There was a tiny, insignificant incident in one of the first matches I saw George Best play for Manchester United that has always haunted me, in some ways more than than the many moments of genius I witnessed in his brilliant subsequent career.It occured in March 1964 against Fulham as United were desperately trying to keep alive a faltering campaign to win the league title, having recently unexpectedly lost both a Cup Winners Cup quarter final against Sporting Lisbon and an FA Cup semi-final against West Ham in successive matches. There was a packed Good Friday crowd in Craven Cottage hoping to see further humiliation heaped on the mighty Reds and the Londoners had a strong team with top-quality players such as Bobby Robson and the great Johnny Haynes. It was the latter who gave Fulham the lead with a perfectly struck volley past Dave Gaskell after ten minutes at which point United stirred themselves into action with surging passing movements.David Herd cracked in an equalizer from a Bobby Charlton corner and then Denis Law was suddenly put through, one-on-one against Tony Macedo in the Fulham goal, and with a shimmy of the hips slotted the ball home and wheeled away, arm raised in imperious salute. At 2-1 up after half an hour United looked in complete control and surely one more goal would settle it and secure the vital points. But then came the moment I’ll never forget.
With United pouring forward and carving openings almost at will, Bobby Charlton, who was notionally on the left wing, had switched to the middle, while the skinny 17-year-old George Best had crossed over from the right to take his place out wide on the left, where he was trying to get the jump on full-back George Cohen, the World Cup winner of two years later. Bobby swept one of his glorious 50 yard passes out to Best, who had suddenly found acres of space, all alone on the touchline, while Denis Law hurtled into the box towards the near-post, waiting for the ‘inevitable’ cross from which he would surely strike the killer blow. But then the most amazing thing happened. George completely mis-controlled the impeccably flighted ball from Bobby in an elementary error, allowing it to dribble miserably over the line and out of play. Denis screeched to a halt, gesturing angrily with his outstretched hands, palms splayed pleadingly to show where he’d wanted the ball played, while Bobby looked tense, giving George a withering look, as if to say, ‘For Christ’s sake, concentrate!’ But it was the look on the George’s face that I’ll never forget, a mixture of shy embarrassment, disarming naughty-schoolboy grin, disquieting little boy lost, and then chin-up defiance,all so characteristic of the Georgie Best the world came to know – and love- over the next five years.
George didn’t let his awful mistake throw him and he never tried to hide, but in the end Fulham equalised in the last few minutes through their own teenage winger, 18-year-old Steve Earle, and United’s tilt at the championship took a mortal blow.Bill Shankly’s Liverpool were eventually crowned champions and United were runners-up, four points behind.
I suppose one reason I remember that little moment so clearly, even after 47 years, is because even than there was something about George Best that set him apart from other players. It was not just that he was clearly prodigiously talented from the beginning but he also had a very strong presence on the field, in the way he carried himself and the look in those darkly challenging blue eyes. From very early on there was an elemental quality about Best, a free, untameable competitive spirit, with a distinct touch of danger, but also something very human and surprisingly vulnerable, as though he always had to prove himself as a working class kid from Belfast now on a wider stage. But beyond that I always had a strange anxiety that somehow the skills he had to offer would somehow be snuffed out, that he wouldn’t last, that we as United fans would inevitably be deprived at some point of his incomparable virtuosity.
The 65th anniversary
As we approach the 65th anniversary of his birth on 22 May, 1946, it’s chastening to think that if he were he still alive, the once great symbol of eternal unfettered youth would have been eligible for his Old Age Pension. Georgie Best, OAP, just doesn’t seem right somehow. It was unbearable enough to see his ravaged state in the later years of his life, when alcoholism and illness took their toll. But with United now in the Champions League Final against Barcelona at Wembley, scene of the peak moment of Bestie’s career when he helped United become the first English team to win the European Cup in 1968, this is a good time to celebrate his memory, and give thanks for what he gave us in so many unforgettable ways.
Whereas my great hero and survivor of the Munich Air Crash Bobby Charlton always seemed timeless and permanent at United, George sometimes seemed a touch detached and, in the words of Bob Dylan, ‘temporary, like Achilles’.It was partly that his whole approach tended towards lone-genius individualism, befitting the ‘me-generation’ of the Sixties, in contrast to Bobby’s more pronounced Fifties team-comes-first ethic. But beyond that, one always feared that Best’s provocative football skills could never survive the industrial attrition of the English game. Of course Bestie actually lasted for over a decade at United, and he contributed an enormous amount to the success of the glorious Sixties, the era justly celebrated for the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Best, Law and Charlton. Nevertheless, despite everything he achieved, for some undefined reason I still always felt he was on borrowed time, right from the start. Here, today, gone tomorrow.
