Belfast Telegraph

Our sporting lives and times with Derek Spence: 'Goal away to Dutch and playing alongside Bestie were moments in my career I'll cherish forever'

Derek Spence recalls night in 1976 when NI tamed mighty Holland

Big moment: Derek Spence fired a late equaliser against Holland in 1976
Big moment: Derek Spence fired a late equaliser against Holland in 1976

As his right foot lashed the ball into the net and the adrenalin rush hit his body Derek Spence couldn't have known that he was in what he himself describes as the best moment of his life.

Northern Ireland's 2-2 draw against the mighty Netherlands team that two years earlier had played in the World Cup final and two years later would do the same again is one of the most iconic games in the country's history, particularly as it had been two years since the team had avoided defeat away from home.

Even those who weren't born have heard about it and with the clips now available to view online there are few Northern Ireland fans who haven't seen the goals, Chris McGrath putting Danny Blanchflower's men ahead after just four minutes before Spence's equaliser two minutes from time.

As Michael O'Neill prepares to take Northern Ireland back to Rotterdam for the first time since that famous 1976 encounter he would love to be in the same position as Blanchflower, who recalled a certain George Best for the first time in three years.

A Spence-esque super-sub would also go down well.

For Derek though, there was so much more to it than his first goal at international level.

"That week was unbelievable. Not only did I get the equalising goal, but I met my boyhood hero. I loved Jimmy Greaves, because I was a Tottenham supporter, but George Best was just in another class," said Spence, vividly recalling the memories of 43 years ago.

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"I met him on the Sunday night and it was just amazing. Just to be around George was unbelievable.

"Danny Blanchflower was instilling this confidence in us to attack. He was way ahead of his time in reality. When you have George Best in your team you always have a chance of doing something and everybody went out with this fantastic belief that we could get something against possibly the best team in the world at the time.

"Chris McGrath scored early and we were playing really well. The Dutch came back and when Danny told me to get warmed up, I never warmed up as quickly in my life. I was on the pitch within about two minutes. I was going in to play against a top team, but there was no fear whatsoever and I was so lucky because the ball David McCreery knocked across, the goalkeeper should have taken it really, but he parried it and I anticipated him parrying it, I just hit it - and it was the best moment in my life."

Spence's memories of those events almost exactly 43 years ago are so clear because it was probably the most eventful week in his career.

It started with a fall-out with his manager at Bury and less than 24 hours after his goal in Rotterdam he had signed for Blackpool, making his debut two days later.

"I found out that Tommy Kavanagh - who was Danny Blanchflower's assistant with Northern Ireland - had said to the lads at Manchester United, 'Derek would have been great in our dressing room had Bury sold him'," explained Spence.

"I said 'what do you mean?' and was told that they'd put a bid in of £40,000 and another £20,000 when I got a cap. Nobody told me.

"I found out a year later and went in to see the manager Bobby Smith and had heated words with him. Bobby had played at Manchester United, which was really annoying because he knew that was a fantastic opportunity for me.

"They wanted £100,000, which was greedy, and when I left the manager's office I nearly took the hinges off the door. I went over to Holland, scored the goal and signed for Blackpool the next day."

His soon-to-be-released autobiography 'From the Troubles to the Tower' will chronicle Spence's time from leaving Belfast as a raw teenager in 1971 when his father told him the best thing he could do was leave Northern Ireland, to spending half his life in Blackpool where he has now lived for well over 40 years.

Growing up in north Belfast, just off the Serpantine Road, had been a joy, living and playing in mixed communities - even playing in the same football team as future Republican hunger striker Bobby Sands.

As things changed in Belfast, however, he was glad to get the opportunity to leave, rather than getting dragged into paramilitary activity himself.

"It was a mixed community where I lived," he said.

"I went up to Dunlop Memorial Presbyterian, so did my Catholic friends, and I in turn went down to the Star of the Sea with them and we had a great time. I played a few games for them. It was the same time as Bobby Sands was there and he played too. I wouldn't have known who he was but a friend of mine, Dessie Black, told me Bobby Sands had been in and around Star of the Sea at the same time, but it wouldn't have made any difference to us.

"I'd had six or eight months working on the Shankill Road in 1968-69 and to see all the gangs of youths - I was only 18 myself - it would have been very, very easy to get caught up in that and I thank God that I didn't.

"With my blond hair I stood out like a sore thumb and it was only going to be a matter of time before somebody got a hold of me because I'd a few wee warnings to stay away from certain areas. I even got chased from Star of the Sea with a mate from the Whitewell, which was unfortunate.

"The message was loud and clear. Things were changing - and not for the better, which was quite sad."

What followed was something of a whirlwind rise. Spence only made the school team at Dunlambert a few months before he left and his short spell as a goalkeeper ended when the teacher who took the side ditched him after a 7-0 defeat. It was, without doubt, a blessing in disguise.

"The PE teacher asked if I could play in another position. I told him I was happy to play anywhere as long as I got a game," he explained.

"I played on the wing, I scored a couple of goals and then I was asked to join Cairn Lodge. Crusaders came and asked me to go and play for the reserves because there were a few other players going down. Within a year after that I made a few appearances for the first team and the next thing I was away in England."

Taking a pay cut to sign for Oldham Athletic - where he spent most of his time in the Boundary Park reserves - he added: "I was earning more money as a joiner - people nowadays wouldn't believe that."

Bury was where he really made his name before that fall-out with the manager, but that was another blessing in disguise as he joined Blackpool, where he has been for the best part of the last 43 years, with two spells as a player before becoming club Community Officer for 20 years.

Being told his first-team chances were going to be limited he developed a wanderlust and headed to Greece - via Belgium!

"I flew over to Belgium and had the strangest trial you've ever seen," he said.

"It was one-on-one and when we went into the changing room it wasn't what I would call a medical, he just checked my knees and said, 'you're going to Olympiakos in Greece'. Nobody had mentioned Olympiakos until that moment.

"It was an unbelievable experience. We didn't lose many games at home, partly because Olympiakos apparently bought most of them. If we did lose at home, our own players had probably thrown the match. The corruption was unbelievable. I couldn't stay there any longer. Much as I liked the place and it was good money, I wanted to play proper football."

International football was also a reason to go back to England, but when his World Cup dream was crushed in 1982 his love for the game went with it.

"I played against France in the February and Billy Bingham shook hands with me and said 'I'll see you in May'. I thought I was a dead cert," said Derek.

"There were only 18 players who went to France and there would be 22 going to Spain, but when the 22 was named and I read it on Teletext my name wasn't on it. It hurt then and it still hurts, even though it's 37 years ago. I couldn't even watch the games, it was only very recently that I've watched the Northern Ireland games again and two years later I finished playing football."

He did fit in one more move, this time heading to Hong Kong, where he had one more engagement with his hero Best.

"The terms were brilliant and I'd had a bit of a body blow with the World Cup," he said.

"It was fantastic - and as a bonus I teamed up with George Best again.

"He came over for a month and it was absolutely awesome. I have his shirt to prove it."

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