Belfast Telegraph

John White: How George Best began to dazzle and catch the eye in Northern Ireland before going on to forever change the face of football

As Manchester United fans around the world poignantly remember the loss of George Best on November 25, 2005, his fellow east Belfast man John White looks back on the life of a young talent growing up in the Cregagh housing estate up until a skinny, dark-haired teenager made his debut for the Red Devils in 1963

Young talent: George Best at training in 1964
Young talent: George Best at training in 1964

By John White

On a bright sunny day on Wednesday, May 22, 1946, a baby boy was born in Belfast who would literally change the face of football forever.

In June 1945, Dickie Best married his sweetheart Anne Withers and 11 months later the couple witnessed the birth of their first child and named him George after Anne's father. Has any footballer ever been born with a more appropriate name?

Dickie was a modest working class man and a hugely respected figure in the local community of Cregagh in east Belfast where the Best family lived at Burren Way. Dickie worked at an iron turner's lathe at the world famous Harland & Wolff shipyard at Queen's Island where the Titanic was built. Anne worked on the production line at Gallaher's tobacco factory, the largest in the world, in north Belfast.

Dickie was 26-years-old when Geordie, as the family called him, was born and he played amateur football until he was 36 while George's mum was an outstanding hockey player. From the moment he could walk, all George ever did was play football and it was his Granda George who would kick a ball about all day with his grandson. On the other side of the family, it was his Granda James 'Scottie' Best who took him to his first football match to see Glentoran play at The Oval in east Belfast, close to James' house.

Golden boy: George Best shows Matt Busby his European Player of the Year title
Golden boy: George Best shows Matt Busby his European Player of the Year title

There wasn't much else for the kids growing up on the streets of post-war Belfast to do except play football as very few families had a television set at the time and the only net young boys were concerned about in the early 1950s was a makeshift goal made from placing jumpers on the ground.

The young George (above) attended Nettlefield Primary School in Radnor Street, Belfast and on his way to and home from school he took a tennis ball out of his coat pocket and dribbled it along the pavement, throwing his hips from side to side as he weaved in and out of men and women on their way to work. These unsuspecting early morning workers were in George's mind defenders he had to snake past en route to the goal.

Shooting practice for George was placing the tennis ball on the ground and aiming for the handle of a garage door.

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However, despite football taking up all of his spare time, George was an excellent pupil and a very quick learner. He passed the 11-plus and went to Grosvenor Grammar School.

George hated the school but not for academic reasons - none of his mates were there and worst of all, grammar schools in Belfast played rugby, not football. In his first year at Grosvenor, George found himself running with an oddly shaped ball in his hands rather than having a football at his feet doing whatever he wanted it to do.

But George gave rugby a go and was a half-decent fly-half, although for George no sport could replace his love for football. When George started to 'go on the beak' (Belfast slang for playing truant), his parents, sensing he was unhappy there, managed to get him into Lisnasharragh High School.

George's new school was in Stirling Avenue, much closer to his home than Grosvenor but more importantly to George, all his mates attended the school and they played football there, not rugby. And so when George walked out of the gates at Grosvenor for the last time, little did the school know it at the time but they were effectively giving a free transfer to a teenager who would go on to become the greatest ever footballer in the world; a player who in today's crazy football transfer market would cost well in excess of the world-record fee of £198m paid to Barcelona by Paris Saint-Germain for Neymar in August 2017.

Apart from his local team, Glentoran, when George was a young boy he also supported an English League side but it wasn't Manchester United.

He supported Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were as successful in the 1950s as United in the 1990s. Managed by the legendary Stan Cullis and captained by the England international team skipper Billy Wright, Wolves won the First Division Championship in 1953-54, 1957-58 and 1958-59 (and were runners-up in 1954-55 and 1959-60).

With his girlfriend Kay Williamson
With his girlfriend Kay Williamson

Cullis invented the famous 'kick and rush' style of football and in the summer of 1953, Wolves became one of the first clubs to install floodlights at their Molineux ground which enabled them to play some very high-profile friendly games against some of the world's best teams. Clubs such as Real Madrid, Racing Club of Argentina, First Vienna, Spartak Moscow and Honvéd of Hungary all visited the Black Country to take on Cullis' all-conquering side.

