So just who were the Class of ‘55? Part 3 – Jimmy McIlroy…
Last Wednesday’s article in The Celtic Star featuring photos provided by Peter Goldie, Celtic’s oldest-living player, provoked a lot of interest and discussion. One photo in particular generated quite a few queries. It was a photoshoot taken at the annual pre-season trial match played at Celtic Park on Tuesday, 9 August 1955.
Some of the players, of course, are instantly recognisable as Celtic legends, whilst most of the others are familiar to those who know their history but a few of the faces presented some challenges in terms of identification. Thankfully, Twitter did its job, and within minutes of The Celtic Star publishing the article, @CelticCurio had produced a list of all the surnames in the photograph. This was a huge help as we set about linking names to faces.
Top row: Higgins, Jack, McAlinden, Duffy, Evans, MacKay, Fernie, Meechan, Tully & Auld.
Middle row: Sharkey, White [Whyte], Ryan, Craig, Beattie, Docherty, Goldie, Fallon, Boden, Bonnar, Haughney, Conroy, Stein, McCreadie & Mcllroy.
Front row: McVittie, Collins, Smith, McPhail, Rowan, Walsh, Reid & Mochan.
Not all of the players in the photo featured in the match, as some were nursing or recovering from injuries. And an obvious absentee from the photoshoot was Bertie Peacock, who was in Belfast representing a Great Britain XI against The Rest of Europe in a match to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the six-county Irish Football Association. There was a report on the match in the following day’s Evening Times which listed the teams as follows:
Green and Whites (Hoops)
McCreadie; Haughney & Fallon; Evans, Stein & McPhail;
Docherty, Collins, McAlindon, Walsh & Mochan.
White and Greens (Shamrocks)
Beattie; Ryan & Meechan; McKay, Jack & Conroy;
Craig, McVittie, White, Sharkey & Auld.
The Evening Times report also mentioned that a number of changes to the initial line-ups occurred at half-time – by which time the Hoops were leading 5-0 – as follows.
• Goalkeepers McCreadie and Beattie switched sides.
• Docherty and White switched sides.
• Goldie replaced Ryan for the Shamrocks.
• Duffy replaced Conroy for the Shamrocks.
• Rowan replaced Craig for the Shamrocks.
• Smith replaced Sharkey for the Shamrocks.
Here at The Celtic Star, we like to acknowledge every Celt who lived the dream and could proudly tell their family and friends “I played for Celtic,” so we thought we’d make sure we had a full cast list to publish. That’s when the fun and the serious research started.
In the first part of this article (link above), we looked at a couple of less familiar names who turned out for the mainly first-team ‘Green and Whites,’ Benny McCreadie (middle row, second from right) and Jimmy ‘Peam’ Docherty (middle row, sixth from left), and in the next part (link below) we mentioned two of those wearing the shamrock kits whom I was struggling to name, David Duffy (back row, fourth from left) and Frank Whyte (middle row, second from left). Today, we will cover the next Celt whose name initially had escaped me.
The player on the extreme right of the middle row is Jimmy McIlroy, another who followed that familiar path from Duntocher Hibs to Celtic Park, in his case in July 1950. His introduction to the first team was somewhat unusual, in that he made his debut against Doncaster Rovers at Belle Vue on Tuesday, 18 November 1952 in the club’s first match under floodlights in the 20th century whilst based in that Yorkshire city with the RAF and training with that evening’s opponents! Jimmy was at centre-half in the following Celtic team, which lost 3-2 on the night.
George Hunter; Alec Boden & Sean Fallon; Bobby Evans, Jimmy McIlroy & Joe Baillie;
Jimmy Walsh, Willie Fernie, John McPhail, Charlie Tully & Bertie Peacock.
McIlroy had been signed as a central defender, but he then made his competitive debut as a centre-forward, and his baptism could not have been much tougher, a League match at Easter Road against a Hibernian side featuring their Famous Five forward-line and going for their third successive championship title. That game took place on Saturday, 6 December 1952 and marked Sean Fallon’s first outing as Celtic captain, the Sligo man – who would have celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday – having been given the honour to allow John McPhail to focus on his own performance and try to regain his form.
McPhail was another Celt who had signed as a central defender but made his name up front. Indeed, the man known as ’Hooky’ had scored a hat-trick against Rangers at Hampden in the Charity Cup final in 1950 then the winning goal in the Scottish Cup final the following spring against Motherwell. In any case, he showed his character and versatility by moving to the right wing that day to accommodate Jimmy McIlroy, who celebrated a dream Celtic debut in front of 40,000 spectators at Easter Road by scoring a tremendous opening goal on the half-hour. Celts and Hibs had kicked off level on 16 points, tucked in behind leading duo St Mirren and East Fife, and they would end the weekend still tied in third spot, after Lawrie Reilly’s headed equaliser in the second half.
Celtic welcomed back Bobby Collins and Charlie Tully for the visit of back-to-back League Cup-winners Dundee seven days later, John McPhail dropping out whilst Jimmy McIlroy retained his place spearheading the attack. He would get a bird’s-eye view as Collins and Willie Fernie terrorised the Dens defence all afternoon, the latter scoring his only hat-trick for Celtic after Tully’s early opener. McIlroy had been directly involved in a couple of those goals and he got his due reward with two minutes remaining, firing home from a tight angle in the gathering gloom to end the scoring at 5-0.
