13/10/1976 Rotterdam Netherlands 2-2 Chris McGrath, Derek Spence
Pat Jennings, Pat Rice, Jimmy Nicholl, Allan Hunter, Tommy Jackson, Bryan Hamilton, David McCreery, Trevor Anderson, Chris McGrath (Derek Spence), Sammy McIlroy, George Best
George Best played in his first international since November 1973. It was a terrific start to the campaign for the Irish playing under Danny Blanchflower for the first time against the current World Cup runners-up, but this would prove to be the only Group 4 fixture that the Dutch would fail to win. Chris McGrath headed in Sammy McIlroy’s cross to put the Irish ahead on 4, George Best then had a goal bound effort well saved before Ruud Krol equalised with a 30 yard strike on 64. Johan Cruijff put the home side ahead from close range on 66, but Northern Ireland snatched a point with a late equaliser through substitute Derek Spence on 88 seizing on a loose ball after the Dutch keeper had pushed out a cross from David McCreery.
When George Best set out to humiliate Johan Cruyff
Even the greatest George Best fans had to admit, by 1976, that his best days were well behind him. 30 years old. Addicted to alcohol. Kicked out of Manchester United. George Best, many argued, was now a pale shadow of the genius dribbler he used to be.
That’s also what Dutch journalist Bert Nederlof thought. With the Holland vs Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier approaching, Nederlof was assigned the task to write a portrait of George Best. Nederlof flew to London to watch Best play for his new club Fulham against Southampton. After 90 minutes, Nederlof had seen enough. He wrote that Best was a fallen superstar no longer able to do what it takes to be a good footballer. Nederlof would soon regret those words.
A few hundred miles away, British journalist Bill Elliot was traveling with the Irish squad to the stadium where they’d meet Holland. The Orange squad, and their captain Johan Cruyff, in 1976, were synonymous with greatness. Elliot asked Best what he thought of Cruyff. “Outstanding”. “Better than you?”. George looked at the journalist and laughed. ‘You’re kidding aren’t you? I tell you what I’ll do tonight… I’ll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.”
What follows is Elliot’s description. “Five minutes into the game Best received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff’s feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.”
“Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening.”
While there doesn’t exist video evidence of this historic scene, Nederlof confirms that Best had played an absolutely incredible match, inspiring small Northern Ireland to a 2-2 draw against the best team in the world. “After the game, I caught the eye of the Dutch coach, Jan Zwartkruis. He gave me the most cold stare I’ve ever witnessed. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told him before the game that Best was nothing to worry about”.
“It was incredible. It’s funny but I was at a Rangers’ European game recently with Jimmy Calderwood and we were in the Blue Room at half-time and Ruud Krol was there. I asked Jimmy to introduce us because he knew him from his time in Holland. I said to Ruud ‘You won’t remember this but back in 1976 Northern Ireland played Holland in Rotterdam and we drew 2-2 and do you know what happened?…’ “He immediately cut in to say ‘Yeah, what a laugh we had after the game because Best nutmegged Neeskens and Cruyff in one go’. He explained how the pair hated it but the other players were all laughing their heads off after the match because of what had happened”I was so pleased Ruud confirmed the story because I’ve told it to numerous people over the years and no doubt they found it hard to believe.”
“We can afford to enjoy ourselves. Where’s the pressure? A 4-0 defeat will be a moral victory.”
Hugh McIlvanney (The Observer Newspaper):
“The result may have been first cousin to a miracle but the football played by Northern Ireland had the wholesome smell of naturalness about it, a freshness to revive senses dulled for so long by the odours of the embalming chamber.”