Jimmy McIlroy was in all probability, the greatest ever Claret.
It’s not often the words international star and legend can be applied to a Burnley player but in the 1950's most teams had an iconic player who would draw the crowds, when there was little else to do than watch a football match in austere, post-war Britain.
Many First Division sides were at the time located in the North West of England. Blackpool had Stanley Matthews, Preston had Tom Finney, and Burnley had Jimmy McIlroy. Jimmy played in the old fashioned inside right position, wearing number 8 in a 3-2 -3 -2 formation and would bridge the gap between Jimmy Adamson and Bobby Seith in the midfield. Ray Pointer and Jimmy Robson spearheaded the attack and John Connolly was on the right wing,
McIlroy was a truly inspirational player who hardly ever had a bad day and created many goals for others whilst scoring quite a few himself. He had this amazing talent, like Stanley Matthews, to stand and hold the ball between his feet and shimmy left or right but often never move, whilst puzzled defenders tried to work out what to do.
As soon as they moved, he was past them or played an incisive and perfectly weighted pass or he won a penalty or free kick from their frustration. There was a buzz whenever he got the ball. When the Clarets were winning with a few minutes to go he would often take the ball to the corner flags and keep it there to kill the game.
Jimmy was born in Lambeg, County Antrim on October 25 1931 in Northern Ireland to a footballing dad, Willie who played for Lisburn Distillery. The young McIlroy started playing with a tennis ball as footballs were rare and expensive and in games tried to keep it as long as possible. After leaving school McIlroy played for Belfast side Glentoran.
His fellow players included Billy Bingham and Danny Blanchflower, Jimmy played 18 first team games and scoring 8 goals before joining Burnley in March 1950. This was just three years after the Clarets gained promotion to the First Division. He signed for a then club record fee of £7,000 and the signing was apparently illegally completed in the early hours of a Sunday morning.
Jimmy wondered where he had come to. His Burnley hotel room overlooked the open market which was full of fruit and rubbish but he soon came to love the town. He played 439 First Division Football League games over almost 13 years, scoring 116 goals and was the Clarets' key player over most of that time.
Jimmy was pivotal in Burnley winning the League in the 1959/1960 season, playing with an injury in the title clinching last game at Maine Road when he could hardly walk.
In 1961, Burnley were 6 points ahead in the First Division with only 6 games left but went on a losing streak that allowed Alf Ramsay's Ipswich Town to overtake them. Jimmy was out injured for a number of these games and many felt his loss was pivotal in the decline. He also played in over 50 cup matches and in the 1962 FA Cup Final losing to Spurs 3-1, a Charity Shield match and in four European Cup matches whilst reaching the quarter finals.
Games against Spurs were his highlight as both teams played attacking football and he fondly remembers talking to his Northern Ireland colleague Danny Blanchflower at half time when Burnley were 4-1 down at White hart Lane. Danny told McIlroy the Spurs hadn't even started playing yet. In a memorable encounter, the Clarets came back to draw 4-4, Jimmy enjoyed that.
His placement on the transfer list was a massive shock to all Burnley fans and his departure in 1963 to Stoke City for a knockdown fee of £25.000 led to fan protests on a major scale and a reduction in the gate as thousands vowed never to watch the club again. The transfer fee benefit was lost as gate receipts dropped and in hindsight the sale of Mcilroy can be seen to be the beginning of the start of a gradual decline in the Clarets' fortunes, both on and off the pitch.
Jimmy reflected and says the saddest day of his life was when he was asked in training to see the manager who told him he was being sold. He asked why and Harry Potts the then manager said it was because he hadn’t been playing well, so he asked why wasn’t he dropped. Harry retorted, "We can’t drop players of your calibre!"
Jimmy felt he had upset the rather dictatorial chairman Bob Lord by associating with the son of a former club director who Mr Lord didn’t like. The formidable Bob Lord had a habit of banishing people from Turf Moor that he didn’t like.
Jimmy had enjoyed a good relationship with the notoriously frugal Chairman and when Jimmy wanted something his lines were, "I know this isn’t possible Mr Lord but …" and of course Mr Lord would show him it was possible and Jimmy ultimately got his way. His highest wage when the maximum wage was lifted was £80 per week because Johnny Haynes of Fulham had just become the first player to be paid £100 per week.
Jimmy modestly asked for £60 and Bob Lord surprisingly asked if he wanted it tax free so he said, "Yes" and he got it, but suddenly and out of the blue, his time was up.
After leaving Turf Moor, Jimmy played for three years at Stoke, in a side of former star players funded by Tony Waddington, with the aim of becoming a force in football and getting the crowds to watch. He played 98 games many with Stanley Matthews now in his late forties and Dennis Violet, scoring 16 goals in the process.
Stoke won promotion to the First Division in his first year there, regularly attracting crowds of 40000 and even played Real Madrid in April 1963. Matthews retired on his 50th birthday and Jimmy’s final match for the "Potters" that year, was against Burnley on 27 December 1965. He also played for Stoke in the League Cup final, losing 4-3 to Leicester over two legs in 1963.
He later moved to Oldham, playing 39 games and scoring 1 goal before retiring in 1967 aged 36. He later became the manager of Oldham Athletic then playing in Division 3 under the erratic Chairmanship of Ken Bates. He enjoyed a 37% win percentage with the Latics and also had two games managing Bolton Wanderers losing both, before resigning when he was ordered to sell players.
Management wasn’t Jimmy's forte and after leaving Bolton, he went into journalism working for the Lancashire Evening Telegraph and came back to live in Burnley in retirement, a stones throw from Turf Moor. He had a new stand at the Beehole End named after him in the 1990's, being embarrassed that he was singled out for the honour. In later years he played golf rather than watch football.
Somewhat belatedly in the nineties, he was properly remembered and given the Freedom of the Borough in December 2008 and was most unusually given a testimonial match by Burnley in 2009, probably some 46 years late. Jimmy was also awarded an MBE in 2011 for his charity work, choosing to receive it with the Burnley fans at Turf Moor and became President of Burnley Football Club in the same year.
Internationally he was rewarded with 55 caps playing in the Northern Ireland team and he remains Burnley’s most capped player, earning 51 caps whilst still with the Clarets. In the Northern Ireland team he played in two World Cups in 1954 and 1958 with Danny Blanchflower. He is also Burnley’s second highest scorer behind Ray Pointer and has played the same number of games as John Angus to be equal top with him.
He enjoyed supporting Burnley Cricket Club in summer, even attending away games which is how I met him at Colne in the 1950's and got his autograph. I’ll never forget meeting and speaking with a legend.
It is such a pity he left. The departure was totally unwarranted, it was unquestionably Bob Lord’s biggest ever mistake and the departure of Jimmy McIlroy seemed to rip the heart from the team and the town.
Jimmy is a charming, softly spoken modest and careful thinking man with a soft Irish accent and those of us who ever saw him play will never forget the privilege.
Maybe the club should do more to introduce him to younger fans who didn’t see him by playing old videos or Pathe News clips before a game and even consider a President's Day centred on him, I would be there, would you?
This appreciation of Jimmy McIlroy was written by Clarets Mad contributor "Old Colner" and is the second in a series of articles relating to Burnley Football Club player legends. (TEC).