Second footballer to be previewed for our football special, the one and only George Best.
As the well-known line goes: Pelé Good. Maradona Better. George Best
George Best, born on the 22nd May 1946 and brought up in Belfast, Northern Ireland played as a winger for Manchester United and Northern Ireland. Speed, balance, vision, superb close control, left and right footed, scorer of great goals, he was a ridiculously talented footballer and without doubt one of the greatest players of all time.
In 1968 he was named Football Writers Association Footballer of the Year for his storming season in the English first division, and European footballer of the Year after helping Manchester United win the European Cup for the first time in its history.
Stylish and handsome, he was dubbed the “fifth Beatle” for his glamorous lifestyle and joy he gave to millions.
After that high point in which he won as much as any player could by the age of 22, his career started to slide as his battles with alcoholism blighted his life. A battle he finally succumbed to when he died in the early hours of 25 November 2005, aged 59, as a result of a lung infection and multiple organ failure.
Early Years and family
George Best was the first child of Dickie Best and Anne Best. He grew up in the Cregagh estate in east Belfast, with four sisters, and one brother.
As a young teenager George’s exceptional talent came to the notice of his local club Glentoran. But the club rejected him concerned about his small frame and light weight. Thankfully the skinny teenager was spotted playing for the local boys club in the Cregagh by Manchester United’s Northern Ireland scout, Bob Bishop, whose immediate telegram to the United manager Matt Busby simply read: “I think I’ve found you a genius.”.
George was subsequently given a trial and signed up by chief Manchester United scout Joe Armstrong in 1961.
He first came to Manchester in 1961 with his good friend Eric McMordie. Both homesick they stayed for only two days and quickly went back to Belfast. Manchester United were not going to let this gem slip through, and he was soon influenced to return after a telephone conversation between George’s father, Dickie and United’s manager Matt Busby.
In 1963 George turned professional and made his First Division debut, aged only 17, on 14th September 1963 against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford in a 1–0 victory. Legend has it that after the match, his opponent Graham Williams shook George’s hand to say, “Stand still son so I can have a look at your face. I’ve been looking at your backside all day disappearing up the touchline”.
In his next game for United against Burnley, George scored his first goal, and by the end of the 1963–64 season, he made 26 appearances, scoring six goals. Manchester United finished second, four points behind Liverpool. That same season, Best was a part of the Manchester United side that won the 1964 FA Youth Cup, the first since the 1958 Munich air disaster.
Football in those days had hard men playing on even harder pitches. Players like Best were often fodder for the likes of Chelsea’s Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris or Bremner, Charlton, Reanery, aka the hit men of Leeds AFC (of that there was many!) The great Busby ensured that “fierce, sometimes brutal” training sessions left Best well used to coping with these tough challenges. Think of the modern game, think of a once was Red, think of Ronaldo’s tendency for hitting the ground. Best took the hits and stayed on his feet, a credit and testament to his skill and character.
His playing style combined pace, acceleration, superb balance, and the talent to beat defenders at will, with the ability to score from left as well as right foot and head. His father teaching him to practice kicking a ball with both feet, hour upon hour, as a child in Belfast. Good lessons, well learned.
In his first full season, 1964–65, Best, along with Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton, the magnificent trio, helped Manchester United to claim the league title ahead of bitter rivals Leeds United; over the course of the campaign Best contributed 14 goals in 59 competitive games.
In the 1965–66 season in a European Cup quarter-final match, Best is remembered, at the age of 19, for scoring two goals inside the opening 12 minutes in a 5-1 rout against the then powerhouse of European football, Benfica at the Estádio da Luz. This was Benfica’s first ever home defeat in any European competition. The Portuguese press were so mesmerised that they entitled him “O QuintoBeatle”, “the fifth Beatle”, a nickname that stuck.
However United failed to win any major honours in the 1965–66 season, and Best got injured from March onwards with a twisted knee following a bad tackle against Preston North End.
The 1966–67 season was again successful, as Manchester United claimed the league title by four points. An ever-present all season long, Best scored ten goals in 45 games.
In 1967–68 season a home defeat to Manchester City proved costly as United lost the league to their local rivals by exactly two points at the end of the season tally. Yet the season would be remembered by United fans for a more important trophy, the European Cup. Facing six times champions Real Madrid in the semi-finals, Best scored the only goal of the home fixture. In the return fixture at the Bernabéu, Best crossed for Bill Foulkes to level the game at 3–3 and win the tie 4–3.
Days later, as the First Division’s joint top-scorer, Best was presented with the FWA Footballer of the Year award, becoming the youngest ever recipient of the award.
