WHEN Burnley won the League Championship in 1960, it was largely thanks to their brilliant inside-forward Jimmy McIlroy. The Northern Ireland international appeared almost 500 times for the Clarets and is widely acknowledged as their finest player of all time.
Yet, like his team-mate Jimmy Adamson (boo, hiss!), he eventually fell foul of the club’s odious, power-mad chairman Bob Lord. Known as the ‘Krushchev of Burnley’, Lord, who owned a chain of butcher’s shops, ruled with a rod of iron. He banned from the press box writers he imagined had slighted him and players were forbidden to speak to journalists. In the northern period sitcom Brass, the actor Timothy West would model his character of mill owner Bradley Hardacre on Lord – ‘I say what I like and I like what I bloody well say.’ For five years the BBC were blocked from televising matches at Turf Moor. Fearing that TV would threaten football’s survival, Lord told a Variety Club function: ‘We have to stand up against a move to get soccer on the cheap by the Jews who run television.’ He was amazed when there was a walkout in protest.
In 1963 it came to Lord’s attention that McIlroy had become friendly with another director, Reg Cooke. That was enough for jealous Butcher Bob to summon manager Harry Potts and say: ‘Get him out.’ When Potts protested that he would be losing his best player, Lord told him that he would be sacked unless he put Jimmy on the transfer list. To the anger and mystification of fans, McIlroy was sold for a derisory £25,000 to Second Division Stoke City, where he quickly struck up a partnership with Stanley Matthews and earned promotion to the top flight. Some Burnley fans vowed never to set foot inside Turf Moor again, and have kept their promise to this day.
After dabbling unsuccessfully in football management, McIlroy briefly became a bricklayer in Burnley, where he had kept the modest family home and where he was and still is much loved. The paper I was later to work on, the Evening Star, hired him as a football writer and columnist. One problem. Bob Lord. The old curmudgeon immediately announced that Jimmy was persona non grata at Turf Moor and had better not write about his former club, otherwise his colleagues would be banned, too. Which is why, when I worked alongside the football legend Jimmy McIlroy, he was the paper’s golf correspondent, reporting on ladies’ fourballs and stablefords.
If he was bitter he didn’t show it – always polite, urbane and charming with his gentle Ulster brogue. After Bob Lord died in 1981, Jimmy was welcomed back into the fold. Burnley granted him a testimonial match in 2009 and named a Turf Moor stand after him. In 2011 he was made an MBE for services to football and charity. He asked to receive the honour at the Turf, rather than at Buckingham Palace. When he died in 2018, aged 86, the club said they were ‘deeply saddened to learn of the death of our greatest-ever player’. Here is a short tribute film released on his death, and here is an account of his funeral when the whole town turned out to pay their respects. And here Martin Dobson, another Burnley legend, gives his thoughts on the great man.
Asked by an interviewer whether he wished he had played abroad, Jimmy replied: ‘The fact that I’ve lived in Burnley since 1950 answers that, I think. Maybe it’s a case of being a big fish in a small pond, I don’t know, but I’ve always felt at home here.
‘I remember meeting the manager of Italy’s Sampdoria football club the morning of the FA Cup final in 1962 when we played Spurs. He promised me all sorts – a villa overlooking the Mediterranean, an international school for my children, wages way beyond what I was getting in England. But when I went back to the hotel and told my wife Barbara, she said to me, “Sure, what would we want to leave Burnley for?”’
ONE of my favourite Fawlty Towers episodes is Gourmet Night, from the first series, in which said event descends into chaos when Kurt the chef gets drunk after falling in love with Manuel the Spanish waiter, and Basil gives his broken-down car a sound thrashing with part of a tree. Not long after it was first aired, a private hotel in the Lancashire town of Colne announced its own Gourmet Night and I couldn’t resist attending with a lady friend.
It was a set meal of many courses and began with an ‘unlimited’ mixed starter. Diners were invited to take their plate to the buffet area where staff were ready to hand out the fodder.
Offered one measly sliver of smoked salmon, I asked for more. ‘No!’ said the waiter, who coincidentally was Spanish. ‘Have some pâté!’ ‘What sort of pâté?’ ‘Is pâté, is good!’ he announced, slopping a mighty dollop on to my plate. It wasn’t good, it was disgusting.
Next came a small serving of lemon sorbet ‘to cleanse your palate’, as the waitress said. Thus cleansed, it was on to the soup course. This had clearly come out of a packet, still containing bits of dehydrated vegetable.
And so it continued, disaster after disaster, Fawlty-style. Meat and veg which had hardly defrosted, potatoes hard as rocks, puddings direct from the supermarket ‘reduced’ cabinet. Plus two more doses of sorbet ‘to cleanse your palate’, the mantra of the night. At the end, the manager came round with a hefty bill and asked: ‘Was everything to your satisfaction, sir?’
‘No it bloody well wasn’t,’ I replied. ‘Gourmet Night? Amateur Night, more like. I will pay for the wine but not the food. I’ll give you my address, and if you like send the police around and I’ll tell them you’re contravening the Trades Descriptions Act.’
Visit from the Old Bill came there none, and soon Gourmet Night was no more. What made these clowns think they could pull it off in the first place is beyond me.
A PS from PG
Bertie Wooster on Jeeves: There is about him something that seems to soothe and hypnotise. To the best of my knowledge, he has never encountered a charging rhinoceros, but should this contingency occur, I have no doubt that the animal, meeting his eye, would check itself in mid-stride, roll over and lie purring with its legs in the air.
PG Wodehouse: Right Ho, Jeeves