Derek Spence’s journey from Shankill Road to playing alongside George Best

Derek Spence’s story is one of humble beginnings. One of seven children, from a small council house in Belfast, he admitted “we didn't have a lot”. Although poor in money he was rich in family and more than content with his simple but wonderful childhood. Little did this boy know that he was to become a footballer who would play for his country.

Terrorism hit Belfast and the IRA (Irish Republican Army) grew in stature. He recalls a time on the notorious Shankill Road:

“It all kicked off outside my brother in law’s shop because it was in a catholic area. There were thousands of hooligans, that’s all I can really call them, outside and they obviously saw us as the target because we were in the shop, it was terrifying.

You haven’t got a chance against a mob who can tear you to pieces.”

This period of Derek’s life was bitter-sweet. In 1970 came his big break. The option was to stay in Ireland and practise his trade as a joiner or to go and try his fortunes in England. Football was his ticket out. “People were getting blown up on a regular basis.” He explained.

Derek asked his dad “What do you think?”

“Well if I were you son… I’d get out.” There seemed to be no choice at all.

Derek signed his first professional football contract in a pub in Oldham. It was for just £18 a week. He earned £25 as a joiner back in Ireland. However, money was irrelevant to him. He grasped the opportunity to become a footballer with both hands, something he had dreamed of since England won the world cup in 1966.

Realising his dream required dogged determination. Derek spent three years in the reserves at Oldham, it was a “hard slog”, but he accepted he had to learn his craft and bide his time.

Derek’s most notable appearance occurred in 1976. He was selected to play for Northern Ireland in a World cup qualifying game. Fates were to change when he played alongside one of the undisputed greats of the beautiful game, George Best.

“George Best was probably the biggest name in football at the time. The first time I actually met him and socialised with him he was just a wonderful, wonderful guy- absolutely brilliant.”

Derek Spence (right) with team mate George Best (left) when at Hong Kong Rangers in 1984

Derek explained that on the Dutch team was the other master of football, the late Johan Cruyff.

Derek was on the bench for this game. Underdogs Northern Ireland went 1 nil up, but the Dutch were swift to respond and Cruyff made it 2–1 for Holland.

Derek Spence talking about his most memorable and crucial equaliser for Northern Ireland against the mighty Dutch
Video credit: TheParkyni

Derek recalls with great fondness his association at Blackpool Football Club.

“My time for Blackpool was fantastic because we had a really great team in 1976, it was probably the best team I ever played in if I’m being truthful- the highest I ever played in English football and we just missed out on promotion to the first division then, there was no premier league.”

Not many players were given the opportunity to play on the continent. He joked to being the first Irish player to play for Olympiacos without even knowing where Greece was! Despite playing in front of massive crowds of 50,000 compared to the 20,000 fans at Blackpool, Greece was not home and return to familiar territory was inevitable.

I was anxious to know what Derek’s advice would be. His response didn’t disappoint, it was both inspiring and expected.

“The best advice is to never give up; I believe If you want it enough you can become a footballer you don’t always have to be the best technically I think it’s actually in here you know.” *he points to his heart*.

Wise words indeed.