The day the IRA threatened to shoot Manchester United's George Best
When Manchester United visit St James' Park on Sunday, Jose Mourinho and his players can be certain of a hostile welcome from Newcastle United supporters but the backdrop to the game will be very different from the one George Best faced 47 years ago.
Alexis Sanchez and company will be targeted in the loosest sense of the word. Best, on the other hand, was literally a marked man when he stepped on to the pitch in front of 55,603 fans in Tyneside on Oct. 23, 1971. The day before a newspaper office in London had received a telephone call from someone purporting to be from the IRA. The message was as simple as it was sinister – if Best played at St James' Park, he would be shot.
It is easy to forget now but, amid all the attention Best's extraordinary talent, mop-top hairdo, pop-star good looks and hedonistic lifestyle attracted, his Belfast roots brought other, less welcome distractions and they threatened to come to a head on that unsettling autumn afternoon in Newcastle.
A surreal 48 hours is chillingly retold in a new book, Green Shoots – Irish Football Histories, by the journalist Michael Walker and charts how Best was forced to eat alone, with police stationed outside his hotel room, the night before the game and then took refuge on the aisle floor of the team bus en route to the stadium, where he was smuggled in by four plain clothes police officers. As pre-match preparations go, it was far removed from the usual routine.
Some context is important and, suffice to say, October 1971 was a bloody month in Best's homeland, with 33 murders across Northern Ireland. A quasi civil war was raging in Belfast and, as Walker documents, the morning of the match at Newcastle only intensified fears after reports emerged that two sisters, Dorothy Maguire and Maura Meehan, had been shot dead by the British Army off the Falls Road.
It would later transpire that the sisters were members of Cumann na mBan – or the Irishwomen's Council - and the first female IRA members killed in the Troubles. To compound matters, three men were shot dead by the British Army in Newry later the same day while trying to rob a bank.
Best, United and the police had no choice but to take the threat seriously and planned accordingly. But for all Best's worries about his own safety, and that of his family on the Cregagh estate in east Belfast, sitting out the game was not an option in his eyes, even if he had struggled to reassure his father, Dickie, when he rang to say it was probably only a crank.
Frank O'Farrell, United's manager who was born in Cork, had a better understanding of the situation than most and offered Best a way out but his star player would not have it. Although from a protestant background, Best vehemently denied – and always did - any donation to Ian Paisley's new Democratic Unionist Party, which had formed the month before after two men were killed and 27 others injured when the IRA bombed the Four Step Inn on the Shankill Road in Belfast. Best felt the need to make a conscious stand, concerned that a no-show would merely encourage death threats on a weekly basis.
"George was brave, and it was a different type of bravery," Alan Gowling, one of Best's United team-mates that day, told the Sunday Telegraph this week.
"Some of the tackles he faced were quite vicious and he didn't get the protection but he was always prepared to take them and go back at the same defender who'd kicked him – or at least tried to kick him – and it was probably the same in terms of his attitude towards playing in that match. ‘Why should I not play in this game?' and he was probably quite right in thinking, ‘If I don't play, when is it ever going to end?'"
Tensions had hardly been eased when it was discovered that United's team bus had been broken into overnight, although black humour still abounded. "I suppose this is the work of one of your Irish mates," one team-mate joked to Best, according to Walker. Gowling recalls players deliberately trying to lighten the mood. "Although the threat had to be taken seriously, it was the funnier side of things I remember most," Gowling recalled.
"Denis [Law] would take the mickey. It was his way of trying to take off a bit of the pressure George must have been feeling." Players usually room shared but there was no one putting their hand up to bunk with Best that night, with police assigned to guard his room at the Swallow Hotel.
If Best was feeling the pressure as he lay on the coach floor before being whisked into St James's Park by his eagle-eyed bodyguards, he hid it well. "You got the feeling with George that no matter what was coming at him he would just handle it quite normally," Gowling said.
Best was 24 at the time and, in Walker's words, "producing what turned out to be one of the last sustained bursts of his extraordinary talent". O'Farrell had claimed Best was "covering up a multitude of sins" at Old Trafford at that time, with 10 goals in United's first 13 league games, and that day against Newcastle would prove no different, despite the threat hanging over him. Best told himself to keep running.
"Somehow I felt that I should not stand still," he later said. The game finished 1-0. The scorer? Why Best, of course. "I remember everyone was a bit reluctant to go and congratulate him," Gowling said. "They didn't want to get to close to him for obvious reasons!"
Best's talent had won out again, even if the post-match conferences were notable for an unfortunate choice of words from Joe Harvey, the Newcastle manager. "I wish they had shot the little bugger," he said.
Green Shoots – Irish Football Stories by Michael Walker is available at http://www.decoubertin.co. uk/greenshoots