“That day we played one of the best teams in the world, and we stuffed them!” - When Halifax Town beat Best, Law and Charlton’s Manchester United

Just over three years previously, Manchester United were Kings of Europe.

Saturday, 31st July 2021, 10:00 am
Bobby Charlton(Manchester United) in Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

But that famous European Cup triumph over Benfica at Wembley seemed light years away now.

Seven of the team that beat Eusebio’s Benfica started at The Shay on July 31, 1971, but they couldn’t see off Halifax Town.

This is the story of how George Kirby’s Third Division Shaymen overcame the mighty Manchester United in the Watney Cup.

George Best(Manchester United) in Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

It was the glorious last hurrah for a team that had come so close to making history.

Halifax Town had finished third in the Third Division the previous season, one place off promotion, winning more home games and scoring more home goals than any other side.

Had they secured promotion, it would have gone down in club folklore.

As it was, Town would end up 17th in the 1971-72 season, never again coming so close to the second tier.

Denis Law(Manchester United) in Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

But the nearly men did have their day in the sun, in-front of the Match Of The Day cameras, in a short-lived pre-season competition called the Watney Cup, which deserves a feature all of its own.

All those goals at The Shay the previous season had helped Halifax qualify, the criteria being the teams that scored the most goals in each of the top four divisions who had not been promoted or weren’t in Europe.

European competition was in the rear-view mirror for Manchester United, who finished eighth the previous campaign and would do so again in the season to come.

Frank O’Farrell had taken over as manager at the start of July, tasked with bringing the glory days back to Old Trafford.

Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

Instead, opposite number George Kirby would mastermind one of the greatest days in Halifax Town’s history.

“George got it bang on,” recalls Halifax centre-back Tony Rhodes, “he took us to Ireland a few days before, and allowed us a few beers shall we say!”

“It was a good build-up, George got it right.

“There was a lot of excitement knowing we were going to be playing against them.

Denis Law (Manchester United) , 71 Wattny Cup, Halifax 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax, 1971.7.31 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

“We had team meetings but it was all about us. We believed in ourselves, we knew we had a good side.

“The season before we’d just narrowly missed promotion. There was a belief throughout the side that we could play anybody, it didn’t matter.”

“The week before we flew out to Ireland and played a couple of friendlies,” says left-winger Barry Holmes.

“I think we went on the Sunday and played Drogheda, who were managed by Mick Meagan, who used to play for us.

“Then on Tuesday we played Dundalk and then we came home on the Wednesday or Thursday.

“I think we were pretty confident we could do our best against them.”

Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY

“We were over the moon,” says goalkeeper Alex Smith. “We got the plum draw, West Brom beat us in the next game, but we had our moment in the sun.

“We got a lot of good publicity out of it. Everybody wants to play Man United and in those days it was no different.

“Best, Law and Charlton was just the start, they had Stepney, and the rest of them, they were a good team.”

“West Brom, who were a dirty side, beat us in the next game and kicked the hell out of us,” recalls Scottish midfielder Lammie Robertson. “They were uncompromising to say the least.

“But we were chuffed to the playing them (Manchester United).

“There were 20,000 there, which I didn’t think you could get in The Shay!”

“A lot of the players didn’t live in and around Halifax, but I did,” says Rhodes. “When I signed, myself and the wife had just got married and we moved up there.

“Initially we moved up onto what they used to call Concrete City at the top of Illingworth, George got us a brand new maisonette.

“Then we bought a house at Claremount.

“We had friends come up from Derby for the game.

“We as players knew we were taking part in something a little bit special.

“It was surprising how many people were ringing in saying ‘I’ve been a supporter for 20 years’, well, where were they all when we’d played Bradford City or Barnsley on a dirty November night!

“But you could have filled the stadium so many times over.”

“We’d never played down there with so many people there before, they were hanging out of the doors,” says Holmes.

“It was a strange feeling to see so many there. The week before, when we came home from Ireland, there were a couple of days where we just had steady training sessions, and when we got back to the club after we’d been training, there were long lines of people getting tickets, we’d never seen anything like it before, it was a bit of a one-off.

“So that really bucked you up, and on the day, you thought ‘you’ve got to give it a go’, the cameras were there, 20,000 people were there, and you’re playing against the people you just see on picture postcards.”

