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Down Memory Lane: Number seven Sproule enjoyed Bestie moment

The name George Best, that football genius from Burren Way on the sprawling Cregagh estate, will never be forgotten in Northern Ireland.

It will always possess appeal and nostalgia. Yet, I wonder how many watching tonight’s Northern Ireland-Estonia penultimate Euro 2012 qualifier recall the last occasion Estonia appeared at the national stadium.

The date was Wednesday, March 1, 2006.

The ghost of George hovered over the stadium that night.

It was the first international since his tragic passing and how appropriate that a player wearing his famous number 7 shirt scored the winning goal — Ivan Sproule, who instantly became labelled Ivan The Great.

Does that bring back memories? Sproule, then a 25-year-old from Castlederg, a player with the pace of an Olympic sprinter, hit the dramatic winner after only 78 seconds on the snow-covered pitch.

And it came just after George’s father, the late Dickie, was presented with a framed picture of his son by Irish FA president Jim Boyce, now British vice-president on FIFA, the game’s world governing body.

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And just to give it a true Best background, Don Fardon, composer of “The Belfast Boy”, gave a rendition from the centre of the pitch.

Indeed, frequently when covering matches at Windsor, I think back to that day when George took Scotland apart and the winning goal came from Dave Clements, who was nicknamed by team-mates “The Farmer’s Boy from Larne”.

Sproule, then with Hibs, had become an overnight star a few weeks earlier when he grabbed a headline treble in the 3-0 defeat of Rangers at Ibrox Park.

He had always dreamed of wearing the famous Rangers blue jersey, but here he was collecting a hat-trick as a second-half substitute against the team he supported as a boy.

What a ribbing he took from his friends who, like him, were avid Bluenoses.

“Hibs pay the wages,” he replied, to silence their taunts.

Sproule, who played for Institute and Omagh Town, was almost persuaded to join Linfield and talks between Hibs and Linfield’s then chairman, the late David Crawford, and Paul Weir, had reached an advanced stage.

Sproule, mentioning home-sickness, remained at Easter Road. For Sproule that first international goal was one of the highlights of his career, but there was a sad touch about the occasion, too.

His father and brother, who had died when he was young, were not there to witness it.

How they would have been filled with pride watching him that night and scoring his international goal wearing the number 7 shirt of one of the greatest players of all time.

A second-half substitute was Brian McLean of Rangers who qualified through his family’s Ulster ties.

He had appeared for Scotland in an under-17 match in 2002 and was required to inform the SFA of a change of allegiance before his 21st birthday.

Unfortunately, an administrative error meant missing the deadline and that was the end of his association with the land of his adoption.

Northern Ireland: Taylor, Duff, Craigan, McAuley, Capaldi, Sproule, Davis, Baird, Brunt, Quinn, Healy. Subs: Jones for Sproule (45), McLean for Craigan (45), Feeny for Healy (59), Thompson for Quinn (59), McCann for Brunt (68), Elliott for Davis (68). Subs not used: Ingham, Murdock.

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