October 30th, 2012
Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Messi: George Best’s name holds right of passage alongside the aforementioned superstars as one of the greatest players to have ever played the beautiful game. Arguably the most talented footballer the British Isles has ever produced, the Northern Irish attacker shot to fame at Manchester United, where he set records and the put his name in the history books of the Old Trafford club.
The Red Devils suffered the heartache and tragedy of losing eight members of their first team in the Munich air disaster in 1958, and Matt Busby had an arduous task of rebuilding the football club after the catastrophe. United’s return to prominence in English and European football coincided with the unearthing of a modest but supremely able superstar, who honed his skills on the streets of east Belfast.
Early years with United
Bob Bishop was the man to discover Best’s considerable talents whilst on a scouting mission in Northern Ireland, and famously reported back to Busby with enthusiasm, stating:
“Boss, I think I’ve found you a genius”.
The tricky winger had been turned down by local club Glentoran for his slight build, but United saw the potential in Best and brought him to England. Initial teething problems saw the teenager homesick, and he did return to Belfast for a period of time after signing for the Red Devils.
However, the player made his debut for United as a star struck 17-year-old in September 1963, impressing fans and onlookers alike. Seasoned opponent Graham Williams was on the receiving end of Best’s skill, pace and trickery and it was clear that a star had been born.
For the bulk of the remainder of 1963 Best was not used by Busby as the player was deemed too young for inclusion in the first-team; his next appearance for United came on December 28 against West Brom, where he scored his first goal for the club in a 5-1 win, and proved his worth to his legendary manager.
The Northern Irish starlet was used much more frequently after the turn of the year, with the forward making 26 appearances and helping his side to a second-placed finish in the top flight with six goals.
Rise to the top
The following season, 1964-65, Best was a mainstay in the United side that won the First Division for the first time since the pre-Munich era. Alongside attacking talents such as Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and David Herd, United dominated the domestic game and lifted the title. Best played in 41 of the side’s 42 league games, returning ten goals.
Despite being recognised in England as a tremendous talent, the 1965-66 campaign shot Best into the international limelight, with terrific individual displays in Europe capturing the eyes of the football world. United were drawn against Portuguese giants Benfica in the European Cup quarterfinals; the Stadium of Light club had featured in four of the last five seasons’ finals, winning twice.
Despite the pedigree of their opponents, the English champions routed their hosts 5-1 in a commanding display, with Best the main protagonist with two goals. The Portuguese press labelled Best ‘O Quinto Beatle‘ or ‘the fifth Beatle’ after the game; the Northern Ireland star had become one of the most sought-after and recognised faces in the game.
1967/68 European Cup
In 1966-67 United returned to become English champions for the second time in three seasons, with Best playing every game for Busby’s side throughout the league campaign. However it was the following season that the attacker received the most plaudits and acclaim, leading his team to European Cup success in 1967-68.
Domestically, the Old Trafford side finished second, despite Best’s 28 league goals. In Europe, the Northern Irish superstar played his part in helping Busby’s men to overcome Real Madrid in the European Cup semifinals, setting up a mouth-watering final against Benfica once more at Wembley.
The Portuguese powerhouses were keen for revenge after the 1966 defeat on home turf, and with Eusebio leading the line, Benfica were in a golden generation. In a tense fixture, extra-time was needed to separate the sides after the scoreline was stuck at 1-1 after 90 minutes.
Best stepped forward to inspire United to their first-ever European Cup trophy, as the English side rallied to win 4-1 after 120 minutes. The Northern Irish attacker scored the all-important second goal, nutmegging the last defender and rounding the goalkeeper to send Red Devils fans into rapture. Best was later awarded the English and European Footballer of the Year awards due to his devastating skill, eye for goal and ability to deliver in the high-pressure games.
After the glory of the 1968 European Cup triumph, United’s fortunes started to diminish slightly as an ageing side went through a period of transition. Best remained as an integral part of the side and averaged 22 goals per season in the next three campaigns, but after Busby had retired as manager in 1969 Best struggled to adapt to life post the Scottish boss.
Best became disillusioned with the fall from grace that the club suffered since 1968, with his exit from the Old Trafford club on the cards for some time. At the age of 27, Best played his final game for the club on New Years Day in 1974; a 3-0 defeat to QPR.
In eleven years with United Best made 470 appearances in total, scoring 179 goals. The attacker holds the post-War record for the most goals in a single match for the club, as he hit the back of the net six times against Northampton Town in an 8-2 FA Cup victory. Best went on to represent a handful of other clubs in England, Scotland, United States, South Africa and Australia, but never hit the heights of his glorious time at Old Trafford.
Although the successful side of the late-60’s had other superstars and club legends such as Bobby Charlton, Best stood out above the crowd and at-times single-handedly led the side to victory. His heroics in Lisbon and at Wembley will never be forgotten by United fans or the football world, and are still replayed over 40 years later.
It is fair to say that the Old Trafford club, and English football, has not seen a talent like Best since, who goes down as one of the best to ever play the game.