Belfast Telegraph

How George Best surprised Northern Ireland squad when he stepped on the plane to the Netherlands in 76, explains David McCreery

George Best and Johan Cruyff graced the same pitch in 1976.
George Best and Johan Cruyff graced the same pitch in 1976.
Dutch maestro: Johan Cruyff in his pomp, and who was marked by David McCreery in Rotterdam in October 1976
George Best
David McCreery

By Paul Ferguson

Northern Ireland's former midfield tormentor in chief David McCreery beams with pride as he casts his mind back to October 1976 in Rotterdam.

Nearly 43 years to the day, it was a time when mercurial Danny Blanchflower took charge of his first Northern Ireland match, the great George Best returned from the international wilderness after a self-imposed three-year absence, and a 19-year-old midfield dynamo from Belfast, with only a handful of international caps under his belt, was given the ominous task of keeping Dutch master Johan Cruyff quiet at the imposing De Kuip stadium.

Northern Ireland were supposed to be lambs to the slaughter against a star-studded Netherlands side who included Johann Neeskens, Ruud Krol, the Van der Kerkoff brothers and Rob Resenbrink in their ranks alongside Cruyff.

The Dutch, managed by legendary figure Ernst Happel, had already lit up the 1974 World Cup with their sensational performances and reached the final. They would do the same in Argentina in 1978 but in a qualifier for the tournament in Rotterdam, they had to settle for a share of the spoils against brave and bold Northern Ireland as the match finished 2-2.

McCreery, during a storied career, debuted for Manchester United at just 17-years-old, played in two World Cup finals for his country, won an FA Cup winner's medal with the Red Devils in 1977 and made nearly 300 appearances in a Newcastle United shirt.

Yet one of his proudest moments came that night in the port city of Rotterdam, when not only did McCreery keep Cruyff quiet for most of the match, but he played a crucial role in Northern Ireland's deserved equaliser.

McCreery, now 62, recalled: "Danny Blanchflower had taken over from Dave Clements and Rotterdam was his first game in charge.

"Danny was the kind of guy who would tell you, 'If they score one, you score two'. We got half that right that night.

"Chris McGrath opened the scoring from a Sammy (McIlroy) cross then Ruud Krol equalised with a long-range effort before Cruyff broke away and scored.

"Late on I remember thinking to myself, 'We've got a lot to do here' and then some space opened up for me down the left.

"The keeper parried my cross and Derek (Spence) scored. It was a fantastic feeling to hold the Dutch in their own backyard."

Cruyff, the lynchpin of the Dutch side, was captivating crowds on the international scene as well as with Spanish giants Barcelona, who he joined after a stellar spell with Ajax.

"I marked Johan Cruyff so it was a busy night for me," admitted McCreery. "He scored but I got my own back by supplying the cross to make it 2-2 near the end. Cruyff was getting on a bit but he was still a world-class player.

"However, it wasn't just him we had to worry about. They were an absolutely fantastic team with fantastic players, (Johan) Neeskens, (Ruud) Krol and (Rob) Resenbrink to name a few."

Northern Ireland, too, had a gem of their own sparkling that night with then 30-year-old Best, who was playing for Second Division Fulham at that stage of his career, rolling back the years to produce a vintage performance of breathtaking flair and trickery.

McCreery, recruited for Manchester United like Best by renowned Belfast scout Bob Bishop, remembers though that the Northern Ireland players only knew the east Belfast favourite was going to play for them when he stepped on the plane to the Netherlands.

He stated: "Back in those days we would train near the airport before flying out and we heard a rumour that George might play.

"We waited for him to arrive and he eventually turned up. I don't think he trained with us before we flew out to Rotterdam but just having him on the plane made us all feel 10ft tall."

With Best making fools out of the Dutch stars with his cheeky nutmegs and turn of pace, his display suddenly alerted top teams from across Europe that Best still possessed his great talent which left teams in tatters.

"He nutmegged a couple of the Dutch players - one of them might have been Neeskens - and they didn't like it," confirmed McCreery.

"I also remember him curling one that looked to be heading for the far corner but the keeper touched it round the post.

"Then after the match, word had obviously got out that George had turned back the clock and he kept getting interrupted at the dinner table by phone calls from teams from all over Europe.

"We all had a bit of a laugh about it but George took it all in his stride. He was a gentleman and didn't make a fuss of himself. He would try and not make himself the centre of attention at such times.

"I don't recall him mentioning any of the teams by name, but by the amount of phone calls he received at the restaurant and the bar that night proved he was far from finished.

"People forget that George was a hardy soul. He didn't just have silky skills, he could head, he could tackle and they were on show that night, too.

"Above all he was a fantastic character and we were blessed to have him that night."

Rookie boss Blanchflower, who led his team to third place in that qualifying group behind the Netherlands and Belgium, was fortunate to have nine players in his team who were plying their trade in England's top flight - yet they were still expected to be hammered by the Dutch.

In contrast to Michael O'Neill's side for tomorrow night's Euro 2020 qualifier at the same stadium in Rotterdam, the current Northern Ireland manager will likely have just two - Watford's Craig Cathcart and Leicester City's Jonny Evans - as Norwich City's Jamal Lewis is out injured, Canaries goalkeeper Michael McGovern is expected to start on the bench and Northern Ireland No.1 Bailey Peacock-Farrell hasn't yet played a Premier League game for Burnley.

McCreery has been following the fortunes of O'Neill's men closely and believes even though there is the obvious disadvantages in player personnel, Northern Ireland can replicate the terrific feat of 1976 and secure what would be a crucial draw to keep their Euro qualifying hopes alive.

He added: "It is a difficult group with Holland and Germany, but we always knew that. Northern Ireland will show no fear and go there with the same fighting spirit as we did and have a real go.

"It is the same attitude that is in the make-up of all Northern Ireland teams. What Michael is doing is incredible and it wouldn't be a shock if they come back with something.

"Michael doesn't have George Best and he was our trump card. We always thought we had a chance with George."

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