The Magic of McIlroy
This was written ten years ago. The year that I spent with Jimmy Mac putting his biography together and the scrapbook was just a joy. The memories of that year will never fade, the hours we spent looking at pictures and him relating the stories, his gentle humour – it was only the second visit I made to his home and he sat reading the paper.
“Oh forgive me Dave,” he said. “I was reading the obituary page – to see if I was in it.”
Well, sadly, now he is. The obits have filled the papers and told his story. But how can they capture the things that we all know in Burnley, his gentleness, courtesy, humility, humour and the ever-present twinkle in his eye.
And good-looking even into his 80s: at his induction into the Hall of Fame he was all dressed in his tux and looked like a better version of George Clooney.
He wanted to call the biography ‘WHY ME? Because he could never understand all the fuss that we made; but it was Irish master journalist Malcolm Brodie who coined the label ‘Prince of Inside Forwards.’ It fitted him like a glove.
I saw the news of his passing whilst away in Dorset and just stared at the words. My year with him was a privilege.
Somewhere in the film Shakespeare in Love written by Tom Stoppard, there’s a memorable scene. “How does a play come together?” says the stage manager, played by Geoffrey Rush. “I don’t know, it’s magic,” is the reply. You could ask the same about Jimmy McIlroy, and ask how a ‘footballer’ comes together.
Jimmy himself might well say that it is not magic, but that it is skill, and that the skills he possessed were learned in boyhood with the hours and hours he spent with his tennis ball. But then, I ask myself, why is it that all the rest of us, who played with a tennis ball in our backyards, or in the school playground, didn’t go on to become another Jimmy McIlroy.
There is a magic, and it is a magic that cannot be taught. It is something indefinable, something inherent, something natural and instinctive. It is why great painters can paint, and great actors can act. It was in Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews, it was in Jimmy Greaves, it was in George Best. They and Jimmy Mac never really needed coaching. It was why Brian Glanville called his World Soccer piece ‘The Magic of McIlroy’.
Reporter Don Smith wrote about the same magic of McIlroy shortly after a Burnley win over Tottenham in 1959. He described the same goal that Glanville had seen at White Hart Lane.
‘When asked about my outstanding memory, I had no hesitation in recalling an April evening in 1959. Over 32,000 had roared Spurs into a 2 – 1 lead after Albert Cheesebrough had given the Clarets a 1–0 early advantage. Time was running out with Burnley facing apparent defeat after a run of eight matches without a loss. Spurs mounted another attack to seal the result but the move broke down on the 18-yard line.
Here Jimmy McIlroy gained possession in the inside left position, slightly left of centre. Mac had been the mainspring of Burnley’s raiding power, prompting and inspiring and generally playing too well for the comfort of the home team whose skipper Danny Blanchflower decided to give his personal attention throughout the second half. Consequently when Mac controlled the ball at this particular moment in the fading minutes, Danny snapped into the tackle. McIlroy’s flickering footwork outwitted him. Spurs fell back to close ranks.
Instead of releasing the expected forward pass Mac moved forward with deceptive variations in pace, with swerve and sway, the feint to pass and the sudden dart ahead, he weaved a mazy way through a baffled defence in an astonishing solo dribble – a slightly diagonal run into the penalty area where he was at inside right with only goalkeeper Hollowbread to beat.
There was a roar as the keeper came out. Mac realised that Cheesebrough had come up in support and that there was a desperately racing defender rushing back to cover the goal line. Mac coolly slipped a square pass as if to say, “Albert, finish it off.” Albert obliged.
The crowd erupted. Probably that last unselfish touch added the final touch of lustre to the incredible run. The whole stand rose, arms waved, they applauded… a Tottenham crowd mark you. They were clapping at the restart as their tribute to a moment of sheer artistry. It was the finest goal Mac never scored. Yes, one of the three longest dribbles I have ever seen under pressure; a rare and golden cameo of football history.’
