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Jimmy McIlroy: A Turf Moor Legend

A look back at the life and career of a true Burnley great

20 August 2018

Jimmy McIlroy is widely regarded as Burnley’s finest ever player and in the post-War era at Turf Moor, it’s a claim that is almost beyond doubt.

Above dispute are the facts that he is Burnley’s most-capped international, that no outfield player has made more League appearances for the club, and that no midfield player (for that is how he would be described today) has scored more goals as a Claret.

In the golden era for Lancashire town clubs that was the 1950s, Jimmy was to Burnley what Stanley Matthews was to Blackpool, Tom Finney to Preston, and Nat Lofthouse to Bolton.

Playing as a League Champion at Stamford Bridge in 1960

His first senior club was Glentoran, for whom he made his League bow in the final match of the 1948/49 season; fellow future Irish international Billy Bingham was a team-mate as he became a regular in the side the following season.

English clubs were soon taking an interest in the young star, and it was Burnley who were first off the mark.

The signing of McIlroy for £8,000 was undoubtedly the finest achievement of Frank Hill’s time as manager at Turf Moor. He arrived in March 1950 and made his first-team debut the following October, just four days before his nineteenth birthday.

By a neat symmetry, he came into the side as a straight replacement in the number 10 shirt for Harry Potts following Potts’ sale to Everton. Some 10 years later, Potts was the manager and McIlroy the star of the side that won the Football League championship.

Unwinding with team-mate Brian Pilkington

His early impact at Turf Moor was great enough for him to win his first full Northern Ireland cap within a year of his debut, in October 1951 against Scotland in Belfast. He was to remain a fixture in the international side for almost a decade afterwards.

By 1955, McIlroy’s status in the game was at such a level that he was selected to play for a Great Britain XI against the rest of Europe in Belfast in October of that year.

It was reward for his supreme ball-playing skills, often completely bamboozling opposing defenders, and he was proving himself no slouch in front of goal either as Burnley adopted a more adventurous style of play than the more defensive approach still favoured at the time he joined the club.

He went on to become the Clarets’ leading scorer in both 1956/57 and 1957/58.

Jimmy Mac MBE

After a decade of mostly top-ten finishes in the First Division, the return of Harry Potts as manager proved the catalyst for the Clarets to take the next step up, culminating in the three glorious seasons from 1959-62 when the quality of their football certainly deserved more than the one trophy they won (the League).

Jimmy McIlroy was central to that success, the foundation stone on which so many goals were built and undoubtedly the brightest in a team of shining stars. In 1962, he took second place in the voting for Footballer of the Year, behind none other than his captain, Jimmy Adamson. Such was Burnley’s standing in the game by then.

When McIlroy lined up at Wembley for the 1962 FA Cup final against Tottenham, few could have imagined that within a few months he would have left Turf Moor. The bombshell came in February 1963, and the news that he was being transferred to Second Division Stoke for £25,000 caused shock waves probably unequalled in the history of Burnley FC.

Freedom of the Borough

He joined a team assembled by Stoke manager Tony Waddington composed largely of veterans, including the daddy of them all, 48-year-old Stanley Matthews. There was nearly half a season left on account of the terrible winter of 62/63, and McIlroy played a full part as Stoke defied the odds and the team’s average age to take the Second Division title.

The following season, which saw the side lose to Leicester in the League Cup final, also saw Jimmy Mac reunited with his old Burnley team-mates in the top flight, but this time in opposition.

He subsequently moved into coaching and management with Oldham and briefly Bolton. But management never suited him and after just 18 days in charge at Burnden Park in 1970 he left football for good.

In front of his stand at Jimmy's beloved Turf Moor

He continued to live in Burnley and found employment with the local Express newspaper as both a sports reporter and a feature writer.

His later years saw him given due recognition for his magnificent contribution to Burnley Football Club.

In 1999, the Bee Hole End Stand at Turf Moor was renamed the Jimmy McIlroy Stand; 2008 saw him given the Freedom of the Borough of Burnley, and in 2009-2010 Burnley held a testimonial year for him at the age of 78, exactly 50 years after the Clarets’ League Championship success. 

In 2011, McIlroy was awarded the MBE, presented to him prior to the Clarets’ game against Watford at the beginning of the 2011/12 season.

Jimmy remained a universally-loved figure in the town as a superb footballer, humble about his many achievements while never failing to give credit to his team-mates of that golden era, and a perfect gentleman.


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