By virtue of the fact that eleven players can play for Manchester United at any one time, hundreds of players can claim to have represented the club.
Only eleven can say that they played for the first game for the club. Only one can claim to be the first-ever substitute for Manchester United, and that man was John Fitzpatrick, who sadly passed away this morning at the age of 74.
Aberdeen-born Fitzpatrick joined the Old Trafford club as a trainee and was part of the last great youth team created by Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy.
A hard-as-nails utility player equally at home in defence or midfield – but mostly used as a full-back after starting off further forward – Fitzpatrick played 147 times for the club, scoring ten goals.
Sadly, John was forced to retire early through a knee injury; undoubtedly he would have been part of the post-Busby rebuild, and there is a strong argument to say that the inability to replace him contributed to the speedier demise which saw the club relegated in 1974.
It has been a sad year for losses at United, particularly when it comes to the era of players in the immediate post-Munich time. Alex Dawson and Albert Quixall are two men who passed away earlier in 2020 who were tasked with the responsibility of coming into the team to replace those who had perished in Germany. So too, of course, was Nobby Stiles.
Fitzpatrick’s time came a little later, but he was one of the main success stories of the FA Youth Cup win in 1964. In the second leg of the final, all eyes were on George Best, and David Sadler scored a hat-trick, but Fitzpatrick earned plenty of column inches for his all-action display, with David Meek writing of his contribution : “It was also a great night for John Fitzpatrick, the boy from Aberdeen. His pants were thick with mud after the first few minutes as he stormed into action. Then he matched his devastating tackling with beautiful distribution.”
That reputation as a fearless midfielder made him the ideal Murphy and Busby player and it is without question that he would have been around United for years to come; he could count himself very unlucky indeed to have missed out on a medal with United as he played twice in the title winning side of 1965 and 3 times in 1967. He also played twice in the successful European Cup run of 1968, but was not in the squad for the final.
But a crucial squad member he was, with his strongest years coming after Wembley, as he played eighty-five league games in the next three years before his injury.
Earlier this year I was very fortunate to speak to John who had agreed to be interviewed for the book I was writing on George Best. The two arrived at the club at the same time and were very close friends. John could not speak highly enough of George, describing him as ‘the best player I ever saw, by a considerable distance’.
He was struggling with Alzheimers but was keen to contribute because of his fondness for George. The experience of interviewing him was wonderful. He had apologised in advance because he was worried he might not be able to remember much, but in actual fact provided stories I have never heard before and therefore became one of the most important people I spoke to about George.
John and George were thick as thieves in their younger days at the club, pushing each other on with their cross-country runs. They even served their apprenticeships as electricians together – though it didn’t last very long, as they would just clock on in the morning before walking out of the back door and going to train!
John told me that by the time he was making his way into the first team, the staff at the club were protecting the young players from any talk of Munich. “We never thought about Munich at all. It never entered our minds,” he said. “We were picked because we were good enough to get into the team. There were plenty of guys waiting to get in there if you weren’t up to it.”
That says much about the careful approach of the club but also about the professional attitude of Fitzpatrick.
His date with history came on October 16, 1965, when he came on as a substitute for Denis Law at White Hart Lane. The day is remembered more for that than the result – 5-1 to Spurs! Thankfully, John also had a milestone day with Spurs that was much happier in terms of result. His first United goals came in a 3-1 win against them in the 1968/69 season.
His fiery attitude did get him into trouble with the officials and he was sent off in Milan in 1969, having to be escorted by police back into the San Siro dressing rooms. He was given an eight-week suspension, which meant he missed the second leg, and United’s elimination. The game in Italy was the final away European game played under Matt Busby.
Despite having the misfortune of missing out on those medals and having his career so cruelly curtailed, it can fairly be said that the tenacious competitor in Fitzpatrick was the perfect embodiment of what Jimmy Murphy looked to instil in his players.
“He loved developing talented players of course, but I think it was equally rewarding for him to bring through a Nobby Stiles for every Duncan Edwards, a Billy Foulkes for a Bobby Charlton,” Jimmy’s son Nick told me when I was writing the biography of Jimmy Murphy. “He did love a dirty player, he loved John Fitzpatrick who was from that mentality!”
A summary of their bond. Ahead of the European tie against Polish side Gornik Zabrze, Bill Foulkes failed a fitness test, and after a reshuffle, John was told he would have to play full-back against the opposition’s best player on a frozen and snow covered pitch in Poland. He had usually played further forward on the pitch before this occasion.
Jimmy faced Fitzpatrick, put his hands on his shoulders and rasped, “John, you know what you have to do do? Get stuck in and give the winger no space and time.” Fitzpatrick stuck to his task and gave a great performance; Jimmy was proud of the sacrifice and application. It gave Fitzpatrick a new home in the team.
John’s commitment to being part of the family extended into the period of his rehabilitation. Brian Greenhoff, then of the youth team, spoke of how John would usually give him a lift to the Cliff training ground from Old Trafford. John used the trips as an excuse to have a cup of tea with the canteen staff.
He was a well-loved member of the club, an important figure in Manchester United history and a sad loss.