Granville Shackleton remembered one piece of sorcery in a piece he wrote called ‘The Magic of Mac’. (The word ‘magic’ seems to be a popular word in any discussion of him).
‘He tantalised and baffled experienced opponents to the point of despair and if I had to pick out just one moment of McIlroy magic, this would be it. Burnley were playing Birmingham City at St Andrew’s and needing just another goal to really sink the home team’s challenge.
He picked up the ball in their half, suddenly swept forward chased by two opponents and ran diagonally to the corner flag on the far side of the field. I saw him backheel the ball during one of those delicate skips and moments of acceleration and so did about 25,000 other people in the main stand and behind the goal Birmingham were defending. But his two markers didn’t and carried on until Jimmy stopped by the flag, still with his back to them, and started his swaying.
In the meantime Burnley had picked up the ball Jimmy had left behind and with the rest of the defence cursing their two lost colleagues Ray Pointer rammed it into the net. Then, Mac stopped his doodling and pointed out where the ball now was, to the two defenders.’
Towards the end of March, 1999, Jimmy was surprised and delighted to learn of his inclusion in the Football League’s Centenary list. The official invitation, issued by the Football League’s then Chief Executive, Richard Scudamore, explained what the occasion was all about.
‘At the start of this season, the 100th League Championship, you were recognised as one of the 100 best players ever to have graced professional football in this country. The 100 League Legends were honoured for their individual contribution to the game and to mark this achievement the Centenary Season culminates in a celebration ‘Evening of Legends’ (London Hilton, evening of 13th May 1999). This will be a unique gathering, never again will so many of football’s greatest ever players join together to honour our national game.’ No greater tribute could have been paid to Jimmy McIlroy.
In the writing of this book I have read dozens of written references about Jimmy McIlroy and spoken to no end of people about him, either face to face, or on the end of a telephone many miles away.
Typical was Les Gold who lives near the Spurs White Hart Lane ground in North London, and whose support for them goes back to the fifties. “Jimmy McIlroy,” he exclaimed in his broad Londoner voice, “it’s a pleasure to talk about him. I saw him play so many times. I know so many players from that era and he was the best. He’s the greatest player Burnley have ever had. I’m just so glad you’re writing a book about him.”
Author Ivan Ponting who has written no end of football books expressed the same sentiments. “Wonderful, it’s time someone did a book about him.” If Jimmy was worried that no-one would be interested, two publishers expressed immediate interest.
Pete Ellis is typical of the supporters from the sixties who saw Jimmy Mac play, and yet, Pete is from Fareham in the south of England. So many people, years ago, who lived far from Lancashire chose Burnley as their team. Why? They read and heard about Adamson, Connelly, Pointer and the rest, but above all McIlroy. They came to love and admire the skill of their football. In the seventies it was Adamson’s team that played with poetry in their feet. Pete wrote to me to say that he had been born in 1947 and later noticed that this coincided with Burnley’s Cup Final appearance. At boarding school in Winchester he and a friend played football with a tennis ball (Jimmy Mac would be proud to hear that) allowing themselves only to head it. It was the start of Pete’s love affair with football. Like so many young lads he picked a team to follow and fancied a team that played in claret. One of his pals told him: “Well there’s Aston Villa and West Ham but there’s also this up and coming little side from Burnley who are turning a few heads.”
But it was Pete’s story of the radio in the English classroom that was most intriguing. “Another thrilling time I had was in the 1961/62 season when the Clarets were in a class of their own. Well I didn’t have a radio of my own back then but in our English room we did, but it was totally out of bounds. But Burnley were on a fantastic ride with a possible double looming and most of the media were following them. Anyway nothing was keeping me away from those matches and by hook or by crook I was determined to put up with any punishment if I was caught with the radio in the English room. So I used to sneak in on Cup match days and listen on the school radio. The school was so strict I dread to think what might have happened. Now, today, I can look back and am so pleased I did. I’ve got all those vivid memories as though it were yesterday.”
