This is the Manchester United history of the man who will go down in legend as the last ever ‘Busby Babe’, the final young player to be brought into United by the club’s most iconic manager, Sir Matt Busby. That man was Samuel Baxter McIlroy, a young lad snatched straight from the streets of Belfast. McIlroy was born on 2nd August 1954, and came to prominence as Sir Matt’s last young arrival during his long reign as United boss when he signed amateur forms as a 15-year-old at Old Trafford in July 1969.
Arriving in Troubled Times
Understandably, even though the United first team were at the beginning of a steep decline that would eventually see the Club suffer relegation from Division One in 1974, it took some time for McIlroy to establish himself at Old Trafford. He signed his first professional contract with the Red Devils exactly two years later, during the summer of 1971, still only 17 years of age.
United were enduring a very unsettled time as McIlroy signed up. Busby had retired as manager at the end of the 1968-69 season, to be replaced by likeable former player Wilf McGuinness. It quickly became apparent that the job was simply too big for McGuinness, and he stood aside after just one season to allow Sir Matt to reluctantly take the reins again for the 1970-71 season. By the end of that season, however, the United board turned to Leicester City boss, Irishman Frank O’Farrell, as a long-term successor to Sir Matt, and it was O’Farrell who gave a young McIlroy his first team debut….in a Manchester Derby against City at Maine Road.
Thrown in at the Deep End
Talk about a baptism of fire! Unlike in many of the intervening years to come, particularly during the 1980s, when City would come to be regarded by many onlookers as ‘underachieving lightweights’ in the Manchester football arena, the side McIlroy debuted against included many of the Blues’ great players of the era, such as Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee and Francis Lee. Undaunted, McIlroy produced a dream performance, scoring once and providing the two assists for United’s other goals as they fought out a 3-3 draw with their crosstown rivals.
Although that fairy-tale debut performance didn’t quite open the door for McIlroy perhaps in the way he would have wished, he did start to feature on a regular basis from the bench, finishing that first season as a professional player with 21 appearances and four goals. United, however, continued to struggle to challenge at the top end of the table, and when they started the following season poorly, O’Farrell found himself out of a job after watching his side hammered 5-0 by Crystal Palace on 16 December 1972.
A False Start and Relegation
McIlroy had also struggled to establish himself in the team. His season (and very nearly his life, too) was ended abruptly when he was involved in a serious car accident in January 1973. By then, the reins at Old Trafford had been assumed by the larger-than-life character of former Scotland manager Tommy ‘The Doc’ Docherty.
Despite his charismatic persona and decent managerial record, Docherty took over an aging squad that had been allowed to founder in terms of genuine quality. He struggled to turn around the product of years of neglect. By the time that McIlroy returned to fitness, he came into a side in which his youthful exuberance was very much the exception rather than the rule. It was no surprise that despite claiming a very creditable six goals in 29 league appearances as a second striker in a poor team, McIlroy was part of a squad which became infamous for leading Manchester United to relegation.
Red Army Rising!
These days, leading United to an unthinkable relegation from the top division would no doubt have seen Docherty handed his P45 forms by the board. However, in 1974 it was widely accepted that the problems at Old Trafford had long pre-dated the Scot, and he was still in charge as United stormed to the Division Two title the following season. They were ably cheered on, both at Old Trafford and at every away ground, by an invasion force known as the “Doc’s Red Army”. Incredibly, despite being a Second Division team, United’s average home attendance of 47,781 was still the highest in England that season.
For his part, Sammy McIlroy used that year in the lower division to establish himself as a first team regular for United. He played in every single one of the 42 league fixtures for the Red Devils (he actually played in every single senior fixture for the club that season, 51 appearances in all), claiming seven league goals, including the winners against Portsmouth, Notts County and Sunderland. He formed a superb central midfield partnership with Irish maestro Gerry Daly, feeding chances to the lethal strike duo of Stuart “Pancho” Pearson and Lou Macari.
By then, McIlroy was already an established International player with Northern Ireland, winning his first senior cap in 1972 under the management of legendary former Arsenal player Terry Neill, who managed the national side on a part-time basis alongside his regular role as boss at Hull City. In truth, many of McIlroy’s finest career moments would come whilst wearing the green shirt of his country.
Back in the Big Time
United’s return to the top flight for season 1975-76 really couldn’t have gotten off to a better start, as they bounded straight to the summit of the table after winning 2-0 against Wolves on the opening weekend. McIlroy kick-started his own season the following Tuesday evening with both goals in another 2-0 win at Birmingham City, and United remained in the top three until a 1-3 defeat at Liverpool on 8 November saw them slide to 5th place.
