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Jimmy McIlroy... One of Northern Ireland’s Greatest Players

Jimmy McIlroy... One of Northern Ireland’s Greatest Players

Friday, 31 August, 2018 - 08:15
Jimmy McIlroy playing for Burnley against Blackburn Rovers, 1958. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock
London- Brian Glanville
The footballer Jimmy McIlroy, who has died aged 86, was an elegant cornerstone of Burnley’s First Division title-winning side of the late 1950s and one of Northern Ireland’s greatest internationals.

A perfectly balanced, highly intelligent inside-forward with masterly ball control and an ability to make the telling pass, McIlroy was quick enough on the field when he needed to be. But vulgar haste was anathema to him. He was capable of holding and shielding the ball until the right alternative showed itself, and he could beat his man with elegance and ease.

At Burnley he struck up an immensely fruitful partnership with his great friend Jimmy Adamson, who captained the team magisterially from right-half and, eventually, center-half. Contrasting characters, the two were the inspiration of a fine team that won the First Division championship in the 1959-60 season, when McIlroy made 31 appearances and scored six goals.

His other great partnership came in the remarkable Northern Ireland side of the late 50s, in which he struck up a wonderful relationship with the equally fluent Danny Blanchflower, the side’s captain and right-half. The two of them shared great technical skill and a sophisticated approach to the game that made them the creative force in a side which, astonishingly, beat Italy in Belfast to knock them out of the World Cup eliminators in 1958.

Subsequently, in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, McIlroy played in all Northern Ireland’s games as they reached the quarter-finals, only to be knocked out by France. McIlroy’s first cap for Northern Ireland had come at Wembley against England in 1951, and he did not miss a home international until 1960. By the time he finished his international career in 1965, he had won 55 caps and scored 10 goals.

Born in Lambeg in County Antrim, McIlroy, whose father, Harry, had once played football for Distillery, had initially wanted to take up a scholarship to a local technical school rather than play football. But the Glentoran club in Belfast had spotted his talent, and because his family needed the money, he took up the offer and signed for Glentoran in 1949. Burnley bought him the following season for £7,000, and he served them for 13 years, playing 439 times in the First Division and scoring 116 goals.

Aside from the First Division title win, he helped Burnley to fourth, second and third places in the league over the next three seasons, and was instrumental in getting them to the 1962 FA Cup final, which Burnley lost 3-1 to Tottenham Hotspur. Such was his status that when the footballers’ maximum wage was abolished in 1961, he became one of the first players to be paid £100 a week.

Early in 1963, however, McIlroy fell out with the Burnley manager, Harry Potts, after which the club chairman, the abrasive Bob Lord, unexpectedly allowed him to be transferred to Second Division Stoke City for a derisory £25,000 – much to the chagrin of the Burnley fans. At Stoke, McIlroy found himself partnering the great Stanley Matthews, quickly striking up an ideal partnership and enabling Stoke to return to the First Division. He also played in the 1964 League Cup final, which they lost 4-3 to Leicester City.

McIlroy remained with Stoke until 1966, when in January – having, meanwhile, opened a menswear shop in Burnley – he became player-manager at Third Division Oldham Athletic. But being the detached, somewhat idiosyncratic figure that he was, a good teacher but a strong opponent of coaching orthodoxy, management was hardly for him. He guided Oldham to 10th position in the Third Division in 1966-67, but the team slumped to 16th in the next campaign, and he resigned as manager on the opening day of the 1968-69 season after a 4-0 loss to Luton Town.

McIlroy then moved to Bolton Wanderers as assistant manager to the club’s former idol, Nat Lofthouse. In 1970, when Lofthouse left, McIlroy took over as manager – but departed after only two games in charge, after a row over selling players.

Returning to live in Burnley, he took up work as a bricklayer and later became a football writer for a local paper, the Burnley Express. He was appointed MBE in 2011, and Burnley’s Turf Moor ground, where he watched the team for many years after retiring, has a stand named after him.

McIlroy’s wife predeceased him. He is survived by his daughter, Anne, and son, Paul, and three grandchildren, Catherine, Tara and Bethany.

(The Guardian)

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