Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

Relive the night George Best nutmegged Johann Cruyff and dazzled for Northern Ireland in Rotterdam

Football legend George Best brought his magic to Rotterdam in 1976.
Football legend George Best brought his magic to Rotterdam in 1976.

By Russell Stoddart

Back in the autumn of 1976, the ravages of alcohol and a champagne lifestyle had already caught up with George Best just months after his 30th birthday.

But just occasionally, there were glimpses of the glorious talent that had seduced football fans around the world.

One such night occurred in Rotterdam, when Best ended a three-year exile to join up with Northern Ireland for a World Cup qualifier.

It was to prove a memorable occasion as the battling Green and White army stood toe-to-toe with their mighty hosts to earn a magnificent 2-2 draw.

Northern Ireland return to the city this week for the first time in 43 years with echoes of the past ringing in their ears.

Just as back then, it seems a near-impossible task, but if Michael O'Neill's side can invoke the spirit of '76 then back-to-back Euros finals will be within their grasp.

This was the Dutch side of Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskens at the peak of their powers, but the star of the show was a man in green.

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It was another glorious chapter in the Boys' Own adventures of Best.

It began by nutmegging Cruyff and Neeskens and ended with him holding court at the dinner table, fielding phone calls from some of Europe's elite clubs pleading with him to sign.

The Dutch were arguably the best team in the world and undeniably the most entertaining. This game was sandwiched between the Netherlands' two World Cup final appearances in Germany in 1974 and Argentina in 1978.

It was also significantly Danny Blanchflower's first game in charge of a country that he graced as a player and captain.

Best had been posted missing for much of the 1974 World Cup qualifiers and the early group games for the 1976 European Championships, distracted by on and off the pitch problems.

But the former Manchester United winger, who had recently joined Fulham after a spell in the United States, also had a great respect for Blanchflower and offered his services against the Dutch.

"We were lambs to the slaughter, but having Bestie gave us all a big lift that night," recalls Best's ex-Manchester United team-mate Sammy McIlroy.

"We were never quite sure in those days if he would show. He had so many other commitments. While we got a boost from Bestie being available, I think seeing him on the teamsheet affected them, too.

"Just being on the same pitch as him was an absolute privilege.

"He was carrying a bit more weight than when he was in his pomp, but even in just a half decent condition, he could be unplayable.

"There was still some lovely signs of the player he had been. He could beat people and even though he couldn't get away from them any more, his passing was great and he got into some great positions.

"I was fortunate to have spent a bit more time with him during my early days at Man United, but it was a ray of sunshine for the rest of the team just having him there.

"The added bonus was to see him perform something like he had been years before."

There was just four minutes on the clock when Best made his presence count, with a raking cross-field pass to McIlroy, whose inch-perfect cross picked out Chris McGrath for the opener.

Krol levelled with a 30-yard screamer midway through the second half before Cruyff gave the hosts the lead just two minutes later. Super sub Derek Spence was to have the final say, slotting home late on.

"I vividly remember Bestie putting the ball through Neeskens' legs and the Dutchman didn't take kindly to it. He spent the rest of the match kicking him.

"Despite that, they showed Bestie a lot of respect, particularly Cruyff.

"I had never seen a manager's face with a grin from ear to ear like Danny's that night. He was a realist and didn't expect much from the game. His attitude was to go and equalise before they score."

McIlroy already knew from their Manchester United days together that Bestie was the centre of attention wherever he went.

Having shown on the international stage that he was still capable of sprinkling some magic dust on a football pitch, club secretaries and agents wasted no time in seeking him out, causing the restaurant hotel back at the team's hotel to ring off the wall.

"He was up and down like a yo-yo," McIlroy said. "The first couple of times, a waiter would come over, have a word in his ear and he would be off to answer the phone. Each time he came back and said that 'so and so' a club wanted to sign him. He took it all in his stride. Eventually, the waiter got fed up and just brought the phone over to his table and left it.

"That night brought it all back to me just how special he was."

McIlroy hopes that some of the Best magic will rub off on the current generation of Northern Ireland stars, but admits the odds are against it.

"It will be very difficult," he added. "Michael has got some great kids coming through and we got the start in the group that we wanted, but now is the hardest part.

"Holland have hit form at the wrong time for us and their win in Germany was impressive.

"If we can snatch a point, it would be a fantastic result. We've shown in recent years that it is not beyond us."

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