McIlroy simply carried on his superb form from the previous season, his central midfield partnership with Gerry Daly a constant bedrock on which Docherty could mould the side. It sounds ridiculous now, when managers seem to have to ‘rest’ players on a fairly constant basis, but McIlroy and Daly played together in 41 of United’s 42 Division One fixtures that season- I doubt that would ever happen at any Premier League club today!
In fact, including the cup competitions, the pair formed the Red Devils’ midfield in 51 of the club’s 52 senior fixtures that season, which is simply a phenomenal consistency of performance level and avoidance of niggly injuries. Don’t forget, these were days when many fixtures were played on pitches that resembled heavy ploughed fields, especially during the English winters. Tackles from opponents were a good deal ‘meatier’ than would be permitted in the Premier League in 2018.
The league season turned out to be a huge success, much better than anyone could have expected from a team that had just been promoted. Docherty’s men went unbeaten for 11 league games between a 1-3 defeat at Arsenal on 22 November 1975 and a 1-2 loss at Aston Villa on 21 February 1976. In fact, only a late season collapse, which saw three defeats in the final six games, cost United a chance at the title, eventually finishing 3rd, four points adrift of Liverpool. They had the consolation of qualification for the U.E.F.A. Cup.
Sunk by the Saints
Ultimately, it would be looked back on as a season of ‘what might have been’. As well as pushing for the league title, McIlroy and United had battled their way through to the F.A. Cup Final at Wembley, where they would face Second Division outsiders Southampton. McIlroy had been the hero of the Sixth Round replay victory over Wolves, scoring an extra-time decider in the 3-2 win.
It all turned out to be in vain, because at Wembley on 1 May, the Saints pulled off one of the great shocks in Cup Final history, beating the Red Devils 1-0 thanks to a controversial goal by Bobby Stokes, which looked suspiciously off-side. It was a depressing way to end an otherwise very bright season, and afterwards Docherty had somewhat bullishly promised the disconsolate United fans that his team would battle back to Wembley the following May and bring the famous old trophy back to Old Trafford.
Too Much Expectation
The following season arrived with high expectations. United had strength right throughout the team, with the hugely experienced Alex Stepney in goal, Martin Buchan at the heart of the defence, and a dynamic, pace-filled attack which included Steve Coppell, Gordon Hill and Lou Macari, with the deadly ‘Pancho’ Pearson up front. When Docherty managed to lure ever-green attacking midfielder Jimmy Greenhoff to the club over the summer (where he would join his brother Brian), the fans were confident of a good season.
For his part, McIlroy continued on as before, the central midfield ‘cog’ on which the team functioned. Now more often paired with Jimmy Greenhoff rather than Daly, Sammy featured heavily again in a team which, ultimately, simply couldn’t live up to the expectations placed upon it. A disastrous, winless run of form from mid-October to Christmas put paid to any hopes of a tilt at the league title, the team eventually coming in in sixth place, having conceded a damning 62 goals in their 42 Division One matches.
In Europe, United had no luck whatsoever in the ‘open’ draw system operated by U.E.F.A. at that time. After overcoming the huge obstacle of Dutch masters Ajax 2-1 on aggregate in the First Round, McIlroy having scored the decisive goal in the second leg 2-0 win at Old Trafford, the Reds got paired with Italian giants Juventus next. Despite winning the opening game 1-0 thanks to a Gordon Hill goal at home, they were crushed 3-0 in Turin to exit the U.E.F.A. Cup.
A Date With Destiny
It was the F.A. Cup which in effect rescued the season for The Doc and his men. True to his word, Docherty played a full-strength side in every cup tie, and the team battled past fellow top division opponents in virtually every round (including avenging Southampton in the Fifth Round) to reach a Wembley showdown with arch-rivals Liverpool. Bob Paisley’s side had just retained their league title, and were due to play in the European Cup Final days later. It was, therefore, of paramount importance that United win the game to prevent the Merseysiders from having a chance to become the first English club to win the coveted ‘Treble’.
Thankfully that’s exactly what happened. After an edgy first period, United got two of the three goals scored that afternoon inside five minutes early in the second half, through Pearson and a deflected Hill shot off Jimmy Greenhoff’s chest, to clinch the trophy.
Just don’t ask: ‘What’s up Doc?’
Little could anyone have known then, but that solitary 1977 F.A. Cup winners’ medal would turn out to be Sammy McIlroy’s only tangible reward for an illustrious career in professional football. Within weeks of parading the Cup around Wembley in front of the joyous United hordes, Tommy Docherty was sacked by chairman Louis Edwards for a most bizarre non-football reason: he admitted that he was having an affair with club physio Laurie Brown’s wife.
