George Best and Johan Cruyff were two of the biggest names in world football in the sixties and seventies, yet the two had never met on a football pitch.
As Cruyff’s career went from strength to strength, Best’s was on the wane. The Dutchman moved to Barcelona for a record transfer fee after helping Ajax to three successive European Cups. At the same time, Best was falling out of love with Manchester United, missing training sessions and paying fines.
January 1, 1974, was the last time Best pulled on a United shirt. He walked out of Old Trafford never to be seen again. Six months later as he was still drowning his sorrows in his Manchester nightclub, Cruyff turned in one of the greatest individual performances as the Dutch almost won the World Cup.
It seemed the chance to see them grace the same pitch had gone.
Then an unexpected turn of events changed all that and the two lined up to face each other.
Fast forward to 1976, and Best’s career had been resurrected. He’d been seduced by the sun, glitz and glamour of the North American Soccer League (NASL) for a summer in Los Angeles. Then Fulham surprised everyone by swooping in and bringing Best to the banks of the Thames.
He began well. He scored within 72 seconds of his debut. When television cameras turned up at Craven Cottage he and his good mate, Rodney Marsh, put on a real show as they waltzed past Hereford United in a 4-1 win.
But then the old Best surfaced again as he said the wrong thing to referee Lester Shapter and was sent off at Southampton.
Despite all this his country needed him.
Three months before he walked out on United he looked like he’d played his last game for Northern Ireland too. At the home of Sporting Lisbon, Best had helped the Irish to a creditable 1-1 draw in an, ultimately unsuccessful, qualifying campaign for World Cup 1974.
At the age of 27, his 32-cap international career appeared to be over.
Northern Ireland had been drawn in a group with Netherlands, Belgium and Iceland in qualifying for the next tournament, in Argentina. Dave Clements’ 11-match reign as Irish boss was over and the Irish FA plumped for Danny Blanchflower as a replacement.
In an auspicious playing career, Blanchflower was capped 52 times by his country and skippered Tottenham to a League and cup double in 1961.
Once his playing days were over he started helping out with coaching at White Hart Lane and was expected to take over from Bill Nicholson. But when it came to it, Terry Neil was the club’s preferred choice and Blanchflower left.
Neill had been Northern Ireland manager himself, before Clements, so it was with a certain amount of vindication Blanchflower was given the national team job.
Northern Ireland will be on a hiding to nothing
His first big decision was to bring back Best. Northern Ireland were to visit Rotterdam to open their qualifying campaign, The Dutch had already won in Iceland and many were expecting a fairly easy win against the Irish.
Cruyff was in his fourth season at the Nou Camp. He’d won La Liga in his first, giving him a third successive league title after two with Ajax.
The Dutch side were packed with star names. Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Geels, Arie Haan, Willy and Rene van der Kerkhof and Rob Rensenbrink.
Such was the trepidation at home the Belfast Telegraph declared;
“The conclusion is reached that Northern Ireland will be on a hiding to nothing.”
The new boss was anything but negative;
“We in Irish football must be dreamers, dreamers that we can beat all opposition. Sometimes dreams do come true.”
Bury striker, Derek Spence told the Irish Times;
“’Attack, attack, attack’ that was Danny’s message”
The 24-year-old was on the bench hoping to earn his tenth cap. He went on to explain;
“Danny was a revolutionary. We met up at 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 designed a new kit for the game, never played in it again. I’ve still got mine.”
Spence had quite a busy week. The day before the game Blackpool had a £50,000 bid accepted by Bury and instead of going back to Gigg Lane from Rotterdam he was to report to Bloomfield Road.
He remembers first meeting Best. In the practice match against Luton Town on the Monday, Best told him to count the nutmegs.
“Not being funny, I lost count. He was unbelievable, to see him in action like that.”
On the Wednesday night, Best took his place alongside five Manchester United players, David McCreery, Jimmy Nicholl, Tommy Jackson, Sammy McIlroy and Chris McGrath.
Only two players had been capped more times than the mercurial number seven, Ipswich’s Allan Hunter, who was skipper for the night, and legendary goalkeeper, Pat Jennings, then with Tottenham.
Hunter was hoped to be a good influence. Two of his three previous captaincy appearances had resulted in victories, away in Sweden and at home to Norway.
The quality in the Dutch side was ominous. Neeskens had joined Cruyff at Barcelona. Rensenbrink and Haan were in the Anderlecht side which beat West Ham to lift the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in May. Both van der Kerkhofs, along with Adrie van Kraaij were part of the PSV side which had just retained their Eredivisie title. Ajax’s Geels had been the league’s top scorer for the second successive year, and was joined by his club captain, Krol.
Wim Jansen (future Celtic boss), Wim Rijsbergen and keeper, Eddy Treijtel represented local club, Feyenoord. It was a phenomenal line-up. Seven of the team had been in the World Cup Final just two years earlier.
