Belfast Telegraph

Why George Best still has a special place in United hearts, a full 56 years after first weaving magic

Belfast Boy who went on to super-stardom is remembered on the anniversary of his debut

Super six: George Best before hitting six goals against Northampton in the FA Cup in 1970
Super six: George Best before hitting six goals against Northampton in the FA Cup in 1970

By John White

George Best burst onto the football scene exactly 56 years ago today as a skinny, dark-haired 17-year-old on September 14, 1963. Matt Busby had decided that the time was right to blood the kid from Belfast in his first team after George had demoralised the defences of every reserve side he faced playing for Manchester United in the Central League.

The truth is Busby could not delay the youngster's progress any longer as it was clear to see that he had a very special talent on his hands, a player who had exceptional speed, perfect balance, bewildering close ball control, a sublime feather-like touch, was courageous and, despite his light weight, a player who was as brave as any in the tackle.

United defeated West Brom 1-0 at Old Trafford that day in the First Division and for those among the 50,453 crowd who were privileged to see the game, they witnessed the debut of a teenager who would not only go on to change the game but also how the media reported it.

However, it would be a frustrating three-month wait before the United faithful and the British public would see George's next competitive game. On December 28, 1963, United welcomed Burnley to Old Trafford and George was magnificent, teasing the Burnley players at every opportunity and helping United to a 5-1 victory by grabbing the first of his 178 goals for the club.

On January 18, 1964, George was in the United team for their trip to play West Brom at The Hawthorns in the league. It was the first time he played alongside Bobby Charlton and Denis Law who, along with George, would become arguably the greatest strike force the world of football has ever enjoyed.

The Baggies stood no chance, with United easing to a 4-1 win, and, of course, the trio took all the plaudits, with Law scoring twice and Charlton and George also finding the net. However, despite the brilliance of this sensational triumvirate, United finished runners-up to Liverpool in the race to be crowned champions of England, four points adrift of the Merseyside men.

After only 15 league appearances for United, George was called up to the Northern Ireland squad by Bertie Peacock and won the first of his 37 caps for his country, against Wales, losing 3-2 at Swansea's old Vetch Field in a Home International Championship game on April 15, 1964.

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The major attraction at the cinema box office in 1964 was the movie Goldfinger. Whereas the main character from the movie, James Bond, stirred the ladies on the silver screen, it was a kid from Belfast, Georgie Best, who was stirring the fans in the stands with his golden feet.

After dazzling defenders, fans and reporters alike the previous season, George was a marked man going into the 1964-65 campaign at a time when refs were a lot more lenient in their interpretation of foul play than now.

But George was totally unstoppable, impossible for defences to control, as he helped United claim their sixth First Division title.

And of course it was Charlton, Law and Best who spearheaded the United attack, scoring 48 league goals between them (Charlton 10, Law 28 and Best 10). George missed only one of United's 42 league games that campaign, the season in which he truly announced himself on the world stage.

During the season, George also scored his first ever goal for his country in a 2-1 loss away to Switzerland in a qualifying game for the 1966 World Cup finals.

In February 1965, George was kidnapped as part of the Manchester College of Commerce students' rag stunt. And just as George was about to embark on a glittering career, Stanley Matthews announced his retirement at the end of the 1964-65 season.

However, whereas the world of football would miss the departure of one legend, another was born in the shape of George. It was as though George won an early version of The Apprentice to succeed Matthews, long before Sir Alan Sugar entertained us on BBC TV searching for his own protégé.

The following season, 1965-66, a few niggling injuries meant George missed 11 league games but he still managed to find the net nine times in the other 31 and laid on many of the 45 goals scored by Charlton, David Herd and Law. But one tie he made sure he did not miss, regardless of what his body was telling him, was United's two tussles with Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup.

United drew first blood in the tie, winning the first leg 3-2 in front of a packed audience of 64,035 at Old Trafford with goals from Herd, Law and Bill Foulkes. It was a slender one-goal lead to take to Lisbon on March 9, 1966, with the Portuguese giants just needing to win 1-0 at their famous Stadium of Light to progress to the semi-finals. When United arrived in Lisbon for the game, very few sports commentators gave them a chance.

For those watching inside the Stadium of Light and on TV at home, it must have looked like time stood still for everyone on the pitch except George. It was as if George was in a Ferrari and the Benfica players were trying to catch him in a tank.

When Matt Busby was interviewed after his side's Best-inspired 5-1 win, he was asked what his plans had been going into the game trying to protect their slender one-goal advantage and said: "Our plan was to be cautious, but thankfully somebody must have stuffed cotton wool in George's ears."

George was photographed after the game wearing a huge sombrero, and with his good looks and stylish long black hair the Portuguese press quickly dubbed him O Quinto Beatle (The Fifth Beatle). When the team arrived back home in Manchester the following day, Best donned the sombrero again for the British press and the tag of El Beatle stuck. For George, it was the beginning of a spectacular rise to superstar status.

Aged 20 he was football's first poster boy, the most gifted footballer in the world, coveted by every club in Europe and beyond. The British game had never before witnessed anything even close to the adulation and media coverage the young Belfast Boy attracted from all corners.