It was a turning point in Manchester United’s history- many United fans from that era still believe that with Docherty at the helm, the Red Devils would have challenged the supremacy of Liverpool in the years that followed. That’s now simply idle speculation. Edwards appointed former Chelsea boss Dave Sexton as the new manager, a man whose management style and persona were just about as different from The Doc as it was possible to get.
Business As Usual
For Sammy McIlroy it was business as usual, no matter the change in personnel in the dugout. McIlroy again featured prominently in all but three of United’s 42 Division One fixtures, claiming a very creditable nine goals. The problem for the Red Devils was that they conceded almost as many goals as they managed to score, and Sexton’s first season ended with a very poor 10th place finish in the league, despite having left-wing wizard Gordon Hill notching 17 goals in just 36 appearances.
Things weren’t any better in the cup competitions, which included an early exit from the European Cup Winners’ Cup at the hands of F.C. Porto. That was after United fans had rioted in France following the first-round clash with Saint Etienne, the consequence of which was having to play the home legs of both future ties away from Old Trafford.
On the International scene, McIlroy continued to feature regularly in manager Danny Blanchflower’s team selections, but the squad failed to qualify for World Cup Argentina ’78, finishing well behind a formidable Dutch side in their qualifying group, despite McIlroy scoring the second of his five international goals in a 2-0 win over Iceland.
Just Like “Ever Ready”: Always On
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how Sammy McIlroy amassed so many appearances (419 in total) for United during his 10 years in Manchester- the man was seemingly never injured. Yet again, in season 1978-79, McIlroy managed to feature in 40 of United’s league games, as well as all of the nine F.A. Cup ties as the team made it to yet another Cup Final at Wembley that May.
However, the narrative of failure that would ultimately be the epitaph of Dave Sexton’s time as United boss continued unabated. The team were marginally better than the previous season, but still trailed home in a dismal 9th position in the league table, having conceded three more goals than they managed to score. The football itself was instantly forgettable most of the time, with Sexton’s safety-first inhibitions reflected in his formations, the team scoring more than three goals only twice during the year. McIlroy managed a modest eight goals in 51 overall outings, but the goal that should have been the most important of those strikes ultimately counted for nothing.
A Final Kick by the Arse
That goal was a superb 88th minute equaliser in the Cup Final at Wembley on 12 May, which incredibly hauled United back to 2-2 after they had trailed Terry Neill’s Arsenal 0-2 at half-time. It was truly ‘Roy of the Rovers’ stuff, as the men from Old Trafford had looked dead and buried at the interval, ruthlessly picked off by the Gunners.
However, rather than leading to the fairy-tale ending that this sort of story normally demands, the heroic comeback simply prefaced the most heartbreaking ending to a major game that United fans have probably ever had to endure.
With the men in red shirts mentally readying themselves for the 30-minute period of extra-time to come, Arsenal, playing in their change strip of yellow shirts with navy shorts, broke on a last-gasp counter-attack. When Graham Rix collected a Liam Brady cross-field ball on the left wing and swung a low cross into the United penalty area, there was Alan Sunderland sliding in to knock the ball past the stranded Gary Bailey and steal the Cup for Arsenal with the last kick of the game. It was enough to reduce your young author to tears of sorrow for the only time in my football-following life.
To be fair to Sexton, that galling experience seemed to harden both his and the players’ resolve to perform much better in the league the following season- and they did. With McIlroy again the midfield fulcrum through which a lot of the play passed, United pushed the Liverpool juggernaut as hard as they’d been challenged for a number of seasons. By the end of the season, the Red Devils had lost only eight of their games for the season…but it wasn’t good enough. Bob Paisley’s men had raised the bar higher, losing one game fewer, and bettering United by only two points. With the cup competitions sacrificed in pursuit of Division One glory, McIlroy and his team-mates ended up empty-handed.
Sammy Mac: Mr. Dependable
For McIlroy, his playing record over the previous six seasons from August 1974 until May 1980 read like something from fantasy. Of the 252 league games that Manchester United had played in that time, McIlroy had featured (almost always for the full 90 minutes) in no fewer than 243 of them. It was a simply unbelievable achievement for a central midfielder, particularly as opponents were as likely to kick your shins as the heavy leather balls they used in those days!
Of course, it couldn’t last, and the following season (1980-81) was, in reality, the beginning of the end for the likeable Northern Irishman at Old Trafford. During the summer of 1979 the club had signed Chelsea captain and England midfielder Ray Wilkins for £800,000, and along with McIlroy and Wilkins, United’s midfield often included Steve Coppell on the right, Welshman Mickey Thomas on the left, and Lou Macari as a ‘false nine’ behind new frontman Garry Birtles. It was a crowded shop….
Has Birtles Scored Yet?
