Club historian David Bull remembers George O’Brien, who has died aged 84.
George O’Brien’s appearances for his hometown Dunfermline were interrupted by National Service at RAMC Crookham, where Bill Ellerington went, on a scouting mission, to watch him.
Bill felt that “there was something about him,” but Southampton’s manager, George Roughton, jibbed at the asking price and it would be left to Leeds’s Raich Carter to bring George to English football in 1957.
Not having done a lot at First Division Leeds – just six goals in 44 appearances – George joined Third Division Southampton in the summer of 1959, when Roughton’s replacement, Ted Bates, failed to sign his first fancy: Cardiff’s Ron Hewitt, who had played for Wales in the 1958 World Cup Finals.
Establishing an instant “telepathy” with Terry Paine, inside-right O’Brien scored 23 league goals in 1959/60, to go with Derek Reeves’s record-grab of 39, as the free-scoring Saints stormed to the Third Division title.
Paine puts George’s close-range finishing on a par with that of Jimmy Greaves, whom he often partnered for England.
Greaves edged it, for Terry, when it came to running on to a ball “over the top”, but Cliff Huxford, who’d been a youngster with Greaves at Chelsea, “never saw a player – even Jimmy Greaves – who was sharper in the six-yard box than George.”
The telepathic duo thrived in Division II, with 40 goals between them, in 1960/61, and George easily top-scored in each of the next two seasons.
He lost his place for a while, in 1963/64, to the up-and-coming Martin Chivers, but when George Kirby departed with 10 games of that season to go, O’Brien formed a new partnership with Chivers.
They shared 20 goals in those 10 games and remained prolific in 1964/65, when George scored 32 goals in 41 league appearances. Not bad for an arthritic, who found it difficult to turn and was not expected to train too vigorously.
But it was a contagious disease that did for George in 1965/66. His tally had reached 11 in 16 by November, when he caught hepatitis. Come March, Bates traded him to Leyton Orient in a deal that brought David Webb to The Dell.
It was, by any standards, a sudden departure for a player who, with 180 goals in 281 games, was nearing Bill Rawlings’s longstanding club record for league goals and whose goals-per-game ratio was second only, post-war, to that of Charlie Wayman.
If only his manager had made a better job of reinforcing his defence, George reasoned, Southampton would have been promoted to Division I and he would have been more “in the public eye.”
He might even have been capped for Scotland. Paine agrees that George was good enough to play for Scotland, although the goalscoring inside-forward then in possession was, ironically, one of Terry’s most admired players: Denis Law.
Much as they rated each other, George found it “easy” to fall out with Terry. Yet each of them would continue to recall happy Sunday lunch-times at the Waterloo Arms, the Shirley pub George was running, in retirement.
Terry would bring in a basket of Sunday surplus from his fruit-and-veg shop, to be raffled. This was among the moments Terry relived when he rang me, earlier this month, to talk about how “special” George was.
When Terry became John Sillett’s player-coach at Hereford in 1974, George scouted for them. He was then on standby to join John and Terry at Nottingham Forest, as “Chief Scout and things like that.” Sillett was in the frame for Forest’s managerial vacancy in January 1975, but lost out to Brian Clough.
George got out of the pub trade in 1990, to become a sub-postmaster in Edinburgh, but soon returned to Southampton, to take over the Star and Garter in Freemantle. After which, he became a taxi driver.
If you ever encountered George in one of his bars or one of his cabs, you may well have had the good fortune to be treated to some insightful angles on his footballing values and philosophies.
The patter won’t have been pretty: George told it as he saw it, just as he did as a player. But Paine admired that tendency and wishes that more of their teammates had been as “expressive” as George “about the way the game should be played.”