Arsenal legend Billy McCullough discusses becoming a father figure to George Best, joining the Gunners’ 100 Club and taking Cork Celtic to the Irish Cup final
PUBLISHED: 07:13 20 February 2016
“My good friend Jimmy McGill was one of the main players who started the 100 Club at the Arsenal. If you played over 100 first-team games for the club, you’d be included in the list. It’s great to be one of those players.”
The list of legends to grace either legendary Highbury and the majestic Emirates Stadium is lavish and sweeping.
From Thierry Henry to Liam Brady, Bob Wilson to Dennis Bergkamp and David Seaman to Pat Rice.
Among the names sits Billy ‘Flint’ McCullough, the former left-back from Carrickfergus, just up the road from Belfast in Northern Ireland.
Having signed from Portadown FC in 1958, the 80-year-old told the WHT he had played over 300 games for the North London side before his move to Millwall in 1966.
McCullough, who now lives in Potters Bar, deservedly takes his spot within Arsenal’s rich history.
McCullough said: “I was playing for a League of Ireland side against a Scottish League XI in a game at Windsor Park in Belfast and after the game, my manager Gibby MacKenzie introduced me to George Swindin and Ron Greenwood, who was coach at Arsenal at the time.
“This was all on the Wednesday night and then on Thursday, Gibby rang me at work and said ‘we’re flying over to London tomorrow’ and I said ‘what for?’ He told me I was going to sign for Arsenal.
“I said I wasn’t and I’d have to speak to my uncle because no-one else in my family was a football person.
“Anyways, I made them wait until the Saturday but we got it sorted and the next time I went over to London it was to make my debut.”
McCullough’s first look at his new team-mates in action came in a 6-3 Division One defeat at Luton Town on Boxing Day 1958.
The following day, in the return match at Highbury, McCullough donned the famous red and white strip for the first time. A special day for the Northern Irishman no-less because he was playing against Billy Bingham, one of his childhood idols. Arsenal won 1-0, delivering a clean sheet for McCullough on his debut.
An injury-hit spell in the second part of that season confined the defender to just 10 appearances but on his return for his second season at the club under Swindin, he was a mainstay in the No.3 position.
As his stock increased, he started to catch the eye of many fellow professionals. One youngster in particular had taken a shine to him.
He continued: “I was playing at Highbury one day and we were playing Manchester United and the girl in the tearoom said ‘there’s a young fellow from Belfast with Manchester United who wants to meet you’.
“I went down there and it was George Best. He was only 17 and said he was just only down for the experience.
“Three months later I was playing an international for Northern Ireland against Wales in Swansea and George was playing alongside me. He really was that good.”
McCullough ended up becoming a “father figure” to legendary Best, sitting with him on their international adventures together. ‘Flint’ recalls a particular trip that is emblazoned in his memory.
McCullough said: “We went away to play Spain for a friendly one year and George sat with me on the plane and in those days, we couldn’t afford a private plane so we just went on a commercial plane with everyone else.
“George went off to the toilet at one point and a Spanish lady and her young daughter came over to me and said ‘is that George Harrison of the Beatles?’ I said it was so the lady asked me if I could get her an autograph?
“George came back and I told him the lady wanted an autograph so he signed the daughter’s name and only put ‘best wishes George’ on it. I still wonder to this day if she still thinks that it was George Harrison from the Beatles.”
McCullough had many high points in his international career despite only getting 10 caps for Northern Ireland, one of which included playing at Wembley against newly-crowned world champions England in October 1966.
Domestically, McCullough’s favourite club memories will bring music to the ears of any Arsenal fan.
He said: “There were so many great times during my career but I especially enjoyed playing against Tottenham Hotspur.
“I even scored at White Hart Lane once and it came off Lawrie Brown, who we had only just sold to Tottenham earlier in the week so that was a special goal.”
McCullough’s career could have taken a slightly different path.
Following a previous game against England at Wembley, future Three Lions boss Greenwood was to introduce the left-back to the prestigious manager Bill Shankly, at the time at the helm of Liverpool, just years before they were to become the best team in the world.
Despite interest in an Anfield move from McCullough, nothing ever came of it and at the end of his eight-year spell at Arsenal, he left for The Den and Millwall.
His time with the Lions lasted just one season as McCullough did not “like the environment at the club” at the time.
With his playing career nearing the end, he dropped down the divisions, signing part-time for Bedford Town while going back to work for his father-in-law as an electrical engineer.
Then an opportunity to take the reins as player-manager at Cork Celtic came up and he couldn’t turn it down.
It was a gamble that paid off as, together with the masterstroke of bringing retired club coach Donal Leahy out of retirement to spearhead Celtic’s attack, they reached the Irish Cup final, with the recalled striker scoring in every round including the final.
Standing in their way of silverware were Shamrock Rovers.
McCullough said: “We got a 1-1 draw in the first game but we lost the replay 4-1.
“After the game, Donal was looking at the medal with tears in his eyes and I said ‘I’m sorry it’s not a winners’ medal and he said ‘Bill this is the only medal I’ve ever won in Irish football. Thank you.’
“It was amazing to do such great things with Cork and also to take them into Europe.”
McCullough had one last move in him, going back north of the border to Derry City. But with his wife homesick for England and the infamous trouble beginning in Northern Ireland, he moved back across the Irish Sea.
He could have even signed for Barnet, knowing manager Dexter Adams, but decided against it. An illustrious 13-year career was over.
Over 40 years on, McCullough is still involved at Arsenal.
With a club reunion coming up on February 26, some of McCullough’s old team and the double-winning side from the 1970-1971 season are coming together to commemorate the life of former Gunners player and coach George Armstrong, who collapsed and died with an unexpected brain haemorrhage shortly after a training session in 2000 at the age of just 56.
McCullough said: “Arsenal is a great club and I am so proud to have played for them.
“They’ve been very good to me and good to their old players.
“They ring me a few times a season and ask if I would like tickets for any games. I love still being a part of their current as well as being a part of their past.”