In one way, given how his career panned out, there was some truth to that fear of shooting star impermanence. He himself later said the happiest time of his life was in the season 1966-67, when United won the league for the second time in three years and he was fully acknowledged as one of the great super-stars of European football, with the world at his feet, not to mention countless nubile young women. He can hardly have foreseen how quickly that period of perfect happiness would evaporate after he’d won his European Cup winner’s medal the following year, having scored a fine individualist goal at Wembley when beating Benfica 4-1, finally bringing home Matt Busby’s ‘Holy Grail’ ten years after Munich. Astonishingly that was the last trophy he ever won, at the tender age of 22. He had played his last competitive game in Europe by the end of the following season and apart from some brilliant interludes over the next three or four years it was then downhill all the way, certainly for United, perhaps for George himself, with what felt to me like a crushing inevitability.
The Best of times
As a footballer of course Best was still learning his trade in those early months following his debut against WBA in September 1963, not so much regarding formal coaching – he had little to learn – but in terms of getting match experience against hardened and sometimes ruthless older opponents in front of maybe 50,000 people. From the beginning he showed that he had tremendous physical courage, not just in withstanding every kind of hacking lunge but also in sliding in to get the ball back from brick shit-house defenders and to stop attacks being built up deep in the opposition half. Time after time his legs and ankles were kicked black and blue and he’d just take it as an incentive to get back up beat his man one more time. Manager Matt Busby used to say that George could play in any position in the team, including goalkeeper, as he loved to tell ‘keeper Harry Gregg, a fellow Northern Ireland international, and hero of Munich, a man he revered from day one at Old Trafford.
Of course it’s for his attacking skills that George Best is remembered, although the sight of him tackling back against Spurs’ marauding defender Cyril Knowles (‘Nice one Cyril…’) in 1964 showed how he might have forged an outstanding career as a fullback, much as Ryan Giggs could have done. As a winger on left or right he had an amazing ability to go past defenders on either side as if they weren’t there, always displaying what seemed an impossible, almost balletic sense of balance, when battered and assailed from all sides, at a time when referees gave players less protection, it being ‘a man’s game’. George clearly took pride in over-coming all sorts of legendary hard men, such as ‘Chopper’ Harris of Chelsea, Tommy Smith of Liverpool, Peter Storey of Arsenal and just about everybody at Leeds. I used to love watching Best run at a ruck of defenders with the ball and emerge on the other side, the ball still magnetically attached to his feet, even when he’d been sent sprawling into the obligatory thick mud. He had one lovely trick which was to flick the ball forward at the opponent’s shins, as if he’d surprisingly mis-controlled it, only to collect the rebound and burst past with it. One other neat manouevre, which I saw him produce at Tottenham, was to go the the corner flag where he looked totally hemmed in only to lift the ball up to about knee height and then lob a perfect cross back over his shoulder to Denis Law.
Reds and Blues in the Sixties
Perhaps because George and I were of a similar age ( I was born a couple of months before him) he was very much part, not only of the Sixties generally, but also my youth. In those early days I was into football, music and having a good time, plus politics. There was undoubtedly a feeling of liberation in the air, which George did as much as anybody to symbolise. He was not called the Fifth Beatle immediately, but the link within popular culture was there from the start. He was a regular at the Twisted Wheel Club in Manchester around ‘63 to see R&B artists like Long John Baldry and Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, just as I was doing in the south ( I interviewed Alexis, the ‘Godfather of British Blues’, for my university paper in ‘65, when he told me Eric ‘Slowhand’ Clapton ‘tries to play too fast, he loses feeling’ ).
I was still at school doing my A-levels in 1964 but highlights of the year for me included not only going to see United but also attending major music events such as the Richmond Jazz & Blues Festival, or hitch-hiking overnight after school to get to the the Cleethorpes Jazz Festival. Best of all was the American Folk & Blues Festival at Croydon in the autumn, featuring some of the greatest blues singers of all time, such as Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson, Sleepy John Estes and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I feel as privileged to have seen performers like them as I do having seen Best , Law and Charlton in their prime.
One other vivid memory of ‘64 was watching pitched battles between Mods and Rockers on the sea-front at Margate on Bank Holiday weekend, with deck chairs flying through the air like medieval spears. In many ways the youthful violence there was a sign of what was to come later in the decade when the word hooligan became synonymous with football.
