George Best: The Boy from Belfast.
“It was a very simple team talk. All I used to say was ‘Whenever possible, give the ball to George'” Sir Matt Busby.
In the final part of my tribute to the ‘United Trinity’, I have literally left the best till last, George Best. Over the years, thousands of words have filled hundreds of books, magazines and newspaper columns filling both the back and front pages with tales of his on and off field exploits some false but unfortunately the majority mostly true.
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1946 he arrived in Manchester at the age of 15 having been discovered by United scout Bob Bishop who informed manager Matt Busby that he had found a ‘genius’, but it nearly turned sour as after only a couple of days Best returned home to Belfast feeling homesick. He was eventually convinced to return to Manchester by Busby, the United coaches and his father.
In the 60’s a youngster coming to a different city must have been formidable, especially for a teen with a strong Northern Irish accent and being the first time away from his family. However, Best was in safe hands at a club who were well used to looking after and developing young players.
Young George spent the next couple of years as an apprentice at Old Trafford and trained with players much larger than himself, but Busby informed all the coaches to let the slightly built youngster develop in his own way.
Over the next two years the Best had developed enough that Busby didn’t want to wait any longer to unleash the boy wonder and in September 1963 Best was named as a reserve for the fixture against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford.
Famously, Best believed that he had only been chosen as an errand boy to carry the first team player’s bags and to hand out the half-time tea, but at the pre-match luncheon Busby informed the shocked teenager that he would indeed be playing that day.
While other players in the dressing room were going through their pre-match rituals to ease their nerves Best was the epitome of calm as he sat browsing through the Matchday programme.
The lack of nerves was to become synonymous with George whether it was playing in front of packed grounds at home or abroad or coming up against brutes of defenders, he never showed any nerves and went about embarrassing full-backs up and down the country by twisting and turning his way around the pitch.
Best must have believed that he done enough to warrant a stay in the first team after the 1-0 victory over Albion but it wasn’t to be and he had to wait another three months to earn a recall and he grabbed his chance with both hands, and feet, in a home 5-1 victory over Burnley in which he also scored the first of his 179 goals as a Red Devil. From that match, he never looked back and became a regular for almost the next decade.
That debut season he went on to make a total of 26 appearances, scoring 6 goals and there was something fresh about his play in which not only were the opposition mesmerised by his skills, but also the fans who had found a player they could rave about on the way to matches as well as on the way home. A new hero for a new era.
The next season, 1964/65, Best was instrumental in bringing the First Division title back to Old Trafford for the first time since 1957 as United pipped Leeds to the title on goal difference with Best contributing with 10 goals in 41 appearances, but more importantly it propelled United back into the European Cup competition and a chance for Best to display his talents abroad.
Best was enjoying his football playing alongside more experienced players, including Charlton, Foulkes, Law and Crerand not that he needed any help from his teammates as he would generally do his own stuff on the pitch as once he had the ball at his feet it was as if it didn’t want to leave him.
George’s first taste of European Cup football in the 1965/66 season came in the return leg against HJK Helsinki at home in the preliminary round. United easily won 6-0 with Best netting twice, but his status was catapulted into the stratosphere in the quarter-final 2nd leg against Benfica in Portugal.
United had won the first leg at home 3-2 and the return tie was in the balance that was until Best took the match by the scruff of the neck and turned in a performance of pure brilliance scoring twice in a 5-1 drubbing of the Portuguese champions.
The 19-year-old returned to Manchester on a different level and an instant hero. Having been dubbed the 5th Beatle by the media everybody wanted a piece of this new football genius. Many people have put this sudden rise in his status as the start of his off-field troubles as he seemed to appear more on the front pages than the back.
Unfortunately for both United and Best the season would finish on a downbeat note as it would end empty handed even though he had scored 17 times in 43 games. Best would also suffer a knee injury that kept him out of the crucial European Cup semi-final in which the reds lost out to Partizan Belgrade when they badly needed his goal scoring touch.
In the 1966/67 campaign success returned to United as they once again won the First Division with Best an ever present playing 45 games and contributing with 10 goals in all competitions. More importantly, it meant that United would once again have another chance of lifting the European cup.
The 1967/68 season would prove to be Best’s most prolific in the red of United as he scored an incredible 32 goals in all competitions which included a massive 28 in the league, however it wasn’t enough as local rivals Man City ran out champions by only 2 points.
The disappointment of not retaining the league would soon be tempered by the glory of being crowned the first English club to become European champions.
