Mention the name of Bob Bishop and in a helter skelter world of football where only the present seems to count for anything, it is more than likely that the response that you will receive from many will be; “Bob who?”. As time has passed, just like so many unsung heroes associated with MUFC, the part that Bob Bishop played in the club’s history is fast becoming forgotten.
It’s only older fans who really remember the quiet, unassuming Ulsterman, who, just like the legendary old Chief Scout Joe Armstrong supplied Sir Matt and Jimmy Murphy with a conveyor belt of young talent to work with on his patch in Northern Ireland. Bishop didn’t seek recognition, but deserves it, just another small but vital jigsaw piece in the litany of names who throughout United’s rich history, brought so much to the football club, and was just happy to play his part.
Bob became a United scout in the early 1950s and his territory was mainly the Northern Ireland area. At this time he was fast approaching his 50th birthday. He had a very keen eye for spotting talent at a young age, and as he travelled around the various Northern Ireland counties, people got to know ‘The Bishop’, as he affectionately became known. He Would make it a point that each week he would travel from Belfast to ‘The Manse’ which is situated in Helens Bay, County Down, with a bunch of young football starlets, many of whom he hoped would make it into the professional game. Almost every Irish schoolboy international of note was assessed by him. And with gentle persuasion he was able to explain to these youngsters the chance and opportunity that lay in front of them if they joined Manchester United.
Jake Gallagher, ex Irish schoolboy manager once said; “Bob can spot potential long before anyone else. He sees past faults which would put others off”. The first player he sent to Old Trafford was the late Johnny Scott who became an Irish international and a member of the Northern Ireland 1958 World Cup squad. From then on, it was a steady procession of talent that found its way from Northern Ireland to Old Trafford. Sammy Mcllroy who was 11 years old when first spotted by Bob playing football in a Belfast Park and said: “I owe everything to him. He guided me in those vital, formative years. He was like a father figure to me. I suppose I also owe him a few bob, because it was Bob who bought me my first pair of modern football boots.”
But not everyone who was spotted by Bob was lucky enough to go to United. Pat Jennings who was to find fame and fortune with both Spurs and Arsenal, could have become a United player. Bishop was on record as saying; “I told United about Pat Jennings when he was playing for Newry Town. They could have had him for £3,000 but when the chief scout and his aides came over they went to watch the wrong match, and Pat ended up signing for Watford instead of United.” It is amazing that one man alone, competing with other clubs’ scouts discovered players such as Jackie Blanchflower, Jimmy Nicholson, Jimmy Nicholl, David McCreery, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside.
But Bob Bishop will mostly be remembered for discovering the precocious talent owned by a certain 15 year old boy who hailed from the Cregagh housing estate in East Belfast. This youngster was to become arguably the greatest ever footballer. He was of course George Best. George had been down to the Glentoran club a few times but was written off by their coaches as being too light and small. Bob thought otherwise and obviously, as Jake Gallagher had said, saw things in young players that other scouts did not. After watching George a number of times, Bob sent Sir Matt the telegram which has become famous in United’s great history. It simply read: “I think I have found you a genius”. Manchester United brought the young man over from Belfast, and after an initial bout of homesickness, he blossomed into you know what and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sadly Bishop is no longer with us. But the three decades of service that he gave to Manchester United can not be underestimated. His part in helping grow the club is enormous, and United owe him much for the number of great Northern Irish players who have graced Old Trafford. As with most people of his ilk Bob was happy to do the job and get on with it. But people who give such loyal service must never be allowed to be consigned to insignificance.
He joins the many wonderful and loyal people who have played more than their part in the progression of MUFC down through the years, but who always remained content to stay in the background. Their role is vital. They must never be forgotten. Without them, United would never have achieved the status in the game that they have today. Unsung heroes every one of them. And ‘The Bishop’ was one such United legend.
“Before my first trip to Manchester in August 1978, I have never forgotten that Bob entered his year of birth as 1899. Never mind my grandad, he was old enough to be my great-grandfather, but he had such a sparkle and a gift for communicating with young footballers that it never felt as if you were dealing with an old man. His own story is remarkable, He was a riveter in the shipyards for over 30 years, and it was through running the works team and Boyland Youth Club that he first came to United’s attention. He joined the club’s payroll, at Jimmy Murphy’s invitation, when he was already 50 and stayed on until he was in his90s. If all he had done was spot George it would have been more than enough to justify forty years employment, but he had such an eye for talent and such an extensive knowledge of the relatively small northern Ireland pool that he came up trumps time and again”. Norman Whiteside
“Bob Bishop, A Manchester United scout in NI, wrote to us to say that he had seen a young boy with an enormous ration of football gifts, though he had hesitated because the lad was so small and skinny. ‘Send him over and let us have a look at him’ we said. And George Best, with another wee lad, Eric Mc- Mordie, duly arrived. Next day Master Best and Master McMordie came to see me at my office and said they wanted to go back home to NI. They were homesick. I brought in Harry Gregg, our NI goalkeeper, to try to influence them to stay. It did not work. So I said: ‘All right, boys. You had better go home’. The next week it kept coming back to me, the vision of this black haired lad who had been doing such clever things with the ball. So I sat down and wrote to his father. I said I realised the boy was homesick but that I would be very happy if young George changed his mind and would be obliged if his father would send him back to Old Trafford if he did. About three weeks later I received a letter from Dick Best, the boy’s father, saying that George would like another try. It was not long before we realised what an astonishing little bundle of football’s talents we had among us”. Sir Matt Busby
“The advice was I was too thin, too frail, too scraggy even for the part-timed, half-paced Irish League. That was the unanimous verdict. Hugh McFarland, who was 2nd team trainer with Glentoran refused to accept it. He got in touch with Bob Bishop, the leader of our biggest boys’ club rivals, Boyland Boys’ Club who also happened to be Manchester United’s Scout in NI. Unknown to me the pair of them arranged a friendly for the single purpose of giving Mr Bishop the chance to have a good look at me. I was nearly 15 and the rest of the players were around the 17 mark. We won 4- 1 and inside right George Best – all 6 1/2 stone of him – scored two of the goals.”George Best