Written by John White
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club
Author of 17 Manchester United books and “Kicking Through The Troubles: How Manchester United Helped To Heal A Divided Community” published by Empire Publications
It was on this day 62 years ago a Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend was born.
David McCreery was born on 16th September 1957 in the heartland of Protestant East Belfast. He was playing for the Northern Ireland Schoolboys team when Bob Bishop, one of United’s legendary Irish scouts, and the man who famously discovered George Best, spotted his potential. Bob sent the young McCreery over to Old Trafford for a trial, following the same path Bishop sent George and Sammy McIlroy on, and David joined Frank O’Farrell’s struggling Manchester United team as an amateur on his 15th birthday. One of the first people young David met when he arrived at United was fellow East Belfast man McIlroy. Two years later he signed professional terms with Manchester United and following a string of fine performances in the midfield of the Reserve Team he was given his first team debut.
Season 1974-75 saw Second Division football played at Old Trafford and on 15th October 1974, Tommy Docherty, who had succeeded O’Farrell as United manager, sent on “Wee Davey” for his first game as a substitute for the Scottish international Willie Morgan in a 0-0 draw with Portsmouth at Fratton Park. Like Best and McIlroy before him, he was just 17-years old when he made is United first team debut. Docherty used McCreery, who had gained a reputation for himself as a versatile player in the Central League with the Manchester United Reserve Team, again in United’s next League game; he came on for Gerry Daly in a 3-0 away win at Bloomfield Road against Blackpool. United went on to clinch the Second Division Championship in 1974-75 to make an immediate return to the First Division but these two substitute appearances were the only outings David got that season.
United started off well back among the big boys by winning their opening game of the 1975-76 season; a 2-0 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux on 16th August 1975. Three days later United travelled south to play Birmingham City at St Andrew’s and as a result of an injury sustained by the United striker, Stuart “Pancho” Pearson, in the opening day victory, Docherty handed the boy from Belfast the No.9 shirt. United won 2-0 thanks to two goals from McIlroy despite Brian Greenhoff having to take over in goal for Alex Stepney during the game. Northern Ireland’s Jimmy Nicholl was the United substitute that day and replaced Stepney in the game and took over the role vacated by Brian. David played a total of 28 League games for United in season 1975-76 to help the team to a highly respectable third place in the table in only their first season back in the top-flight and he managed 4 League goals along the way. His first goal for United came against local rivals Manchester City in a 2-2 draw at Maine Road on 27th September 1975. David came on as a sub in the Manchester Derby for fellow Belfast man Tommy Jackson.
However, 16 of his 28 games were from the bench, an all too familiar tale as it would transpire of his United career. David played in United’s 2-0 FA Cup semi-final win over Derby County at Hillsborough, Sheffield on 3rd April 1975 and Docherty had no hesitation in naming the 18-year old as United’s substitute for the 1976 FA Cup Final versus Southampton. In addition to his frequent outings in the No.12 jersey during the season, the versatile McCreery had also played at No.4, No.7, No.8, No.9 and No.10 and the United manager knew that he had a player in David who would play anywhere he asked him and give 100% on every occasion. Phil Neville would later become a similar asset under Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford.
Having already fulfilled a boyhood dream of playing for Manchester United another dream came true for David when he played in an FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. Britain was basking in a heatwave on the day of the final, 1st May 1976, and with the game against The Saints from Division Two precariously sitting at 0-0, Docherty took off Gordon Hill in the 66th minute and sent on David to try and nick the goal that would win the Cup for The Red Devils. Alas, when David climbed the 39 steps to the Royal Box after the game, he came down them with disheartened holding a runners-up medal. David stood at the side of the Wembley pitch as one of his former team-mates, Jim McCalliog who Docherty sold to Southampton in 1975, celebrated Southampton’s underdog Cup success.
The following season David played in 25 League games for United, 16 of them as a sub, and scored 2 League goals which saw United finish 9th in the table. However, David and the boys were anxious to honour Tommy Docherty’s commitment to the United fans when The Doc addressed them at Manchester Town Hall the day after the 1976 FA Cup Final when he promised them that United would be back to win the Cup next year.
“When we got back to Manchester town hall I told the supporters that would we would be back the next year to win the Cup but it was a bit of wishful thinking,”
said Docherty at the time.
United beat Walsall 1-0 at home in the 3rd Round (scorer: Gordon Hill) and defeated Queens Park Rangers 1-0 at home in Round 4 (scorer: Lou Macari). When the numbered balls were pulled out of the FA’s black bag for the Fifth Round draw out came the holders, Southampton, followed by United’s numbered ball. On 26th February 1977, United drew 2-2 at The Dell (scorers: Macari and Hill ) with David coming on as a sub for Jimmy Greenhoff in the match and then beat The Saints 2-1 in the replay at Old Trafford 10 days later thanks to two goals from Jimmy Greenhoff.