This could be the last time
These worlds of popular culture ,celebrity and football were deeply intertwined so that, for example, in 1965 you could see George Best rather ineptly dancing to the Rolling Stones performing ‘This Could Be The Last Time’ on the BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ in 1965. It always intrigued me that George was by his own admission such a lousy dancer, which he sometimes attributed to men in Belfast never dancing (presumably regarded as too ‘effeminate’), and sometimes to the fact that he had ‘no sense of rhythm’. If the latter was true it makes one wonder how that connected to his uncanny ability to contort and uncontort his body as he wriggled past defenders in ‘impossible ‘ ways, as though he lived by different physical constraints from the rest of us mere mortals.
It didn’t take long for George to become a cultural reference point just as much as the Beatles, but there was a time lag. During the 1964 General Election, when Harold Wilson at long last overturned ‘13 years of Tory mis-rule’ I was canvassing for Labour in Amersham in Bucks when I knocked on a little old lady’s door. When she came slowly out she looked at my long hair with a twinkle and asked, ‘Are you George Harrison?’ A year later in Manchester for a university interview (guess why I chose there) I went to an Italian restaurant. I could hear the waiters whispering amongst themselves and then one came over: ‘Are you George Best?’ he asked. ‘No’, I said, ‘I’m better looking!’
Georgie Best Superstar, walks like a woman and wears a bra…
By that time George was routinely called the Fifth Beatle, and was a regular on the ’scene’ in Manchester, but, whilst being endlessly seen with attractive young women he hadn’t yet got the reputation as a womaniser he later gained. But morality was changing at an astonishing rate. Back in my home town in Amersham around 1963 a former girl-friend of mine was made pregnant by another boy at my school. She was rushed away to have the baby in secret and the ‘bounder’ father would routinely be barred from entrance into shops round town such was the outrage he’d provoked. A year or two later, for good or ill, that moralising response would have been inconceivable. In his way Best was part of that sexual revolution, as the endlessly available fantasy figure on billboards, magazines and newspapers , not to mention Match of the Day and The Big Match. It was said that women wanted Georgie Best while men wanted to be him.Of course the availability of the contraceptive pill made a big difference in all this, although I don’t recall mention of that in any of Best’s many autobiographies and other books, despite the endless lists of women he bedded.Another sign of the changing times was the disappearance of virginity as an issue among young people. Almost overnight it went from valued state (for girls) to an irrelevance, as I’m sure it was for George.
September 1964: Standing ovation at Chelsea
The process by which Best rose to prominence was at first totally driven by football. For those following United Best was gaining a steadily growing reputation as the best new Busby Babe since Munich and he’d get a steady good press on the back pages. The point when the whole superstar thing kicked up to the next level was early in the highly successful 1964-65 season when United won their first post-Munich league championship. When United beat Chelsea 2-0 at Stamford Bridge in September 1964 with goals from Best and Law they left the pitch to a standing ovation for George from crowd and Chelsea players alike. He left the field with head bowed modestly, almost with embarrassment. Midfield creator Paddy Crerand who played that day recalled George’s goal, which he just stood and applauded: ‘He changed feet so quickly and hit a screamer into the top corner. His performance was as good as Alfredo Di Stefano’s for Real Madrid against Eintract Frankfurt, one of the great individual performances of all time (in the 1960 European Cup Final)’.
I can remember reading the press the following day with a swell of pride as the headlines were full of George being ‘the best’, with comparisons to the likes of Stanley Matthews and other all-time greats. It was as though the London media had suddenly caught up with what was going on up North and were appropriating the 18-year-old Irishman as a national treasure.
1964-65: Champions for the first time since Munich
When United subsequently won the ‘64-65 league title, with the team that Crerand regards as the best he ever played in, it was mainly the electrifying goals of Denis Law and the commanding role of Bobby Charlton in midfield that took the plaudits along with Paddy, Nobby Stiles and Munich survivor Bill Foulkes, but the teenage Best was already being spoken of as a major factor in the triumph. Yet his profile was to rise even higher the next season, when he finally became ‘El Beatle’, a moment etched in United history, but one that caused me a bat-sqeak of anxiety at the time.
Having won the league, United qualified for the European Cup (now the Champions league) which in those days only took one champion team per nation. Everybody knew how much this meant to Matt Busby, who had lost his wonderful Babes at Munich in pursuit of the trophy and it was a matter of honour and guilt that drove him in the hope of winning it in their memory. This was never spoken about at the club, but everyone knew how much it meant, including the wee lad from Belfast.
