Manchester United Legend McIlroy Blames Ron Atkinson For “Sad” Old Trafford Exit

The Northern Irishman revealed his regrets to The Sportsman over how his Man Utd career came to a devastating end
08:35, 23 Mar 2022

Feature writer Neil Goulding had the privilege of chatting to Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend Sammy McIlroy on the eve of the release of his new autobiography ‘The Last Busby Babe’.

In the first part of a fascinating interview, McIlroy revealed how teammate George Best left him stranded in favour of Miss Great Britain, what it was like making his United debut against Manchester City at just 17. And what it means to be Sir Matt Busby’s final ever signing at Old Trafford.

And now McIlroy reveals his regrets over how his Man Utd career came to a devastating end, the highs and lows of an incredible international and management career, as well his hopes for United as they struggle to enjoy the glory times the famous club has become accustomed to.

Sammy McIlroy blames Big Ron for his “sad” Manchester United exit. Former United boss Ron Atkinson sold the midfielder to Stoke City on 2 February 1982 for a then club record fee of £350,000.

After 13 years at Old Trafford the popular Northern Irishman admitted: “It all went pear-shaped when Big Ron came in! I got on well with all the other managers until he got appointed in the summer [of 1981].

“The first thing that happened was that I got summoned to his office and I was fined £600 for walking off a plane when I should have gone on a pre-season trip to Kuala Lumpur. I did it for family reasons because one of my kids was not well. I got on well with the chairman Martin Edwards and he understood the situation. Jimmy Nicholl and Mickey Thomas also didn’t make the flight – and they ended up being the first players to leave under Big Ron.

“I knew he was going to sign Robbo [Bryan Robson] and Remi [Moses], but I thought I’d stick it out and see what happens. Robbo signed on the day I got a hat-trick against Wolves at Old Trafford, but ever since the plane incident I knew the writing was on the wall. There was a lot of speculation that me and Ray Wilkins would have to make way for Robbo and Remi.”

McIlroy was a mainstay of the United line-up and had played over 400 games for the club. But he reveals during our interview: “I got a phone call a couple of weeks after the hat-trick, but it was 4pm in the afternoon, which was strange.

“Big Ron called me to The Cliff. I walked into the office and it was roasting, the heat just hit me, he’d just come off his sunbed. He was sweating like a pig wearing a Man Utd dressing gown, I’ll never forget it.

“He told me Stoke had offered a record fee of £350k and asked me what I thought I was worth. I was gutted, my pride had taken a battering. I didn’t talk to him for years after that, it was really upsetting.

“My dad told me to hang on in there and stay at United, but me – being stupid with pride – I decided to sign for Stoke because I didn’t like the way Big Ron spoke to me.

“It was a massive decision and that was my United career over.”

Sammy Mcilroy
Sammy Mcilroy

Despite the bitter disappointment of leaving United in such a frustrating manner, McIlroy licked his wounds and went on to impress for a number of other clubs during a domestic career which spanned an impressive 734 games. 

At international level, McIlroy also established himself as a firm favourite with fans. He famously played in two World Cups – 1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico - the latter for which he was captain.

Capped 88 times by Northern Ireland, McIlroy would have “loved nothing more” than to have reached the elusive 100-cap mark for his country. But after hanging up his boots in 1993 at the age of 39, McIlroy enjoyed plenty of success as a manager for nearly a decade.

He achieved three promotions, first winning the Conference title with Macclesfield in 1994 and also winning the FA Trophy. The club, however, were frustratingly denied promotion because they failed to meet certain ground regulations. But three years later, McIlroy inspired the Silkmen to a memorable promotion to the Football League for the first time in 120 years.

Sammy went on to manage Northern Ireland for three years and when he returned to club management he masterminded Morecambe’s promotion to the Football League in his first season in charge.

Surprisingly, he retired from management aged just 56. But it was Man Utd who once again came calling with his career having gone full circle. McIlroy joined plenty of his old teammates in the Old Trafford hospitality lounges, regaling supporters with some of his cracking tales. He still works for the club now - and he wouldn’t have it any other way!

“I’ve made some shocking decisions because of my pride, but when I look back my mother and father will be proud of what I achieved,” reflects McIlroy. “If I’d have asked for some more advice from Sir Alex Ferguson down the years, then I might have made some better decisions."

He smiles: “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing, but I haven’t done bad.”

But what about the United of today? Well, McIlroy is adamant the club cannot rely on Cristiano Ronaldo to bring back the glory years the fans crave. But even though he appreciates Ronaldo’s proven class – and is glad the club re-signed him – he knows United need more of their stars to stand up and be counted.

“Ronaldo has come in, and he’s still a fantastic player there’s no doubt about that,” says McIlroy. “He’s had a fantastic career and is still the leading scorer, but we can’t depend on Ronaldo every week because of his age.

“He’s been a fantastic footballer, he’s second to none. But if Ronaldo is not scoring where are the other goals going to come from? [Edinson] Cavani has been injured for the majority of the season and then [Anthony] Elanga has come in and shown lots of promise, but we can’t depend on a young kid to win us games every week. The goals have got to come from other areas.

“[Bruno] Fernandes was a breath of fresh air when he came in, in my eyes one of the best signings United have ever made when he first arrived. But even he’s dropped a level from the brilliant standard he set.”

McIlroy stresses: “The next manager decision is going to be the most important decision in a long, long time. It’s an unbelievable job for any manager, but it’s a hard job. Things have got to be done, that’s for sure.

“Why not Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea? He’s a serial winner, I wouldn’t say no to that if he ever became available. But what I would say is that [United CEO] Richard Arnold is a man who will do his utmost to get Man Utd back on track, I really do.”

This interview was kindly done in conjunction with Pitch Publishing.

The Last Busby Babe, The Autobiography of Sammy McIlroy, MBE, with Wayne Barton, out on 28th March from Pitch Publishing

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