Obituary: John Fitzpatrick (1946-2020)
Manchester United was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of former Red John Fitzpatrick, at the age of 74.
No footballer was more ferociously committed to the United cause in the late 1960s and early 1970s than John. Whether plying his abrasive trade as midfield man-marker, putting in the occasional vigilant shift alongside the centre-half or operating as a ruthlessly efficient full-back, the versatile, all-action Aberdonian knew only one way to go about his work, and that was at maximum velocity.
Alas, it was a style that took an exacting toll on the body and ‘Fitz’ was forced to retire due to chronic knee problems at the poignantly premature age of 26.
By then he had totalled nearly 150 outings as a Red without pocketing a senior medal or nailing a regular long-term berth, so it was cruelly ironic that both prizes appeared tantalisingly possible just as he was invalided out of the game.
Fitzpatrick had joined the Old Trafford groundstaff as a 15-year-old in September 1961, stepping up from junior football in Abereen, then turning professional in September 1963.
Standing only 5ft 6ins but formidably strong, he began to make a vivid impression as a flinty wing-half during the following spring, excelling alongside the likes of George Best, David Sadler, Bobby Noble and John Aston Jnr as United beat Swindon Town in the FA Youth Cup final.
The next milestone was his top-flight entrance, standing in for defensive destroyer Nobby Stiles in a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland in February 1965, a setback which proved no more than a minor blip on the road to United’s first League title since the Munich tragedy.
For the next few seasons the mop-haired Scot was essentially an invaluable reserve, never more effective than when called up by manager Matt Busby to patrol a snowbound centre-field against Gornik Zabrze in the second leg of a 1968 European Cup quarter-final in Poland. The Reds lost on the night but triumphed on aggregate and Fitzpatrick filled his role magnificently.
He was the regular right-back for most of the second half of 1968/69, contributing mightily on the way to a European Cup semi-final – he was sent off in the first leg against AC Milan – but his impetus was interrupted all too often by injuries. Arguably that was inevitable given his muck-and-nettles methods, but he gritted his teeth and missed only seven League games in 1970/71, splitting his time between midfield and right-back.
However, the cumulative strain on the Fitzpatrick frame was mounting, he underwent at least two operations and could manage only a handful of further appearances before ruefully calling it a day in 1973.
It represented a colossal personal loss for John, but also a severe blow to the club, by then toiling to stay in the top flight. Indeed, had he remained available his fighting spirit would have been a tremendous asset to desperate boss Tommy Docherty, who presided over United’s relegation to the second tier in 1973/74.
While Fitzpatrick – who has a place in the Reds’ record books as the club’s first league substitute, called on to replace Denis Law at Tottenham in October 1965 – had his playing days at Old Trafford cruelly cut short, he will most certainly never be forgotten within the club. Rest in peace, John.