Published: Happy Days Issue 8
Ten Greatest NI matches. No.4
21/10/1967 Belfast; Attendance 55,000
Northern Ireland 1 Scotland 0 (ECQ/HIC)
When Stan Mortensen scored a hat trick in the 1953 FA Cup Final he could be forgiven for being a little miffed that it was dubbed ‘The Stanley Matthews Final.” In the same way, Dave Clements winning goal against the Scots in 1967 has been overshadowed by the performance of the man who provided the assist; El Beatle himself, George Best. The game has become known as his greatest ever performance in the green shirt and stories of the day have been well recounted through the years.
There is little doubt that George Best was a huge name. A year after destroying Benfica in the 5-1 demolition in the European quarter final, he was a huge revenue generator for the Irish FA. For the game against Scotland, the crowd was three times larger than it had been at the previous home game against Wales where Best wasn’t playing. Despite having the 21 year old talent in their team, Northern Ireland resumed the role of underdogs, against a Scottish team fresh from defeating World Champions England, and boasting a strong line up including Denis Law, Ian Ure and Tommy Gemmill. Gemmill is seen as arguably one of the greatest British full backs of all time, and just 6 months previously had helped Celtic become the first British team to win the European Cup. When faced with the genius of Best however, he was painfully embarrassed as George would twist and turn, ‘nutmegging’ the full back and then gallop back to tease him again. Best’s performance that day was mesmerising, on an arena that resembled more of a quagmire than a football pitch, gaining credit from the Scottish press the following day.
There were 22 players on the pitch, but the vast majority seemed to be spectators, Gemmell in particular sitting on the field for much of the game. Debutants for Ireland Billy McKeag and Billy Campbell might have spent the night previous dreaming of a perfect performance, but they were merely pawns along with their teammates as Best battled with Scotland and Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson who excelled in goal, matching everything that Best could throw at him. The same could not be said of his defence however, who longed for the final whistle and the torture to end. Best would pop up everywhere, taking on defenders who tried to bring him down by any means possible but his exquisite balance shone through, all the time heading either for goal, or for Gemmell. Never has such an individual performance been witnessed, tearing apart the Scots, twisting their blood and shattering self-belief.
The goal finally came in the 67th minute. As the Scottish defence flocked to the immediate danger that was Best, he played the ball into Dave Clements in space, and he finished the move from within the penalty area. It was no more than was deserved, Simpson finally beaten after his heroics. The goal gave Billy Bingham a win in his first match as manager, a fact that has been glossed over in recent years. There was no doubt that the glory and limelight belonged to the ‘Belfast Boy’. The joy he gave the people of Northern Ireland had never been encapsulated as much as it was that day, in what has rightly become known as ‘The George Best Match’
Team: P. Jennings, W. McKeag, J. Parke, A. Stewart, T. Neill, D. Clements, W. Campbell, J. Crossan, D. Dougan, J. Nicholson, G. Best