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Sammy McIlroy On Busby, Best And Manchester United

Sammy McIlroy On Busby, Best And Manchester United

An interview with former Manchester United player and Northern Ireland international Sammy McIlroy, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You were the last signing that Sir Matt Busby made for Manchester United in 1969. How proud are you of that fact so many years on?

“I think more about it now than I did when I first found out about it, which is when I was still playing.

“Sir Matt Busby was a fantastic man and a fantastic manager who built Manchester United in many ways. The club would not have achieved the success that it did in subsequent decades after Sir Matt and be a worldwide club without his influence and impact.

“I am so proud to be his last signing of his even though I was only 17 at the time and had a long way to go in the game.”

Can you sum up what it is like when you swap life in Northern Ireland for Manchester to represent a club like United?

“If I go back to my childhood, I wanted to be a footballer from my primary school days. George Best was coming through at that time and he was from the East side of Belfast.

“George was a superstar and someone that many in Northern Ireland looked up to.

“He was one of the main reasons that I wanted to be a footballer along with my father who played amateur football himself in Belfast.

“My father was a great support for me and he did everything that he could to back me in my quest to become a footballer.”

When you arrive at United, you were immediately training alongside some of the greatest players that the club has ever seen. How did you handle that level of pressure and expectation at a young age?

Sammy McIlroy Man United

“It was unbelievable. I walked into training on my first day and just to be around Charlton, Law, Best, Crerand, Stiles and all of the European greats was fantastic.

“There were times when I went home and I couldn’t believe what I watched on the training field that day. I was just a young boy from Belfast who was used to watching these guys on my black and white television back home and here I was alongside them. Extraordinary.

“I work regularly with Willie Morgan who always tells me that George was not the caricature that the media portrayed him as.”

There is also a saying – never meet your heroes. What was George like from your personal perspective?

“Willie is spot on with his statement there. George was a very generous man who treated everyone with respect and dignity.

“I was only a kid whereas Willie Morgan was an established teammate of his but I can honestly say that he was great to be around. I was his teammate at Northern Ireland too and I only had fantastic times with him.

“He was a lovable character and it was the privilege of my life to share the same dressing room and pitch as him. It really was.”

Can you talk me through your Manchester United debut, not everyone starts against Manchester City and scores on their debut too?

“It was an incredible day. I honestly did not know that I was playing in that derby until the morning of the game.

“Frank O’Farrell was the manager at the time and Bill Foulkes was the reserve manager. Bill told me on the Friday evening that I was to report to Old Trafford at 11 am on the Saturday wearing collar and tie.

“I was actually a little disappointed to hear this news as normally the reserves of both sides meet at the same time as the two first teams and I wanted to play in that game.

“I honestly did not think I would be playing for the first team hence my disappointment. The morning of the game came around quickly and I got the bus from my digs to Warwick Road and walked into the ground. Not for a moment thinking about making my debut.

“Frank was waiting for me at the front door and he told me that I would be taking Denis Law’s place due to a failed fitness test.

“I was excited because I had no time to be nervous. George came over to me and said congratulations Sammy, if you score today then I’ll have a bottle of champagne for you on Monday morning.

“To his credit, he sure did bring me a bottle of champagne in for me as I scored on debut in a 3-3 draw with Manchester City.

“I have great memories from that day.”

Every footballer has ups and downs in their career. You won trophies at United but also suffered relegation with the club. To younger generations of football fans, Manchester United being relegated seems impossible but you experienced it for real. Just how would you put that period of your career into words?

“Trust me, even back then no one thought that Manchester United could be relegated. It was only five years since we had won the European Cup.

“Unfortunately, that great side was breaking up and we went on a slide. I’ll never forget the day that our fate was sealed against Manchester City.

“It was a surreal feeling to think that the European Champions of 1968 would be playing in the second division in 1974. It was mind-boggling and it took time to sink in.

“Tommy Docherty then rebuilt the club and we were a very good side that dominated the second division to bounce straight back at the first attempt.

“I have to be honest and say that the second division campaign was unbelievable. It was the most thrilling chapter of my career at Manchester United.

“The football we played was breathtaking and the fans backed us home and away with 100% faith that we would return at the first attempt.

“Everyone in the side contributed. Hill and Coppell were superb on the wings. Greenhoff and Pearson were key as well. Buchan and Nicholl were solid at the back as well, and who could forget Lou Macari?! He was excellent to play alongside.

“The fans still talk about our team from the second division to this day which is special. We honestly had a relentless winning attitude that if the opposition scored two then we would score three or four. We always fancied our chances against any opposition.”

You won the FA Cup with Manchester United in 1977 and were a runner up in 1976 and 1979. The FA Cup was a major focus of the English footballing calendar in that era. How proud were you to play in the cup final at Wembley on three occasions and get your hands on the trophy in ‘77?