The Wolves v Honvéd game was televised by the BBC on Monday, December 13, 1954, and a seven-year-old George Best sat in front of the black and white television cheering his heroes.

The nation watching on TV, including the young Best, held their breaths in anticipation wondering how the pride of England, the reigning First Division champions, would fare against the winners of the double in Hungary in 1953-54, and whose legendary strikers, Puskas and Kocsis, had scored in a recent 7-1 drubbing of England.

They saw Wolves win 3-2 in a match widely believed to have been the inspiration behind the suggestion made by Gabriel Hanot, the French sports journalist and editor of L'Equipe, that led to the creation of the European Cup, now the Champions League.

When he was 13, George played for his local youth club, Cregagh Boys. The team was run by Bud McFarlane, a close friend of Dickie Best, and he was also coach of the reserve team at Glentoran. McFarlane knew from day one that this young, skinny boy from Burren Way had what it took to become a footballer and mentored the young Best.

Bud would constantly offer George advice on all aspects of his game and on one occasion he told George that he felt he was concentrating too much on playing with his right foot and suggested that he practice playing with his left foot. George took Bud's advice on board and over the following week he never touched the ball with his right foot; he was still practising with a tennis ball at the time. When he turned up for Cregagh Boys' next match he only brought one football boot, his left one. George put the boot on and wore a gutty (Belfast slang for a plimsole) on his stronger right foot.

He scored 12 goals in the game and never once used his right foot to kick the ball. Yet, quite amazingly, someone, somewhere decided that George was not good enough to represent Northern Ireland at schoolboy level. And this unbelievable decision was actually taken after George played for his youth club against a Possibles Northern Ireland Schoolboys XI which the kids from the Cregagh won 2-1 and George was the best player on the pitch by a country mile.

No one really knows why George was excluded from the schools set-up. Some claimed it was because Lisnasharragh did not play in any competitive games, while others cite George's frail looking 5ft high, 8st frame as the main reason. Either way, it was the country's loss at this level of football. Even Glentoran thought he was too small and too light to make it as a footballer.

Bob Bishop was Manchester United's chief scout in Northern Ireland from 1950 to 1987 and in his early years had helped coach the famous Boyland Youth Club football team which earned a reputation as a nursery for many teams in the English First Division.

In the family: George Best with sister Carol (on his right)
and mum Anne (on his left). Sister Barbara is in front, and
on either side are Georgie and Joan, his aunts
In the family: George Best with sister Carol (on his right) and mum Anne (on his left). Sister Barbara is in front, and on either side are Georgie and Joan, his aunts

Bud McFarlane was a close friend of Bob and persuaded him to take George away for the weekend to one of the many football training camps Bishop held at Helen's Bay, County Down. George was an extremely shy lad, not at all extroverted, but Bishop liked what he had seen and decided to keep a close watchful eye on him.

Leeds United had a useful scouting system in Northern Ireland at the time but, according to their scout, George was far too skinny to cope with the demands of life in the English leagues. But McFarlane believed in George and refused to give up on securing his young charge a trial.

Bud asked Bishop to organise a friendly match between Boyland FC and McFarlane's Cregagh Boys Under-16 team. At McFarlane's request, the Boyland team was made up of their best 17 to 18-year-olds. Bishop stood on the sidelines watching the 15-year-old Best weave his magic on the pitch, scoring twice in a 4-2 win against his much bigger and stronger boys. It was at that moment that Bishop realised that McFarlane had been right all along, the young dark-haired skinny kid had what it took to become a professional footballer and he sent his now famous telegram to the Manchester United manager, Matt Busby, with the message reading: "I think I've found you a genius."

Matt Busby invited George over to Old Trafford for a trial in the summer of 1961 during the school holidays. Best, and another young player who Bishop thought could make the grade at United, Eric McMordie, boarded the Belfast to Liverpool ferry in June 1961. George wore his best clothes for the journey, his school uniform.

Speaking shortly after George died in 2005, Eric fondly recalled that journey to Manchester: "I'd played for a club in east Belfast called Boyland since I was 11. There was a man called Bob Bishop who spent his days watching Boyland and sent kids from there to the big clubs. It was like a nursery for Manchester United.

