Sammy McIlroy MBE, first of the many 'new Bests' and last of the Busby Babes, is being unduly modest. If the youngsters did but know it, their local club's manager played alongside his fellow Ulsterman for Manchester United and Northern Ireland. He also achieved what was denied to Best: a trip to the World Cup finals and a succession of FA Cup final appearances. 'All that,' he says, wistfully, 'and I met the Queen too.'
Time has been kinder to McIlroy than to Best. By his own admission he never had comparable gifts, but nor was he cursed with his compatriot's self-destructive bent. The hair, while thinner, remains long; the face, with its big, bright eyes, is little changed; and he carries few surplus pounds, despite having reluctantly given up playing because of a persistent Achilles problem.
Now 39 going on 16, McIlroy
remains one of football's eternal enthusiasts. Injury or not, he cannot resist joining in what is a vital work-out for the GM Vauxhall Conference club, one of their last before Saturday's second-round tie at nearby Crewe Alexandra. He starts their seven-a-side match with a flamboyant back-heeled pass, and only gradually fades into a monitoring role on the sidelines.
The style with which McIlroy has Macclesfield playing has had scouts flocking to the Moss Rose, among them representatives from Old Trafford. Their 2-0 victory over Hartlepool in the first round prompted the watching Alan Hudson, no mean ball artist himself, to compare the part-timers' skills more than favourably with those of their Second Divison opponents.
'In football, 'purist' is sometimes regarded as a dirty word, but I take it as a compliment,' McIlroy says later. 'I always insist that my teams play with two wingers and the ball on the floor, which is the way I was brought up at United.'
'Brought up' is the appropriate phrase, for McIlroy's life has been 'totally consumed' by football since he was a nine-year-old in Belfast. He was 14 when Sir Matt Busby claimed him for United, and just 17 when he scored on his debut in the 1971 derby against City before 63,000 people.
The comparisons with which Norman Whiteside, Lee Sharpe, Ryan Giggs and numerous lesser lights were also to be lumbered
began immediately. 'George and me came from the same town and played for the same club, but that was as far as it went,' McIlroy
explains. 'I never let it become a burden because I knew it was rubbish. There was only one George Best. He was the greatest player I ever saw: end of story.'
McIlroy helped United pick up the pieces after Best, Law and Charlton had gone. He partnered Stuart Pearson up front in the exciting young side built by Tommy Docherty - whose adventurous
approach made a lasting impression - before dropping into the midfield role in which he won most of his 88 caps.
At the end of the 1970s, McIlroy played in three FA Cup finals in four years. When Southampton shattered United at Wembley, he shook their bar with a header. A year later there was a winner's medal against Liverpool, and two years on he scored an 89th-minute equaliser against Arsenal. 'Thirty seconds later they got the winner,' he sighs, with a sense of enduring disbelief. 'For me, that stands out more than the one we won.'
His playing career took a while to wind down - there were even
sojourns in Sweden and Austria - and when Bury offered a chance to break into management, McIlroy said 'no'. With hindsight it was a mistake. Northwich Victoria, in the Conference, offered a second chance and he took it.
When things did not go quite as planned, he tried to influence matters from midfield. Another mistake - 'it used to take me three days to recover' - and eventually he was sacked for his pains. To stay in the game, he took over at little Ashton United until Macclesfield turned to him last summer. 'The Silkmen' are now in seventh place, and could conceivably fulfil McIlroy's ambition of returning to the League.
'When I first moved into
management I found I got uptight when players couldn't do things I took for granted. I've come to terms with that now, though there are still times when you feel like banging your head against a wall. One of the lads will ring to say he can't play because he's got to work. Or you'll have to do a long trip to Dagenham without three of your best players.
'But come Monday, you just want to get it right. I've never lost that passion, and though I miss playing terribly, I still get an
incredible buzz from winning, whether it's the Cheshire Senior Cup or the FA Cup. That makes all the mundane aspects of management worthwhile.'
At Crewe, currently second in the Third Division, they will encounter a team who adhere to similar purist principles. Macclesfield will certainly be well prepared. Just as a call from Frank Stapleton, a United colleague now managing Bradford City, briefed McIlroy on Hartlepool, he will be asking Martin O'Neill, his former international colleague, about Wycombe Wanderers' recent defeat of Crewe.
He may also draw on the one of the darker episodes from his playing prime, the time 18 years ago when Walsall put United out in a replay. 'They wanted it more than us and on the night they were better than us,' McIlroy recalls. 'I know Crewe are a good young side and it's going to be tough, but if Walsall could beat United, we can beat Crewe.'
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