Benfica ‘66: the birth of ‘El Beatle’
The nation was gripped as TV coverage brought the European Cup campaign into living rooms everywhere, at a time when there was less partisan hostility towards United who were widely seen as representing the nation as a whole. United faced two-times winners Benfica from Portugal in the quarter finals and won a gripping home leg 3-2 in early February 1966. Few gave United much hope in the away leg, Benfica and their talisman Eusebio having never lost a European cup match in their Stadium of Light on route to four finals in five years. The tale has been told so many times it hardly needs recital here but Best ignored instructions to ‘keep it tight’ for the first twenty minutes as he went on the rampage, scoring two magnificant goals early on, setting up an astonishing 5-1 victory, regarded by many observers as the finest single performance by any British team in Europe. Best thought it his best match individually and many years later Bobby Charlton and Denis Law jointly concluded that it was the finest collective display they had ever participated in. There was no doubt that the whole of Europe sat up and took notice and Best’s name hit the sporting headlines round the world, many taking up the Portuguese tag for George, ‘El Beatle’.
I remember watching the match on TV as a student in Nottingham ( I didn’t get a place in Manchester, unfortunately) and it took my breath away, but funnily enough in a slightly different way than most. While everyone was drooling, understandably enough , over Best, I was thrilled for some of the lesser-known players, particularly Bill Foulkes, who was normally a no-nonsense stopper centre half with few airs and graces but enormous physical courage. He played that night with all the calm authority of a midfield general, playing the ball smoothly out of defence, often to the irrepressible Best.
It’s very odd that, while the BBC commentators on the night and the press the next morning were raving about United, I had a strange and unaccountable feeling of anxiety about it all. It all seemed over-the-top since, however good the performance, no trophy had yet been won. Part of it was the sight of George in a huge sombrero on the team’s return to England, bought on impulse at Lisbon airport and worn with beaming pride as he exited the plane, the perfect image for the photographers greeting the El Beatle hero. I felt, again, the danger that I would ‘lose’ George, he was somehow no longer ‘mine’, nor even United’s but the whole world’s, and I rather doubted if they cared a toss about United winning anything, they just wanted a bit of Georgie Boy.
His success catapulted him onto a whole new level of celebrity, at home and abroad, and I was beginning to worry that it would go to George’s head at the age of 19 (the same as me, of course). I came to hate that sombrero and I wish a few more picture editors would refrain from putting it in books about Best and United, along with all those bloody pictures of him drinking champagne, and, while we’re at it, let’s have no more photos of Georgie outside his boutiques draped with models or showing off menswear. He was a great footballer: who cares about the rest for Gawd’s sake?
To me the sombrero came to symbolise the beginning of the end I’d always feared would come. At that moment in 1966 few would have believed Best’s career as a football winner only had two more years to run.
Partizan defeat, April 1966
As it happens, United’s European Cup campaign ended in the next round when a rather weaker team on paper, Partizan Belgrade won 2-1 on aggregate over the two legs of the semi-final. I had seen United lose 2-1 against Leicester City at Old Trafford four days before the away leg and it was very clear that Best was simply not fit. Sure enough he was a passenger in the first match and absent in the second. So, little more than a month after the incredible high of Benfica United were thrown into despair , especially Busby who wondered if he was fated never to win the European Cup. The season ended on a very low note. Straight after being knocked out of Europe United lost the FA Cup semi final 1-0 to Everton, the fourth such semi-final defeat in five seasons. Then Shankly’s Liverpool won the league again, leaving United in only fourth place, meaning it would be at least two years before United could try again for the European Cup.
1966-67: Champions again
Fortunately, as we’ve seen, United won the league in the following season 1966-67, by which time Best was considered at least the equal of Law and Charlton in importance to the team. Bobby Charlton regarded this as the best team he ever played for at United, including the pre-Munich champions, and it was probably the finest United team I have ever seen, featuring three European Players of the Year in Law, Charlton and Best.
I can remember the first time I really felt confident that United were going to do the title at the end of March ‘67 when Nobby Stiles scored an improbable late equaliser against Fulham who had twice taken the lead in front of the biggest crowd at Craven Cottage since the War (‘You only come to see United!’). On that day Best scored his first goal since December, which was a surprising ‘drought’, showing that even the very greatest players have their ‘dry’ spells in front of goal. It’s strange how a last minute, hard-earned point can sometimes seem more valuable than a five-goal thrashing.
1967-68: Back in Europe in pursuit of the ‘Holy Grail’
With United champions again they were back in Europe , for what was surely the ageing and pain-wracked Matt Busby’s last chance of winning that elusive and redemptive trophy. The journey through the early rounds was followed with the same sense of national engagement through television coverage, although I detected less goodwill from rival supporters. The celebrity rise of George Best in particular seemed to provoke a new element of jealousy and aggression, fed ever more intensely each time he appeared in non-sporting media contexts. Today there is so much more awareness of how to ride the tiger of media attention, but this was all new, to United, to Busby, to George, and especially to his family back home in their unpretentious home back in Belfast.