In the European Cup Final at Wembley United were again set to face Benfica who had the magical star Eusébio on their team. Whilst his teammates rested, Best found that the best way to pass the time the night before a big game was by sleeping with “a particular young lady called Sue”.
In the final, ninety minutes produced a 1-1 scoreline, the game went into extra-time. Just three minutes into extra-time Best went on a dribble, round one challenge and beating the keeper, before casually rolling the ball into the empty net; further goals from Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton settled it for United at 4–1.The victory was not only the pinnacle of Best’s career, but arguably Manchester United’s greatest achievement, considering the Munich air disaster had wiped out most of the “Busby Babes” just ten years previously. That night George Best made Matt Busby’s dream come true. To put the win into context, it took Man United another 31 years to win the European cup again!
Best also won the Ballon d’Or in 1968. This meant that he had won the three major honours in club football at the age of just 22 (the league title, European Cup, and European Player of the Year award). After this, his steady decline began.
In the 1968–69 campaign the club’s new signings were not able to settle, as United dropped to 11th in the league before Busby announced his retirement. Best scored 22 goals in 55 games.
Under new boss Wilf McGuinness, United improved slightly, but still only managed an eighth place finish in the 1969–70 season. Best scored 23 goals, including a memorable six in an 8–2 win over Northampton Town through one of the worst pitches imaginable at the County Ground in the FA Cup. Mud and dirt, remember that young scallywags of today!
Busby returned as manager in December 1970, though the 1970–71 season also ended without a trophy. Best began to get into trouble with his discipline: fined by the FA for misconduct, and suspended by United for two weeks after missing the trip down south to Chelsea to share a weekend with actress Sinéad Cusack instead.
After Matt Busby fully retired each of the new managers struggled to manage him.
New manager Frank O’Farrell led United to an eighth place finish in 1971–72. With 27 goals in 54 appearances Best finished as the club’s top-scorer for the sixth – and final – consecutive season. However he failed to turn up for training for a whole week in January as he opted to spend his time with Miss Great Britain 1971, Carolyn Moore.
United’s decline continued in the 1972–73 season. United were not the force they used to be, getting beat by teams they should have really beaten. Best said that “I increasingly had the feeling that I was carrying the team at times on the pitch. Disillusioned, he began to drink more with the result that his training suffered and his appearances became less. Best went missing in December to another party in London. He was suspended, and transfer-listed.
Best’s last competitive game for the club was on 1 January 1974 against QPR at Loftus Road, which United lost 3–0.He failed to turn up for training three days later and was dropped by the then manager, the volatile Tommy Docherty. United went on to suffer relegation into the Second Division in 1973–74.
By the end of the 1974 season his days at Manchester United were over. He was only 26.
Over eleven seasons, Best made 470 appearances for Manchester United in all competitions from 1963 to 1974, and scored 179 goals. He helped Manchester United win two League Championships (1964-1965 and 1966-1967) and their first European Cup (1967-1968)
After leaving Manchester United in 1974 Best went on a globe-trotting series of destinations taking in short spells in South Africa, Ireland, the United States, Scotland, and Australia, amongst other places.
In South Africa he played only five competitive matches for team Jewish Guild. Best endured criticism for missing several training sessions. During his short time there, he attracted thousands of spectators to the matches.
Best had a brief spell in Ireland with Cork Celtic. He made his League debut against Drogheda United at Flower Lodge on 28 December 1975. He played only three league games, but despite attracting big crowds he failed to score or impress. On a rolling contract, his failure to show for a game saw him being dropped and he subsequently left the club.
London in 1976 was the next destination, and along with Bobby Moore, he turned out for Fulham, playing 42 games in two seasons and scoring eight goals. His time at Craven Cottage is remembered for a match against Hereford United in which he tackled his own teammate Rodney Marsh.
Best played for three clubs in the United States: Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and later San Jose Earthquakes; he also played for the Detroit Express on a European tour. He scored an impressive 15 goals in 24 games in his first season with the Aztecs and was named as the NASL’s best midfielder in his second season.
In 1979 he made a scoring debut for the Scottish club Hibernian. At the time the club was suffering a decline in fortunes and was heading for relegation. Attendances dipped well below 8,000, but on the day George made his debut, over 20,000 fans turned up. Best was signed on a “pay per play” basis. Even though Best failed to save Hibs from relegation gates increased dramatically. Best was initially sacked by Hibs after he went on a massive drinking session with the French rugby team, who were in Edinburgh to play Scotland as part of the Five Nations Rigby Tournament. He was brought back a week later.
He returned to the USA to play for the San Jose Earthquakes. In his third season in the States, Best scored once in 12 appearances.
In Hong Kong, of all places, he was invited as a guest player and played three matches for two First Division teams (Sea Bee and Rangers) in 1982.
