Jimmy, Jimmy, oh Jimmy Mac... we'll bring the glory back

As a near-forgotten rivalry rears up again, Ronald Atkin talks to a Turf Moor idol who stayed to tell the tale
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Burnley and Blackburn Rovers don't play each other very often these days, and plenty of people in the area will tell you that's for the best. Eight Lancashire miles and a chasm of bitterness separate the two clubs, and when they last met at Turf Moor, in December 2000, Burnley's shopping precinct was the scene of a post-match pitched battle.

Burnley and Blackburn Rovers don't play each other very often these days, and plenty of people in the area will tell you that's for the best. Eight Lancashire miles and a chasm of bitterness separate the two clubs, and when they last met at Turf Moor, in December 2000, Burnley's shopping precinct was the scene of a post-match pitched battle.

So security will be tight for this afternoon's FA Cup fifth- round clash, the first Cup tie between the rivals for 45 years. Burnley's chairman, Barry Kilby, is optimistic. "The rivalry has sometimes been too keen in the past, and that was exacerbated in 2000 because there had been such a gap since we last played each other; there were a lot of pent-up feelings. I think there will be less this time."

That last Cup occasion, in March 1960, was a quarter-final. Burnley led 3-0 with a quarter of an hour to go, were dramatically pegged back to 3-3 and Blackburn won the replay 2-0, going on to Wembley and losing the final 3-0 to Wolves.

Jimmy McIlroy was Burnley's captain that day and remembers it only too well. "We were winning easily, and then, in a harmless situation, no danger at all, the ball hit a divot, bounced up and struck John Elder on the hand." Though it was a clear case of what today's TV analysts call "ball to hand", a penalty was awarded, and converted by Bryan Douglas. The rest, for Burnley, was bleak history.

McIlroy was Burnley's ace in a marvellous side who won the League championship that same season, a success which a football-potty community still cherishes. An inside-forward who was awarded 55 caps for Northern Ireland, he is the only player to have had a Turf Moor stand named after him. Two of the others are labelled for local businessmen, and the fourth was dedicated to himself by the club's autocratic chairman of those days, Bob Lord.

Like so many other ex-Burnley professionals, McIlroy still lives in the town. He, and they, are in such demand for public appearances at the ground that he has dubbed them Dad's Army. "The club bring us out more than the BBC rerun the programme, but I still haven't worked out who is Captain Mainwaring among us," smiled the 73-year-old McIlroy.

Though pleased to be doing his bit for the club where he spent a dozen happy seasons until abruptly sold by Lord, McIlroy confesses a mix of astonishment and sadness about the enduring interest in those days. "There are more books about Burnley than there are about the Second World War," he said. "Even Manchester United haven't had as many books written about them. The awful thing is that it is all looking back to our championship team. It will be much harder for this club to be a force in British football again than it was 45 years ago."

Barry Kilby, who became chairman in 1998, is happy that faith remains high. "Burnley's population is 80,000, and our average gate is 13,000. That's the biggest percentage of attendance compared to population in the whole of football. It's the biggest thing the town has got. It is a football town but it's not a rich town, and we have to punch above our weight to be where we are. The past is one of our strengths but people have to realistic, have to get the balance right. But the expectation is always high."

It was probably higher in McIlroy's pomp, but even discounting that 3-3 calamity he has little but sour memories of matches against Blackburn. "We had some mar- vellous derby games against Bolton, Preston, Blackpool and the two Manchester clubs. But not against Blackburn. Their fans won't like being reminded of this, but they were a Second Division side for quite a long time. I can only recall two or three League games against them, and all of them were pathetic.

"I can remember Mick McGrath, a little Irish wing-half for Blackburn, saying to me after 20 minutes at Ewood Park, 'Jeez, Jim, I wouldn't have liked to have paid to watch this'. Yet whenever we played Rovers nothing else was talked about in the town."

The 3-3 Cup draw was the worst memory, if not the worst match. "Some friends had come over from Ireland specially for the game, but afterwards I felt so low I couldn't even go out and face them. I have always regretted these poor people wanted to have a chat with me afterwards and I sneaked away, too embarrassed because we had let slip an opportunity like that."

McIlroy described as "frightening" the atmosphere for that League game in December 2000. "People were screaming and shaking their fists. In my time, though, there was terrific rivalry and pride at stake, you could stand anywhere in the ground and wouldn't be frightened you were going to be hurt, and I don't remember ever suffering any abuse from the crowd."

Nor, he says, did he receive especially rough treatment from Blackburn. That came early in his career at Fratton Park against Portsmouth's notorious hard man, Jimmy Scoular. "I was going up the wing when Jimmy hit me, I went over the grass verge and over a little railing into the crowd. No subs in those days, so after about 10 minutes and a cool sponge down the back of my neck I was back on the field. Jimmy sidled up to me and said, 'Listen, you little Irish Fenian bastard, that's nothing to what I'll do to you next time'.

"And I looked at him with my child-like innocence and said, 'But I'm a Protestant', and he said, 'Oh God, son, did I hurt you?' For the rest of my career he never tackled me again. In fact I am certain he guided me past him."

McIlroy still lives in the same Burnley house he had as a player, alone since the death of his wife three years ago, playing regular golf to a handicap of 11 and painting portraits for a hobby. He is not sure why he didn't move away, and recalls the time when Danny Blanchflower, his room-mate on international trips, came to Burnley with Spurs. "He looked at all the people with cloth caps and mufflers and said, 'How the blazes do you live in a place like this?' Yet as soon as I arrived in this little town I felt at home. Maybe it was leaving a tiny Irish village [Lambeg]. Maybe Burnley was just the right size."

When he was abruptly sold to Stoke in 1963 by Lord, who objected to McIlroy's friendship with another of Burnley's directors, Jimmy continued to live in Burnley and commute daily to training, in those days a drive of two-and-a- quarter hours each way. He still feels Burnley is the right size and, though he claims it comes "mostly from senior citizens", takes the ongoing adulation in his stride.

"I was walking down a back street near my home and this old dear in her eighties was coming towards me. She stopped about 10 yards from me and said, 'Jimmy Mac, my hero'. I made her day by telling her she wasn't old enough to have seen me play."

Those who did see him play will be hoping that someone in today's Burnley team will become a hero, too. Then everyone in the Jimmy McIlroy Stand would go home happy.

Comments