Remembering the night a 30-year-old George Best nutmegged Johan Cruyff
Derek Spence recalls the famous night when he netted a late equaliser against the very best
George Best: produced an outstanding display to help Northern Ireland to a famous 2-2 draw in Rotterdam against a gifted Netherlands side. Photograph: Getty Images
You’ve got to love Danny Blanchflower. You have really got to love Danny Blanchflower.
When it was all over, when the four goals had been scored and the 56,000 crowd began to disperse, their gasps at the quality on view hanging in the air, Blanchflower emerged from the Irish dressing room to talk to the press about what he had just seen.
Blanchflower being Blanchflower, there would be no routine comments about lads giving their all or a game of two halves. Platitudes and clichés, they were for other football men.
No, the bold Blanchflower surveyed the 90 minutes of Holland 2 Northern Ireland 2 in a raucous qualifier in Rotterdam for the 1978 World Cup and declared: “Football is a conflict between emotion and logic.”
You have got to love Danny Blanchflower.
Logic said that Holland, captained by Johan Cruyff, with Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, Arie Haan and Robbie Resenbrink in the team, would demolish an Irish side that had scored once in its previous four games. But logic did not triumph in this particular conflict.
Blanchflower was managing Northern Ireland for the first time. His first major decision was to recall George Best, then at Fulham. Best had not played international football for three years. He was 30.
Not even the presence of a poet in the dugout and prince on the pitch brought confidence, though.
“The conclusion is reached,” reported the Belfast Telegraph in its preview, “that Northern Ireland will be on a hiding to nothing”.
Logic was hammering emotion.
Then, however, it offered a glimmer of hope. Recalling that Blanchflower had invoked Martin Luther King when he had been appointed four months earlier, it quoted the new manager in his pre-match press address: “We in Irish football must be dreamers, dreamers that we can beat all opposition. Sometimes dreams do come true.”
Four-four-two, it was not. It was a conflict between emotion and logic.
In fact, Blanchflower, who had promised to attack at all costs, sent out his team in a 4-2-4 formation at Feyenoord’s stadium. He was nothing if not optimistic.
“’Attack, attack, attack,’ that was Danny’s message,” recalls Derek Spence.
Spence was a 24-year-old forward from the Whitewell Road in north Belfast. He had worked as a joiner near Windsor Park before a move to Oldham in 1970. Six years later he was playing for Bury.
“Danny was a revolutionary. We met up in Coventry on the Sunday and had a practice match on the Monday. Then we did some drills. One was dribbling with two balls. Danny’s message was that if you can dribble with two balls, then you can definitely dribble with one. Eccentric.
“He was fantastic with a blackboard. We’d all be laughing as he got carried away, but he was so serious about us that you couldn’t help but like him. He designed a new kit for the game, never played in it again. I’ve still got mine.”
Blanchflower had been Footballer of the Year in 1958 and 1961 and Pat Jennings, goalkeeper on the night, won the award in 1973. But it was the 1968 Footballer of the Year Spence wanted to meet.
“To be called up to play against Johan Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol and the rest was something,” Spence says, “but what was more important to me was that I was going to meet George Best. I remember thinking: ‘I really hope he turns up.’”
Best, of course, had a habit of not doing so. But when the Irish squad assembled in their hotel on the Sunday night before the midweek match – in the bar – Spence was talking to his room-mate Jimmy Nicholl when he felt a presence beside him.
“Jimmy turned around and said: ‘Ah, how you doing George?’
“George Best was standing there. My knees were trembling. Jimmy said to him: ‘George, this is Derek Spence.’”
Spence says Best produced a wad of notes from a pocket to buy the round – “I’d never seen such money” – and Spence then proceeded to tell Best they had met before.
“I told him I’d met him outside his boutique in Manchester in 1970. I was in Oldham’s reserves. I used to travel down to watch him, nothing can replace that feeling of seeing George at Old Trafford. I was there when he scored that great goal against Chelsea.
“I’d asked for his autograph that day at the boutique. I’d handed over my old joiner’s pencil and he’d signed a bit of paper.
“’Oh, yeah, I remember,’ George said. He didn’t, he was being kind.”
Spence did not mind, he knew they weren’t equals then or now. But they were teammates and in the practice match arranged on the Monday against Luton Town, Best said Spence should count the number of nutmegs.
“Not being funny, I lost count. He was unbelievable, to see him in action like that . . . and then to socialise with him, to see him in action in the lounge bar . . . there was a barmaid, stunning, and all the lads were there, as you might expect. George just sat in the corner, didn’t speak to her. Then when her shift finished, she picked up her coat, walked casually over to George and they climbed the stairs. Danny just looked the other way.”
At Bury these were scenes Spence was not accustomed to. But his world was changing. On the Tuesday night Blackpool placed a bid of £50,000 for him and he was to join on Thursday. On Wednesday night in Rotterdam, he was named as sub. Spence had started three of the four recent games, but George Best was back.
“I was happy to be sub – Best, Cruyff, Neeskens!?”
Spence watched on as, true to Blanchflower’s word, the Irish attacked. After four minutes, Chris McGrath put them one up.
It was still that scoreline at half-time. Best had been brilliant. He had nutmegged Neeskens – and Cruyff.
“I missed that but Jimmy Nicholl says that when he met Neeskens and Krol years later they remembered because they were delighted. They were finally able to take the piss out of Cruyff.”
Krol equalised with a trademark long-range shot and when Cruyff quickly added a second, the Irish were assumed to be beaten.
Then Blanchflower turned to Spence and said: “‘Get warmed up.’ Me! A joiner! I couldn’t get ready quick enough.”
There were 16 minutes left and after 14 of them it was still 2-1. Then David McCreery burst into the Dutch box, goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel dropped his cross and it ran to Derek Spence. This was his 10th cap. He had not yet scored. The ball was eight yards out. Spence wrapped his right foot around it and it was 2-2.
“We had a hell of a party that night, I was well gone.”
At 3am, Spence was unconscious until a fire hose was aimed at his face. “The Dutch were very kind, they turned a blind eye.”
On Thursday he was collected in London by Blackpool and made his Tangerine debut on the Saturday, a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest. He is 67 now, still in Blackpool.
“What a week. I never tire of telling people about it. God blessed me. Even now I’ve got goosepimples telling you about it.”
In the Belfast Telegraph, Malcolm Brodie accepted his logic had been swept away by Blanchflower’s vision.
“That first-half display alone will live forever in the memory,” Brodie wrote. A cherished 45 minutes as Northern Ireland, little Northern Ireland with its limited talents, resources and other pressing problems handed out a lesson to the 1974 World Cup runners-up.”
Blanchflower, ever the contrary, revolutionary sophist said “Holland were the better, more accomplished side”.
Best made a joke about Neeskens having “bad knees” after all the nutmegs.
And Derek Spence, he has his memories. Northern Ireland return to Rotterdam next Thursday for the first time since his goal in 1976, although he says: “That moment with George on the Sunday night in the hotel was as good as scoring.”