"George became one of the first to go to United who didn't play for Boyland. Bob's eye for talent was unequalled - he was a very special man. But a match between us and Cregagh Boys, who George played for, was set up. I've never seen a player with so many bruises on his body as George. He was picked on not just because he was wee but because he was so talented. But he fought back and that's what made George the great player he was."

None of the boys were accompanied by any of their parents or a guardian for the trip and were simply told to make their way to Lime Street Train Station in Liverpool and take the train to Manchester where a taxi would be sent to take them to Old Trafford. The entire journey was a terrifying ordeal for two kids from the streets of Belfast who had never been out of Northern Ireland before.

At the club's Cliff training ground, they met a number of the first team players including Northern Ireland's Harry Gregg and Jimmy Nicholson before being taken on to their digs in a terrace house in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of Manchester, and introduced them to Mrs Fullaway, their landlady.

Little did George know it at the time but Mrs Fullaway's house would be his home on and off for the next 10 years. But his first stay lasted just one night.

Both were homesick away from their families and without a word to anyone, made their way back across the Irish Sea. McMordie, who went on to play for Middlesbrough (1964-75), winning 21 caps for his country, recalled the journey: "It was an incredible time. There was George in his Lisnasharragh school uniform with his prefect's badge and me. We were just a pair of kids who had never been out of Belfast. It was like another world. But it all became too much and we ended up back home in less than a couple of days.

"We were both overawed. A short while later George went back and the rest is history."

On George's return, dad Dickie telephoned to find out what had gone on and Busby persuaded him to send his boy back over again to see if he possessed the necessary talent and ability to become a professional footballer.

George had planned to take up an apprenticeship as a printer in Belfast when he left school but Busby persuaded him to sign amateur forms at United in August 1961 and he ended up keeping printers all over the country busy over the following 12 years and more.

It still took the young Best a while to get over the homesickness and to keep him occupied after training, United found him a job as a clerk at the Manchester Ship Canal company. George hated the job, having to make countless cups of tea all day long, until on May 22, 1963, the day of his 17th birthday, George signed professional forms with United. Three days later, George was sitting anonymously in the stands at Wembley, a member of United's travelling non-playing party at the 1963 FA Cup final versus Leicester City, a game United won 3-1.

Exactly five years and six days later, George would be back at Wembley and this time he'd be out on the pitch playing in Europe's premier club competition, the European Cup final. And everyone knew exactly who he was that night in 1968.

Speed, athleticism, bravery, cunning, dare, agility, timing, skill... George possessed them all. And yet all of these attributes were mere strands in the DNA of George Best. Paddy Crerand, a team-mate of Best, once said that George had "twisted blood".

But football's first superstar, dubbed the 'Fifth Beatle' by the press who reported on his every move, had a rollercoaster of a career.

George packed the game in, aged just 26. He once famously said: "I spent a lot of money on booze, women and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."

Two English First Division Championship medals with United in 1965 and 1967, a European Cup winner's medal in 1968 and Manchester United's top goalscorer on four occasions, George had the world at his feet.

Over the following years George faced constant battles with alcoholism, marriage splits, a liver transplant and a 12-week jail sentence in 1984 for drink-driving, assaulting a police officer and failing to answer bail.

But it is the good times that I will forever remember George for. His magical performance in 1966 against Benfica in their own backyard when he scored twice in United's 5-1 win, a performance that earned him the nickname El Beatle.

Or his six goals for United in the FA Cup against Northampton Town, and who will ever forget that night at Wembley on May 29, 1968 when George scored in the European Cup final in a 4-1 win over Benfica of Portugal as United's 'Holy Trinity' of Law, Charlton and Best delivered the Holy Grail for their manager, Matt Busby, to help United soothe the memory of the Munich Air Disaster some 10 years earlier.

On November 20, 2005, the News of the World newspaper published a photograph of a very seriously ill George lying in his hospital bed at the request of the Manchester United legend.

The caption with the photograph read: "Don't die like me." Sadly, George died in Cromwell Hospital, London five days after the photograph was published but the shy Belfast boy will forever have a special place in the hearts of every Manchester United fan.

John White is the Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club and the author of 17 books about his beloved Manchester United including "Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish," published by Simon & Schuster. John also posts daily articles on the Carryduff MUSC Facebook page

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