FOOTBALL: The prospect of rising through the ranks tests Macclesfield

Phil Shaw sees a blow to the promotion hopes of Sammy McIlroy's non-League side
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A quarter of a century after his scoring debut in a Maine Road derby before 63,000 people, the last Busby Babe emerges from the visitors' dressing-room in the suburbs of a small Midland town to find a lone autograph hunter waiting in the cold with a dozen old programmes for him to sign.

This weekend, too, the tribes would be gathering at Old Trafford, but Sammy McIlroy MBE, now 41 and making his way in management, has Macclesfield rather than Manchester on his mind. After four months of leading the Vauxhall Conference, his team's 1-0 defeat at Bromsgrove has let Stevenage take over on goal difference with two games in hand. Woking and Hednesford have also narrowed the gap.

Macclesfield won the championship last season, McIlroy's second in charge. Like Kidderminster before them, alas, they could not meet the Football League's harsh ground- grading deadline.

The Moss Rose is now up to scratch (as are Woking), which means the only hope for the club finishing last in the Third Division - probably Torquay - is for Stevenage, or indeed Hednesford, to triumph. Their facilities have not satisfied the League's promotion criteria.

McIlroy, his thatch drastically thinner than in the days when he was the latest "new George Best", remains sanguine about the Silkmen's prospects.

"No one's retained the title, which I reckon is harder to do than winning it the first time," he said, the Belfast brogue still strong.

"I've had to bring in six new players for various reasons so in the circumstances I'm delighted to be in the position we are. My chairman [Arthur Jones] tells me tongue in cheek: 'We've done our bit. Now you've got the easy job of winning it again'."

But would Macclesfield prosper like Wycombe or merely survive like Scarborough? "There's a lot of competition in our area," he said, citing the proximity of Manchester and the Potteries. "We don't know how we'd cope until we get in there, but we'll give it a go."

Which, to his chagrin, they failed to do at the Victoria Ground. Turning around level, and kicking down a significant slope, Macclesfield must have anticipated a 12th win in 15 games. Yet when the breakthrough came, Bromsgrove's Recky Carter provided it, his 13th goal of the season just reward for a steady stream of efforts.

Carter works nights as a security guard and is renowned for sleeping on the bus to away fixtures, but Macclesfield were the ones caught napping as he finished off a free-kick routine. Their only attacker of comparable menace, the pacy Tony Hemmings, met his match in Adie Smith, a wing-back destined for higher things.

Their reaction to Saturday's setback will tell us whether the same can be said of McIlroy's men. All their rivals boast superior strike rates, and there are no great funds to throw at the problem. Macclesfield's gates are certainly not on a par with those Wycombe or even Barnet used to attract. The last home game, against Telford, drew 866 spectators.

"We've got to respond," their manager said with the steely glint that became a trademark over the course of 88 Northern Ireland caps. The lads are gutted, which is the right reaction. I can't knock their effort but we had no spark, no quality. If we'd played for another 24 hours we'd never have scored."

Now, though, it is Stevenage's turn to perform under the pressure of being on a pedestal. As he took a pen to his past, McIlroy was a model of Busby-like patience and courtesy. If he has his way, Macclesfield will be signing off at the summit only temporarily.

Goal: Carter (70) 1-0.

Bromsgrove Rovers (3-5-2): Taylor; Gaunt, Richardson, Clarke; Smith, Crisp, Grocutt, Amos, Brighton; Hunt, Carter. Substitutes not used: A Power, Dale, Glasser.

Macclesfield Town (4-4-2): Morgan; Tinson, Howarth, Payne, Bradshaw; Lyons (Hutchinson, 70), Sorvel (Coates, 85), Wood, Hemmings; Hulme, P Power. Substitute not used: Edey.

Referee: G Beale (Taunton).

Bookings: Bromsgrove: Amos, Gaunt, Taylor. Macclesfield: Hemmings, Sorvel, Lyons.

Man of the match: Smith. Attendance: 1,481.