“I don’t know Jimmy personally,” wrote Pete, “but the pleasure he gave me in the sixties, and the memories, will live with me to my dying day. I didn’t actually get to meet the great man at a book launch at the club last November but would love to have had a chat. But you know what it’s like, he never had five minutes to himself, he was continually signing autographs. What a player, God bless.”
Somewhere way back in these pages I think I wrote about how we as supporters grow up with our team; how they are part of our boyhood, and we can remember the milestones in our own lives through the events at our football club. Pete wrote to say something similar. “Growing up in my youth, they were my life. I’ve had some pretty tough experiences and they took away a great deal of pain.”
Norman Giller, author of 80 books, one of them being Fifties Football and co-author of books with Jimmy Greaves, had this to say: “If Jimmy McIlroy was at his peak today the bidding would probably start at £30million… and Bob Lord would probably want a few pounds of sausages thrown in. When Danny Blanchflower was about to place the ball for his penalty against Burnley in the 1962 Cup Final, Jimmy Mac said to his good friend and countryman: ‘Bet you miss it’. Danny, one of the most accurate penalty specialists, duly steered the ball past Adam Blacklaw and as he ran back past Jimmy said: ‘Bet I don’t’. Give my regards to Jimmy Mac and tell him that I considered Danny and he poetry in motion.”
Cliff Jones of Tottenham remembered McIlroy well, having played against Burnley several times and also against Jimmy at International level. Jones was without doubt one of the finest wingers of the time, and always considered Spurs to have been very lucky to have beaten Burnley in the 1961 FA Cup semi-final. Jimmy Greaves said he was so fast that not even wearing an over-coat would have slowed him down.
“Ah Jimmy McIlroy, the ‘Prince of Inside Forwards’, he was known as,” said the former Spurs winger and Welsh international. “He was a lovely player. We had such rivalry between the two clubs. We used to pinch a lot of their free kicks. I played against him so many times and remember the games against him and Burnley well.”
“He was a great player,” said Burnley’s John Connelly who went on to mention that among his cherished memories of Jimmy are the times he had the ball in the corner not letting anyone take it off him.
“There was one game at Everton one Christmas, it was a record crowd something like 78,000, and we were as good as down to ten men but winning 3–0. They had this giant clock at one end and I remember watching that clock in the last minutes with Jimmy in the same corner underneath it with the ball by the flag. And they just couldn’t get it off him.
“It was against Wolves where I think he did that for the last time. Ron Flowers told me this story about how they knew Jimmy Mac would hold the ball by the corner flag so they told Eddie Clamp to do something about it. So Jimmy had the ball in the corner, and Eddie Clamp set off towards him from something like 25 yards away.
Then with two yards to go he just launched himself at Jimmy and took him, ball, flag and everything six feet over the touchline. They’d figured out how to stop his tricks and in those days you never got sent off for anything like that. I’d guess that was the last time Jimmy ever tried that.”
Writer Brian Glanville was delighted to hear the name Jimmy McIlroy after so many years of not knowing how he was or what he was doing. “What a lovely man,” was his immediate reaction to my first telephone call. As he went away to fetch pen and paper I could hear him talking. “Chap on the phone writing a book about Jimmy McIlroy, how wonderful.”” He came back to the phone. “Whenever Burnley were in London the two Jimmy’s, McIlroy and Adamson, would come to my house for coffee. Then I’d have lunch with the team at Bailey’s and go on the coach to the ground with them.”
Stanley Matthews felt that Jimmy Mac was the last piece of the Tony Waddington promotion jigsaw at Stoke City and spoke glowingly of him in his autobiography The Way It Was.