Yes, the British game had produced some truly magnificent footballers such as Stanley Matthews, Nat Lofthouse, Billy Liddell, Tom Finney and more, but none of their careers were under the spotlight as much as Best's.

He was the most photographed footballer of his day, every sports reporter's dream scoop, and boys and girls loved him in equal measure clamouring for his autograph.

Television cameras followed his every move and large companies knocked at his door lavishing huge sums of money at his gifted feet to endorse their products, from Stylo football boots to Fore aftershave to Cookstown sausages.

Things could not have been better for George both on and off the pitch, and with a string of glamorous girlfriends, some former Miss World winners, George was quickly becoming a global superstar.

The 1966-67 season held much promise for Best and United and it came as no surprise when they were crowned champions for the second time in three years. Defences simply could not cope with Best and his team-mates, and George himself was in fantastic form, playing in all 42 of United's First Division games and scoring 10 times.

And so on to Europe the following season and participation in the European Cup. There were high hopes at Old Trafford that this would be the year in which Matt Busby would claim the trophy he regarded as his Holy Grail and honour the memory of the eight Babes he lost in the Munich Air Disaster 10 years before.

And with two former Ballon d'Or winners, Law (1964) and Charlton (1966), in his side plus the mercurial Best, the time had come for Busby's third great side to conquer Europe.

Going into the 1967-68 season, George had played for his country on 13 occasions, scoring three goals, but according to the Northern Ireland press he seemed to be more interested in pleasing the Manchester public than his home fans.

On October 21, 1967, George woke up in Belfast and, along with his family, read in the Belfast papers that the United star had little or no interest in helping Northern Ireland beat Scotland in a Home International game which also doubled up as a qualifying match for the 1968 European Championships.

George was furious because he loved playing for his native land and decided to ram the reporters' claims back down their throats, and that is exactly what he did. George was on a different level to everybody else on the Windsor Park pitch that day, mesmerising, magical, almost mystical as he ripped the Scots apart almost single handed.

There are those games when a player can do no wrong and every time he touches the ball the fans get to their feet. This was one of those… George's greatest ever in the green of Northern Ireland, and that is some claim when you consider he scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Cyprus in 1971, a game my late father took me to see at Windsor Park when I was just eight-years-old. But more about this game later.

Best teased the Scottish side, which included Celtic's Tommy Gemmell, Rangers' John Greig, and future United team-mates Ian Ure (Arsenal) and Willie Morgan (Burnley), as well as his good friend and fellow Old Trafford idol Law, as Northern Ireland won 1-0 thanks to a goal from Coventry City's Dave Clement, which George set up for him.

And so back to the 1967-68 season which proved to be George's greatest ever, his Annus Mirabilis which, translated from the Latin, means 'Wonderful Year' or 'Year of Miracles'. George certainly did produce the odd miracle or two during the campaign but, as with most things, he saved his best for last.

On May 29, 1968, 18 days after United had to play second fiddle to their bitter local rivals, Manchester City, by finishing runners-up to them in the First Division, United were at Wembley to face Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final. Ten years on from the tragedy in Munich, Busby's third great side stood on the verge of history, hoping to become the first English team to win Europe's most coveted prize.

This was the 13th European Cup final but the number did not prove to be unlucky for United. Just as he had done three years earlier, once again George Best helped United defeat the mighty Benfica.

A cagey first half ended 0-0. But when Charlton put United ahead in the 52nd minute, the giants of Portuguese football were forced into changing their cat and mouse tactics and attacked United in search of an equalising goal.

With 15 minutes left, they scored to send the game into extra-time, but not before Alex Stepney pulled off a world-class save in normal time after Eusebio drove a ferocious shot at the United goalkeeper.

Busby walked onto the Wembley turf and spoke gently to his players, perhaps reminding them of the eight Busby Babes who had lost their lives in 1958 following a game in pursuit of the very same trophy.

In the third minute of the first half of extra-time, Best collected a clearance from the Benfica defence in the centre circle and just inside the Portuguese half. George did not need an invitation to attack and set off towards the Benfica goal with their captain, Mario Coluna, and a few others in hot pursuit.

Having left the trailing Portuguese players floundering behind him, he threw one of his famous shimmies and rounded their goalkeeper, José Henrique, and passed the ball into the empty net. As Henrique, nicknamed Zé Gato (Joe Cat), was left sprawling helplessly to prevent the ball from crossing the line, George set off, his right arm raised in the air, to milk the applause from the United fans.

Sometime after the game, George said that at one point he was going to walk the ball to the goal line and then get down on his knees and head it into the net but thought better of it. Typical George!

Two more goals from Brian Kidd on his 18th birthday (94th minute) and a second from Charlton (99th minute) gave United a stunning 4-1 victory. George and his team-mates followed the United captain, Charlton, up Wembley's famous 39 steps to receive the European Cup.

Busby hugged every one of his players, which included three Irishmen, having finally guided United to become the champions of Europe.

George scored 28 league goals in 41 First Division appearances in 1967-68, was named Football Writers' Association Player of the Year and also won the prestigious Ballon d'Or. All this and he was still only 22. His spectacular rise to super-stardom brought with it some difficulties in that he could not go anywhere without being mobbed by adoring fans, male and female.