Sammy McIlroy Man United

“For footballers of my era, they all wanted to play in the FA Cup final. It was the major showpiece occasion of that era with a full day of TV coverage from the BBC.

“It was every footballer’s dream. The first division and the European Cup were the pinnacles for a footballer in terms of success as they are today but back then the FA Cup was seen on an almost level footing as those trophies.

“I was lucky to play in three finals even though we only won one of them.

“To beat Liverpool made it even sweeter in 1977. To stop them from winning the treble meant a lot because they were a formidable team at home and abroad in the 70s and 80s.

“Walking out at Wembley in front of 100,000 fans was literally a dream come true for me because I remember being the kid sitting in front of the television mesmerised at just watching those finals.

“To then go on and lift the trophy when the world is watching you is hard to put into words. It is absolutely brilliant and the highlight of anyone’s life and career. I will never forget those memories.”

You represented the club on 419 occasions. That is an incredible feat. How do you reflect on your time at Manchester United as a whole?

“I was privileged to play for Manchester United on so many occasions and I was honestly heartbroken when I left the club under Ron Atkinson.

“I was only 27 at the time and never wanted to leave the football club. I honestly believed that I had a lot of football left in me and that I could contribute to the club going forward.

“Ron had other ideas for whatever reason and unfortunately, I had to leave the club. Looking back, I should have stayed and fought for my place.

“If I was given the opportunity to buckle down, I would have won my place back. Sadly, Atkinson did what he did and said what he said which dented my pride and I left hastily for Stoke City.

“I loved every minute of my time representing Manchester United and I love going back to work at the club on a matchday now. It gives me great joy even today.”

You played at Stoke City for three years and won the club’s player of the year award. How did life in the Potteries differ from life in Manchester?

“The fans loved me at Stoke which meant a lot. I got to play with Mickey Thomas again too which was nice because he was a terrific player.

“The team that I joined was a decent side with the likes of myself, Mickey, Bracewell, Watson, Bould many others who had very good careers.

“We were pushing to be a top ten first division side but it was not the same as United of course. It took time to adapt but I enjoyed my time at the club and the fans were always amazing towards me.”

You represented your country on 88 occasions at two world cups and managed them as well. What did pulling on the Northern Ireland jersey and taking the reigns of the national side mean to you and your family back home?

“Those two World Cups were special. For a small nation of just over a million people just to get to the World Cup was an unbelievable achievement.

“We reached the knockouts too at Spain ‘82 which was even better. Unfortunately, Mexico ‘86 was tough for me personally and tinged with regret as my mother passed away while I was playing in the tournament.

“That is a wrench for me to this day.

“From 1980 to 1986, we had a special team who won the Home Nations tournament and reached two World Cups. Those were great days for Northern Irish football.”

Sammy McIlroy Northern Ireland

I have to ask you about Norman Whiteside. When I interviewed him a few months ago, he spoke highly of how you looked after him as a young up and coming player. Did he remind you or yourself coming through as a youngster?

“We are best pals. We played snooker every Wednesday for years in Manchester. Unfortunately, Norman found out that he had a neck injury and could no longer play which was a shame.

“As a 17-year-old kid coming through, I could see right away that he was going to be a top player.

“The sad thing is that he never fulfilled his potential due to injury which is a great shame. He would have been one of the all-time greats of Manchester United if it were not for his injury.

“I still work with him now at the club on a matchday and on MUTV. It is always great to catch up with him.”

As a manager, you had success with Macclesfield and Morecambe. How did management compare to playing the game?

“We won everything that we could realistically win at Macclesfield which was great. We were a success which led to me getting the Northern Ireland job.

“The chairman at the time Malcolm Jones backed me to the hilt and we got our rewards from that.

“Following my time with Northern Ireland, Morecambe came along and I got them out of the Conference and into the Football League as well.

“We got to the playoffs twice and could have reached League One which would have been unbelievable at that time. It is where the club is today which is good to see.

“Management was very good but let me tell you something from the heart Callum, I’ve been in football since the age of 14. I am now 67 and I can honestly tell you nothing beats playing the game.

“Playing is the best thing that you can do in the game. Don’t get me wrong, when things are going well, management is great but that can change in a matter of months.

“Playing is the dream. No doubt about that. I still try and play today because I love the game of football as much as I always have.”

Finally, Sammy, you are set to publish your autobiography with author Wayne Barton. What can fans expect from the book?

“Wayne has been fantastic to work with. He’s been chasing me for a few years to do this book and now felt like the right time.

“He is a fantastic author and professional who is thorough in his approach.

“The book comes from the heart and I am delighted that it is being published. I am looking forward to sharing it with the fans and for them to make their own judgement on it.

“I cover everything from the high and lows to everything in between. I hope people enjoy it and it goes well.”