“Jimmy was a marvellous inside forward. In fact, I am given to say, he was the complete inside-forward. As a person Jimmy was genial. As an inside-forward he was a genius. When play was congested in the middle of the field, up out of the trapdoor would spring Jimmy. A will-o’ the-wisp player, he glided rather than ran about the pitch with the ball seemingly hypnotised on the toe of his left boot. A sudden drop of a shoulder and a flick with the outside of his boot, the ball would leave his foot at some acute angle and another rearguard was breached. On releasing the ball, it was if Jimmy disappeared into the ether. He would re-emerge inside the opponent’s penalty area, take the return pass and pass again into the net. I would say Jimmy passed the ball into the net because more often that not that is what he did. His cool, calculating brain enabled him to size up the situation and choose his spot. Not for him the robust shot into the roof of the net; Jimmy simply guided it between the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper and the post. He succeeded in doing so 150 times during his career. In my time in football, I’d come across players, who, it was said, could make the ball talk. Jimmy could make it sing like an aria and along with Dennis Viollett, he made my life easy at Stoke City.”
Geoff Crambie is a Burnley supporter of nearly 60 years. He went to his first game in 1950 and saw the young 19-year old McIlroy in what might well have been his first game. He is unashamedly a McIlroy admirer and in 2000 wrote this in his local newspaper column after he had taken his grandson Nathan to Turf Moor for his first game. He had heard the news that Jimmy Mac would be opening a new stand which was to be named ‘The Jimmy McIlroy Stand’.
‘This was an occasion not to be missed and also, more important, this was the ideal match to take grandson Nathan, age seven, to his very first football league game. As we arrived at Turf Moor, both excited, me for the ghosts of the past, Nathan for the things to come, suddenly there was a most tremendous cheer as the dignified figure of Jimmy McIlroy walked across the ground he graced for 13 years.
It was still the same warm Irish smile, although the once coal-black hair had now turned to snow. The crowd of more than 14,000 stood to give a mighty ovation to the great man. Then as I pointed out to Nathan my all-time football hero, who I first saw on this very ground when I was his very age, more heroes of the past strolled onto the pitch. “Look there’s Pilky, Robbo, big Brian Miller, the wizard winger John Connelly and stalwart Tommy Cummings.
As the crowd’s cheers rang out, Jimmy, surrounded by his team-mates of 40 years ago, cut the tape and the newly named stand was enshrined in glory. As thousands of balloons were released into the December sky, anything that followed had to be an anti-climax. But no, this day had more surprises for us…
As the minutes tick by Glen Little and John Mullin team up to play superb football and then, in the very last minute, Andy Payton completes his hat-trick and Burnley have won a marvellous victory by 3–2. What a day to remember!’
Harry Brooks in his efforts to have Jimmy made a Freeman of the Borough, wrote this to the Council: ‘It is often claimed that Burnley Football Club is the heartbeat of the town and it is indisputable that the club has been central and significant force in Burnley, through good times and bad, over the past 100 years.
There would be reason enough, then, for the Council to accept my proposal if it were simply to celebrate the contribution of a man widely regarded as the club’s finest player. Jimmy McIlroy gave the essence of his footballing life to the town he arrived at in 1950 at the age of 18, fully justifying the intense public outrage in 1963 when he was, in an act of supreme folly, forced out of the club before his playing days were at an end.
How can one encapsulate his unique world-class quality as a player? Grace, style and exceptional skill were allied to pace, strength and unselfish effort in the cause of his team. It is difficult to convey his distinctiveness to anyone who did not see him play. There is no one quite like him in the game today – individual genius of that kind can never be replicated precisely – but those who saw the brilliant young Russian playmaker Arshavin run the European quarter-final against Holland, will have had a flavour of a McIlroy command performance.
But it is not for football alone that the town should honour him. For nearly sixty years in Burnley he has been a fine example of citizenship, lending his name, his presence, his interest and his time, in response to constant requests to support local good causes and worthwhile public events. Modest almost to a fault, fame never rested more lightly on any man’s shoulders.’
