Jimmy Mac - simply the greatest ever Claret!

Jimmy McIlroy in action for Burnley
Jimmy McIlroy in action for Burnley
Share this article

Fifty-five years since he last wore the Claret and Blue of Burnley, Jimmy McIlroy’s name can still bring a tear to the eye of Burnley fans.

And the news of his death yesterday will have brought with it deep sadness for his family, the Turf Moor club and its followers.

Jimmy McIlroy (centre left, front row) with the Burnley team which won the First Division title in dramatic fashion in the 1959-60 season

Jimmy McIlroy (centre left, front row) with the Burnley team which won the First Division title in dramatic fashion in the 1959-60 season

He was, put simply, the greatest player ever to represent the club.

Almost 500 magical appearances for the Clarets, only three players have represented the club more often, he was the talisman who drove the Clarets to their successes of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

He created goal after goal for some of the most renowned strikers at the club – including he likes of Jimmy Robson and Ray Pointer – but was also a great goalscorer in his own right with only record scorer George Beel and Ray Pointer scoring more in the club’s history.

Born in a small village just south of Belfast in October 1931 he had football in his blood and there was little doubt he was going to forge a career in the game as he spent countless hours honing his skills with a tennis ball.

Jimmy McIlroy training at Turf Moor in October 1962

Jimmy McIlroy training at Turf Moor in October 1962

His father, Harry, was a part-time player with Distillery and his Uncle Willie was a professional with Portadown.

A schoolboy footballer who often played with and against much older boys, he left at the age of 15 and worked on a building site and continued to play his beloved game until he was spotted by scouts from the Glentoran club who signed him in 1949.

His performances were such that he soon caught the eye of scouts from this country and Burnley moved quickly to sign him.

The rest, as they say, is history.

It is a rich football history of one of the golden times at Turf Moor.

League champions – the Clarets notably claimed the title in 1959-60 despite not topping the table until winning their final game at Maine Road – FA Cup finalists, European Cup ambassadors ... Burnley did it all and Jimmy Mac was the greatest of all the many talents which brought so much glory to the club.

And it could all have been so much more as two years after claiming the title they won the double no-one wants – runners-up in the league, despite topping the table with six games to go, and beaten FA Cup Finalists.

Burnley’s most capped international he won 51 Northern Ireland caps while at Turf Moor, scored 10 goals for his country and made five appearances on the biggest football stage, the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.

At the height of his career and with Burnley still very much a force to be reckoned with, the shock news of his departure in 1963 devastated the club’s legion of followers.

Some vowed never to go to Turf Moor again, many never did and in hindsight the sale of the club’s favourite player could be seen to be the beginning of a gradual decline in the Clarets’ fortunes, both on and off the pitch.

After leaving Turf Moor, Jimmy played for three years at Stoke, in a side of former star players funded by Tony Waddington, with the aim of becoming a force in football and getting the crowds to watch.

He played 98 games many with Stanley Matthews – arguably the greatest English footballer of all time – now in his late forties and Dennis Violet, scoring 16 goals in the process.

Stoke won promotion to the First Division in his first year there, regularly attracting crowds of 40,000 and even played Real Madrid in April 1963.

Matthews retired on his 50th birthday and Jimmy’s final match for the Potters that year, was against Burnley in a Christmas fixture.

He also played for Stoke in the League Cup Final, losing 4-3 to Leicester City over two legs in 1963.

He later moved to Oldham, playing 39 games and scoring one goal before retiring in 1967 aged 36.

After that he became the manager of Oldham Athletic then playing in Division Three under the Chairmanship of Ken Bates. He enjoyed a 37% win percentage with the Latics and also had two games managing Bolton Wanderers losing both, before resigning when he was ordered to sell players.

A natural raconteur and story-teller Jimmy later, after a brief return to brick-laying, enjoyed a career in journalism, firstly as a sports writer and then as an outstanding feature writer with the Burnley Express.

Modest almost to a fault, he was a great colleague and while my footballing regrets might include never having seen him play, my life was enriched by spending two years working alongside him.

His interviews and features with people from all walks of life were as eye-opening as they were informative. There was simply not a front door in Burnley which would remain closed to him.

Gentle, helpful and witty, the gleam in his eye when retelling football memories was enough to take you right back to the days he was driving defenders into a frenzy with his exceptional and mesmerising ball control.

For many years he didn’t watch the Clarets, claiming he could not understand the modern game and modern formations.

He also could not fully understand the adulation and, in his own words, never really understood what all the fuss was about.

Typically of the man, when the Turf Moor stand which replaced the Bee Hole End was named after him, he stood on the pitch and said that it should honour all the team which brought so much glory to the club and, indeed, part of that stand is known as the European Suite as testament to those great players.

Recently inducted in the football Hall of Fame and honoured with an MBE – he chose to receive the award at Turf Moor rather than Buckingham Palace – his appearance in any room could stop a conversation as football fans of the right generation simply looked on in awe.

When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum, England World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton described Jimmy as “one of the most fantastic midfield players I’ve ever seen”.

Describing the occasion as “a night to remember” the former Northern Ireland international was accompanied to the star-studded ceremony by his daughter, Anne, and his sister, May Magee, who flew over from Belfast for the occasion.

Afterwards he said: “Of course I’m extremely proud of this. Before I picked it up there was a great buzz about the place. It was great to see Sir Bobby and have my family with me.

“I am thrilled to be chosen by the illustrious selection panel; it is truly an honour to be joining the Hall of Fame.”

Having played for the most successful side in the club’s history, Jimmy was delighted by the club’s return to the top division and also its recent qualification for the Europa League.

He is the brightest and best of Burnley’s adopted sons – he was awarded the freedom of the Borough of Burnley in 2008 – and his death at the age of 86 will leave a void which can never be filled.