In 1961 Manchester United’s scout in Northern Ireland, Bob Bishop, telegrammed the clubs’ legendary manager Matt Busby in a state of unusual excitement.
“I think I have found you a genius,” he eagerly explained.
He had indeed. But neither Bishop, Busby nor anybody else could have imagined the impact his skin and bone, fifteen year old discovery would make on Manchester United, football throughout the world and society as a whole.
On the recommendation of Bishop this “genius”, George Best, was packed off to Manchester along with another prospect, Eric McMordie, for a two week trial. Fazed by their journey into the unknown and immediately homesick the youngsters scarpered back to Belfast before the first week was through.
Busby had already seen enough to know that one of these youngsters was worth pursuing and the United boss wrote to George Best’s father urging him to send his boy back to Manchester, assuring him that George had what it took to enjoy a bright future in the game.
This was a very strong early indication of Best’s outstanding ability. Manchester United Football Club would not usually go running after a fifteen year old kid who bunked out on them. George Best did return and, you could easily say, the rest is history.
The young Irishman was naturally shy and somewhat ill at ease, as his earlier bolt for home had demonstrated, but it did not take him long to settle down more happily in Manchester on his return.
Once he had a ball at his feet George Best was a different person. Not just confident, he was arrogant. Supremely sure of his own ability he demanded centre stage and revelled in having it.
This attitude did not cause resentment among his colleagues as they instantly recognised his incredible gifts and naturally deferred to them. Besides this, off the field he was quiet and popular with everyone. At once he was accepted and respected.
As word quickly filtered through to the first teamers at Old Trafford about this unbelievable kid in the youth team they would sneak in to watch him train and left shaking their heads at his ability.
Matt Busby was anxious not to blood his latest wonder boy too soon but it was impossible to keep him out of the side for long. Having just turned seventeen George Best made his first team debut early on in the 1963-64 season and played a blinder against West Bromwich Albion.
Perhaps wooried about the fuss his introduction had made, Busby then left him out of the team before recalling him for a christmas fixture at home to Burnley. Burnley were a top side at the time and had hammered United at Turf Moor only two days earlier on Boxing Day. With buffet catering service Manchester Best scoring his first United goal the drubbing was returned and the youngster was here to stay.
The remainder of that season saw George Best confirm his incredible talent and by the end of it United finished runners up in the league. Best’s impact was amazing.
Crowds everywhere marvelled at this skinny winger who fabled hard men could not knock off a ball, tackle or even foul on most occasions. A boy who could appear in the middle and outjump international centre halves to head goals past international goalkeepers and who could rip shots into the back of the net in a blur that almost defeated the eye.
His appeal was not confined to the football pitch. Best was an exceptionally good looking young man as well and all at once girls all over the country began taking an interest in football, at least to the extent of having pictures of Georgie Best plastered across their bedroom walls.
Within a couple of years this interest would turn to something approaching hysteria and George Best, the footballer and the man, would start to crack under the pressure.
Best’s first full season in the United first team was a thrilling one as the club captured the first division championship and reached the semi finals of both the FA and Fairs Cups, losing to Leeds United and Ferencvaros of Hungary, both after replays.
He had not yet turned nineteen but Best was already perhaps the most talked about and recognisable figure in British football but it was the following season that his fame really exploded and became international.
On a balmy night in Lisbon, George Best turned in one of his greatest ever performances as United slaughtered Benfica 5-1 on their own ground, the first time they had ever suffered defeat at home in European competition. Best provided two of the early goals which set United on their way, leaping in front of the keeper to head the first before slicing through the defence to slide home his second.
Captured strolling through the streets of Lisbon the following morning in a massive sombrero a newspaper caption dubbed Best “El Beatle” and the legend moved on apace.
United missed out on further glory that year, losing in the semi finals of both the FA and European Cups after Best was injured in the first leg of their European tie with Partizan Belgrade and missed the remainder of the season.
The following season United once again won the league championship which earned the club another crack at the European Cup, the trophy which Matt Busby coveted above all others.
George Best was undoubtedly at his best during this season and although United were pipped to another title by neighbours City, George topped the first division scoring charts with 28, alongside Southampton’s Ron Davies, an incredible tally for a winger.
European glory did come United’s way, however, in suitably dramatic fashion. Paired with the Spanish giants Real Madrid in the semi finals it was a Best goal that gave United a precarious 1-0 lead to take to Spain for the second leg and proved ultimately decisive after a typically extravagant 3-3 draw in the Bernebeu.
In the final, again against Benfica, Best scored perhaps his most famous goal, skipping round the last defender and rounding the keeper before tapping into an empty net. This goal put United 2-1 in front early in extra time and Busby’s dream came true as his side marched on to a famous 4-1 triumph.
This was in 1968 and George Best, approaching his 22nd birthday, was crowned Footballer of the Year and European Footballer of the Year. The footballing world was well and truly at Best’s feet and yet this would prove to be the pinacle of his career.
United never finished higher than 8th during Best’s remaining years at Old Trafford and although they reached the European Cup semi finals again in 1969 and the FA Cup semis a year later the clubs’ glory days were coming to a bitter end. Matt Busby had allowed his squad to grow old and left at a time when his fabled youth system was producing non entities.
Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell both found Busby’s shoes too big to step into and United continued to deteriorate before Tommy Docherty arrived at Old Trafford determined to stamp his own personality and authority on the club.
All this time George Best had been deteriorating likewise. It was scarcely noticeable in his performances on the field, especially as his genius was now largely surrounded by mediocroty, and he remained United’s leading scorer for six successive seasons between 1967 and 1972.
His social life had started to spiral out of control, however, and by the time of Docherty’s arrival at Old Trafford Best was already drinking heavily, would occasionally miss training and was, basically, a sitting target as the new manager looked to wield his axe, all at a time when he should have been untouchable. Therefore one of the greatest players ever to grace Old Trafford left in shambolic circumstances at the age of 27.
Docherty has taken a lot of criticism over the years for his treatment of George Best, particularly from the fans, but it would seem to be one of the wisest things he ever did.
Although United were relegated at the end of the season in which Best made his final appearance for the club, a 0-3 defeat at QPR on New Years Day 1974, Docherty quickly put together a hungry young team which returned instantly to the first division and came back much stronger.
Best, on the other hand, descended into a series of unsatisfactory, and mainly shortlived, dalliances at a string of unlikely clubs while becoming a confirmed alcoholic.
It is often suggested that George Best became disillusioned with life at Old Trafford as the great players he had grown up with left and were replaced by men not fit to lace their, or his, boots.
There is no doubt that this did happen but Best did not stop playing football on leaving Manchester United and surely the players at United were better than those at the places he ended up going to.
His course of action was simply the easier one, always favoured by people with a drink problem.
Therefore when Best should have been playing for Manchester United he was representing the likes of Dunstable Town, Stockport County, Cork Celtic, Los Angeles Aztecs, Fulham, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, Detroit Express, Hibernians, San Jose Earthquakes, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions and Tobermore United.
This is the rightful CV of someone like Sammy Morgan, not the man who many regard as the greatest player to ever live.
Best was an unqualified success during his time in America but this hardly represents a claim to fame. In a league peopled by a handful of ageing superstars and a host of journeymen Best was at the age when he should have been at his peak.
The early eighties became a circus of rumoured comebacks, testimonial appearances and lurid stories about Best’s drinking.
George Best played his last Football League game for Bournemouth in May 1983 in a 2-2 draw with Wigan Athletic and his last recorded competitive appearance was for Tobermore United in the Irish Cup the following February.
Typically the tiny ground was bursting at the seams for Best’s appearance but his team lost 7-0 to Ballymena.
Given this personally induced destruction of his own career and his God given talent it is easy to judge George Best harshly and yet it has to be remembered that during his time at the top he managed to influence a generation of football supporters perhaps more profoundly than any other player in the games’ history.
It is not just those who followed Manchester United during George Best’s time there who name him as the greatest player of the period. Throughout Britain, Europe and all across the world his performances captivated millions and his legend lives on today as subsequent generations look back and see him flicking the ball over Gordon Banks’ head for the greatest disallowed goal ever scored, riding Ron Harris’ crude assault on a muddy Old Trafford pitch before casually rounding Peter Bonetti with consummate ease, lobbing Pat Jennings from the corner of the six yard box with his international colleague standing on his line and leaving Bobby Moore on his backside before scoring against West Ham.
You cannot create such a deep and lasting impression unless you are seriously good and there is no question that George Best was up there with footballs’ all time greats.
He had been born with all the attributes a player could wish for. His ball control was immaculate and his dribbling skills perhaps unsurpassed. Best could also pass, shoot, head and tackle superbly and was naturally two footed.
Above and beyond this Best was blessed with natural gifts which could not be taught or coached. He was lightning quick, especially off the mark, had unlimited stamina and possessed an incredible flexibility which allowed him to ride tackles and avoid injury despite the punishment, unimaginable these days, that defenders were permitted to inflict on him week in and week out.
It should also be remembered that although George Best cut off his Manchester United career in its prime he made over 460 appearances for the club in all competitions, a healthy career for most mortals.
Where Best stands in the list of all time greats is, as always, a matter of opinion.
It was not easy for Best to make a mark in international football coming from Northern Ireland and he never had the chance to perform in a major finals.
His performances in Europe for Manchester United were invariably scintilating, however, and there is no doubt that he was the single biggest attraction in British football during the 1960’s and early 70’s.
Interestingly though, although his contemporaries speak now about him being possibly the greatest ever, comments concerning Best while he was playing tended to mention the room for improvement possible in his teamwork, something Best chose never to fully address.
Indeed it can only be assumed that had Best deigned to channel his talents more towards the team then he would have ended his career with more than three winners medals and might well have led Northern Ireland towards international recognition.
Of course when people such as Bobby Charlton were passing such opinions they were talking about a young man in his mid twenties who they assumed had another ten years at the top in him. In the normal course of events Best would surely have added these facets to his game and made an even stronger claim to being considered the greatest player of them all.
One of my favourite assessments of George Best came from Jimmy Greaves who said that he did not know if George was the best but added that “there was no-one better.”
It seems a touch sentimental to put Best forward as the greatest footballer ever, surely that accolade can never go to someone who was playing for Stockport at the age of 29, but it does not seem too extravagant to claim that he might well have been the most naturally gifted man ever to kick a football.