Former Northern Ireland inside-forward Jimmy McIlroy, who died in Burnley at the weekend aged 86, was one of the most skilful players ever to wear the green shirt.
George Best is widely acknowledged as the greatest-ever Northern Ireland player – Danny Blanchflower and McIlroy, who both guided the team to the World Cup finals in 1958, are, for a great many long-time fans, myself included, just behind ‘Bestie’ in the top three mantra.
Jimmy McIlroy, from Lambeg village outside Lisburn, was during the 1950s/early 1960s, one of the most brilliant inside-forwards in British football, a magnificent schemer and goal opportunist whose natural skills greatly enhanced soccer as “the beautiful game”.
A man of deep modesty and reserve, McIlroy cost Burnley just £7,000 when transferred from Glentoran in 1950 and he was the inspiration for the small-town Lanchashire club (population 90,000) winning the English First Division title in 1960.
In 55 international appearances, Jimmy scored 10 goals.
Jimmy was a peerless player in the ‘golden’ era of British and European inside-forwards – England had Don Revie, playing deep off the strikers in what became known as the ‘Revie Plan’; Scotland had Denis Law and the immaculate John White (tragically killed by lightning during his time at Tottenham Hotspur); and in Europe, there was the fabulous Ferenc Puskas, the Hungarian and Real Madrid maestro.
I had the pleasure of watching Jimmy McIlroy in action for Northern Ireland at Windsor Park on about half a dozen occasions.
My first sight of Jimmy was in October 1956 when, as a 13-year-old, I travelled with my father by train from Newry to see Northern Ireland take on England in a British Championship game.
Windsor was packed to the rafters, with a crowd of 58,420 (yes, that was the stadium capacity then) and the game ended 1-1, with McIlroy scoring the home goal in the 10th minute after the great Sir Stanley Matthews netted for England.
What a thrill it was for me for the first time to see the greats of the day – captain Billy Wright and Don Revie playing for England, also three Manchester United players Duncan Edwards, Roger Byrne and Tommy Taylor, who, in 1958, died in the Munich air crash.
A year later, Northern Ireland defeated England 3-2 at Wembley in the British Championship, with goals from McIlroy, Glasgow Rangers favourite Billy Simpson (a header from 25 yards) and centre-forward Sammy McCrory, from lowly Southend United.
McIlroy’s brilliant play, backed by the inspirational Blanchflower, secured Northern Ireland’s place in the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where we reached the quarter-finals, thanks to goalkeeper Harry Gregg’s heroics and five goals from Newry man Peter McParland. Sadly, just three of that Northern Ireland squad are still alive – Gregg, Billy Bingham and McParland.
Jimmy McIlroy deservedly was awarded the MBE for services to football; he was also made a freeman of Burnley for his outstanding contribution to life in the Lancashire cotton town. For Northern Ireland, Jimmy was truly a class act.