McIlroy made 37 appearances in all competitions in 1980-81, but his modest return of six goals matched the feeling of underachievement at United. Big-money signing Birtles, who until then had been a very prolific striker for Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, failed to score a single goal in the 25 league games of his debut season for the Red Devils….not one.
The team finished 8th, and when combined with poor early exits in all the cup competitions, the general mood of discontent around the Club was almost tangible. It was no surprise when Sexton was given his ‘marching orders’ by chairman Edwards that summer: no tears were shed at his departure. Dave Sexton was a very likeable man, but his cautious football style was out of step with the flamboyant, ‘never-say-die’ attacking ethos that the Club held dear.
It’s ‘Hello’ from Robbo, but ‘Goodbye’ to Sam
Into the empty managerial seat came Mr. Midas, West Bromwich Albion boss Ron Atkinson. ‘Big Ron’ had a reputation for usually sporting a nice tan and lots of flashy jewelry, and was a man in a hurry to reach the summit of English football with United. Most importantly, he had the financial backing of the United board in order to reach his destination. That was all good and well for the Club and its fans, but for Sammy McIlroy it would very quickly become obvious that he was surplus to Big Ron’s requirements.
The fateful day for Sammy was, in the most bizarrely ironic way, one of his finest in a United shirt. On 3 October 1981 Manchester United played host to Wolves, and more importantly completed the signing of one of the greatest players in the club’s history: Bryan Robson. That signing was iconic in more ways than one, because it was conducted on the pitch in front of the Old Trafford faithful before the game kicked-off.
Having signed for his new club, Robson got to sit and watch McIlroy, the man he would quickly replace as the United midfield engine, score a hat-trick as Wolves were hammered 5-0. It was the last hurrah for the Belfast man in a red shirt. Almost exactly four months to the day later, on 2 February 1982, McIlroy moved to Stoke City for a then Potters club record transfer fee of £350,000.
Sammy McIlroy joined a cash-strapped team in the Potteries under manager Richie Barker that were deep in relegation trouble. They had been forced to cash in on their star striker Adrian Heath, who had been allowed to join Everton for £700,000. In combination with a young Lee Chapman’s goals, McIlroy managed to help steer the side to safety, avoiding the drop by only two points.
That summer of 1982, McIlroy was a member of perhaps the greatest ever squad to represent Northern Ireland at a major finals. Under legendary manager Billy Bingham’s guidance, McIlroy was an integral part of the side that managed to finish top of their first phase Group ahead of host nation Spain, whom they famously defeated 1-0 in Valencia. The Ulstermen eventually bowed out after losing 4-1 to a brilliant young French team that included Michel Platini in its ranks, but they rightly returned home to a heroes’ welcome, heads held high.
The Rest Is History
McIlroy went on to play 133 times for Stoke City, whose fans also have very fond memories of the congenial Belfast man, before finishing a fine career with short stints at Manchester City, Orgryte (Sweden), Bury, Admira Wacker (Austria), Preston North End and Northwich Victoria.
Perhaps his greatest achievement was helping his country to win the last ever British Home Championship in 1984, only the third time Northern Ireland had claimed the crown in the competition’s almost century-long history. McIlroy had scored his final goal in a green shirt during that run, in the 2-0 win over Scotland at Windsor Park, Belfast on 13 December 1983 and could rightly claim that he had never lost an international game in which he’d found the back of the opposition net.
He rounded off his international career by proudly captaining his country at the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico, where the side battled gamely in the stiflingly hot conditions before returning home after a 3-0 defeat at the hands of the mighty Brazilians. McIlroy ended up with a total of 88 Northern Ireland caps, which has only been bettered by five men to this day.
Beyond a good spell at Macclesfield Town, his managerial career after hanging up his boots has not been such a success. Indeed, his spell in charge of his country from 2000-2003 coincided with a run of some of the most dismal, depressing results in Northern Ireland’s history.
However, no-one has ever doubted McIlroy’s immense pride in where he hails from, and I’m sure no-one hurt more than the man himself that he couldn’t bring further success to the ‘Green and White Army’. In a national management position you don’t have the luxury of buying in players to improve your side, you can only work with what you have available, and unfortunately all too often Sammy was left disappointed by the younger men under his charge.
Sammy McIlroy remains a firm favourite with older Manchester United fans who can recall the days when you didn’t have to ask who was playing in central midfield for the Reds: it was only a case of who Sammy was being partnered with that particular afternoon! In my opinion he was sold on far too quickly by Ron Atkinson, and could have made a difference for United during the many games that Bryan Robson would be forced to miss due to a string of unfortunate injuries in the following seasons. I doubt such times will ever be seen again in these days of player rotation.