The village of Lambeg outside Lisburn is less of a village now as it gradually gets swamped by the greater urban metropolis. The name, not inaccurately, is associated with the fearsome noise generated by the cane – beaten drums of the same name designed to strike terror into the opposition.
In these two sentences two aspects of their most famous son Jimmy McIlroy come to life for me. I never saw him play but knew bits and pieces of him as one of the heroes of the 1958 World Cup side. Bits and pieces, now that I consider him is a poor phrase to surround this great man. There was so much to him and it is important in today’s fast – paced society that we appreciate why he really was one of the Northern Ireland greats.
One of the great habits of football fans is to do the top ten players, goals, matches etc.. It is always an ever – changing picture as the sands of time provide no solid platform for such surmising. What does stay steady though in these things generally is the core of these lists – ie.. that in any list compiled there will be a kernel of names, faces, goals who will always be present. It generally works with most things in life such as songs and places to visit.
In short, any Northern Ireland fan worth his salt and irrespective of age will know that Jimmy McIlroy will always be mentioned in the list of all – time great players who wore the Celtic Cross. Let’s stop a second and think of the components that construct such lists. For football fans these are anchored between the factual and the emotional. I would suggest the following things shouldn’t incur spilt drink amongst fans.
Technical ability, longevity, being a part of great teams or a purveyor of great moments would be the first – line trench. Then you can look at things like personal characteristics, club career in this case, medals won and general legacy as a rough rule of thumb.
If you subscribe to this theory and put him in amongst the list of all – time best Northern Ireland players you could argue that he probably ticks more boxes than everyone else.
This man who was a bricklayer by trade and fell this week for the last time rose to the highest ranks of admiration both here and in Lancashire. And there it is. Admiration and respect – what we all crave fell effortlessly upon this man both as footballer and person. The local media are full of memories of him – heaven knows what it is like in Burnley. Their next home game will be a sober occasion as the turf reclaims one of their own.
To today’s football generation one must get beyond the clubs he graced. His trip from Glentoran to Burnley, through Stoke and Oldham is well chronicled. Indeed I understand he turned down Manchester United just prior to the Munich disaster, never mind the more fabled stories of riches in Italy with Sampdoria. In his time the likes of Wolves, Preston, Blackpool and Burnley were serious football forces in the country.
But what are the things that make him so special? What are the things that led him to receive the freedom of Burnley, to receive the MBE, to have a stand named after him and to be inducted into the National Football Museum Hall of Fame in 2014? What is it that when you think of Burnley Football Club, one of the more steady and dignified clubs in England you think of Jimmy McIlroy?
I’d love to have seen him play. The creative player ever fascinates. A friend of mine who saw him play for Burnley against Fulham in the 1962 FA Cup semi-final at Villa Park tells of the Fulham players always giving the ball to Johnny Haynes. For Burnley, Jimmy McIlroy was the man they passed to all the time as these two playmakers strode over the English game alongside Danny Blanchflower appropriately enough.
He had quicksilver both in his feet and in his brain by all accounts. That special essence. My friend talks of how he could do all the ‘good’ things so well, beat a man, pass the ball and score goals. He talks of how he was never caught in possession and how he was a killer of a penalty – taker, but yet with the most nonchalant style.
Burnley players talk of him as the man through which it all happened – the “vital cog” in the 1960 League winning side. The Burnley fans talk of him as simply their greatest ever player. I suspect eight – year old Burnley fans would tell you that too. These fans, who were devastated when he moved to Stoke were able to reclaim him as he became permanently one of their own as town resident and football reporter for the local paper.
Yet all this sits alongside what may seem, casually cultivated nicknames that make us wish we had seen him play. That in turn makes us also wish we had known him because those that did, talk about him with such fondness and strength. The ‘Brain of Burnley’ due to his creative play. ‘Gentleman Jim’ which is simply self- explanatory. Put this all together and you look at the photographs of Jimmy McIlroy and search almost selfishly so that you can have a piece of him. That appears to be such a part of his being too – he was happy to share. You can see it in the photographs of his striding onto the pitch at Windsor in his post – playing days in his suit and coat before games. His geniality and decency can be seen in his eyes in most photographs.
Turf Moor I have driven past but I need to attend a game there. I would like to see what it is that the town and club have that this man wanted to work and live there all his life. He left us in his beloved Burnley. He arrived there from Lambeg and I suggest the noise he made through his life he never heard because he never listened for it. But the best legacies are long and loud ones and are usually made by the quietest and most humble people.
Lambeg has become smaller now due to the growth of Lisburn. The railway halt sign is perhaps the clearest indicator as to your whereabouts and even there it peeks out vainly, competing against the overgrown tree leaves. This week the loss of Jimmy Mac has dealt it a loss heavier than any new development. Jimmy McIlroy however will ensure Lambeg never disappears.