George Best – The Boy from Belfast
“Boss, I think I’ve found you a genius” were the only words Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby read in a telegram, which was sent from Belfast to Manchester.
The ‘genius’ in question was a 15 year old George Best and the words to describe his precocious talent were used by Bob Bishop, who was a talent scout for the football club. In 1961 George Best made the move across the sea to Manchester and he would go on to be a cornerstone of Sir Matt Busby’s historic European Cup winning side and a part of United’s much vaunted trio of attacking players – Sir Bobby Charlton, Dennis Law and George Best, popularly known as “The Holy Trinity”.
However, everything could have gone horribly wrong, as on moving to Manchester an increasingly homesick Best decided to return to Northern Ireland. Sir Matt had to use all his powers of persuasion (something us younger folks have seen Sir Alex Ferguson do time and time again) to convince young Best that playing for Manchester United lay in his best interests. Both George Best and Manchester United were to never look back.
George Best turned out in Manchester United colours for the first time at the age of 17 against West Bromwich Albion on 14 September 1963. Manchester Evening News raved about the young Best in their match report and praised his “natural talent” and “style”.
In 1966 Manchester United were carrying a 3-2 lead from the home leg of a European quarterfinal tie and had to play away against Benfica, who were led by their talismanic striker Eusebio and were themselves going through a golden age of their own, at one of Europe’s footballing citadels aptly called the “Stadium of Light”.
George Best selected this moment and at the grandest of stages to announce his arrival to the whole of Europe. Sir Matt Busby had given his players clear instructions to play keep-ball, maintain possession and in the process quieten the crowd, a crowd which was known for its hostility and held no fear of expressing themselves by setting flares or bursting firecrackers. But George Best had other ideas and as Paddy Crerand, Best’s teammate and current MUTV presenter, puts it subtly “Besty just went daft”.
Best opened the scoring with a header and added a second after having received a flick-on from a teammate. He ghosted past three defenders before calmly slotting it in the corner of the net. Manchester United went on to hand Benfica their first home defeat in 19 European matches with a scoreline that read 5-1. Sir Matt later remarked to George “You obviously weren’t listening”. George Best went into the match as a rising star and he came out of it as a superstar.
The Portuguese media and every major European newspaper inspired from his performances on the pitch and mopish hairdo dubbed him as “El Beatle”. With the sixties in full swing George Best emerged as a cultural icon and was more like a pop-star with devoted fans coming together and establishing George Best fan clubs all over England even as far as Russia and Japan. He would receive over 1,000 fan mail letters a week. The ubiquitous George Best could be seen gracing magazine covers, opening boutiques and even participating in music shows like “Top of the Pops”. He was, as the popular saying goes “someone women wanted to be with and men wanted to be”.
Manchester United along with George Best picked up the old First Division titles in the 1964-65 and 1966-67 seasons. But at Manchester United the European Cup was for long considered the Holy Grail, a prize that held special significance to Sir Matt especially after the Munich tragedy. In 1968 the long wait for the big eared trophy finally came to an end when Manchester United overcame Benfica with a 4-1 win in extra-time at Wembley.
Best scored the second goal after receiving the ball with his back to goal and beat his marker with ease before doing a slight feint and moving to the left goal and poking the ball into an empty net. “I used to dream about taking the ball round the keeper, stopping it on the line and then getting on my hands and knees and heading it into the net,” Best said later. “When I scored against Benfica in the European Cup Final I nearly did it. I left the keeper for dead, but then I chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack.”