In late 1982, Bournemouth manager Don Megson signed the 36-year-old Best for the Third Division side, and he stayed there until the end of the 1982–83 season, when he retired from football at the age of 37.
After his retirement, Best still played the odd friendly and select games for teams such as Newry Town, in Australia for the Brisbane Lions and Dee Why Football Club.
On 8 August 1988, a testimonial match was held for Best at Windsor Park. Among the crowd were Sir Matt Busby, and Bob Bishop, the scout who discovered Best, while those playing included Osvaldo Ardiles, Pat Jennings and Liam Brady. Scoring twice it was a very memorable thank you to all Best’s supporters in his home town of Belfast.
From 1964 to 1977, Best was capped 37 times for Northern Ireland, making his debut just days before his 17th birthday playing his first full international against England.
Unfortunately during Best’s Manchester United days, Northern Ireland were not a competitive team in world football. When the small country did show some hope in the early 80’s, a sharp lack of fitness in Best’s game, and Billy Bingham’s thickness, never allowed his talent to be exhibited in the finals of a European Championship or World Cup. Probably the best footballer never to play in a major world final. Two words, Billy: Roger Milla!!!!
On 15 May 1971, Best scored his most famous international goal, in Belfast against England. Except it wasn’t a goal at all! While Gordon Banks, the English goalkeeper, was about to kick the ball downfield, Best cheekily kicked it, sending the ball over their heads towards the open goal. Best then headed the ball into the empty goal, but, although legal, the goal was disallowed by referee Alistair Mackenzie who despite not seeing the incident would always take the word of honest Gordon Banks.
In 1976, Northern Ireland were playing the Netherlands in Rotterdam in a World Cup qualifying game. The Dutch team, runners-up in the 1974 World Cup and made up of a squad of total footballers, were an intimidating match for any team in the world, never mind small little Northern Ireland. Not so Best who not only nutmegged the brilliant Johan Neeskens but also the maestro himself, Johan Cruyff’s. The end result of the game was 2-2, or 2-0 if we are talking nutmegs.
Celebrity, and After Football
Such was Best’s talent and charisma that he became one of the first celebrity footballers, receiving more than 1,000 fan mail letters a week. He became known for his long hair, good looks and extravagant celebrity lifestyle. He owned fashion boutiques, nightclubs, restaurants and shops. Had modelling contracts a plenty and appeared on Top of the Pops in 1965, making cameos in movies and fitness albums, yeah make no doubt this was the ‘swinging-sixties’!
Best was married twice, to two former models, Angie Best and then Alex Best.
However for a shy lad from Belfast his subsequent flash lifestyle led to various problems, most notably alcoholism, which he suffered from for the rest of his adult life. These problems also affected him on the field. Remember he was meant to be a professional footballer. Rigorous training can be hard especially when one was up half the night entertaining another miss world. Something had to give. Different managers struggled to manage him, and his football career went downhill fast.
In September 1990, Best appeared on prime time British TV, when he made an appearance on the popular BBC chat show “Wogan” in which he was severely drunk and looking the worst for wear, at one point saying to Terry Wogan, “Terry, I like screwing”. This was a very public show of the problems best was having trying to adjust to a life without the daily grind of football.
In the 1990′s he established himself as a successful sports pundit with Sky Sports and was a popular after dinner speaker, but his financial and health problems continued into his retirement.
Best continued to drink, he couldn’t stop. He tried all known cures to give up the drinking, including stomach implants, but all to no avail.
A liver transplant in 2002 gave new hope. The transplant was performed on the NHS, a decision which was controversial due to Best’s alcoholism. He still didn’t stop drinking.
He died on 25th November in 2005, age 59, as a result of a lung infection and multiple organ failure due to complications from the drugs he needed to take to prevent his body from rejecting his transplanted liver.
For his funeral, his body left the family home early in the morning on the Cregagh Road, East Belfast, on Saturday, 3rd December 2005. The cortege then travelled the short distance to Stormont. The route was lined with over a 100,000 mourners. The funeral was shown live on several television stations. Best was later cremated, and, as he requested, his ashes were entombed beside his mother Annie in a private ceremony.
Afterwards, Belfast City Airport was renamed George Best Belfast City Airport as a tribute to Best.
George Best. Forever remembered. A life lived.
• If you’d given me the choice of going out and beating four men and smashing a goal in from thirty yards against Liverpool or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been a difficult choice. Luckily, I had both.
• I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.
• I used to go missing a lot… Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.
• I’ve stopped drinking, but only while I’m asleep.
• In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life.
• If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pelé.
• He (David Beckham) cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn’t score many goals. Apart from that he’s all right.
• I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town