who's your best friend in life?'

"And I said, 'Do you mean football-wise or do you mean life?'

"He said, 'It's your mother, isn't it?' I said, 'Always Billy, she's the apple of my eye'.

"He said, 'Well, you've just lost her'. That's exactly how he told me that my mother had passed away.

"I was actually expecting my father. I was expecting news of my father dying of throat cancer.

"But when he told me that my mother had died, my world just emptied - unbelievable, she was never ill in her life.

"She never complained about anything, never complained about having a cold, never complained about nothing, looked after everyone around her.

"And then when I found out that she had passed away, obviously it broke my heart and the only one thing that was on my mind was getting back to the funeral, which the Irish FA arranged the following day.

"When I went home, my father obviously was a very, very unwell man, because I didn't think I was going to go back, once my mother had died and I had been to the funeral I was thinking, 'I have to stay here with my father, because he's next'.

"The doctors had told me, 'Be prepared any time' but he was saying to me, he was pushing me out the door, he was saying, 'You get back there, you're the captain of that national team, you get back there and do your best for your country'.

"I couldn't believe what he was saying - well, I could, actually. He was football crazy and he said, 'Get back there' and I did but obviously my mind was still a little bit clouded of my mother and how I got through that tournament I can't tell you, I don't know.

"The lads were fantastic, big Pat, all the boys, they rallied round me. They were fantastic and they helped me through the tournament - Jimmy Nicholl, big (Norman) Whiteside - all these people helped me through."

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