When 19-year-old George Luke agreed to sign for Durban City in 1968, he’d only heard of the place once. During World War Two, his father had been on a convoy that stopped there briefly to refuel en route to Singapore.
But Singapore fell to Japan, which meant a few days’ leave for the soldiers, left at large to explore the South African coastal metropolis. A far cry from the ration books and curfews that characterised war-time Britain, it seemed utopian.
Years later, as the young George was growing up in the mining community of Hetton-le-Hole in England’s north east, his father would say to him, “George, there’s a place on the other side of the world called Durban, it’s paradise.”
As a teenager playing for England schoolboys, George was courted by English football’s great and good. “They all came to our house and had my mother’s meat pies and orange cakes,” he recalls. ‘They’ refers to Matt Busby, Tommy Docherty and Dave Sexton, among others. George would come in from school, wolf down his fish finger tea and head out for a kick about, too busy playing football in the street to catch the famous faces sitting in the family kitchen.
One Manchetser United scout was sent to the house every week. He’d knock on the door and hand George’s dad a £10 note and say “Sir Matt [Busby] says happy birthday”. Then he’d go into the kitchen and give his mum a £20 note and again say “Sir Matt says happy birthday”. This lasted a year. His dad’s wages at the time were about £12.
While training with Liverpool – and still at school – George expressed to Bob Paisley (himself a Hetton icon) a fear that competition from another young player might make it hard to break into the first team.
“Oh him” replied Paisley, laughing and pointing dismissively, “he’s absolutely rubbish. You’ll have no trouble.” He was pointing at Tommy Smith, who would go on to make 639 appearances for the club and become a club legend.
At Chelsea, and while at school, Docherty offered to sign George’s mate John in a desperate bid to assuage the youngster’s homesickness. John wasn’t even a footballer.
George signed his first contract at Newcastle United, where heavy black boots with a steel toe cap were compulsory and training was mostly hard fitness work. When he did sign for Chelsea shortly after, his boots were held up as an object of ridicule, like some curio from the dark ages.
“Everyone had a good laugh,” he tells The Set Pieces. “Their boots to mine were like an E-type Jag to a truck.” But Chelsea was also an ill-fit. Despite a successful tour of America, he felt out of place and requested a transfer.
South Africa 1968-76
George sat in the director’s box of Durban’s New Kingsmead stadium, it was pitch black. Morgan Elliot, the club’s chairman, had picked him and his wife Norma up from the airport and driven straight to the ground. Elliot disappeared in search of a switch to the floodlights.
The lights came crashing on. In the centre circle, a small figure was shuffling about, startled to be unveiled from behind the darkness. George squinted into the light. The figure appeared to be moving rhythmically, as if performing some ancient pagan ritual. When Elliot reappeared, George asked who the person was and why he was standing on a football pitch at midnight. “Oh,” replied Elliot, “that’s the witch doctor. He’s blessing the pitch for tomorrow’s match.”
They were taken the following day on a tour of the city. The guide pointed out shark nets at sea, protecting swimmers from the great whites circling nearby. Every morning boats would go out and release sharks from the nets.
Looking up the coast, George noticed a separate, far off beach, with various people dotted around. “What’s that beach there?” he asked. “Oh that’s the black beach” came the reply, “there’s no shark nets there.” That was George and Norma’s first introduction to apartheid.
Everything in South Africa, down to the football leagues, was ruled by a law of segregation. The hangover of colonialism meant British players had been playing in the white National Football League – as it was called, since its 1959 inception. George though, was the first to be transferred for a fee. A successful first season was marked by two cup wins and the birth of his son, Gavin.
With South Africa barred from international sporting competitions due to apartheid, they created heir own games. George was selected for the ‘overseas eleven’ in the South African games in Bloemfontein – led by maestro wine-loving Chilean manager Mario Tuane.
During the afternoon meal before the evening kick off, Tuane was known for coming in with his jacket over his shoulders, hair slicked back, offering everyone glasses of wine (“a glass for you sir, a glass for you”). He was also known for his abilities as a coach, widely referred to as the Godfather of South African football, managing all across the country. Despite losing in the final, Tuane “did more for me as a player” than anyone else, George says.
George left Durban for east London, where he adorned a pair of crisp white boots, befitting of the exotic climes he had by then adjusted to. Lightyears from the heavy-duty relics he wore at Newcastle, he hit more than 20 goals that season, bringing him to the country’s attention.
“Every time I scored the crowd would shout ‘White boots! White boots!’,” he remembers. He was affectionately nicknamed Cool Hand Luke after the classic 60s Paul Newman prison drama.
After a stint at Johannesburg’s Jewish Guild under Ex-West Ham Eddie Lewis (ending in a half-time scuffle where Lewis threw a mug of boiling tea at his head), he joined Highlands Park FC. Highlands had great success and spent lavishly. Trophies came regularly and “double win bonuses” even more so. After missing one match to have an appendix out, a team-mate visited George in hospital with an envelope stuffed with cash. “I was getting paid double in bed,” he laughs.
In 1973, George Best came to town. Having derailed his career at United, the one-time best player in the world embarked upon a globetrotting era of short-term paydays. South Africa was the first, with Jewish Guild offering a lucrative mini-contract in a move that was hoped to bolster the reputation of the league. Holed up expense-free in one of South Africa’s most glamorous hotels, Best’s deal included accommodation and food. All he had to pay for was his drink.
It then transpired that the deal would run out before Guild’s match against their local rivals, George’s Highlands Park. When executives from the club asked him what he’d want to stay for the additional match, the Irish star told them he wouldn’t require money, he simply asked them to cover his bar bill.
As Best himself claimed to George when they were out drinking after the game, the bar bill cost more than the other six weeks combined. When the match came around, Best – sozzled for a month and a half on booze and South African sun – was “a shadow of himself”.
Leaving South Africa
By 1976, after spending an extremely successful couple of seasons under Joe Frickleton at Highlands, the racial situation in the country looked like coming to a head. In white communities, many feared a “bloodbath” would occur. George recalls, “people really thought there would be an uprising.”
The crushed Soweto protest in June that year burned stores and vandalised schools. Police killed 176 protestors. Fearing his safety, George decided to purchase a gun, tracking down a seller through the club physio. He went to meet a man at a pub and was ushered discreetly into the toilets.
“We’re standing there and he pulled this gun out and gave it to me” George says. It was heavy like a great iron bar. He began mimicking a gunslinger, pretending to draw the weapon from its holster and swinging it around in the tight space. He asked, “Does it come with ammunition?” The reply: “Oh yes mate, that’s fully loaded.”
He froze on the spot and asked the seller to remove the gun from his hand. He decided against the purchase. Along with Norma and their two children, Gavin and Clare, they left the country soon after.
After short spells in Hartlepool and Dublin, he quit the game for good. He’d gone “off the rails” in Ireland, heavily drinking and temporarily driving his wife to leave.
Having persuaded Norma to take him back, he retired from the beautiful game, back in England. A few years later they went to a Billy Graham evangelical event at Roker Park in Sunderland (the former home of the football team), as Norma was a Christian. Inspired by what he heard about Jesus, George ran onto the pitch and was saved that night. He remains a practising Christian. After a lifetime of joy on football pitches, they eventually gave him the gift he cherishes most.
“My new found faith is that the great gift of love, Jesus Christ, who died for my sins. I was forgiven of my sins that night by accepting Jesus as my own personal Saviour.”