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jimmy macBurnley Football Club has today lost arguably its greatest ever player with the passing of Jimmy McIlroy at the age of 86. He’d been ill for some time but the news was still a shock this morning and it’s hard to believe that this wonderful footballer from the 1950s and 1960s is no longer with us.

It was March 1950 when he first arrived in Burnley, a young player signed from Glentoran by then manager Frank Hill. He got his first team debut later that year, at Sunderland where he replaced Harry Potts who had transferred to Everton. They would go on to play a big part together at Burnley as the decade came to a close.

He went on to play 497 games for Burnley, scoring 131 goals and he was the star player in a team that was one of the best in English football in the late 50s and early 60s a team that went on to win the title in the 1959/60 season and played in the European Cup.

His time at Burnley came to an end when Bob Lord sensationally transfer listed him and sold him to Stoke in February 1963. Many Burnley fans vowed never to set foot on Turf Moor again and didn’t. He moved on to Oldham, where he was player/manager, and ended his football career with a short spell as Bolton manager.

His home remained in Burnley though and he was perhaps best known to a generation of Burnley fans for his reporting at the Burnley Express. It was the one thing that kept him in contact with the club during a good number of years where he didn’t feel welcome and the directors didn’t make him so.

That changed with Barry Kilby’s arrival as chairman. Barry, like me, had seen him play and welcomed him back with open arms and at the end of 1999, for the naming of his stand, he and his old team mates returned to a tumultuous welcome. He went on to be awarded an MBE, which he received on the pitch at Turf Moor and became club president.

jimmy mac 1000 2I knew him more than well enough to speak to and can now look back on some conversations I had with him over the years. One of the earliest was at York on Boxing Day 1984. He was covering the game for the Burnley Express and I sat between him and Keith McNee in the press box as Burnley suffered a 4-0 defeat. We were downright shocking that day. Keith ranted throughout the game blaming all and sundry for the state the club was in; Jimmy hardly said a word, just tut tutted at how poor we were. “Do you enjoy watching this?” he asked me at one point. “I wouldn’t choose to watch this if it were free,” he added.

In 2007, at the launch of the Clarets Chronicles book, Jimmy was sat signing copies. There were other former players there but the queue for Jimmy was the longest by some distance. There in the queue was his former team mate Jimmy Robson. They laughed when Robbo got to the front but, despite having played so many games with him, Robson said: “I’m a fan too.”

When we were relegated from the Premier League in 2010, the club, for whatever reason, locked a bell in a glass box in the Jimmy Mac Stand and said it would remain there until the day we went back up at which point it would be rung. Jimmy was there for the locking ceremony and a couple of days later I saw him in Tesco. “I’m nearly 80 Tony,” he said. “I think I’ll have to live another 80 years to hear that bloody bell being rung.”

Jimmy attended two Clarets Mad dinners. He was as enthusiastic as anyone at our Bad Beat Banquet playing Play Your Cards Right and a year later so humbly, alongside former team mates, asked why he was always picked out when it was a team game.

He phoned me a couple of days before that second dinner just to confirm everything and asked who was speaking. I told him it was Willie Irvine. “Good God,” he said, “I can’t understand a word that bloody Irishman says.” In truth they were very good friends and the banter between them on the night was brilliant. Willie told us at one point that, as a freeman of the borough, Jimmy Mac was entitled to walk sheep down St. James’ Street. Willie said: “But he’s such a lazy so and so, he’d get me to do it.”

At the end of the night, at almost midnight, he stayed behind until everyone who wanted a chat with him could do so. What an ambassador he was for Burnley Football Club that night.

jimmy mac 1000 1The most magical time I ever spent with him was at his home in Rosehill Avenue. I’d been invited to look over the Jimmy McIlroy Scrapbook with him and Dave Thomas. They say every picture tells a story and my word they did. He’d look at a photograph and then I just sat back and listened.

He told me that he learned more about football from Billy Dougall than anyone. He said he loved playing with Peter McKay and Jimmy Robson because he always knew they’d be there to finish off the moves.

Despite my idolising of Adam Blacklaw, he said that Colin McDonald was the greatest goalkeeper he ever played with or against and then he drooled at the mere sight of Tom Finney. He said he was so good you could have played him at centre half and he’d still have been the best player on the pitch.

I’m 66 and that means I am privileged to have been able to see him play for Burnley. He scored when I went to my first game too. I was probably too young to appreciate just how good he was but there were enough people, my dad and granddad for two, to tell me all I needed to know about him.

When Burnley FC announced they would give the new stand his name, it was discussed on Radio Lancashire just as I was parking up for a game at Deepdale. “Did you see him play?” Gary Hickson asked Richard Dinnis. When Dinnis said yes, Hickson asked how good was he? Dinnis said: “Think of the best midfielder in English football today, McIlroy was better.”

Today is the saddest of days for everyone involved with Burnley Football Club. This wonderful footballer treated our supporters for almost 13 years. But it is not just in Burnley where he will be mourned.

When I visited Belfast to watch the pre-season friendly against Glentoran in 2008, there was much talk of players who had been at both clubs. Many spoke about Glen Little but I chatted to two older gentlemen. When I told them Jimmy was at the game, one of them cried and said: “My hero has come home.” I realised that day that he meant just as much to many in Northern Ireland as he did to us.

Jimmy McIlroy, the greatest, an icon, a legend, a favourite of everyone who saw him play. Farewell Jimmy and thanks for everything.

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