That first half display will live long in the memory
If they were nervous, the Irish players soon lost all thought to being overawed. Best played a cross-field pass out to McIlroy on the left. He danced past a tackle and got to the bye-line. He crossed to the penalty spot where McGrath met it on the full with his head, giving Treijtel no chance as the ball thumped into the bottom corner.
This was Trejtel’s fifth appearance for the Dutch and only two men had beaten him before. Yet four minutes in and McGrath became the third.
Like Spence, McGrath was being transferred while on international duty. Manchester United had paid Tottenham £30,000 for his services. Scoring his first goal for his country looked to have vindicated Tommy Docherty’s view of him.
Apart from the goal, the other highlight of the half was a run down the left from Best. It was as if time had rolled back ten years. He twisted and turned as van Kraaij back peddled, not knowing which way George was going to go. He moved inside and from the edge of the area, fired a shot which was heading for the top corner. At the last moment, Treijtel just got his fingertips to it to push it round the post.
After all he’d been through there was hardly anyone who would’ve begrudged Best a goal like that.
At the break, the Irish were still in front. Best was also enjoying himself. He’d used his practice to good effect, nutmegging both Cruyff and Neeskens.
Jimmy Nicholl recalled the delight this gave Neeskens and Krol. When he met them years later they told him how they were finally able to take the piss out of the Dutch master.
The lead lasted till midway through the second half when Krol fired a scorching right-foot drive into the top corner from about 25 yards out.
Two minutes later the home side were in front. Rene van der Kerkhof, who’d come on as a half-time sub for his brother, broke down the right. His pass into the area found Cruyff. The Dutch master’s first-time shot was blocked by Nicholl on the line. Unfortunately, for the young defender, it bounced straight back to Cruyff who fired it in.
Everyone was now expecting the floodgates to open. But a third goal never came. Blanchflower then summoned Spence.
He replaced the goalscorer, McGrath, and had just 16 minutes to make an impression.
With two minutes remaining and still 1-2 down, McIlroy’s throw-in on the left wing was picked up by a busy David McCreery. His cross into the six-yard box was spilled by Treijtel and the ball fell kindly for Spence. Instinct took over and the blonde-haired lad from Belfast fired it past the two Dutch defenders on the line.
It was a great moment for Spence and the travelling Irish support. They’d surprised everyone with a 2-2 draw. The mighty Dutch side of the seventies weren’t able to hold on to a 2-1 lead over little old Northern Ireland.
The Belfast Telegraph was won over by the performance as they wrote;
“That first half display alone will live forever in the memory. 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.”
For Spence, it was his first goal in international football. He would go on to represent his country 29 times, scoring three goals. The Saturday after this game he made his debut for Blackpool in a 1-0 win over Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. A week later he scored his first goal for his new club in another 2-2 draw.
Best returned to club action with Fulham as they were held to a 1-1 draw at Bramall Lane against Sheffield United.
For Jimmy Nicholl and the other Manchester United players, their hangover lasted a little longer. They travelled to the Hawthorns to take on West Brom and were duly thumped 0-4. Two Southern Irishmen, Johnny Giles and Ray Treacy were among the goals.
A month later Blanchflower named an unchanged side but there was no repeat of the Rotterdam dream as goals in each half saw Belgium win 2-0 in Liége.
Best remained in Blanchflower’s squad when they were well beaten 0-5 in Cologne by West Germany. Unavailable for the Home International Championships in the summer he also missed the defeat in Iceland.
Best returned to inspire the Irish to a win over Iceland at Windsor Park, before the Dutch visited in October 1977.
No one knew it at the time but this was Best’s last international appearance. Blanchflower named a side showing just one change from the Rotterdam game the year before. Martin O’Neill came into midfield. The Dutch had now brought in Austrian, Ernst Happel as manager. They could also call upon talent such as Johnny Rep and Wim van Hanegem. Cruyff was still in the team, as was Krol. But Neeskens’ form at Barcelona had seen him miss out.
There was no repeat of the Rotterdam heroics. Willy van der Kerkhof scored the only goal of the game, 15 minutes from time and that sealed the Irish fate as another qualifying opportunity gone.
That was it for Best in a Northern Ireland shirt. He pulled on the Fulham shirt just five more times and by mid-November 1977 that was it for him in English football, save a couple of performances for Bournemouth in the early 80s.
Two weeks later Cruyff’s international career was over too. With qualification secured the Netherlands looked forward to trying to go one better than they had in West Germany. A kidnap attempt on his family in Barcelona spooked him to such a degree he declined to travel to Argentina and consequently retired from international football.
Blanchflower remained in charge of the Irish up to November 1979. His last match was a historic win over the Republic of Ireland in Euro ’80 qualifying.
Billy Bingham replaced him and of course, took Northern Ireland to the next two World Cups. The Rotterdam result was one of the most famous performances by the Irish. That is until their win in Valencia against hosts Spain in 1982