At least at this stage in George’s life much of this was positive and at times it felt as though he was actually addicted to his fame and life in the spotlight. It helped that United were making progress in Europe, taking them to an epic encounter with multiple-winners Real Madrid over two legs in the semi-finals.
March 1968: Beating Real Madrid
Again, the story of United heroically overcoming Real to reach the final at Wembley against Benfica is so well known as to hardly need re-telling, including George hurdling down the right wing to cross into the middle where the most unlikely of players, craggy centre half Bill Foulkes had raced recklessly forward to side-foot the ball home like a veteran centre forward for a crucial goal. Watching on TV in Nottingham the feeling of relief was extraordinary when the final whistle blew for 3-3 on the night, giving United a 4-3 win on aggregate. I felt a huge surge of warmth towards Busby, visibly moved out there on the pitch with his exhausted warriors at the final whistle.
May 1968: Man United 4 Benfica 1
At last the European Cup was within touching distance. I was in the middle of my final degree exams for all those European nights and watched them on TV. I was so happy for Matt, just as all the players were, including George who knew exactly what it meant to the Boss and his assistant Jimmy Murphy who’d set the club on the road to recovery in the grim days and weeks after Munich. The story of the final itself, which went into extra time after standing at 1-1 after 90 minutes, hardly needs re-telling now (not least because it’ll be reprised so many times before United face Barca at Wembley), because we all know how United won 4-1, helped by Best’s flamboyant deadlock-breaking goal seconds into extra time. Bobby Charlton scored two of course and Brian Kidd got the other, on his 19th birthday.
If the Real match had been draining, Benfica was exhausting, on a warm, humid night. At the end I just didn’t know what to do with myself, I was so excited, happy, overwhelmed, drained. Tears welled up in my eyes as I saw the dignified but bright-eyed Busby embracing his players. For me it was as though I’d been on the same journey with him ever since Munich, ten years before. Matt had got his moment of redemption at Wembley in front of Munich survivors and families of those who’d died. And of course Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes had been out there on the pitch, as they had been in the last match before the crash. It almost felt like an intrusion to scrutinise the expressions on the faces of those that had suffered such grief and would undoubtedly be thinking of those friends who had been killed in pursuit of the dream.
I also wondered about how George was reacting to all this. I knew he loved Matt almost like a father, but in his helter-skelter super-star celebrity world I wandered how much room he had to think of those who’d died such as Duncan Edwards, whose parents were at the celebratory after-match banquet. Paddy Crerand took time to talk to them, greatly moved.
The beginning of the decline
We now know that while Busby felt he’d achieved closure of a sort by winning the European Cup, Best thought this should be merely the start of things, a whole new era of dominance for United, with him at the centre.
Later I was to find that George took the same view as me, that he had been deeply disappointed that United had failed to retain the league title in 1967-68, losing it on the last day of the league season when Sunderland beat them 2-1 at Old Trafford, in a match I attended, while Manchester City annoyingly beat Newcastle to gain their only championship of my lifetime. What bugged George was that this had been his best season in the league, scoring 28 goals in 41 appearances. Newly anointed Footballer of the Year, Best had scored United’s only goal against Sunderland but the team as a whole seemed strangely apathetic, perhaps with one eye on the Real Madrid second leg four days later. I couldn’t understand it, and I don’t think George could either, although I’m sure he assumed he’d get plenty more chances.
In fact, Best never won another medal, with United or anyone else, with one possible exception, as we’ll see.
I saw George many times in the next five years or so, and sometimes he was extraordinary, doing things no-one else would attempt, one suspects precisely because of that, as if he now needed to give himself little challenges to keep up his motivation as United slid into mediocrity. Having won the European Cup Busby seemed to lose interest, although he did get the team to the semi-final in 1969, against AC Milan, when a poor refereeing decision disallowed an across-the-line goal, consigning United to defeat. That was George’s last European match, aged 23.
When George let down Wilf
Busby retired as manager in 1969, handing over coaching duties to Wilf McGuinness, a Busby Babe who’d been forced to quit in 1959 after a broken leg. In an unsettling period Wilf, who never seemed to put his own stamp on the team, managed to get United to the semi-finals in the League Cup and the FA cup, but lost both to bitter rivals, Manchester City and then Leeds United. The latter encounter witnessed one of the most shameful and depressing episodes in George’s United career, when he was caught by McGuinness in a hotel bedroom with another man’s wife not long before kick-off against Leeds.