“It was a great atmosphere,” recalls midfielder, but forward on the day, Dave Lennard, “and that lifted us, it really did.”

“A lot came over the border, I think there were a lot of United fans there,” says Robertson.

“I think we were getting three or four thousand at the time, maybe five at the most, so it was a bit different. A special day.”

“There were two people for every seat when they selling tickets for it,” says Rhodes.

“They were passing people over the turnstiles on the day and all sorts.

“It was great was the atmosphere in The Shay that day.

“Having the speedway track around it, a lot of the atmosphere got lost, but on that day, the speedway track was full of people.”

“It was a big occasion for us, they were a big side,” says Rhodes. “It was more than a friendly to us, because we knew it was a cup and there was a bit of money involved as well.

“We were certainly up for it. I think the club probably thought we’d just play the one game and then be knocked out, but we played quite well on the day and upset the odds.”

Just as he was nearly a decade later when Town beat United’s rivals Manchester City in the third round of the FA Cup, Kirby was instrumental in Halifax’s win.

“He was always a very positive character, he was completely different as a manager from how he was as a player,” recalls Smith

“When he was a player, he was a centre-forward who centre-halves hated, he was a big, strong lad and he used to give keepers and centre-halves a rough time.

“But as a manager, he was a deep thinker and he brought some different ideas in.

“He changed the philosophy and the way we played, he was a good motivator.

“He changed our style of play, he played with the midfield players getting in the box, we had Dave Lennard, who could do these runs, and he gave him more or less a free rein, and he got quite a few goals.

“He wanted us to play and he believed in players, and gave one or two young players a chance.

“He was a very positive character, that’s what I remember of George.

“He was quick to have a go at you, but quick to praise you as well. We played good football with him.”

“It was all down to George,” says Lennard, “he was an inspiration, he encouraged everyone to play - ‘just got out and play, we know you can play, go out and do it’.

“He gave everyone confidence. He was the best manager I ever had. And I had quite a lot!

“George was an inspiration to me.

“Alan Ball took me to Halifax, we had a good team and we were doing well, but I thought Bally was a bit too defensive.

“Then Bally left and George came in and he gave me my confidence back. He encouraged me to go forward, and put me up-front.

“I ended up leading goalscorer, most of which were provided by Bill Atkins because I used to time my runs for when he won it in the air, and I got onto his flick-ons.

“We went right up the league, did really well. I had a good time at Halifax, I really enjoyed it.”

“George introduced a different kind of style of play,” says Robertson, “we didn’t run with the ball, we just left it to somebody behind us so that everybody pressed on, it was a bit different.

“I played in midfield with Dave Lennard, who was more of a defensive midfielder than me.

“I went there when Alan Ball Snr was manager but George got us very well organised.”

“He was a great manager was George, a good motivator of players,” says Holmes. “He prepared us right.

“We didn’t talk too much about it, other than we knew George Best and Bobby Charlton, and all these who were playing, and we knew they was going to be a big crowd there as well, and the television, so that all boosted the confidence.

“Other than that, it wasn’t much of a change to tactics or anything really to what we normally played like.

“We had small squad, and the same team had done pretty well the previous season, and we just assumed the same 11 would play.

“I think there was just one sub back then.

“We were all pretty sure we’d be picked because we’d been in the side right up to the end of last season.

“I think we only had about 16 pros at the time, and two of them were goalkeepers and a couple were apprentices.

“We had this confidence, we all had confidence in one another, we all knew that each one of us would do our own jobs, and if we could do it on the day and had a decent game, there was no reason why we couldn’t turn them over.

“We had this confidence right up to the game, even when we went to Ireland on the pre-season, right up to the day we were all really confident that we could get a result.”

“We’d read in the papers that Frank O’Farrell said he was putting a good side out, but we didn’t know exactly until we saw it,” says Smith

“There was a bit of trepidation, obviously, but at the end of the day, you just go out and do your best, and hope things go for you.

“You always think you can win. We had nothing to lose.

“We surprised a few people, we played good football that day.

“We had some good players, and we had a good team.

“We were all pretty relaxed, we thought ‘we can do it, we can beat them’.

“The one thing about United, they always let you play.

“A couple of seasons earlier we’d played Leeds in the West Riding Cup on a wet night at The Shay, and the first 25 minutes, I thought ‘we’re doing alright’ and then somebody switched the gear in the Leeds side and then it was ‘bang, bang, bang’, it was brilliant to watch!