Bob Lord paid Jimmy a fine tribute, except this was not the Bob Lord but a chap Jimmy used to meet in Scott Park when he took his granddaughter for a stroll in the evenings. This particular Bob Lord was a 94-year old musician who had once played in the dance and music halls in Burnley. They would often chat and this was a fellow who harked back to the days of Halley, Boyle and Watson. He had seen them all, including the wonderful Bob Kelly. Jimmy remembered this particular Bob Lord fondly:
“Darling,” Bob once said to Tara. “I hope your granddad doesn’t reach 94, there’s not much fun.”
And then one evening he told Jimmy: “Ah McIlroy, you weren’t a bad player but Bob Kelly was that much better.” And as he said it he held up his thumb and first finger just three inches apart. Jimmy still smiles at the recollection of being told he wasn’t quite Burnley’s best ever player, and says it was this that always kept his feet on the ground.
In 2002, when a Burnley FC shirt that once belonged to Jimmy Mac came up for auction at Bonhams; (the shirt worn in the European Cup-tie against Reims when Burnley won 2-0), it was bought for nearly £4,000. Jimmy had swapped it after the game with French player Raymond Kopa, and it was Kopa who put the shirt and other items up for sale.
The successful bidder was Peter Hodson from Cambridgeshire. One of the unlucky bidders, Mervyn Hadfield, another Burnley fan, desperately wanted to buy the shirt for his grandson. Though he did not take the shirt home, he did have his bidding card framed. He penned his thoughts afterwards and called it Jimmy Mac’s Shirt.
‘And there it is, lot ‘389, in the Bonham auction sale,
Last time I saw it, Jimmy wore it: To me it tells a tale.
Of football played with passion, and verve not oft repeated,
Till Reims, champions of France, trooped off Turf Moor defeated.
Eleven heroes played that night, for Burnley were a team,
As modest Mac has always said, when the Clarets were supreme.
I keep on looking at the shirt as other lots go down,
And I think back to Jimmy Mac and the pride he gave our town.
In the fifties and the sixties with super soccer skill,
Today in his adopted home, there’s great affection still.
And now the time has come to bid, I’m full of apprehension,
The auctioneer has made it clear, this lot has claimed attention.
And so it proves, my humble bid, is soon left far behind,
As hundreds turn to thousands, perhaps I shouldn’t mind.
At least I tried for Jimmy’s shirt, and can’t help feeling proud,
It reached the highest price today, and truly stirred the crowd.
As Jimmy Mac so often did, but now before I leave,
I stand before my hero’s shirt, and touch the light blue sleeve.
I gaze at it with reverence, the famous number eight.
Over fifty years have passed; it’s been a long, long wait.
One lingering look; one final touch, and now I turn to go,
I hear a French voice say to me, “This man, a great one, no?”
I face the Gallic football fan, the question to address,”
“The one who wore this Claret shirt, he is a great man yes.”
And suddenly I’ve no regrets, for here, I’m glad to be.
Though it was priced beyond my scope, the shirt reminded me,
Of what I have that can’t be sold, or even put on show.
My priceless memories of that night, Mac wore it long ago.
(Mervyn Hadfield 2002)
Even though it had been nearly 40 years since they had last met, Ken Bates referred to Jimmy in his Leeds United programme notes in November, 2008. Bates still remembered what a model player he had been. In his notes he was critical of the modern international world that awards over 100 caps to someone like David Beckham, when the caps have been devalued so much, and have been awarded for appearances in the most meaningless friendly games and for appearing for just minutes as a substitute. He described Jimmy Mac as the Gianfranco Zola of his day and playing in an age when a cap meant something and every one was thoroughly earned.
Burnley FC author David Wiseman devoted several pages to Jimmy in his ‘Vintage Claret’ book and saw him play throughout the fifties. He makes an observation that makes you wonder. At the end of season 1961/62 Mac was injured with ten games to play. It was those ten games that cost the club dear. He missed five of them and was not fully fit in the ones in which he did play. Burnley did not win one of the five games he missed. If only… just two more wins would have won the title again.
