I think I’ve found you a genius.”
A eight-words telegram sent in 1961 to Manchester United manager Matt Busby where he praised the skills of 15-years-old skinny but talented player. His name was George Best. The sender of this short message was Robert “Bob” Bishop, the Manchester United chief scout for Northern Ireland.
“Beastie” wasn’t the first youngster (and not the last) discovered by Bishop.
Sixty-two years old, Bob was born in East Belfast, an area populated mainly by Protestants and he was appointed by Mancunian club just one year before thanks to head ManUnited chief scout Joe Armstrong. Robert was a bachelor (he lived on Bloomdale Street with his sister) and according to Duncan Hamilton, author of George Best‘s approved biography Immortal, the scout had three hobbies: budgies, Border Collie dogs and football. Above all.
Bishop had never been a professional footballer, but the Game was one of his most beloved hobbies to take his mind off from work. He was a riveter in one of the several Belfast shipyards, a city that in the first half 20th century was a renowned industrial town in Great Britain, whose rise was stopped by Great Depression and Second World War. Years of strain and hard work that left Bishop partially deaf. In his free time Bishop coached first teams formed by his workmates and then Boyland Youth Club, related to Congregational Church. Club ground was so close to Bishop‘s home and Bob spent there every free moment.
He watched players and cultivate “the gift for spotting the gift” as many would define it.
Thanks to football knowledge and to his agenda full of contacts, in 1950 Manchester United appointed him as scout. Mancunian club paid him 2 pounds a week, plus travel expenses a meal allowance 2 pound worth installing also a telephone in Bishop’s house to communicate with England. What Red Devils told Bob was to discover talented players between 13 and 15 years, avoiding senior leagues and semi-professional clubs.
In 35 years at Manchester United Northern Irish scout brought more than 100 players to Old Trafford. With mixed results.
In order to dig them up “The Bishop”, as he had been affectionately and respectfully nicknamed in Belfast, travelled around Ulster football pitches six days a week. Everyone could recognize him with a cigarette hanging from his lips, a V-neck sweater in winter and a white shirt in summer. And even on Sunday, at that time only the Lord’s day, Bishop watched kids playing on Belfast streets or in city parks because he said:
You never know where you might come across something precious”.
Furthermore Bishop had a special way to test new players. He brought young players to Helen’s Bay, a little village located in Down County. There he rent for five shilling a week a cottage called “The Manse”. It was an austere house but an ideal base for two-three days long football camps, made by long runs and especially hard matches on fields rent by farmers or on the beach.
Bob followed guys playing in his own way. Few words, blunt recommendations, some advice and almost no emotion.
He watched players and as Duncan Hamilton explains in Best’s biography
He looked at the boy and saw him as a man – the player would become once his faults were enricated”.
When Bishop found out youngster’s skills, he talked with his family. Sure, convincing, encouraging, he explained what chance could be for his son or nephew to play for Manchester United and thanks to his quite way of talking he convinced most of them, The first one who travelled from Northern Ireland to “Old Trafford” was Jackie Scott in 1952 at 19. He played for Red Devils until 1956 (only four games for him in senior squad) and after his move to Grimsby Town he became a legendary player for Mariners. In 1958 Scott was also called up for World Cup in Sweden as uncapped player alongside Derek Dougan, Northern Irish defender and future Wolverhampton legend.
After Jackie Scott’s signing many other players discovered by Bishop joined United. Before Best, whose father Dickie agreed with Red Devils almost immediately (after being discarded from local club Glentoran), Sir Matt Busby had put under contract Jimmy Nicholson and many followed him. For example Jimmy Nicholl, David McCreery or Sammy McIllroy, scouted by “The Bishop” at 11 while he was playing in a Belfast park. In 1971 Sam would become the latest signing of Matt Busby‘s career as manager.
Althrough alongside Best the most famous talent discovered by Northern Ireland scout was Norman Whiteside.
He was born in 1965 in West Belfast and came from the Shankill, an area populated predominantly by Protestant working class families, strongly affected by The Troubles (a bloody Loyalist terrorist group came from there).
Norman had wonderful technique, good physical skills, in addition to a special goalscoring sense already showed with his youth team called Boys’ Brigade.
Whiteside was noticed first of all by Jim Rodgers at that time Ipswich Town chief scout for Ireland. The Belfast-born midfielder didn’t sign for The Tractor Boys, because first team manager Bobby Robson thought that Norman wasn’t yet ready. Neither Bishop was so convinced by Whiteside but he decided to offer him a trial, held at “Old Trafford”. The young talent impressed Manchester United youth coaches, among them former senior squad goalkeeper Harry Gregg, who was born as Norman in Northern Ireland. Whiteside, one of the last big players by Bishop, signed for Red Devils.
In 1982 as Northern Irish national team member he would become the youngest World Cup debutant at 17, beating Pelé record.
Bishop died when he was more than 90. Bob lives in the words of his players (McIlroy considered him a second “paternal figure” and he was also the first man who gave Sam a pair of modern football boots) and of those who met him inside and outside the field. In his career there is also a regret for him and for his club. In 1963 he scouted a promising 16-years-old goalkeeper who played regularly for Newry City. Bishop could have arranged his move to Manchester for 3000£ but when “Red Devils” scout chief and his collaborators went to observe him, they went to the wrong match. The youngster signed for Watford.