Our Sporting Lives: The George Best Match... how superstar beat Scotland on his own, disappointed Lulu and made a little boy's day
‘It was like trying to catch the wind’ as George Best took Scotland apart single-handedly on his best day in green
Reliving the renowned George Best Match 50 years ago today... how a legendary performance of sheer genius began with a telegram from Lulu and ended with delight for a little boy in hospital
They called it The George Best Match.
Fifty years ago to this very day, the greatest footballer the world has ever seen took Scotland apart on his own, sending 50,000 fans wild in a 1-0 win at Windsor Park.
It remains the most celebrated individual performance in a Northern Ireland jersey and, looking back, a cause for lament as well that such a God-given talent appeared only 37 times for his country and never at a major finals.
George’s well-documented demons put paid to that, sadly cutting short his whirlwind life, aged just 59 in 2005.
But that late autumn afternoon, five decades ago, under a typically overcast Belfast sky, George, then aged 21, was approaching the peak of his powers.
A year earlier he had announced his arrival with Manchester United on the world stage, destroying then mighty Benfica 5-1 in a European Cup quarter-final in Lisbon.
“A hurricane passed through the Stadium of Light that night,” Benfica’s Antonio Simoes said, “and his name was George Best.” Within a mere 15 minutes, he had dazzlingly scored twice and set up a third for John Connelly.
BBC Commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme described it as “a luscious box of chocolates Manchester United have served up”. The Portuguese paper Bola described Best as ‘El Beatle’ and a legend was born – Best overnight transformed from a brilliant young Irish footballer into an international superstar.
Small wonder Belfast was brimming with excitement in the build-up to the game, part of the old Home International series, doubling as a European Championship qualifier, and on the day, the crowds began packing the old Windsor Park from noon. By the time referee Jim Finney blew his whistle for the 3 o’clock kick off, 50,000 were in the ground, then terraced on three sides.
Take a look at the black and white footage from the game on You Tube for a glimpse of football from another era; sardine-packed terraces, no fences, white-coated stewards patrolling the perimeter, powerless to prevent fans rushing on to mob their hero at the finish... but, above all, watch it for a reminder, or introduction, to the brilliance of Best.
His presence alone trebled the crowd from the previous home game, against Wales, which he missed (a theme sadly to recur as his career and excessive lifestyle progressed).
But that particular day, he quite literally had the world at his feet.
The day of his 13th cap started well for George with a telegram arriving at the team hotel from the Scottish singer Lulu, a massive star then.
Rumours that they were an item would have been confirmed by the greeting: “I know you should win, but against Scotland – are you kidding? Love Lulu.” That telegram is now in the National Football Museum in Manchester.
Lulu clearly enjoyed teasing George with electronic wordplay, long before the advent of text messaging and Twitter.
Once when he missed a match at Chelsea, his then Manchester United manager Frank O’Farrell, who could never find him to curtail him, informed the Press that George was down with a dose of the flu.
To which Lulu fired off another telegram, famously declaring: “Roses are red, violets are blue. It’s the first time I’ve been called a dose of the flu.”
Even with an on-song George back on board, Northern Ireland (or Ireland as the side was then referred to) still went into the game as underdogs against a Scottish side fielding four of the Celtic team that had won that year’s European Cup, beating Inter Milan to become immortalised as the Lisbon Lions. Denis Law, Ian Ure and Willie Morgan were also included with Rangers great John Greig as captain.
Northern Ireland had Pat Jennings in goal, three years into a career that would span three decades.
Billy Bingham was in his first spell as manager.
And what a day for two debutants, Billy Campbell of Sunderland and Glentoran’s Billy McKeag, drafted in just before kick off as Newcastle’s injured Dave Craig failed a fitness test.
McKeag was living the dream after a summer tour of the United States with Glentoran’s famed Detroit Cougars, followed by two epic European Cup battles against Benfica and Eusebio who Best would also vanquish in Manchester United’s historic final victory in 1968.
Fine players all, but on that October afternoon they assumed the role of sorcerer’s apprentices.
Wolstenholme was again the commentator and his posh, clipped tones tell a prophetic tale as he set the scene for “this very important international football game.”
“Georgie Best can win this match on his own,” Wolstenholme enthuses, ahead of a time when commentators could use the editing facility to make themselves sound wise after the event.
