Footballers' Lives with Eric McMordie: 'We thought our daughter Lindsay had died in the Asian tsunami. It was a horrible time for the family.'
In the latest installment of our popular series, former Northern Ireland international Eric McMordie recalls his friendship with George Best, happy times at Middlesbrough and recovering from two health scares
Q. What are your memories growing up and playing football in east Belfast?
A. I'm from a large family and I was encouraged to play football so I turned out for three of the boys clubs, Lombard on Newtownards Road, Ledley Hall on Beersbridge Road and when I was 12 I was accepted into the Boyland team. That was when the connection with Manchester United arose. I had three brothers, Robert, George and John, who all played, but the boys are no longer with us. I have one sister, Ruby, who is about 80 and not in great health.
Q. The famous story, shared many times, is how at the age of 15 you travelled to Manchester with George Best for a trial with United but returned after suffering homesickness. What were those days like?
A. I've been told that story a few times! I don't think George was as bad as me, I think I was the instigator and George decided to come home with me. After I returned to Belfast, Bob Bishop was the United scout at Boyland and he wanted me to join Glentoran but I wasn't very happy there and just stopped playing. I was on the building sites and an apprentice plasterer. There was a spell at Dundela under the late Albert Mitchell after I left the Glens but I took some persuading as I had had enough of football. I had watched the summer league matches at The Hen Run and going there was a great decision as it was like joining a family, the lads were fantastic. I was to go to Leeds United where their scout was a Belfast man called Matt Willis. Matt fell out with the club and through that link I went to Middlesbrough for a trial and signed for them.
Q. Did you have great support from your family?
A. I had a wonderful upbringing and wonderful family. I lost my father William when I was three and my mum Letitia wasn't financially well off but she made sure I had all the gear I needed.
Q. So you weren't able to get to know your father?
A. I only have a few memories but I'm told he was very supportive. He was in his 40s when he had a heart attack.
Q. And of course it was nice that your friendship with George was rekindled when you were reunited on the international stage.
A. That was a lovely thing, I knew George from the age of 11 when I played for Orangefield against Lisnasharragh and the friendship continued. I played against him, home and away, in Cup competitions and we would enjoy a few drinks together. George came from a wonderful family and his career took off. There were a few good players at Boyland and George was an outstanding talent.
Q. Did many people warn you against turning down the United opportunity?
A. My brothers used to tell me I'd regret it and I can understand that but at the time it just wasn't for me and I made the right decision. I needed to go home and rediscover my love for the game. I managed to cram in a lot of building and retail trade amongst the football so I did well.
Q. George's drinking curtailed his career. Did that surprise you?
A. I didn't know until later. I had met him quite a few times on holiday and at functions but I didn't know there was a problem. It's very sad what happened to George. I like a drink myself and I've had to change my behaviour. George was a very quiet guy. You'll meet players who lacked George's talent but they will tell you how great they are, George never behaved like that.
Q. You played 21 times for Northern Ireland. Did you enjoy those times?
A. The lads were fantastic, they were great times. Billy Bingham was manager and we trained hard but there was great craic. I'm always pleased when Northern Ireland do well and when you've been involved with the side you always keep an eye on their progress. They've been doing very well under Michael O'Neill and like the great Northern Ireland sides, they have a great togetherness and spirit. I enjoyed playing with the east Belfast lads and they were all down to earth boys. I used to watch Derek Dougan as a lad and I was lucky enough to be on an Irish side that won at Wembley. Current teams maybe don't have the world class player like a Dougan or Best but collectively, they are a force to be reckoned with.
Q. You played more than 240 games for Middlesbrough after joining the club in 1964, experiencing relegation and promotion. You must reflect on that period of your career with great pride?
A. The first year was difficult. I was married very young and arrived in England with my wife, Sandra, as I couldn't do it on my own. I made little progress but was given a chance under the renowned Raich Carter, a wonderful, world-class footballer. Raich lost his job but we gained promotion under Stan Anderson and it was a great achievement by a young team.
