Jimmy McIlroy found his home at Burnley
The inside forward wrote himself into the Clarets’ sporting history.
Jimmy McIlroy found a home from home when he crossed the Irish Sea to start a new life in Burnley.
In return, he helped to provide the small Lancashire market town with some of its fondest sporting memories in a glittering career which is celebrated until this day by fans who never even saw him play.
It was a love affair which was to endure for the rest of his life, even if some of his contemporaries could not understand why.
Speaking to the BBC in 1996, McIlroy said: “Years afterwards, we were playing Spurs at Turf Moor and I was standing on a grey November afternoon talking to Danny Blanchflower.
“He looked at the thousands coming up the road in their cloth caps and mufflers and said, ‘Why the blazes do you live in a place like this?’. And yet from the moment I arrived in this little town, I’ve never dreamt of leaving.”
McIlroy was born in the village of Lambeg in County Antrim, Northern Ireland on October 25, 1931 and learned his football on the streets which surrounded his home, honing the skills which would define his career in informal games played with a tennis ball.
A bricklayer by trade, he cut his teeth in the professional game with Glentoran, but an inside forward who combined the abilities to dribble, pass, beat a man, score a goal and run all day soon attracted interest from elsewhere.
McIlroy was just 19 years old when Burnley came calling, armed with a cheque for £7,000, as Tottenham and Rangers circled.
He was thrown straight in at the deep end by then manager Frank Hill and made his debut at Sunderland in a first division match.
However, it was under the watchful eye of Harry Potts that he established himself as a key member of a team which was to compete at the highest level of English football and beyond during a stay of almost 13 years.
The Clarets never finished outside the top seven between 1956 and 1963 and won the title for just the second time in the club’s history in 1960.
They reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup during the following campaign, eventually succumbing to a 5-4 aggregate defeat by German side Hamburg, and came agonisingly close to winning the Double in 1962 after allowing a six-point lead to slip in the league and losing the FA Cup final to Tottenham.
Through all the ups and downs, McIlroy, who was also capped on 55 occasions by Northern Ireland and played at the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, built and enhanced an enviable reputation alongside Jimmy Adamson and stood out in a side packed with full internationals.
Team-mate John Connelly said: “Mac was the cream on the cake.”
In all, McIlroy made 497 appearances for Burnley and scored 131 goals before he was controversially sold to Stoke in 1963 having opted against a move to Manchester United shortly before the Munich disaster.
He would also turn down offers to play abroad after being courted by the likes of Sampdoria and River Plate.
The Irishman ended his playing days at Oldham and needed only a brief spell as a manager to persuade himself that was not the way forward.
He told the Sunday Life: “That was the biggest mistake of my life! I wasn’t cut out for management, right from the very first match I realised that.”
Widower McIlroy embarked upon a new career as a journalist with the Burnley Express, and lived in the town until his death. He is survived by his children Anne and Paul.
Awarded an MBE for his services to football and charity in 2011 having been given the freedom of the town three years earlier, he remains part of the fabric of Burnley Football Club, where a stand bears his name.