In the Sixth Round, United beat Aston Villa 2-1 at Old Trafford with goals from Stewart Houston and Macari whilst McCreery replaced Jimmy’s brother, Brian, in the win. Two goals from Steve Coppell and Jimmy Greenhoff against Leeds United in their 2-1 semi-final victory at Hillsborough meant a repeat visit to the Manchester tailors shop for a new suit as United were on their way to Wembley for the second year in a row. Just as he was 12 months earlier David was named by Docherty as United’s substitute for the game against Liverpool. With United leading 2-1 thanks to strikes by Pancho and Jimmy Greenhoff, on came David for Gordon Hill once more only this time the game had just 9 minutes remaining. David had a huge beaming smile all over his face as he galloped up the Wembley steps to collect his winners’ medal and proudly held the FA Cup aloft down on the pitch in front of the huge see of red, white and black in the Wembley stands.
David’s energy and enthusiasm in training earned him the nickname of “Roadrunner” and every time he pulled on a United jersey he ran his socks off for the team. If he wasn’t hassling defenders in their own penalty area, then he would be scurrying around midfield with biting tackles or he would track the play back to the opponent’s half and help out the United defence. He gave his all for the team. The 1977 FA Cup winners’ medal was the pinnacle of his United career and over the next two seasons he flitted in and out of the side mainly as a substitute. The fans loved his “never say die” attitude and whereas many players would hump and moan about warming the sub’s bench as often as David did, he never complained, always only too happy to answer the call when his manager and his team-mates needed him.
In August 1979, after making 110 appearances for United (52 as a sub) and scoring 8 goals, the boy from East Belfast packed his bag and said farewell to Old Trafford to team-up with his former manager, Tommy Docherty, at Queens Park Rangers. The canny Docherty paid a meagre £20,000 for David and as soon as he landed his catch, he described him as “the bargain of the century.” Few at the time disagreed with these words especially when you consider that Manchester City paid a British record transfer fee of £1,450,000 to Wolverhampton Wanderers for striker Steve Daley in the month after David went to Loftus Road.
After spending almost two years at QPR David jumped on a plane and made his way across the Atlantic to join the Tulsa Roughnecks in the NASL in March 1981. Having enjoyed 19 months in the Oklahoma sunshine David travelled the opposite way across the Big Pond to join Newcastle United in October 1982 where he spent 7 years. David cost The Magpies £75,000 but it was money well spent as he played some of the best football of his career and helped Newcastle United win promotion to the First Division at the end of the 1983-84 season. Along with Peter Beardsley, Kevin Keegan, Terry McDermott and Chris Waddle, David was the fulcrum of the promotion winning side.
After Newcastle United were relegated back to Division Two at the end of the 1988-89 season, McCreery was given a free transfer and played 5 games for GIF Sundsvall in Sweden before signing for Heart of Midlothian in Edinburgh, Scotland in September 1989. He played in 22 Scottish Premier League (SPL) games that season as Hearts finished in third place in the SPL. In 1990, his ex-United team-mate, Joe Jordan, took charge at Hearts whilst David’s two years at Tynecastle was followed with stints as Hartlepool United (August 1991 – June 1992), Carlisle United (on trial as a player), Coleraine and then back to Carlisle United as their player-manager in September 1992. David was lured to Brunton Park to become Carlisle United’s player-manager by Michael Knighton who is probably best remembered for doing a bit of keepy-uppy with a ball on the pitch at Old Trafford on 19th August 1989 before Manchester United’s opening game of the season versus Arsenal. Knighton’s ball juggling skills at Old Trafford came at the time he was in the process of buying Manchester United from Martin Edwards.
However, Knighton’s plans to take charge at Old Trafford were subsequently aborted. David stayed with Carlisle United for two years and left The Cumbrians in 1994 to return to Victoria Park, Hartlepool to spend one season as the player-manager of The Monkey Hangers before deciding to retire. However, he was not quite finished with the game just yet and returned to the USA to help with the setting-up of Major League Soccer (MLS) and then took up an offer to become a scout for Barnet FC which was followed by a period as a football consultant for Blyth Spartans.
David McCreery made his international debut for Northern Ireland on 8th May 1976 against Scotland in the British Home International Championship. McCreery came on as a substitute at Windsor Park, Belfast in a 3-0 loss to the Scots. David’s international debut meant that he now had a full set of Northern Ireland caps adding his senior cap to the 4 caps he won at Schoolboy (1973), Youth (1973) and Under-21 levels (1978). David went on to make 67 appearances (22 as a United player) for his country (W17, D19, L31), 12 as substitute without managing to find the net for the Irish.
Remarkably for such a small nation Northern Ireland appeared in two consecutive World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986, and David McCreery played in every match at both Fifa World Cup Finals. The highlight of David’s international career was when he helped Northern Ireland beat the host nation, Spain, 1-0 in the 1982 Finals. McCreery won his last cap for Northern Ireland as a substitute on 18th May 1990 in a 1-0 friendly win against Uruguay at Windsor Park. In February 2011, David was appointed Technical Director at Magway FC in Burma where he remained for one year. In season 2012-13, he managed Sabah in the Malaysian League.