Q. Did it go pear-shaped for you under Jack Charlton in 1973?
A. Yes! We didn't see eye to eye about how the game should be played. Jack liked a great long ball and he got success with it but I didn't enjoy it. I ended up being paid for not playing but I felt my first priority was to look after my family. I ended up going on loan to Sheffield Wednesday, then York City and Hartlepool.
Q. What family do you have?
A. We have two girls, Tracy and Lindsay, who lives in France and is a very sporty girl who has good friends and enjoys travelling. Tracy, the eldest, has two children, Francesca (19) and Max (13). Without Sandra I wouldn't have been at Middlesbrough, I couldn't have stayed there. I think we were both reluctant to leave home and she will still remind me about it today! We are fortunate to be in the building trade and have nice homes. I was lucky to get a job with a builders' merchants and was able to continue playing football. I've always worked very hard. We live in a village near a lovely town called Yarm in North Yorkshire.
Q. What happened with your recent health setbacks?
A. I've been physically fit but went to see the doctor with a pain in my knee back in 2011. He suggested an appointment to take a look at me and the hospital called me in. I thought it was someone joking but I was told to call in because my heart was stopping. They gave me a pacemaker and then one night in 2014 I didn't feel very well and Sandra realised I was having a stroke.
Q. You mentioned you liked a drink so was there ever a danger you could suffer the same fate as George?
A. I've always lived big time and liked a drink but Sandra always said the building trade was the best thing for me as I was up early and on the sites. I had other jobs outside of football and that stood me in good stead.
Q. How has the health scare changed your life?
A. I was a heavy drinker but I had to change my ways. It never affected the family but I have to look after my health now.
Q. Your daughter Lindsay was caught up in the 2004 Asian tsunami disaster which claimed nearly 230,000 lives. How traumatic was that time for you and your family?
A. Lindsay, then 24, was on the Thai island of Phi Phi with her best friend Leanne Cox when it struck and they were trapped beneath the waves. Lindsay, thankfully survived but Leanne and many more tragically died. That was a very difficult time. Lindsay had been travelling around the world after leaving university. It was Boxing Day morning and we were in Newcastle to enjoy the pantomime. We put the television on and when we saw what was happening we immediately tried to contact Lindsay but we couldn't get an answer. Leanne, who was from Hartlepool, also couldn't be contacted and we heard nothing for 48 hours. We thought we had lost Lindsay but then we got a call and were told she was alive. Tragically, Leanne was swept away by the waves and wasn't found. Lindsay was heartbroken because she was a great friend. She was swept out to sea but a concrete beam had landed on her. She couldn't move it so she said a prayer and felt that was the end but a strong current came in, knocked the beam off her and pushed her into the bay where people rescued her. Some corrugated timber sheet hit her thigh and nearly went through her leg. It looks like a large shark bite and nearly took her leg off.
Q. How has Lindsay found the recovery process, mentally as well as physically?
A. We don't talk about it because it's such a sad experience to go through. She will be dealing with it mentally herself rather than us talking about it. If she wants to talk we will speak about it but she must be damaged by the experience. She was a great swimmer but will not run into the sea like she used to. We just don't want to bring it up and remind her of the bad times.
Q. I'm imagining there would be survivors' guilt involved as well.
A. She met a few Irish boys who they got on well with and, unfortunately, they lost their lives as well. It's very sad for everyone involved. It's one of the few times I drove to work and cried all the way there before realising I couldn't carry on and face people. I've been to functions about the disaster and had to say to Sandra 'I can't do this'. I found it very difficult to stand there and talk to people who had lost their children. You just really feel for them.
Q. How's life for you now?
A. All good, I like walking and having the odd pint. I'm back in Northern Ireland for a dinner celebrating Dundela's 125th anniversary in June. I invested in property as well which allowed me to live more comfortably. I played for my country which was special and enjoyed every minute of my football career and made many great friends. I'm very proud to have those memories.
Date of birth: April 12, 1946
Place of birth: Belfast
Previous clubs: Dundela, Middlesbrough, Sheffield Wednesday, York City, Hartlepool United.
Northern Ireland record: 21 appearances, 3 goals