“I didn’t like the five going in but I couldn’t blame myself for any.

“They just switched the gear and thought ‘we’ve had our fun now’, and it was a good lesson.”

“I was always nervous prior to running out, as most players are if they’re honest,” says Rhodes.

“People say you need that little buzz in your tummy to get you going.

“I was nervous, I suppose because you knew deep down, despite the fact we believed in us, that these were world class international footballers, and on another day it could be embarrassing.

“But you don’t give that a thought, even though that was perhaps the reality of what might have been.

“It’s a wonder I didn’t break my hand because I used to come out at The Shay and I used to thump the wall, which is not a clever thing to do!

“We’d all be doing our warm-ups in the dressing room, because it’s not like today where they go out to warm-up on the pitch, we used to go out five minutes before.

“We’d all be jumping about and super-cool Andy Burgin would be sat in the corner reading the programme!

“We’d be playing in ten minutes but Andy would just casually get ready, he was super-cool.”

“It was just a game for us, ‘let’s go out and enjoy it’ sort of thing,” says Lennard.

“I don’t think we thought we were going to win, we just went out to play our best.

“But it was amazing to be playing against George Best, Bobby Charlton and all that lot, that was exciting, playing against all those great players.”

“I’d played against them before when I was at Bolton, I knew quite a few of them, and being from Manchester, I used to see Bestie in the nightclubs.

“I actually played with him later on in America at Los Angeles Aztecs.

“I never mentioned the Halifax game though! He was a nice lad George, a funny bloke.”

“It was deafening, absolutely deafening,” says Rhodes. “Unreal really, because we’d never heard anything like it before.

“They did cheer when you went out, but sometimes we’d get odd gates of 10,000, but when you double that to 20,000 there, even when you touched the ball, it was just a different atmosphere.

“Plus the fact you knew the cameras were in the stand and it was going to be on TV that night.

“An unreal experience really, and one that lives with you.”

“It was fantastic,” says Rhodes. “To run out at the likes of Anfield with all the singing, well on that day, that was our Anfield, it was fabulous.

“The supporters did us proud on the day, and we did them proud.”

“They used the Watney Cup as an experiment for changing the offside rule,” says Rhodes, “they were going to draw a line across the penalty box, and you couldn’t be offside in that main body of the pitch, and I remember Denis Law coming to me just after we’d kicked off and saying ‘we’ll play ‘til we’re 50 me and you won’t we, I’ll go and stand on this line and you come and stand with me!’

“There’s me all full of the occasion and wanting to play, and Denis just comes out with something like that.”

There’s a moment’s silence when Bill Atkins’ third-minute header drops into the net, as if the packed Shay crowd need a second to process what they’ve seen, that their side have just taken the lead against Manchester United.

“Bill got the first with a header, very early on, which was perfect, you can’t dream of a better start can you,” says Rhodes.

“That was probably a wake-up call for them, but for us to score like that was typical of how we felt about it. We believed we could win.”

That belief only intensified when Smith saved Willie Morgan’s penalty, and then two minutes later, Bob Wallace scored from the spot to double Halifax’s lead.

“I took them on, I went down for the penalty, David Sadler took me down for the penalty,” says Robertson.

“I was asked to play up-front, so I pushed right up,” says Lennard.

“I knew some of the Manchester players, because I’m from Manchester.

“I pushed right up against the player that was marking me, and that made more room for our players.

“But I didn’t see a lot of the ball because I was too far away!”

At half-time, the message from Kirby was ‘more of the same’, says Holmes.

“I think George just basically said carry on as we were doing, we were doing OK, they weren’t troubling us too much.

“I thought I did OK, we created a few chances. I knew if I could get the ball into the box, Bill Atkins would be somewhere around, he was a big, tall lad and I knew he would be there or thereabouts.

“It was fairly even-steven in the second-half.

“Then they got their penalty and scored, and we thought ‘hello, here we go’.”

“There were two at the top end,” says Smith, “one was Willie Morgan’s, I saved that, and then we got one and beat Alex Stepney.

“Willie Morgan put his to the left, and George Best put his to the right.

“I went the right way but I didn’t get it, but it’s no disgrace being beaten by Bestie.

