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Not many footballers have a song named after them but I can still remember the occasion of the official opening of the Jimmy McIlroy Stand at the end of 1999. Many of his former team mates had already come out onto the pitch one by one before the great man himself made his way down the touchline in front of the Longside as the Motown classic from Martha Reeves & the Vandellas blasted out of the PA system.

In some ways it felt as if Jimmy Mac was coming back. He was not really part of the club for many years having been banished to Stoke by Bob Lord in 1963 and this was  in so many ways his homecoming since when he has been a more regular visitor to Turf Moor and that’s exactly how it should be.

jimmy-mac-1000-1Since the arrival of Up the Clarets in January of this year, there hasn’t been an article dedicated to Jimmy Mac, and as he celebrates his 85th birthday today it seems the most appropriate time to put that right.

Signed from Glentoran in March 1950, he went on to make his first team debut seven months later just four days before his 19th birthday. He replaced Harry Potts at inside-left at Roker Park against Sunderland with the future manager sold to Everton It was the first in a total of 497 first team appearances for Burnley with 439 of them in the league. He also scored 131 goals for us and he’s one of only three players to reach a century of league goals for the club in post-war football alongside Ray Pointer and Andy Lochhead.

He was no ordinary footballer and he is no ordinary man. Jimmy McIlroy was, is, and always will be very special to anyone with even a passing interest in Burnley Football Club. Only those supporters who could remember Bob Kelly, who played just after World War I, would question his place as Burnley’s finest ever player. Although you have to be of an age now to have seen him play for Burnley, his reputation, the knowledge of just how good he was, has been passed down the generations so even the youngest of our supporters know just how special he was.

I’m fortunate; I saw him play and was able to see him over his last two and a half years with the club. I didn’t see him in his pomp, of that there is no doubt, but I feel privileged to be able to say I saw him play.

I used to ask my dad about the players I’d just missed seeing play, such as Les Shannon, Billy Elliott, Bobby Seith and the likes, but I always used to ask him about Jimmy Mac. How good was he when he was at his best?

I would ask others. Brian Miller once told me that he’d never seen another player anything like as good at Burnley. At a book launch at Turf Moor one night there was a queue to get Jimmy Mac’s autograph and there was Jimmy Robson in the queue alongside the other fans. They were big friends but Jimmy Robbo said he was a fan as well and rightly joined the rest of the supporters.

Frank Hill was the manager back in 1950 who saw enough in the teenage Northern Irishman to persuade the club to part with around £8,000 to get him to Burnley and he was soon getting rave reviews when he played for the reserves. It was only a matter of when and the sale of Potts probably brought it around a little sooner than expected. For the next decade and more we had an incredible player in our team.

What a time to be a Burnley player as we moved towards that 1960 title. Football is a team game and Jimmy Mac himself thought the stand should have been called the Champions Stand. “Why me?” was his question when it was his name. Thousands who had seen him play knew exactly why it was him. Would Barcelona be as good as they are today without Lionel Messi? Would Burnley have been as good as they were without Jimmy Mac? A lot of fine judges will tell you we probably wouldn’t have clinched that title without him.

jimmy-mac-1000-2I was only 11 when he was sent packing by Lord with no obvious explanation. Jimmy himself was given the news by Potts who said he hadn’t been playing well in recent weeks. “Why didn’t you drop me then?” Jimmy said. “You can’t drop a player of your calibre,” was Potts’ reply. None of it made any sense but it is firmly believed that it was down to his friendship with John Cook and Lord did not like the Cook family.

Proper friendships last and Jimmy and John are still very good friends. When I invited Jimmy Mac to a couple of dinners, back in 2009 and 2010, John came with him. On the occasion of the 2010 dinner, he phoned me to confirm the final arrangements. “Who’s speaking Tony?,” he asked. “Willie Irvine,” I told him. “Oh no,” he replied, “I can’t understand a bloody word that Irishman says.”

Irvine got him back – he told us that as a freeman of the borough he could march sheep down St. James’ Street. “But he’s such a lazy bugger, if he wanted to he’d probably get me to do it for him,” Irvine said.

I have my own personal Jimmy Mac moments, two of them, one at York in 1984 and the other when I visited him in 2009. I don’t think he uttered a word on the first of those occasions but on the second I was hanging on his every word.

The first was at York on Boxing Day and I watched the match from the press box as we were hammered 4-0. Keith McNee, Lancashire Evening Telegraph, was to my right with McIlroy, with the Burnley Express and covering for Granville Shackleton, to my left. McNee was apoplectic at the performance as we seriously could have lost by far, far more. Jimmy, probably hardly able to take in just how poor we were, did nothing but tut tut as things went from bad to worse.

However, in July 2009, I was asked to call round to see him and Dave Thomas ahead of the publication of his scrap book. I just sat there and listened as he talked about such as Tom Finney, Peter McKay, Jimmy Robson, Danny Blanchflower and Billy Dougall who he said taught him more about football than anyone else. I don’t know about a book, had I recorded that it would have been a best seller. I wrote that I was privileged to have seen him play; I certainly felt privileged that day.

Jimmy McIlroy MBE, freeman of the borough of Burnley, club president, greatest ever player and a Motown classic.

Happy 85th birthday.

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