Whereas articles about footballers had always traditionally been reserved for the back pages, suddenly George Best was front page news and the press hung on his every movement and word. His fan mail at the club topped 10,000 letters every week but, rather than ignore them, he employed three people full-time to look after The George Best Fan Club to make sure his fans received a reply.

However, things started to go downhill for George after the 1968 European Cup final and, as the team aged, the success enjoyed by United in the 1960s was a distant memory when George played his last game for the club.

The summer of 1970 brought a huge upheaval in my own relatively young life. I was seven-years-old and had just finished Primary 3 at Carrowreagh Primary School, Ballybeen.

As a result of the Troubles, my family had to leave our home in Ballybeen, a predominantly Protestant area, and switch homes with a Protestant family, the Harpers, who happened to live in No.38 Harper Street in the Catholic Short Strand area of east Belfast.

I did not really like Harper Street that much in the beginning. I missed my school friends and, whilst we had a garden to the front and rear of our home in Ballybeen, all we had in Harper Street was a footpath at the front and an alleyway to the rear.

There was not a single home in the Short Strand which had a garden at the time and it was strange for me to go from playing football on the green expanses of Ballybeen to scraping my elbows and knees on concrete.

However, I will never forget coming home from Saint Matthew's Primary School in Seaforde Street on Wednesday, April 21, 1971 and my dad telling me that he was taking me to see Northern Ireland play.

I had no idea who they were playing and I couldn't care less. All I wanted to know was if George would be playing. Now, I know people take it for granted going to a football match today, but let's not forget that this was April 1971, a time of turmoil in my home city. Murders of innocent Roman Catholics and Protestants, bombings and shootings were part and parcel of everyday life.

I can still vividly recall the atmosphere in and around the ground, which had more than an edge to it as Windsor Park was in the heart of Protestant south Belfast.

Here was this eight-year-old Roman Catholic kid with his Protestant father going to a game which could conceivably have been targeted by the IRA as the vast majority of Northern Ireland's fans were Protestants.

However, all I wanted to do was get inside the ground and see my idol, George Best… religion and politics never interested me. And see George I most certainly did as he helped the side to a 5-0 victory in a qualifying game for the 1972 European Championships. And what's more, my hero scored a hat-trick which included a goal directly from a corner-kick. Was there anything George Best could not do?

I didn't have to wait long to see my hero in action again as my dad got us tickets for Northern Ireland's two home games in the 1971 Home Internationals.

Well, my dad actually only got one ticket as he knew he could get me into the game for free as young kids were just lifted over the turnstiles back then. On a sunny Saturday afternoon on May 15, 1971, we went to Windsor Park to see Northern Ireland play England.

The history books show Northern Ireland lost 1-0 to a goal from the Leeds United striker Allan Clarke. I was at the game and it was 1-1. Well, that is the score I maintain it should have been because George scored one of the most audacious goals ever seen but it was not allowed to count. Gordon Banks, the England goalkeeper, caught a pass into the area and as he tossed the ball into the air to kick it upfield, George, who was loitering with intent close by, toe-poked the ball upwards and headed it into the net.

George started to wheel away in delight before Banks and several other England players complained to the referee who then disallowed the goal for dangerous play. George never even touched Banks and, after the game, he said that he had studied Banks and knew that he always tossed the ball into the air before booting it up the pitch.

So George said that when Banks did it in the game, he decided to nick it off him before it dropped on to his boot. It was a moment of pure genius but, alas, the goal was not allowed to stand and became known as the goal that never was.

On New Year's Day 1974, George pulled on the famous red jersey of United for the 466th and last time in their 3-0 loss to Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road in the First Division. In total he scored 178 goals for United, many of them exquisite solo efforts, including six in one game away to Northampton Town in Round 5 of the FA Cup on February 7, 1970.

He was United's leading goalscorer for five consecutive seasons and was the First Division's top goalscorer in the 1967-68 season. George was only 27-years-old when he walked out on United and over the next decade he became a journeyman footballer as he drifted from club to club in the USA, Australia, Scotland, South Africa and back home in Ireland.

I can still recall sitting at my desk in work in Belfast when I received a text message from my wife, Janice. It simply read: "George Best has just died". The date was November 25, 2005 and these five words felt like a stake being driven through my heart. My idol ever since I was a young boy growing up in east Belfast was dead. I was devastated.

In closing, I am not going to insult George's memory by going into stories about his alcoholism, gambling and womanising, and instead I would prefer to remember George the way he asked his fans to remember him; for what he did on the pitch.

I am not trying to say that George was a saint but, likewise, he was not a demon either. At his peak, George was without question the most naturally gifted and greatest ever talent the British game has ever produced. George was one of the most iconic people of the 1960s and 1970s. He was football's first celebrity.

John White is Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters' Club, the fifth largest official MUSC in the world. With 17 books about his beloved Manchester United to his name, five commissioned from him by the club, John is a leading authority on United's history. His books include "Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish," published by Simon and Schuster Ltd. He also posts daily articles on the Carryduff SC Facebook site

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