Word spread like wildfire and Leeds’ ex-United midfielder Johnny Giles, Nobby Stiles’s brother-in-law, taunted Best during the match, demanding to know why he couldn’t be more like Bobby Charlton (the player he most admired in all his playing days, even after acrimoniously leaving Old Trafford). Best’s usual ability to rise above such verbals on the pitch deserted him and ended in humiliation as he slipped on the ball and missed the best scoring opportunity of the match. United eventually lost after two replays, and Best made no real contribution. It was a low point for him for Wilf and for United.
In retrospect it almost seems a humiliation, but as losers in the semi-final were United qualified to play in the FA Cup Third Place Play-off Final against Watford in a poorly attended match at Arsenal’s old ground, Highbury. I watched as United won this short-lived fixture with two goals from Brian Kidd, and presumably Best received his third place medal that day, if such a thing was issued. I’ve never heard of anyone boasting about such a trophy, certainly not George, who would sometimes admit he really regretted not reaching an FA Cup Final, having suffered defeat in four semis.
The McGuinness era was strange and uncomfortable for all concerned, including fans. Some days United could still turn it on, as when Best scored his hundredth league goal and laid on another for Denis in a stirring 2-2 draw with Spurs. The wily Scottish striker Alan Gilzean scored one of the Spurs goals that day and I remember in a quiet moment in the match someone shouting at him, ‘Gilzean, take OFF that ridiculous mask!’ As they say, cruelly, he was ‘no oil painting’, unlike George, although by this time he was getting visibly stouter and sporting a beard, perhaps to mask his deepening feelings of unhappiness.
It was not long after that Spurs match that poor old Wilf, a decent man with United blood in his veins was stripped of his job, with the offer to return to youth coaching, which he declined with dignity.
With Busby back at the helm United promptly showed how they could play again, with a fine victory over Spurs at Old Trafford, crowned with Best scoring after a quicksilver run with the ball. Then I witnessed one of the most enjoyable performances for ages at Selhurst Park when United beat Crystal Palace 5-3 in an end-to-end, end-of season match, with Denis Law scoring a beautiful hat-trick, including a trade-mark over-head scissors kick, while Bestie, back to his best scored two. Quite like old times.
Even better was the last game of the season, and Matt Busby’s final match at manager of Manchester United, when United beat Manchester City 4-3 at Maine Road, with two goals for Best, one each for Denis and Bobby, one of the last times the Holy Trinity would all score in the same match.
But these almost nostalgic results couldn’t mask the fact that all was not well at Old Trafford, especially with George Best, who was increasingly erratic and unreliable in his private life, beginning to drink heavily and skip training. There was respite for a while at the beginning of the next season, when the Irishman Frank O’Farrell was appointed manager.
1971-72 :The Frank O’Farrell era
Initial results were good. I remember a marvellous match at Stamford Bridge which United won 3-2 with goals from Charlton, Kidd and winger Willie Morgan, Busby’s last major signing (unfortunately a man whom George didn’t really rate, popular though he was with the Stretford End). In a bizarre incident George got sent off, evidently for dissent and for swearing at the referee after a contentious decision. From where I was in the South Stand it was not at all clear why Best was being sent off and he was ushered off the pitch in tears by Tony Dunne and Bobby Charlton who looked very sympathetic. It was pleasing that George was so upset as it showed he really wanted to play. Later George escaped a long ban when he managed to convince the FA disciplinary authorities that he hadn’t been swearing at the ref but at his team-mate Willie Morgan. To this day I’m not sure if that’s true. That’s the version Bobby still gives and George himself in the past has stuck to the line, only to brag later that in fact he HAD sworn at the ref. Who knows? He sometimes indulged in a kind of bravado as he got older, revelling in the rebellious, hell-raising image, so I really don’t know the truth.
Anyway, in the next match Best was superb again against Crystal Palace, when I saw United win 3-1, with two more classic Denis Law goals and one from Kidd, but it was an apparently reinvigorated George who was the star of the show. At times like that one could almost forget the increasing indiscipline and the stories of his drinking and womanising and convince oneself that the best of times might return.
By November 1971 United were top of the table after an excellent run. One of the goals was a classic which is shown whenever the BBC puts together a montage of Best moments, the one where he ran across the Sheffield United defence, past man after man, apparently going too far wide out to the right only to fire in an unstoppable cross-shot into the far corner. Then Bestie got a hat-trick against Southampton in a 5-2 away win, and all seemed well.
But, typically, it didn’t last, either for United the team, or Best the player. The old dissensions returned in the dressing room as some felt Best was being allowed to get away with too much, while others felt he should be handled with a light touch because of his value to the team. At that time relations between George and Bobby Charlton were at rock bottom.
