Jimmy McIlroy, one of Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup heroes – whose death at the age of 86 was confirmed yesterday – has been described as a “friend to everybody”.
With Burnley the Lambeg-born footballer won the old First Division title in 1960 and among the tributes yesterday the club called him their “greatest ever player” and “a giant of a man”.
Having started his career at Glentoran, he moved to Burnley in 1950 where he scored 131 goals in 13 years. As a Northern Ireland international, he won 55 caps for his country.
Peter McParland described his international team-mate as “a great player to play with and a nuisance to play against”.
The 84-year-old said: “We played together for about eight seasons with the Irish team and we had a lot of tussles when he played for Burnley and I played for Aston Villa.
“I used to get a few goals against Burnley, I remember knocking them out of the cup a few times. Jimmy used to moan about that.
“It was a great Burnley side that he played for. Jimmy was the main cog in the wheel for Burnley.”
Such was his talent that McIlroy had offers to play abroad, but decided to stay in England and kept his home in Burnley until his death.
One of the stands at Turf Moor is named in his honour and he was given the freedom of the town in 2008.
In terms of the inside forward’s international career, Mr McParland said: “Jimmy did a good job for Ireland as well in the middle of the park with Danny (Blanchflower) and Bertie Peacock and wee Wilbur Cush. He was an outstanding player amongst those boys.
“He made his own time on the football field. He made the game simple. He was calm, cool and collected. He was like that off the field too.
“Jimmy was an easy going fella. He was a friend to everybody, a lovely lad. He and Danny Blanchflower were big, big friends.”
Of the 1958 World Cup which took place in Sweden and saw Northern Ireland reach the quarter finals – the country’s best ever finish – he said: “We qualified from a group that included Argentina, Germany and the Czech Republic. We had to beat Italy and Portugal to get through to the finals.
“It was a hell of an achievement considering you can go to a World Cup now and get drawn in a group with Panama and Tunisia.”
He added: “I was saddened to learn of Jimmy’s death. It brought back a lot of memories of that tournament.
“We were a great team of footballers playing under a fantastic manager (Peter Doherty) and captain (Danny Blanchflower).”
It was through reunions of that squad that Mr McParland would have stayed in contact with his former team-mates.
Mr McParland, who is originally from Newry but now lives in Bournemouth, said: “We would have had get-togethers for the 1958 World Cup team through the IFA. The last time I saw Jimmy was in Belfast about four years ago. He never changed, he was the same cool and calm lad.”
McIlroy was awarded an MBE in the 2011 New Year’s Honours for his services to football and charity, and has been inducted into both the Northern Ireland Football Writers’ Association and England’s National Football Museum’s halls of fame.
His former team mate Mr McParland said: “It’s sad that another colleague of 1958 has gone. There’s only myself, Billy Bingham and Harry Gregg left from that team.
“I’ve been lucky to have been able to hang on in there.”