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Why George Best and I walked out on Manchester United after 24 hours: Eric McMordie

Former NI star turned successful businessman Eric McMordie on why he and the great George Best famously turned their backs on Old Trafford, playing alongside his pal in green and how daughter escaped Tsunami.

By Jim Gracey

"I don't think I fancy this, do you?" Eight words that shaped the destiny of two sporting lives and might also have altered the course of football history.

They were uttered by an overwhelmed and uncertain 15-year-old Eric McMordie to his boyhood pal, an equally unnerved George Best, as they wandered the streets of Manchester on their first night as fledgling United players.

Little did two hesitant youngsters, catapulted out of their east Belfast comfort zone, on their own for the first time, realise they had the world at their feet, the opportunity of a lifetime waiting to be grasped.

For they decided in that fateful moment to chuck it all away.

Next morning they were on a train to Liverpool and back to Belfast on the first boat.

It is part of the legend of George Best how he initially walked away from Old Trafford, overcome by homesickness and doubt in those daunting first 24 hours.

Luckily for George, United and football, the founding father of the great club, as we now know it, Sir Matt Busby, remembered another eight words in a prophetic telegram sent by his trusted Belfast-based scout, Bob Bishop.

"I think I have found you a genius," Bishop wrote.

Busby eventually persuaded a reluctant young Best to return and the rest, as we know, is history.

But whatever happened to the other likely lad?

His generation and students of the game will recall McMordie also re-crossing the channel, two years later, to carve out his own distinguished career with Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland.

In doing so, he played for two of the biggest names in the game as Boro managers, the renowned Raich Carter, who signed him, and Jack Charlton, who ended McMordie's career at the club, his appearances having been restricted by the emergence of a certain Graeme Souness.

Happily, we find him living a remarkably active life, aged 71, in the small, rural village of Hutton Rudby, near Middlesbrough.

The onset of health issues in recent times, a heart scare and 'a bit of a stroke' have not deterred him from his lifetime passion of building houses with another project under way. "My daughter says I will still be building houses when I am 80, if I am spared," he laughs.

McMordie still converses in a distinctive Belfast accent, despite over 50 years in England, a sign of a strong personality.

A self-made man, he has earned much more outside the game than he ever did as a player, through a lifetime of astutely acquiring land, building properties and owning a chain of off licences and convenience stores across Teesside, all borne out of a work ethic instilled on the Belfast building sites he returned to from his short-lived Old Trafford experience.

Astonishingly, in the context of today's gilded stars, he relates how even as a young professional footballer, he would leave training and go straight to work in a builders suppliers to keep learning the trade.

"My mother used to say you will end up with nothing if you don't work and my brothers reminded me if I had an injury I would be finished, so I had it in mind I needed something else I could do.

"The football always came first but without the rest I would have been bored stiff," he explains.

From Russia with love: George Best, Iam McFaul, Martin Harvey and Eric McMordie with NI in Moscow

It has been a life lived to the full, and still is, with two jolting reminders in close succession, just over a decade ago, of how quickly it can be cut short.

The second was the death of his pal George, aged just 59, in November 2005.

The previous Boxing Day, Eric and Belfast-born wife Sandra's youngest daughter Lindsey was caught up in the Asian tsunami disaster. The then 24-year-old was on the Thai island of Phi Phi when the natural disaster struck. She and best friend Leanne Cox were trapped beneath the waves. While Lindsey miraculously survived, Leanne tragically died.

"We were very fortunate to get her back. We were told she had gone under the water and not come back but the current brought her back up," he says thankfully.

Listening to him also brings back into sharp focus the terrible tragedy of George.

For McMordie's story is less one of what might have been for him, but what ought to have been for George, by common consent the greatest footballer the world has ever seen yet whose career effectively ended at 28 and his life at 59, in London's Cromwell Hospital, unable to conquer the demons of alcohol addiction that were a by-product of his fame.

And yet, the question has to be asked: does he harbour any regrets over that youthful decision to pack his bags after a single day and night in Manchester?

He was there because United's greatest ever talent scout, the unassuming Bishop, spotted the ability he was later to show for Middlesbrough and Northern Ireland.

Nicknamed the Ferret, for the way he could wriggle through the tightest spaces, he played inside forward or midfield, scoring his fair share of goals, but creating many more.

He could have done it at United, rather than less fashionable Middlesbrough, all who saw him have no doubt.

"Yes, I do sometimes look back, not so much now, and wonder could I have achieved more?" he confides. "It would be nice to know... but I think I did the right thing."

In terms of what he achieved for himself and how he has provided for his family, that is inarguable.

It is an opportune point in the conversation to take him back to that turning point in his life in the summer of 1961.

Is the story apocryphal, I wondered? Twenty-four hours seems such a short time for two boys to undergo such a dramatic change of heart.

"It was less than that," he smiles. "My brothers used to say I had set a world record for time spent at a club.

"I knew George from our schools football. He was Lisnasharragh, I was Orangefield. You know how it is in schools football; there is always a lot of talk about who the really good players are and George's name was always mentioned. So I looked out for him and we'd have a natter after games. We both then played for Bob Bishop's Boyland club. That was the team Bob ran for the young players he had scouted for United.

"Next thing I am going over to sign and take up an apprenticeship but I honestly didn't know until the last minute that George was coming too as Bob always played his cards close to his chest in case another scout or club got wind and made their own move.