As Best begins to weave his spell, magically mesmerising the Scots, Wolstenholme sounds as excited as the fans: “The crowd are rising to Best; the man is a genius; it looks like the ball is tied to his feet!”
Right back Tommy Gemmell, normally a towering presence for Celtic and Scotland, suffered the most torrid afternoon of his outstanding career.
Gemmell later remembered: “It was 1-0 going on five... I couldn’t get close to him. It was like trying to catch the wind. I tried to body check him, trip him, kick him... nothing worked.”
Nut-megged and given a headlight, to use the Belfast vernecular, Gemmell at one point approached the Chelsea left back, Eddie McCreadie, and asked if he wanted to switch positions. “Not on your life,” McCreadie reputedly replied.
It would have been bitter-sweet to watch, too, for our late, great Sports Editor Malcolm Brodie, a proud Scot.
Malcolm loved George, charting the highs and lows of his life. When his managers (and girlfriends) couldn’t find him, Malcolm knew where to look.
They were friends and confidantes and would have done anything for one another (as a postscript the day after the game demonstrated).
And it took a gifted wordsmith like Malcolm to do justice to the performance in that evening’s Ireland’s Saturday Night.
Malcolm wrote: “The whole fascination of his performance was like a dream. It was all so staggering. He entranced the crowd with those delicate touches as he dispossessed Scottish players to begin his build-ups, for he rarely got a service from his colleagues. He had to do it alone, do it his way.”
Only one Scot made it into the credit column – Celtic goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson who denied Best time and again.
“If anyone is likely to score, it is Best,” gasps Wolstenholme, for once calling it not quite right.
That honour fell to midfielder Dave Clements, the farmer’s son from Larne, then of Coventry City by way of Wolves and Portadown.
The George Best Match was Northern Ireland’s version of England’s Matthews Final. And in that respect, Clements, now US-based, was left to share a common bond with English great Stan Mortenson.
He scored a hat-trick in that 1953 final from which much of the magic of the FA Cup flowed.
Sir Stanley Matthews, then Britain’s best-loved footballer had tried and failed on two occasions to get his hands on a winner’s medal but, at the age of 38, it finally proved to be his year as Blackpool defeated Bolton 4-3.
For the rest of his life, Mortenson would tell football after-dinner audiences, only half joking: “I scored a hat-trick and they called it the Matthews Final!”
Clements, an accomplished player himself, never complained as he went on to further his career at Sheffield Wednesday and Everton, managing Northern Ireland for a season in 1975-76 before, astutely, getting in at the start of the United States ‘soccer’ revolution, playing and coaching for another 20 years.
He is one of the few who can say they played alongside Pele and Best, having been a team-mate of the iconic Brazilian at New York Cosmos.
Now aged 72, he lives in retirement in Denver, Colorado, having made a successful business career, post football, from patenting and selling coin-operated candyfloss vending machines.
Another player in green that day will surely have mixed feelings on this 50th anniversary.
That great son of Derry, Jobby Crossan, missed a penalty, saved by Ronnie Simpson. On the one hand, his fluff was reduced to a footnote by George’s virtuoso performance and Clements’ goal, which, of course, Best set up with a cross from the right at the old Spion Kop end.
On the other, Jobby could still be dining out as a scorer in the George Best Match.
Jobby was more successful from the spot in a 1964 World Cup qualifier against Switzerland of all teams in another 1-0 Windsor Park win, hopefully to be repeated next month.
The day belonged to George, though, and contrary to expectation he returned that night to stay at his family home at Burren Way in the Cregagh estate.
It was there the following morning that Malcolm Brodie collected him by car for an arranged visit to the Royal Victoria Hospital.
A young patient, John Doherty, forced to miss the match through illness, had written to Malcolm at the Telegraph, asking for George’s autograph. When George heard, he insisted on going to the hospital in person, handing the disbelieving lad a parcel containing his match worn shirt and a signed programme, staying to talk to other children and their families.
The pair were to be reunited later on a Gerry Kelly Show special in the Ulster Television studios at a time when the illness that claimed George was beginning to take a hold, with another son of East Belfast, Van Morrison, paying a musical tribute.
Those who would have harshly judged George and his alcoholism ought to have seen that cameo.
It perfectly summed up George and his generosity of spirit.
His cross was one no-one chooses to bear and on this day, of all days, when we remember his finest hour and a half in the green of his country, he is sorely missed.
Thanks, again, for the memories, George.