It was one of the most remarkable coincidences in the history of Manchester United: the evening when John Fitzpatrick came on as the Red Devils’ first-ever substitute for Denis Law in 1965.
Remarkable, because both these players were born and raised in Aberdeen and found themselves in the north of England as part of the famous Busby Babes.
And although the duo experienced contrasting fortunes during their careers at United, tributes have been paid to Fitzpatrick, who also managed Highland League clubs Huntly and Buckie Thistle, following the news of his death aged 74.
The wing-half originally started his career with Thistle Lads’ Club in the Granite City, where he was spotted by fabled scout, Archie Beattie, and invited to Old Trafford.
Fitzpatrick, an uncompromising and utterly committed performer, was one of the main success stories of the Red Devils’ FA Youth Cup victory in 1964.
His pants were thick with mud
In the second leg of the final, the majority of supporters were focused on the trickery of George Best, while David Sadler scored a hat-trick, but the Scot gained plenty of attention for his barnstorming display, with Manchester Evening News journalist David Meek declaring: “It was 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.”
On several occasions thereafter, it was a case of so near and yet so far for the youngster who missed out on collecting a championship medal with United despite appearing twice in the title-winning side of 1965.
And then, three years later, he was also involved twice in the club’s successful European Cup run of 1968, but did not feature in the squad for the final.
Old Trafford pays its respects to John
Manchester United have expressed their condolences to their former player’s family.
They said: “The Scotsman will always be part of the club’s history after becoming the first substitute used by the club in a league match, replacing Denis Law during a defeat to Tottenham in October, 1965.
“He won the FA Youth Cup with the Reds in 1964, as a side also containing George Best beat Swindon Town in the two-legged final.
“The versatile performer had become a regular by the time of the 1970-71 season, replacing Shay Brennan at full-back in the side.”
John was one of the good guys
Former team-mate Alex Stepney was among those who paid tribute.
He posted on social media: “So sad to hear that John Fitzpatrick has passed away.
“John was a fantastic man and a terrific footballer. RIP John, one of the good guys, all my love to family x.”
His old club added: “Everybody at Manchester United would like to echo those sentiments and send condolences at this difficult time.”
Every match was like a Cup final
He had progressed to the first-team squad and made his debut at the age of 18 in February 1965, filling in for Nobby Stiles – who also passed away just a few weeks ago – at left-half during a 1-0 away defeat to Sunderland.
Fitzpatrick said earlier this year: “In those days, our players never wanted a rest. You wanted to play every week and if you missed out, you knew that you’d have a tremendous battle trying to get your place back.
“We enjoyed the living we made from football, but the biggest motivation was taking part in huge games. Every match was like a cup final when you played with United.”
His first-team opportunities were limited under Busby for the next two seasons by the performances of experienced internationals Stiles and Paddy Crerand.
But Fitzpatrick eventually merited an extended run in the side in a variety of positions during the 1967-68 season including the European Cup where he participated in the away games against Sarajevo and Gornik Zabrze.
A night of mixed emotions
On May 29, the Red Devils won their first European Cup by beating Benfica 4-1 at Wembley, but the night was one of mixed emotions for the 21-year-old Fitzpatrick.
He recalled: “I was disappointed. I thought I had a chance of being selected, but we had so many top players it was hard to argue with the team picked by Matt Busby.
“And to be part of the United squad to win the European Cup for the first time and to get a medal was a great thrill.
“I played in the away games against Sarajevo and Gornik, and they were two of the toughest ties of the run.”
Fitzpatrick thought Best was the best
He added: “At United, we had our own [Lionel] Messi in my mate George Best. Benfica came to the European Cup Final with Torres and Eusebio, but George was the greatest I played with or against. He had it all and he made all the difference on the night.
“There was tremendous confidence in our camp before the Wembley final.
“And although it was a stiflingly hot night and the game went to extra-time, I was always sure United would win. Even in extra-time, our boys were very strong.
“It was a fantastic night for Matt Busby. After the Munich Air Disaster [in 1958], he really desperately wanted to win the European Cup.
“To be involved in that first European win was something very special. There’s a picture of George Best and me with the trophy at the front of the open-top bus going through Manchester. It’s a wonderful memory.”
I knew John Fitzpatrick well from his time in the @SHFLfb as manager of @huntlyfc. Spent a great afternoon in his company at his home in Aberdeen a year or two ago where he regailed me with his tales of @ManUtd and his best buddy, George Best in particular. RIP John! https://t.co/He8txlWnUV
— dave (@1davethesave) December 21, 2020
His career was wrecked by injury at just 26
The following season, Fitzpatrick turned out at right-back and was sent off in the first-leg of the European Cup semi-final against Inter Milan in the San Siro.
He was the architect of his own downfall when he was despatched for kicking an opponent, fined £50 and suspended for 14 days.
Fitzpatrick suffered a serious injury following a challenge by Johnny Giles during a match against Leeds United which subsequently required four operations to correct.
Although he was able to return for the 1972-73 season, he played just six first-team games before doctors advised him to retire at the age of 26.
The injury brought to an end a career in which he played 147 games and score 10 goals for the Reds under Matt Busby, Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell.
Fitzpatrick, as affable an individual off the pitch as he was all action and aggression on it, returned to the Granite City after retiring where he got involved with typical enthusiasm while working as a self-employed wine merchant.