Style and wit rather than force and grit can still be the Ir­ish way –

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Walker

When Jimmy McIl­roy died in Au­gust, it was a mo­ment to re­turn to his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Right In­side Soc­cer. It was writ­ten in 1960 when Burn­ley had just won the First Divi­sion league ti­tle. McIl­roy was re­garded as the brains of the best team in Eng­land. He was 29.

The book is a slim gem of anal­y­sis and frus­tra­tion. Matt Busby, no less, wrote its fore­word, where he said of McIl­roy: “Jimmy un­doubt­edly pos­sesses some­thing, which may be in­de­fin­able, but which is shared only by the all-time greats. Sub­tlety dom­i­nates his game.”

There is no short­age of opin­ion from the au­thor: “Was Dun­can Ed­wards re­ally 18 caps bet­ter than Ed­die Col­man?” asks McIl­roy, a ques­tion that might seem in­sen­si­tive given both Ed­wards and Col­man had per­ished only two years ear­lier in the Mu­nich air crash.

McIl­roy’s is­sue was that Ed­wards was the more lauded player in Eng­land be­cause “one of his many at­tributes was power in the tackle”.

Sub­tlety, in McIl­roy’s eyes, did not dom­i­nate Ed­wards’ game.

Speed of foot

It is a theme of the book, McIl­roy’s dis­taste of ath­leti­cism over skill, of speed of foot over speed of thought. He and Danny Blanch­flower were mid­field com­pan­ions in green and they sup­ported one an­other in their de­sire, al­most po­etic in Blanch­flower’s case, to ex­hibit style and wit, rather than force and grit.

Af­ter a par­tic­u­larly ag­gres­sive meet­ing be­tween Scot­land and North­ern Ire­land in Glas­gow in 1958, McIl­roy quotes the blood­ied Blanch­flower say­ing: “If that’s the kind of fight you want in in­ter­na­tional foot­ball, I’m hav­ing no part of it”.

As McIl­roy had noted two pages ear­lier, the Ir­ish team man­aged by Peter Do­herty had won at Wem­b­ley against Eng­land in 1957 and they had not done so through bat­ter­ing Eng­land phys­i­cally.

The English FA, view­ing Ir­ish foot­ball with less than par­ity of es­teem, did not host North­ern Ire­land, or ‘Ire­land’ as it was, or Éire, at Wem­b­ley un­til 1955. The at­ti­tude in­fu­ri­ated Do­herty.

In ’57 when McIl­roy gave the Ir­ish the lead with a penalty, he was able to write: “I took the kick my­self and scored Ire­land’s first-ever in­ter­na­tional goal at Wem­b­ley.”

(All north­ern Ir­ish play­ers of that era – and me­dia and many fans – re­ferred to North­ern Ire­land as Ire­land).

Fast for­ward six decades to Oriel Park, Dun­dalk, last Fri­day. In Stephen Kenny’s pro­gramme notes be­fore Dun­dalk clinched their fourth League of Ire­land Premier Divi­sion ti­tle in five sea­sons, he wrote: “It is im­por­tant to dis­pel the cur­rent train of thought that it is in the DNA of Ir­ish play­ers to play a more di­rect style . . . that some­how be­ing Ir­ish you were born with a skill deficit.”

Great dis­ser­vice

It came a week af­ter the Den­mark mid­fielder Thomas De­laney re­ferred to “prim­i­tive” Ir­ish tac­tics in the Na­tions League match in Dublin. Ap­par­ently there was a com­pli­ment in there re­gard­ing ob­du­racy. But prim­i­tive doesn’t sit well.

The ap­plause you can hear for Kenny is prob­a­bly from Jimmy McIl­roy, be­cause some­where along the way an is­land that post-war pro­duced Ge­orge Best, Johnny Carey, Char­lie Tully, John Giles, Liam Brady, Martin O’Neill, the Blanch­flow­ers and McIl­roy al­lowed it­self to be por­trayed as not these play­ers. Yet that’s some DNA.

Roy Keane, the great­est Ir­ish player of the re­cent past, was a force of na­ture, yes, but he was a bit more than that. Keane was au­thor­i­ta­tive. He could pass and move and, just as im­por­tantly, pass and pause.

It must have de­lighted McIl­roy who 60 years ago was slaugh­ter­ing the English FA for their coach­ing meth­ods – he wasn’t too keen on the Ir­ish FA ei­ther – say­ing with­er­ingly that Stan­ley Matthews “would be or­dered to part with the ball more quickly”.