George & Bobby
Bobby felt George was letting the team down and the club. He lived and breathed United, as a Busby Babe and Munich survivor he deeply disapproved of what was happening. He tried not to be judgemental, not wishing to set himself up as George’s moral guardian, but could not hide his feelings as United inexorably slid down the table. George in turn thought Bobby was aloof, cold and superior and lacking in a sense of humour. They both admired each other for what they could contribute on the pitch, and would celebrate a goal together with all the old fervour, whoever scored, but were otherwise barely on speaking terms.
In later years Bobby came to reflect sadly on whether anything more could have been done to help George. Matt Busby, by now Sir Matt, asked himself those same questions. Contrary to myth he did sometimes try to take a hard line with George when he was still manager, and a tearful George would promise to mend his ways and promise ‘never again’, all to no effect. Interestingly, Best would later claim he was ignoring Busby on such occasions and counting flowers on the wallpaper behind the manager’s chair, which may well be more colourful bravado, although it’s true he never really took advice from anyone, friend, family or officialdom. Of course with Matt part of it was generational difference and George felt the Boss was more like a remote head master at times, not the gentle father figure of legend. Nevertheless, George wept copiously at Sir Matt’s funeral in 1994.
In truth it’s far from clear whether anyone could really have made a difference. It was partly that Best was engulfed in an avalanche of media attention the like of which no-one had ever experienced before, certainly in football. Best was opening boutiques and nightclubs, making sponsorship appearances and piling up huge sums of money, all the while surrounded with adoring fans, hangers-on and rock music-style groupies. Much of this he loved, as he liked dining in the best restaurants, going on expensive holidays with mates or girlfriends in tow and he loved being recognised, at least on a good day. But as the days went by he found that, with all his other activities, the attractions of playing with a poor United team were diminishing.
Could Matt have done more?
Matt continued to try to help George, even when he’d moved ‘upstairs’, but even he was floundering, despite his uncanny knack of finding the right words to motivate or re-direct people around him. He sadly remarked that George sometimes had the look of ‘a little boy lost’, just as I had sensed right back at the beginning at Fulham in ‘64. George approached Matt at some point in the early ’70s and asked that he be made team captain so that a new United could be built round him. Matt refused, saying he was too ‘irresponsible’, to which Best said, ‘give me responsibility and I’ll become responsible’. We’ll never know if he could have achieved that, but since his alcoholism had already taken a hold, it seems unlikely.
As Best’s various books of memoirs came out in the ’70s, ’80s , 90s and right up to his death one could see him making valiant attempts to be open and honest about his addictions and his drinking, but it always left the question , how much of this soul-bearing was inserted by his ghost-writers and collaborators and how much truly came from him? And even when it did, how much was put in to maintain either his marketable image of notoriety on one hand or to show he was ‘facing his demons’ on the other?
It sometimes felt that the worse his behaviour, the more people loved him, as love him they undoubtedly did. I sometimes felt that he knew there was a public appetite for scandalous tales of misbehaviour, perhaps because people need exemplars of human weakness to help them come to terms with their own human fallibility. Certainly George was a very human person, quiet and private in some ways, unwilling to reveal his true feelings of insecurity or inadequacy while despair would build up inside with no outlet or release, sometimes only quelled by the booze.
Send for the Doc
Eventually after O’Farrell had been sacked and the wisecracking Scot Tommy Docherty had taken over, the endgame approached. Best played a few more games but the old Sixties team had pretty well disappeared, with Bobby retired at the end of the 1972-73 season, Nobby Stiles long gone, Bill Foulkes retired, Paddy Crerand no longer playing, Law soon on his way out, and a number of mediocrities taking their place. It broke George’s heart that United were sinking so low, with few major signings to stop the rot. He has sometimes claimed that he drank to help cope with his frustration and depression at what was happening to the club he loved and that the drinking was a symptom of the problems, not their cause.
Eventually Best and Docherty had a final falling out, and it was all over. When he realised he would never play for United again he went to sit at the back of the stand at Old Trafford and let it slowly sink in, casting his mind back to the great days when he was still strutting the turf as part of the Holy Trinity with Denis and Bobby. Slowly the tears welled up in his eyes. He knew that his great days were gone, when he was part of one of the finest teams ever assembled in Britain, and he had loved playing with so many players he liked as footballers and loved as friends.