If Jimmy was placed on the transfer list because he had allegedly “stopped trying” or, “not giving wholehearted effort,” then David Wiseman points to a newspaper report that undermines that allegation. It was a game at the end of 1962 against Sheffield Wednesday and Burnley won 4–0.
“Despite the ice-rink surface this was a vintage McIlroy who gave a performance his fans won’t forget in a hurry… who said McIlroy is finished.”
Wiseman went to Stoke to see him play after his transfer, but says it just wasn’t the same.
On Tuesday, December 9th, 2008, Mac became a Freeman of the Borough of Burnley. The websites and the match programme, the local paper, were all filled with fans’ tributes. Typical was this from Brian Sellers:
‘I was fortunate enough to see you in action during the late 50s and until your departure to Stoke in ’63. It is hard to put into words what you and the team meant to the supporters of Burnley Football Club during those vintage years of League Champions, FA Cup finalists and the wonderful European evenings on the Turf. Probably the best example I can give relates to my father who was a lifelong Burnley fan. When he heard the news of your departure he was so incensed, upset and shocked, he vowed never to pass through a Turf Moor turnstile again and, despite my best efforts during the Adamson era, he kept his word.
Jimmy you leave many lasting memories of how the ‘wonderful game’ should be played. I can still vividly recall you with the ball at your feet by the opposition corner flag surrounded by 2, 3, or even 4 defenders. Moments later, following a shimmy or two and magic footwork you would be bearing down on goal, leaving the defenders in your wake. Then there was the penalty taking where you almost seemed to mesmerise the opposition goalkeeper, like a rabbit trapped in car headlights. Three or four steps up to the ball, a sway of the hips to leave the keeper rooted to the spot and you would stroke the ball into the bottom corner of the net.’
But Mac had worried about the occasion; he had worried about what he would say up on the platform in his response. But his heartfelt speech was a gem, acknowledging both his roots and the place of Burnley in his heart. His words were typical of his modesty.
Jimmy and I had been meeting and talking for much of the year and when Jimmy asked me to be one of his guests at the Town Hall ceremony and at the football club afterwards, I have to say I was quite speechless. It says much about Jimmy that he will never understand why he induces these moments of unashamed admiration in the people who saw him play so many years ago, and even in people who never saw him play when they are in his charismatic company. He has continually questioned the ‘need’ for a biography about himself as a result of his quite humble modesty. And this, from a man of whom Stan Matthews once said, “Had he been born an Englishman his name would have been one of the biggest in world football.”
As I sat and listened to his acceptance speech, and accompanied him to the meal afterwards with his other guests, my mind went back to when he was a player and I was a wide-eyed, young supporter convinced on every Saturday that Jimmy Mac would win us the game, and who every Friday night said a silent little prayer in bed that Jimmy would have a blinder. All these years later I know exactly how I ended my prayer: “And please dear Lord let Jimmy Mac win us the game.”
Whilst Jimmy’s father, who wanted so much for his son to become a footballer, might never have imagined the fame and glory that would come his way; neither would my father have ever imagined that I, the once hero-worshipping, day-dreaming schoolboy, would one day write the biography of this ‘Prince of Inside Forwards’. Life works in mysterious ways.
Today, when Jimmy Mac reads and receives tributes such as these, of course he enjoys them, but at the same time is embarrassed and will be the first to say that he was part of a team; and that he had great players playing alongside him. He remembers the occasion when he and most of the players of that great Championship, and Cup Final team, assembled on Turf Moor for the naming of the Jimmy McIlroy Stand some years ago. He made a short speech in which he said he said he thought it should be named the Champions Stand. What he omitted to say to the fans that day, and wishes today that he had, is simply this, and perhaps he can say it now:
“What a treat you missed; not having seen these fellows play.”
Some of us did and can still see their magic when we close our eyes; Blacklaw, Angus, Elder, Cummings, Miller, Adamson, Connelly, Robson, Pointer, Pilkington, Bobby Seith, Trevor Meredith, and not forgetting McIlroy himself; golden names from a golden era.
How lucky we were.
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