He of the unkempt, straggly hair.
That was the way I used to easily identify John Fitzpatrick, a battling, teak-tough Scot who just loved a tackle.
He was usually on the fringes of the great United side that boasted Charlton, Law and his close-friend, Georgie Best, but did get a good three-season run between 1968 and 1971, when he appeared in 85 league games for the team.
These days a Scot playing that consistently for Manchester United would be a shoe-in for a collection of international caps, but such recognition never came John’s way, either at full or u23 level. Even by the standards of the day it was strange Fitzpatrick was never capped, certainly enough to make you wonder if there were certain reasons behind his continual exclusions.
Manchester United can only ever have one first-ever substitute, and for that very reason his name will forever be etched in the club’s record books. And by a strange twist of fate the player he replaced on that day was fellow Aberdonian, Denis Law, in a 1-5 defeat to Spurs at White Hart Lane.
It was also against Tottenham that he scored his first of ten goals for United in 147 appearances (all comps). This time it was in a 3-1 win.
Fitzpatrick broke his leg before joining United as an apprentice, delaying his arrival until July 1962.
He played in the successful FA Youth Cup winning side of 1964 alongside the likes of Best, Aston and Sadler, coming in for special praise from Manchester Evening News’ David Meek in the second-leg.
While most were there to witness the trickery of Best, Meek noted -
‘It was a great night for John Fitzpatrick, the boy from Aberdeen.
‘His pants were thick with mud after the first few minutes after he stormed into action. Then he matched his devastating tackling with beautiful distribution.’
Fitzpatrick was often the nearly man at Old Trafford, playing in 2 games and 3 games respectively in the championship winning seasons of 1965 and 1967. He also made two appearances in the run to European Cup success in 1968, in the away fixtures against FK Sarajevo and Gornik Zabrze, a game on a snow-covered pitch with red markings, in which he was tasked with shackling Gornik’s top player Wlodzimierz Lubanski.
Busby’s assistant, Jimmy Murphy faced the young Fitzpatrick, put his hands on his shoulders and growled, “John, you know what you need to do. Get stuck in and give him no space or time.”
Fitzpatrick stuck to the task in a disciplined performance making Murphy purr with pride. Best called the performance United’s best in the successful ‘68 European campaign and United were back in the Champions’ Cup semi-finals.
With Crerand at 4 and Stiles at 6, this was a difficult time for Fitzpatrick to gain a regular first-team place, and although he felt he was in with a chance of playing in the final, Busby went with his two more experienced wing-halves. It was a bitter disappointment for the 21 year-old, but one he understood.
Fitzpatrick’s combative, fiery temperament would sometimes see him land in trouble. He was sent-off in the first-leg of the following season’s semi-final against AC Milan at the San Siro, as United attempted to defend their title. It was the last match but one in which Busby took charge of the club in Europe.
Fitzpatrick did however become a regular in the 1970/71 season, but had his career curtailed at just 26 after suffering a knee injury for which medical opinion advised against playing on.
He’d been the victim of a challenge by Leeds United’s Johnny Giles which subsequently needed four operations to put right. Upon ‘recovery’, he played for the first-team only six more times before hanging up his boots.
As affable off the pitch as he was aggressive on it, John returned to Scotland and became a wine merchant and importer.
He also managed Highland League clubs, Huntly and Buckie Thistle.
In later life he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s joining a growing number of United players from that era to suffer with dementia. Nobby Stiles and Tony Dunne have also passed away this year, while Sir Bobby Charlton’s family confirmed his diagnosis last month.
John Herbert Norton Fitzpatrick - born Aberdeen, 18 August 1946. Died, 21 December 2020.