Jimmy made it three goals in his first three competitive games for Celtic when he scored the next Saturday at a snowbound Brockville against a struggling Falkirk side which included former Parkhead stars Jimmy Delaney and Jock Weir. His goal on the hour put Celts 2-1 ahead, after Bobby Collins’ early opener had been cancelled out by Dunlop. Bertie Peacock immediately added a third with Delaney scoring against his old side with 15 minutes to play as Celts edged home by the odd goal in five to move up to second in the table behind East Fife. This was the infamous match where Sean Fallon broke his arm but played on, indeed he twice cleared Falkirk scoring attempts off the line with keeper George Hunter beaten!
Football being the strange game it is, despite that perfect start to his Celtic career Jimmy McIlroy would not score again for the club. He suffered a first competitive defeat as Celts lost their unbeaten home record in the next match, a shock single-goal loss to bottom-dogs Raith Rovers on Saturday, 27 December 1952, in what was Jock Stein’s first game as Celtic captain. The Hoops had been challenging for the title but would now endure a run of five consecutive defeats which wrecked those dreams, commencing on New Year’s Day as a Billy Simpson header early in the second half ensured the points remained at Ibrox.
Jimmy made his sixth successive first-team appearance at Fir Park on Saturday, 10 January 1953, setting up Willie Fernie to give Celtic a half-time lead. Motherwell levelled the game early in the second half, but Bertie Peacock again put the Hoops in a winning position from the restart. The closing quarter was then dominated by the hosts who scored three times to inflict a third defeat in a row on Celtic. That would see Jimmy McGrory turn to his namesake John to lead the attack. He had not featured in the first team since April 1951 and yes, you’ve guessed it, all of his previous Celtic appearances had been at centre-half!
McIlroy’s next opportunity would come along on Saturday, 7 March 1953 and would mark his return to central defence as a replacement for injured skipper Jock Stein, with Bobby Evans and John McPhail as his wing-halves. Partick Thistle were the visitors to Celtic Park on League business and 35,000 spectators watched the Hoops win 3-1 with goals from Charlie Tully and a Jimmy Walsh double.
Jock recovered to take his place for the following week’s Scottish Cup quarter-final defeat at Ibrox and Jimmy would have to wait until the League game at Dens Park on Saturday, 4 April 1953 for his final outing of the campaign, lining up between Evans and Stein as Celts reshuffled the side following four consecutive defeats. Three goals down at half-time, McIlroy and striker John McPhail switched places for the second half as Dundee added a fourth goal near the end to continue a miserable sequence of results which saw Celts slump to eighth place in the table.
They would remain in that position until the end of the season, then confound the critics by winning both the Glasgow Charity Cup and prestigious Coronation Cup at Hampden in May with new signing Neil Mochan to the fore.
Jimmy McIlroy would turn out for Celtic four times during the following campaign, as the Hoops won the League and Scottish Cup double for the first time in four decades. The first of those was the final sectional match in the League Cup against Airdrieonians at Parkhead on Saturday, 29 August 1953, Celts having taken just one point from their opening five games, ironically that coming away to East Fife who would go on to win the trophy. McIlroy replaced Jock Stein as first-half goals from Jimmy Walsh and John McPhail at least provided a win but did not prevent Celts from finishing bottom of a section which also included Aberdeen.
As Celtic prepared to face League leaders Queen of the South at Palmerston on Saturday, 17 October 1953, they would probably have preferred to do so with stalwarts Sean Fallon, Jock Stein, Willie Fernie, Charlie Tully and Neil Mochan in the team. All were missing from the line-up though, providing opportunities for Jimmy McIlroy and debutant John Higgins – another Celt from the photo above – amongst others. Bobby Collins gave Celtic the lead from the spot early in the second half after Higgins had been brought down in the box, but the Doonhamers fought back to take the points thanks to goals from Rothera and Patterson.
A dreadful triple leg break meant that six months would pass before Jimmy saw first-team action again. He returned to the team on St Patrick’s Day 1954 in place of poisoned toe victim Jock Stein for the midweek League match with struggling Airdrieonians at Broomfield, but most of the action was at the other end of the pitch. Neil Mochan scored a hat-trick in a 6-0 victory which kept dreams of a first League title since 1938 alive. Sean Fallon, John Higgins and a Willie Fernie penalty completed the rout, as Celts remained five points behind leaders Hearts but with three games in hand.
Jimmy McIlroy’s 12th and final first-team appearance for Celtic came on Monday, 26 April 1954, 48 hours after the club had clinched a first League and Cup double in 40 years by beating Aberdeen at Hampden. The visitors to Celtic Park were relegated Hamilton Academical who had defeated the Hoops on the opening day of the season and they would hold the champions to a single goal scored by Mike Haughney in the opening 10 minutes. Dubliner Vincent Ryan – another Celt from the photo – made his first-team debut that night at right-back as Celts completed their League campaign having dropped just one point from their 15 home games – a 2-2 draw with Hibernian in November – a record for the post-war Division A. Indeed, Celtic had not lost a game in any competition since losing 3-2 to runners-up Hearts at Tynecastle in early February.
McIlroy would spend another two seasons with Celtic reserves before joining Third Lanark on the opening day of March 1956, making his debut the following day at centre-half in a 7-0 rout of Albion Rovers in Division B. He made six appearances for Thirds before being released in the summer. Jimmy then headed south of the border to join Newcastle United legend Joe Harvey at Third Division North outfit Barrow.
Peter Goldie on Jimmy McIlroy
Jimmy McElroy was a centre half signed from Duntocher Hibs just as I joined them. I played a couple of trial games with them when he was still there and played with him at Parkhead for a couple of years. He played a few times for the first team at Celtic and scored a great goal against Hibs in one of his first outings.