5 August 1974: Dunstable Town 3 Man United Reserves 2
Of course George played football for all sorts of teams in Britain, the USA and elsewhere for several years, but never to the high standards he took for granted in his great days at United. I remember witnessing one of the more bizarre outings he had in England, when he did a favour to his old United youth team pal Barry Fry, who became manager at Dunstable Town in Bedfordshire. Their attendances could be measured in the tens and twenties until George turned out for them a couple of times, with permission from Docherty and United. The match I saw was in August 1974 against a Manchester United XI, made up of unknowns and reserves, including the younger brother of Martin Buchan, United’s new captain, O’Farrell’s finest signing. 10,000 people crowded into Dunstable’s tiny ground on a warm summer’s evening and after Best had inspired the Town to a 3-2 victory he was mobbed as he came off the pitch in a joyous carnival atmosphere. While everyone else thought it all brilliant I just felt immense sadness at how low this towering genius of the footballing arts had fallen, heartwarming though it might be that he was helping a friend.
George as a person
When George Best died in 2005 after his liver-transplant failed and alcoholism-related complications set in there was a genuine outpouring of grief on an enormous scale, which demonstrated just how much he was loved all over the world.People were intensely grateful for what he had given them as a footballer, the thing he longed to be remembered for above all, but also as a human being. There were qualities people saw in him, even when he was falling apart from drink and messing up his life, that drew them to him. He had immense charm, there’s no doubt about that, which often enabled him to get away with his own acts of selfishness or irresponsibility, but there was also a curious humility about him, as though he could never quite believe the hype, never shrug off the anxieties he had when first leaving home in Belfast as a homesick fifteen year old, nor shake off the feelings of guilt over his much-loved Mother’s early death from alcoholism-related problems. He blamed himself for neglecting her and for plunging her into the endless media scrums that attended him wherever he went, long after he quit playing football.
When I think of George Best I like to think of him in the dressing room after a famous victory, sharing in the banter and humour that holds teams together, the thing players miss most when their career is over, at whatever level you play. One thing we should never forget, Bestie tried to entertain us, and he loved creating excitement and drama on the pitch. Away from the game, everyone says how bright and quick wittted he was and full of fun and he was also extremely generous with his time, seldom getting irritated by fans pestering him for autographs, always polite and respectful to people, at least when sober, and often the author of unpublicised acts of kindness and generosity. He once said that the qualities he most admired were ‘bravery, compassion and goodness’.
Tilting at King Kenny
He could be critical of others of course, and was particularly scathing about Kenny Dalglish on one occasion when he’d gone out to Dubai to see a Liverpool v Celtic match. George, who was raised to treat everyone respectfully, regardless of race, creed or colour, was ‘appalled at the way Kenny Dalglish, the manager of the most successful club side in Britain, took the mickey out of a waiter because he didn’t happen to speak English. We liked a good time but we never included anything like that’ (The Good the Bad and the Bubbly, by George Best, 1990).
Best of friends
One of George’s most endearing qualities was his love of children, manifested in his involvement in charity work. There was an occasion in Australia when he was at a school playing with the children when he noticed one small girl all alone inside by the window. He went inside and gradually coaxed out of her some responses and got her laughing eventually, drawing her into things with the others. It was clearly something that moved him, the outsider, the sad, the lonely, and at his best he could respond to such feelings in others, perhaps in recognition of his own unhappiness.
He admitted that he found being faithful to one person impossible, but equally admitted that endless sexual encounters left him feeling a ‘void’ with ‘deep feelings of emptiness’. Although he talked of his alcoholism as a disease and as perhaps genetically determined, those feelings of emptiness must surely have played a part too, something to blot out and forget. He also said drink gave him confidence, a remarkable admission in a man who had entertained at the highest level in sport in front of thousands of people in a totally fearless way for over a decade.
In the end it was football that gave him his greatest pleasure and satisfaction. That was the great buzz he craved, and that is what he should be remembered for now, the intensity of experience he gave us all, especially Manchester United fans. I was deeply moved when Denis Law and Bobby Charlton visited George in his dying days in hospital in 2005. Denis had remained close but Bobby had been somewhat estranged in the past, as we’ve seen, although they had become much more reconciled in later years, as both realised how much more they shared with pride than divided them.
At the time of George’s death, Sir Bobby said, ‘We at Manchester United have learned from our experience with Eric Cantona, we had to treat him differently, make allowances. If, instead of being hostile to George – which I was – we had leaned a bit his way and tried to help him, who knows? … I did my utmost never to judge him…At the root, George and I were true friends and I loved him as a true friend should…and in return I know he loved me. That was always the basis of our friendship’ (George Best: A Celebration, by Bernie Smith & Maureen Hunt (2007).
That’s how we should all remember George Best, with love. And immense gratitude.