Another one from the StateOfTheGame.co.uk archives. This time a tribute to one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sons and the man Pele called the best footballer ever - the inimitable George Best.
Born on the 22nd of May 1946 into a working class Protestant family in post war Belfast, Northern Ireland, the inauspicious surroundings of his childhood spent playing football in the terraced streets of his home city gave little indication that the young George Best would go on to become one of the world’s most famous (and infamous) sporting heroes. Little indication that is unless Best had a football at his feet.
Spotted at age 15 by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop and given a trial in 1961 along with fellow Belfast boy Eric McMordie, George almost never made it at all, returning home to Belfast after only 24 hours at Old Trafford feeling homesick. His father Dickie knew what he was giving up though and intervened by phoning Matt Busby himself and asking if the skinny young boy from Belfast could be given another chance. Busby agreed and Best was back in Manchester within a fortnight and the rest, as they say, is history.
Best turned professional in 1963 and made his debut as a 17 year old that autumn at home against West Bromwich Albion. A couple of months later and still feeling homesick he returned to Belfast to spend Christmas with his family but received word that United needed him to play against the Burnley side who had thrashed them 6-1 at Turf Moor on Boxing Day. He agreed to come back as long as the club flew him to Manchester and flew him back to Belfast immediately after the match. They agreed and George Best began to see just how much Manchester United valued him even as a 17 year old with only one league game under his belt. Best scored his first goal for United in a thrilling 5-1 victory and found himself a starting member of the team.
The following year Manchester United finished second in the League, reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup and the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup in their first season back in Europe since the Munich disaster of 1958 which still hung like a black cloud over the club. Best was ably assisted by Bobby Charlton and Denis Law in the United side and the three of them above all others would help propel the club away from the spectre of the lost Busby Babes side and into a bright new future.
The expectation levels surrounding George Best were growing ever stronger but he was more than up to the challenge, displaying the skill, flair and panache both on and off the pitch which would lead him to be dubbed “the fifth Beatle” because of his popularity and his fashionable mop top hairstyle. As he lead Manchester United to the league title in 1965 on the field, Best was increasingly in demand off it as well with modelling assignments and opening his own fashion boutique merely the tip of the commercial iceberg for football’s first fashion icon.
The following season started poorly after the exertions of the previous Championship year and Best even found himself dropped. He recovered and in one of the most memorable matches ever in European club football inspired Manchester United to a 5-1 victory against the seemingly invincible Benfica in the Stadium of Light. Best’s season wasn’t to get any better though as he damaged a knee cartilage in the European Cup semi-final and missed the rest of the season. The legend of “El Beatle” wasn’t so easy to put down though.
The following season of 1966/67 was free of European worries for United and with Best back from injury and playing now on the right hand side of their attack they won the title in style to get themselves back into the race for Matt Busby’s Holy Grail, the European Cup.
Inspired by arguably the greatest side in United’s history, they fought their way to the final at Wembley in 1968 and in an epic encounter aginst their old foes Benfica, and Eusebio in particular, came out on top 4-1 in an unforgettable footballing display of skill and passion. Best scored one and was crowned European Footballer Of The Year. This was George Best at the pinnacle of his powers. Even he wouldn’t have believed it could all start going wrong so quickly after the greatest footballing night if his career.
He was sent off for fighting against Estudiantes and the following season United struggled badly in the league, finishing a lowly eleventh. Matt Busby retired and was replaced first by Wilf MCGuinness and then by Frank O’Farrell. With his father figure gone, George began drinking more and for the first time letting it affect his training and his football career. His nocturnal habits and his fondness for the high life were the stories being printed in the papers as the 1970s began, not footballing ones and George’s interest in football almost completely disappeared.
He left and rejoined Manchester United in 1973 but couldn’t motivate himself and eventually took his talents off for brief spells at Stockport County, Bournemouth, Fulham, Hibernian, Los Angeles Aztecs, Cork Celtic, Fort Lauderdale Strikers, San Jose Earthquakes, Dunstable Town and Brisbane Lions. Best wasn’t even thirty years old when he gave up serious football in pursuit of the bottom of a bottle.
He turned out 37 times for Northern Ireland, some of them running teams ragged on his own, many where he didn’t seem interested at all although he maintained throughout the love of a nation who were always susceptible to his cheeky grin and self deprecating honesty and humour.
George has been married twice, first to the mother of his son Callum and then to Alex who he recently divorced. He is of course a legendary womaniser who consorted with movie stars and Miss Worlds, a reputation with the ladies that caused him no amount of problems with both the other ladies in his life and sometimes the police as well.
George Best was a legend on the pitch, a footballing one-off whose flame shined so brightly for such a short amount of time that we can’t look back on the wonderful things he did in the game without asking the immortal question “what if?” His larger than life persona and off the field indiscretions have kept him in the public eye over the years but it should never be forgotten that it was his unique footballing talent that set him apart from the rest of his generation, regardless of sport.
Football writers are constantly tagging bright new prospects with the tag “the new George Best” but this has done more than Lee Sharpe or Ryan Giggs a great disservice over the years. In truth there will never be another George Best, in all areas of his life he has been a one of a kind, both footballing brilliance and humanly destructive, a world reknowned footballing talent who has fought a life long battle against the destructive disease of alcoholism.
To sum up the man described by Pele and Diego Maradona as the greatest footballer who ever lived we have to recount the often told, never substantiated though completely believable anecdote about George Best and the hotel bellboy who upon entering Best’s hotel room to find him in bed with a magnum of champagne, thousands of pounds in cash from a winning night at the casino and the current Miss World remarked, “George, where did it all go wrong?”
AUTHOR’S POSTSCRIPT: While I knew George was very ill when I wrote this article I didn’t realise just how little time he had left. George Best died on 25th November 2005 at the tragically young age of 59. Northern Ireland and his home city of Belfast subsequently came to a standstill as he was given a public funeral to allow his many thousands of fans to grieve alongside the Best family. Northern Ireland’s Belfast City Airport was subsequently renamed “George Best Belfast City Airport” in honour of Belfast’s most famous son. Gone but never forgotten. Rest in peace Georgie.