On the way to the final United had dispatched the mighty Real Madrid 4-3 on aggregate in the semi-final with George securing a 1-0 win at Old Trafford in the first leg. May 29th, 1968 at Wembley stadium Benfica were the team standing in the way of United winning the European Cup a decade after the tragedy of the Munich air disaster.
On an emotional night, Best and his teammates turned in a display that the previous Busby Babes would have been proud of as they beat the Portuguese 4-1 after extra time.
Of course Best scored on the night and the iconic image of him celebrating with his arm raised and socks rolled down will live forever in the memory of all true United fans.
Nobody would have guessed as the team danced along with Busby around the famous turf at Wembley that this would be the last silverware that Best and indeed United would win together. The future looked so bright, but it actually proved to be the pinnacle of success under the legendary manager.
That year George was also awarded the Ballon d’Or as had Law and Charlton earlier in the decade, the ‘United Trinity’.
Following the dizzy height of that incredible night in 1968 Best would go on to make a total of 244 appearances, scoring exactly 100 more goals over the next six seasons.
His hair would grow longer, as would his beard, but his skills never waned, and of course, there were reports of his adventures every day in the press, but the fans didn’t care as long as come match day his name was on the team sheet.
During those years Best started to spiral out of control off the field with reports of alcohol problems and missed training sessions.
It seemed that as hard as Matt Busby tried to take care of his star player the more outside influences were pulling him away from the safety of the club.
As United’s fortunes dipped many speculated that things had to change at the club before it was too late and in 1969 Matt Busby passed on the managerial role to former player Wilf McGuinness.
In McGuinness’ short lived time as manager Best did his utmost to turn the club’s fortunes around by scoring 23 times, including a record 6 goals in an FA Cup tie against Northampton Town.
However, it all came to nothing and Busby returned as manager in 1970. By that time George was starting to misbehave on a regular basis and was fined by the club after missing a trip to London to take on Chelsea as he was busy elsewhere. Busby seemed to be totally fed up with Best’s antics, but as hard as he tried he was powerless to keep him in check.
Frank O’Farrell was given the unenviable task of keeping Best on track in the 1971/72 season, but he was up to his old tricks by missing a whole week of training mid-season. Amid the problems he did score 26 goals in 53 games, it was turning into a conundrum for the club.
After Best again failed to turn up for club commitments, choosing instead to party in London, he was punished with suspension, a fine and transfer-listed.
After O’Farrell was replaced by Scot Tommy Docherty as the manager the situation between Best and United had gone beyond repair and George played his last game for the Reds in a loss to QPR at Loftus Road on New Years Day, 1974 having made 470 appearances and scoring 179 goals. That season United were relegated from the old First Division.
George, of course, played for the Northern Ireland national team representing his country 37 times, scoring only 9 goals, four of which came in one match.
It was a shame that he didn’t have the chance to show off his talent on a World Cup stage as it would have made him, without question, the number one player in the history of the game, which is often given to Pele or Maradona.
It would be correct to say that Best fulfilled his early potential in football, however, due to circumstances far beyond anyone’s control it didn’t last. Upon leaving United in 1974 after 11 years at the top and at the prime age of 28, he became a roving player who plied his skill around the world including England, Scotland, Ireland, America, Australia and even Hong Kong. Wherever he played fans flocked to the stadiums as he still had the pulling power of a superstar.
After he retired from playing It seemed everybody wanted a piece of the United legend for his guaranteed popularity the controversy his fight with alcoholism would produce.
An example of this was the infamous live TV interview hosted by fellow Irishman Terry Wogan where the BBC disgustingly filled his dressing room with drinks and ended up being red-faced as the public sympathised with George’s situation.
Towards the end of his life he worked as a football pundit on TV and fans enjoyed listening to his views and insights on his beloved Manchester United, however, he was visibly suffering with his addiction and in the end it got the better of him. He sadly passed away on November 25, 2005 aged only 59.
A minutes silence was adhered to around every ground in the Premier League and the United match at Old Trafford following his death was fittingly against WBA the team who George had made his debut against all those years ago as a skinny teenager.
What George Best gave the watching thousands each match will never be equaled, no matter how hard other players try. He was a one-off, a man blessed with the attributes that other players can only dream of.
If only there had been somebody to put their arm around his shoulder and not a hand in his pocket, maybe, just maybe he would still be with us now instead of succumbing to the dreadful disease that alcoholism brings.
It’s a almost a decade since George left us, but one thing is for sure he will be forever remembered by all fans all over the world as simply the Best.
George Best a true footballing genius.