BY KEVIN O’NEILL
To many football fans, Belfast born Sammy McIlroy is best remembered for his playing exploits for both his country and for Manchester United.
A tireless and intelligent midfield player, McIlroy has the distinction of being the late Sir Matt Busby’s last ever signing as Manchester United manager. And as well as playing at two World Cups for Northern Ireland, in 1982 and 1986, he went on to play in over 400 competitive matches for United, including in the sides that returned them to the top-flight after relegation in 1974, and that won the FA Cup final three years later.
For that, and for the ebullient, vibrant way in which he played the game, McIlroy will always command respect in the football community.
Yet, if you take a short journey to just outside the city of Manchester, to little old Macclesfield, you will find the place that Sammy McIlroy is truly revered.
And it’s there, at Macclesfield Town’s tiny Moss Rose ground, where McIlroy, as the manager, inspired a town previously deprived of football success to a period unlike any other in the 143-year history of the club. It was a time when promotions, trips to Wembley and competing in the same division as Manchester City – a football behemoth in comparison – became part of the most glorious era in Macclesfield’s otherwise less than illustrious existence.
Before then, Macclesfield might have been best known as the birthplace of Ian Curtis, the wonderfully talented frontman with the 1980s music delight, Joy Division. It is perhaps less well-known as the birthplace of former England striker Peter Crouch, whose family resided in the Cheshire town until their soon-to-be gigantic son turned one.
Even less so has Macclesfield been renowned for its football team, who toiled manfully but without noteworthy success – aside from winning the FA Trophy final in 1970 and reaching its final again in 1989 – from its formation until the appointment of McIlroy in 1993.
Then, Macclesfield had been – and still remain – something of an English football outpost; a club expected to plug away at non-league level for almost all of its lifespan. Like now, they had a small ground and a loyal but fairly low number of passionate followers. And it seemed like their future, like in their past, was unlikely to be anything more than unspectacular.
Okay, they had reached the Conference (one tier below the Football League) in 1987. Yet, despite a few eye-catching results thereafter in the FA Cup, their league finishing positions had been deteriorating annually until McIlroy replaced Peter Wragg.
Not that McIlroy’s arrival initially promised change. Because before then, McIlroy had a fairly unremarkable career in non-league management with both Ashton United and Northwich Victoria. As a result, very few Silkmen felt that McIlroy’s entrance would significantly alter the landscape.
“I actually felt that Mike McKenzie, the Hyde United manager, should have got the job, as at the time Sammy McIlroy had really done very little in management”, recalls Andy Worth of the Silkmen Supporters’ Trust.
And so, it’s fair to say that expectation levels had not been too high, despite McIlroy’s famous playing career.
Indeed, says Silkmen Trust member David Woolliscroft, there was no pressure on McIlroy to produce a quality side.
‘Sammy took over at a low point for the club,’ he says.
‘The previous season, you have to remember, we only escaped relegation (from the Conference) on the final day of the season. In many ways, it felt like things could only get better. But realistically, I think most supporters would have settled for a mid-table (ish) season”, adds Woolliscroft.
The squad that McIlroy inherited was on the wane but still included some younger players, like John Askey and Neil Sorvel, who would go on to play key roles as Macclesfield attained a seventh placed finish in McIlroy’s debut campaign, before surpassing all expectations to win the Conference title a year later.
In that season, striker Phil Power, one of McIlroy’s early signings from Stalybridge Celtic, netted 18 league goals as Macclesfield led the table from November until the end and along the way set a new divisional record for most league matches won in a row.
There was a snag though, as Macclesfield’s small Moss Rose ground didn’t meet the required criteria for hosting games in the Football League. Thus, the Silkmen were refused promotion and would have to go again in the Conference.
Undeterred by the setback, which was cruel on everyone involved in the club, McIlroy instigated yet another promotion surge in the 1996/97 season. And this time, having also won the FA Trophy in 1996, Macclesfield’s title win was rewarded with a first ever promotion to the Football League, as Moss Rose had been adequately redeveloped to meet league criteria.
In the promotion sealing campaign, Macclesfield finished the season five points ahead of second placed Kidderminster Harriers, who had the league’s top-scorer in Lee Hughes (30 league goals). Steve Wood was the Silkmen’s leading goal-getter with half the number of Hughes’ prolific haul. But the goals that actually secured the promotion – the first time in four years that a Conference side were eligible for actual promotion – were scored on a memorable day at Kettering Town by Chris Byrne, who grabbed a hat-trick in the space of 20 first half minutes, after Macclesfield had gone behind early on.
“Promotion was absolutely awesome”, recalls Andy Worth, a lifelong supporter.
‘The scenes at Kidderminster were amazing and Chris Byrne’s hat-trick was phenomenal. In that period we also had the FA Trophy win at Wembley. For me, seeing the excited face of my then eight-year-old son provided sweet memories of my own childhood when I witnessed the Silkmen lifting the inaugural FA Trophy in front of thousands of ecstatic Macclesfield fans”, he adds.
It wasn’t only the fans who got a kick out of promotion, as McIlroy told The Independent that the achievement even eclipsed playing in the World Cup and FA Cup finals at Wembley.
The story, however, was far from complete and in their first season in the old Division Three (fourth tier) Macclesfield went unbeaten at home for the entire season and finished in second place, to win another promotion.
Now, the Silkmen had entered in to another world entirely. Division Two boasted some big names including Burnley, Fulham, Preston North End and Stoke City. But nothing could compare to coming up against local rivals Manchester City, who were going through a particularly bleak period and had plummeted into the third tier.
In the end, little Macclesfield were found to be slightly out of their depth in the third tier and were relegated at the end of a season that, despite signalling the beginning of the end for McIlroy’s golden team, is still remembered with great fondness. For even though they went down, the memories garnered from playing against such big clubs (by Macclesfield’s humble standards) was a once in a lifetime experience.
For creating that, McIlroy will never be forgotten at Moss Rose.
“When we were in Division Three it was real David versus Goliath stuff, it really was”, recalls Andy Worth.
“For example, our town is a traditional hotbed for Manchester City support and for that reason alone I will never forget us giving them a right good game. I never thought I’d see the day when Macclesfield, a tiny club, could compete so well against City. But the City fans, desperate not to even draw against us, celebrated like they won the FA Cup when Shaun Goater got a late winner. I think those sort of memories will stay with me forever, they were just unbelievable times created by an affable Irishman who always had the time to stop and talk to the supporters. Sammy was a great character and his standing in the game helped Macclesfield to attract some very good players”, Andy adds.
Soon after, McIlroy left the club to take up the offer of managing his country, Northern Ireland. And although things have never been quite the same since, for McIlroy or Macclesfield (who are now back in the non-league), there is nobody in Macclesfield who will ever forget the magical memories of the McIlroy era, which brought unprecedented success to one of English football’s true underdogs.
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