Uplifting experiences down in the basement

Phil Shaw sees Sammy McIlroy's side take a decisive step to League status

Phil Shaw
Monday 28 April 1997 00:02

Standing in the broom cupboard that passes for his office, a man who played in three FA Cup finals for Manchester United and two World Cups with Northern Ireland was insisting that promotion to the Third Division would rank as his greatest achievement.

Sammy McIlroy's remarks would normally have been dismissed as an example of bland managerspeak. But the events surrounding Macclesfield Town's march on the Vauxhall Conference championship, which just three more points will secure following Saturday's 4-0 rout of Bromsgrove Rovers, have been anything but normal.

If the last of the Busby Babes subscribed to the dog-eared old Shanklyism about football being more important than life or death, he was brutally disabused of the notion in September. Arthur Jones, Macclesfield's chairman, shot himself dead.

Jones' motive remains unclear, but according to McIlroy, the repercussions of his suicide cast doubt over the very existence of the 122-year-old Cheshire club.

The chairman had bankrolled the development of the Moss Rose ground and McIlroy's modest transfer outlay, his commitment reputedly bordering on obsession after the League dubiously denied them promotion in 1995. With his passing, Macclesfield's financial credibility was suddenly undermined.

The problem, which is still unresolved, centred on confusion over whether the funds with which Jones ran Macclesfield - some pounds 300,000 - were a gift or a loan. The difficulties were exacerbated when his metal business was put into liquidation; creditors have asked the club for their cash.

League status is, therefore, an economic necessity as well as a burning ambition. Macclesfield would immediately receive a six-figure sum from sponsorship and television.

Victory at either Halifax on Wednesday or Kettering on Saturday would thwart a Kidderminster side who led them by 15 points in late January. Given Macclesfield's form in the face of adversity - 15 wins and a draw from 18 games - the Conference might be advised to take the trophy to The Shay.

"It's like watching Brazil" boasted a T-shirt in the club shop. Macclesfield's purist values make the claim less fanciful than it appears. They also leave one wondering why McIlroy has not rated a mention for vacancies such as the one at Stoke City, one of his former clubs.

His old ally in the Irish midfield, Martin O'Neill, has not done too badly this season, yet he was managing in the Conference with Wycombe until 1993. Another international colleague, Danny Wilson, is being hailed as a manager for the millennium, but McIlroy, at 42, is not exactly yesterday's man.

In Saturday's top-v-bottom encounter, Bromsgrove knew defeat would return them to the Dr Martens (Southern) League. Adie Smith's fifth-minute dismissal for toppling John Askey virtually sealed their fate. Although Chris Taylor set the tone for a defiant display by saving the resultant penalty by Cec Edey, he was beaten four times before the break.

For Macclesfield, Neil Sorvel stroked the ball around like a playmaker from McIlroy's heyday; one pass with the outside of the foot was a reminder that the town is synonymous with silk. The touch of Peter Davenport, once of England, was similarly smooth.

Carwyn Williams, signed from Northwich for a pounds 6,000 fee supposedly scraped together from a directors' whip-round after Jones' death, scored twice. The cherubic-looking Chris Byrne, discovered at Droylsden, showed why McIlroy has recommended him to Alex Ferguson.

The highlight of the second half was a male streaker. A terrace conga by the busload from Bromsgrove - a fancy dress parade featuring a pirate, a bishop, a Harry Enfield-style Scouser and what appeared to be the Tories' ill-starred "Chickenman" - provided another distraction.

The crowd of 3,000, double Macclesfield's average, were not complaining. McIlroy was also understanding. "At half-time I said `Let's get some more goals', but it's very hard to motivate yourself when you're 4-0 up."

The campaign had become "a crusade" to honour Jones' memory, McIlroy explained. "The financial situation has been drastic ever since he died, and it was touch and go whether the players would get paid sometimes. But they never came to me asking about their money. They all thought Arthur was a tremendous man.

"I took the news very badly because he was a personal friend. I'd turned down job offers out of loyalty to Arthur. It made me feel stronger that we had to do it for him. There was talk about closure but we said: `Let's get it right on the pitch'. Touch wood we have. We're in a good position though we're not counting any chickens."

Few would bet against Macclesfield joining United, Bolton, Bury (or Stockport) and Wigan in an extraordinary clean sweep of champions from within 20 miles of Manchester. If they fail, McIlroy will not be inclined to confuse disappointment with tragedy.

Goals: Payne (18) 1-0; Williams (20) 2-0; Davenport pen (31) 3- 0; Williams (45) 4-0.

Macclesfield Town (4-4-2): Price; Tinson, Howarth, Payne, Edey; Askey (Mitchell, 73), Sorvel, Wood, Byrne (Bradshaw, 73); Williams, Davenport (Peel, 67).

Bromsgrove Rovers (4-4-2): C Taylor; White, Wardle, A Smith, Brighton; Willgrass, Elmes (C Smith, 74), Crisp, Amos; S Taylor, Mainwaring. Substitutes not used: Clarke, Peters.

Referee: A Kaye (Bradford).

Sending-off: Bromsgrove A Smith. Booking: Bromsgrove Elmes.

Attendance: 3,004.

Man of the match: Sorvel.

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