Bril­liant Hun­gar­i­ans

This was be­cause “the value of speed is overem­pha­sised. The bril­liant 1953-4 Hun­gar­i­ans did English soc­cer a great dis­ser­vice in this re­spect. Al­most overnight . . . coaches de­cided Hun­gary’s se­cret of suc­cess was speed. Yet Hun­gary’s speed was a com­plete fal­lacy. In­deed, on that fate­ful day most English play­ers were mov­ing twice as fast as their bril­liant op­po­nents.”

This is the sort of in­tel­li­gent, in­tu­itive ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the game con­tin­ued by Liam Brady 20 years later in Italy when he told Hugh McIl­van­ney: “Thinkers are the dead­li­est men.”

That’s DNA. The tra­di­tion of Ir­ish thought was right in­side the be­gin­nings of soc­cer; the penalty-kick was in­vented by William McCrum from Ar­magh; the off­side law was changed in 1925 due to Bill McCracken from Belfast.

When McIl­roy and Blanch­flower passed a penalty-kick to one an­other against Por­tu­gal in a World Cup qual­i­fier in 1957, they were do­ing some­thing Jo­han Cruyff would be given credit for 25 years later and Lionel Messi 35 years af­ter that. But it was a Peter Do­herty idea.

Do­herty was one of Bill Shankly’s he­roes. Ad­mit­tedly he be­lieved hugely in strength of char­ac­ter and phys­i­cal de­ter­mi­na­tion, but Do­herty al­lied it to tac­ti­cal aware­ness. He once started a match with two left wingers, he switched jersey num­bers around – both of which were un­heard-of.

And he played 5ft 6in Wil­bur Cush in cen­tral de­fence against Italy. Cush, Do­herty saw, could play as well as fight.

Al­tered per­cep­tion

In fact, none of the play­ers men­tioned above were or are over 6ft tall. The cur­rent North­ern Ire­land cap­tain, Steven Davis, is 5ft 8in. Davis is an­other give-and-go cre­ative mid­fielder. Damien Duff, Wes Hoola­han, these play­ers are part of an Ir­ish style far re­moved from long-ball, chase-it stuff. Ir­ish foot­ball is not a land of gi­ants.

Yet the fight­ing Ir­ish stereo­type en­dures. It prob­a­bly set­tled on Ir­ish foot­ball the day Jack Charl­ton told play­ers to hit the ball into the chan­nels even though Ron­nie Whe­lan had joined Brady in mid­field with David O’Leary and Paul McGrath be­hind.

Charl­ton was more thought­ful than he is painted, but it is hard to es­cape the feel­ing that the suc­cess of his meth­ods al­tered per­cep­tion and, per­haps, self-per­cep­tion.

Judg­ing by De­laney’s [Thomas] com­ments, the view per­sists ex­ter­nally – though pre­sum­ably he didn’t see Davis pass Bos­nia’s Ju­ven­tus mid­fielder Mi­ralem Pjanic off the park in Belfast in Au­gust. North­ern Ire­land have re­ceived crit­i­cism for a sup­posed reliance on dead-balls, but they are not long-ball. If Michael O’Neill ad­heres to prag­ma­tism, it is due to re­sources.

Martin O’Neill will say the same, but it must be jar­ring to hear a com­ment such as De­laney’s. It is not a good im­pres­sion, cor­rect or not.

The sting has been felt and maybe Ir­ish foot­ball, the broad sweep of it, should chal­lenge it­self. In­ter­na­tion­ally, is style a part of the sub­stance? Do­mes­ti­cally, why are clubs still scratch­ing around for cash? Why is in­fra­struc­ture still so poor? Over­all, can there be re­spect with­out self-re­spect?

The Ir­ish foot­ball per­son­al­ity is not one-di­men­sional. It can­not be.

As Matt Busby said: “Jimmy McIl­roy, de­nied the ad­van­tage of phys­i­cal strength, has reached his present em­i­nence by em­ploy­ing sheer skill, and skill alone.”

But if Ir­ish foot­ball does not re­mem­ber it­self, its pre­vi­ous sub­tlety, its dif­fer­ent power, its cere­bral DNA, then who will?

‘‘ Jack Charl­ton was more thought­ful than he is painted, but it is hard to es­cape the feel­ing that the suc­cess of his meth­ods al­tered per­cep­tion and, per­haps, self-per­cep­tion


The Turf pub signs de­picts an im­age ■ of ex-player Jimmy McIl­roy. The North­ern Ire­land in­ter­na­tional had a dis­taste of ath­leti­cism over skill, of speed of foot over speed of thought.

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