“I knew which side it went but I couldn’t get to it.

“I just kept waiting for one of them to produce some magic, but as it was, we really raised our game.

“And I think we surprised them, that we had the quality in the team to pass the ball about, and take our chances.

“The penalty made it tight, but we saw it through.”

“I was credited with giving the penalty away, but it wasn’t me, it was my old mate John Pickering,” says Rhodes.

“I felt quite embarrassed when I saw it because I gave a word in George Best’s ear because he dived, and I gave him the wobbly legs (acted out a dive), which was caught on camera.

“But I’ve been able to say over the years that ‘these legs kicked Georgie Best!’ even though it wasn’t me. Mind you, I probably did kick him along the way!

“We were always in it, we were never hanging on as I recall, it was never backs-against-the-wall.

“A little bit later on perhaps, when they were pushing, but we weren’t under prolonged pressure.

“We were always in the winning position, which inspires you to keep going.”

“Then I thumped one against the post,” says Holmes, “which would have made it 3-1.

“When the final whistle went and the crowd ran on the pitch, it was crazy.”

“I think we deserved it,” says Lennard, “we defended really well and gave them a good game.

“None of us were totally match-fit because it was a pre-season game.

“They were probably being a bit careful I suppose, so they probably weren’t at their best, but we gave them a good game.

“I think if it was in the season, they’d probably have won, they’d have been a bit fitter and have got their game going.

“They had some great players, but great players can have off-games.”

“I don’t think we were in awe of them or anything like that,” says Robertson, “we were pretty confident.

“I think we deserved to win, I think they came out thinking ‘this is going to be a bit of an easy game’ and it wasn’t.

“We played well, I think we needed to!”

“If I’d known then what I know now, I’d have got Bestie’s shirt,” says Holmes, “it would have been worth a fortune, but it just didn’t happen in those days.

“If we’d swapped ours, we wouldn’t have had any shirts to play in the following game, that’s the way it was at Halifax, it was hand-to-mouth in those days.

“After the game we went into the directors’ room, which we’d never even been in before.

“We all got a drink, a bottle of beer, and it was free as well would you believe!

“I didn’t even know where it was, it was down a little corridor.

“A lot of the girlfriends and wives were there when we went in, and it was a bit hot as well because that day was back end of July so it was warm, so all the players were sweating.

“It was just one of those days, never to be forgotten. A one-off.

“That day we played against one of the best teams in the world, and we stuffed them!”

“It was a wonderful day, wonderful weather, wonderful game,” says Rhodes.

“And one that I shall remember, I’ve still got contacts in Halifax who won’t let me forget it, even if I wanted to!

“It was one of those days you just didn’t want to end.”

“I think it was probably the following day when it sank in, when it was all over the Sunday papers,” says Holmes.

“At the time, it was hard work and you’re sweating buckets because it was a hot day.

“I watched it back on the Saturday night at home and it was unbelievable really.

“I couldn’t believe how I looked, I used to have a moustache then and I looked at myself and I thought ‘what a plonker, why the hell did you have to grow a moustache, I looked a right berk!’

“Even know when I look at some of the clips of the game and I recognise myself, I think ‘what a berk’.

“It was a pity that, the season afterwards, the team broke up.

“There were teams who had spotted what George had done with the side, and the following season he went to Watford, and one or two other players left, and the team broke up, which was sad.

“We knew George would be taking somebody’s eye. When he took over from Alan Ball, he changed the whole training system and everything, which suited the lads down to the ground.

“And he was a super fella as well. When he went, it just didn’t feel the same anymore.

“But they can’t take that time away from us, it was great.”

“Normally after a game, I’d go and have a drink with the supporters in the clubhouse,” says Rhodes.

“I did after this one but it was just a brief pop-in, because we’d got friends up from Derby and we went back down to Derby with them.

“It was a day to be proud of, and for the directors to stick their chests out a bit, and take credit for it!

“When I got back to Derby, I went out with life-long friends, they were full of it.

“I don’t think I paid for a drink that night!

“It came home to me quite quickly how big an achievement it was.

“It was certainly not a pre-season friendly, it was a proper game, and we won a proper game.”

Watney Cup match, Halifax Town 2-1 Manchester United at Halifax on July 31st 1971 Photo by Masahide Tomikoshi / TOMIKOSHI PHOTOGRAPHY