"So we arrive in Manchester, go to The Cliff training ground, meet Matt Busby and the United staff and we are so overawed, even though they were superb to us. We are two 15-year-old kids who'd never been out of east Belfast on our own before and it is all so daunting and new.

"We go back to the digs the club have provided for us and again the family are wonderful and welcoming. The landlady was Mrs Fullaway, who George eventually went back to and he was well looked after. But at that age, we felt completely out of our depth and homesick. Neither of us could comprehend the break from home that we'd made nor could we envisage a life stretching ahead of us in these strange surroundings. Maybe if we'd been a bit older it would have been different, for me anyway, as I was able to settle with Sandra in Middlesbrough quite happily a few years later.

"That evening we went for a walk and I said to George: 'I don't think I fancy this, do you?' He replied: 'I think I feel the same. Let's go.' I felt bad about it for a long time as we were treated so well. We were just too young."

Looking at this picture of them, taken in the Belfast Telegraph office just before their departure, it is easier to understand them as boys, rather than young men, despite their dapper dress and trendy Sixties hairstyles. George is still wearing his school prefect's badge in his jacket lapel.

Eric McMordie with George before leaving for Manchester

A day later, they were back in the bosom of their families, George in Burren Way, Cregagh and Eric in East Bread Street, by the old Ropeworks where, like most of his generation, he learned the game, kicking a ball against a gable wall with Roy Coyle another contemporary.

United did not give up on George, but Eric's disillusionment was such he went to work as a plasterer, tried unsuccessfully to make a breakthrough with his boyhood favourites Glentoran and almost packed in the game completely for building work when B Division Dundela offered him a deal.

"Their manager, Albert Mitchell, came to our house and said if I wasn't happy at the Hen Run, I could leave at any time," he recalls. "I was reticent but I loved it. Dundela was more like a social club than a football club. It was like the street corner football all over again, everyone getting stuck in... shipyard language... I thoroughly enjoyed it and rediscovered my appetite for football as a career."

And once again, a twist of fate took him to Boro when he thought he was going to Leeds.

"A scout called Matt Willis approached Dundela about a move to Leeds," he says.

"My mother wanted me out of Belfast and off the building sites, into a job with prospects, so I agreed to go.

"Then the tickets arrived for a journey to Middlesbrough, via Newcastle. Matt had only gone and changed clubs!

"It was the making of me. I had 10 good years with Boro and, of course, Northern Ireland.

"I finally got to play alongside George... what an experience that was. He wasn't just a special talent, he was a lovely lad. He was bright with a great sense of humour and very generous. I knew the whole Best family growing up. They were salt of the earth. All his problems were off the field although I do remember the day he was sent off against Scotland for chucking mud at the referee. I was playing alongside him that day.

"I wouldn't hear a bad word about George. I was a bit of a drinker and a raker myself back in the day. Some people said I wouldn't see 30. I still enjoy a drink socially, but with George, it was an illness, an addiction. What happened to him was tragic."

McMordie also played in a famous 1-0 Northern Ireland win over England at Wembley in 1972, Terry Neill the scorer, and his record includes international goals against both Scotland and England.

He still follows the fortunes of Michael O'Neill's team, describing 'that penalty' against Switzerland as 'disastrous'.

At Boro, a yo-yo club then as now, he became an instant fan favourite after scoring in his first game at Ayresome Park against Rotherham.

Off the field, his construction experience led to him building his own homes on Teesside.

"When I left home my mum worried like hell. Sandra and I lived in a club house at first and eventually I bought some land and built a house," he says. "I then built a huge house in Hutton Rudby and my mum came over. She asked where I'd got the money from. I told her I'd robbed a bank!

"We had a good side in those days but we were never going to break the bank and go for glory; the club just didn't have the money."

The parting came after 10 enjoyable years with the arrival of Jack Charlton as manager. They clashed over tactics and how the game should be played. "Within a month of Jack coming in, I knew it was all over. We were chalk and cheese," he says. "Results were good but not achieved the way I wanted to play. But he had a good side and a magnificent record which you can't argue with."

Flashback: Eric McMordie tackles Dave Clements in NI training

Out of the team with two years left on his contract, the grafter in McMordie saw him take on a part-time Saturday job at a builders merchants while continuing to train with the club, which bemused his team-mates no end.

But Eric was working to a plan, knowing his then £60 a week wages from football would not keep him in retirement.

After leaving Boro in 1975, he had short spells at York and Hartlepool before retiring aged 32 and going full-time into the building trade.

"I was different and the lads knew it. It goes back to being frightened of being left with nothing," he maintains.

Comfortably off after the sale of his businesses, he still cannot contemplate a sedentary retirement, dividing his time between his latest house-building project and weekends spent with his grandchildren, Francesca (17) and 11-year-old Max, in nearby Newcastle, walking his daughter's dog for exercise.

Born the youngest of three brothers and two sisters, Eric maintains daily phone contact with his remaining two sisters, one in Dundonald, the other in Poole in Dorset.

"We had a wonderful upbringing in East Bread Street. Money and luxuries were scarce but we were rich in family and hard working values," he reflects. "I thought about coming home to live in Belfast again when I finished playing but the Troubles were going on and I didn't want my girls (Lindsey and Tracey) growing up in that environment. I still listen to the Northern Ireland news every morning, though."

Once headline news himself, who, but Eric McMordie, could claim turning his back on Manchester United as the best move he ever made?

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