From Burnley to Belfast and beyond, McIlroy will be missed

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial

Northern Ireland is not yet a century old, but its short history has been marked by intermittent moments of sporting greatness.

When Fred Daly from Portrush won the British Open it was at the onset of a time when sport began to appear in a major slot in this newspaper, rather than crammed into inside page columns (there was almost no sport in the News Letter in its first 150 years, 1737 to 1880s).

When Manchester United won the European Cup final in 1968, George Best’s picture was one of the first times sport ever appeared on the front page (the front page had been advertisements until a few years before then).

Memorable Ulster sporting moments after that include Mary Peters winning Olympic gold in 1972, Alex Higgins winning the snooker world championships in 1982, Dennis Taylor the same three years later, Barry McGuigan the boxing world featherweight title in 1985, and Rory McIlroy in 2014 becoming one of the youngest golfers to win three majors.

Other highlights include, of course, Northern Ireland reaching the world cup in 1982 and 86, and even beating the host nation Spain in the former.

But even better than that was Northern Ireland’s triumph of 1958, when the country reached the quarter finals of that world cup — an extraordinary feat for such a small place.

Jimmy McIlroy, who has died at 86, was a key name in that triumph, alongside Danny Blanchflower and Harry Gregg.

Billy Kennedy, on page two, assesses McIlroy as one of the top three players ever to wear a Northern Ireland shirt.

McIlroy is also a link to a lost era in another sense: that of modesty. Many young players today seem ruthless in pursuit of wealth, and loyal above all to vast, competing salary offers.

McIlroy, for all his gifts, stuck with Burnley, turning down offers to play abroad. His dedication to the northern cotton town was rewarded in him being given its freedom a decade ago.

He will be much missed there and here.