“Hopefully they’ll always remember the football side of things and why the crowds came.”
That was one of George Best’s biggest hopes when he retired from football in the 1980s.
To celebrate what would have been the Manchester United icon’s 75th birthday, we set out to grant his wish by telling the story of seven – and a half – important games from his colourful career and the events that surrounded them
1. FIRST-TEAM DEBUT
14 September 1963 | United v West Bromwich Albion | Football League First Division
Best broke into the first team at the age of 17. With limited experience outside the youth team, it soon became apparent that what young George lacked in experience, he compensated with confidence and raw football talent. Drafted in to replace injured Ian Moir on the right wing, the game went down in history as the first time Best donned the no.7 shirt, with which he later became synonymous.
George’s performance in his debut match earned him a lot of praise from the press.
“Even with an injury, the lad showed what he could do, but believe me, he isn’t going to be just a good player, he’s going to be one of the greatest,” declared Matt Busby, in a newspaper interview following United’s 1-0 win. Despite not being able to find the net himself on the big day, the teenager was involved in the winning goal scored by team-mate David Sadler.
Best went on to make a further 25 appearances for the first team during his debut season, in which he also helped the club to win the FA Youth Cup.
A cartoon from the match programme, United Review.
2. ARRIVAL OF THE UNITED TRINITY
18 January 1964 | West Bromwich Albion v United | Football League First Division
Regarded by many as the final piece of the jigsaw in Busby’s masterplan to rebuild the team following the Munich Air Disaster, Best’s unparalleled control and pace perfectly fitted into United’s team. Playing Best alongside established first-teamers Denis Law and Bobby Charlton in only his fifth appearance turned out to be a recipe for success. The famous trio’s remarkable performance in the 4-1 thrashing of West Brom, in which all three scored, was the beginning of one of English football’s most potent partnerships. Between them, Best, Law and Charlton made a grand total of 1,632 appearances and 665 goals for the Reds.
“Right away, you could see the great chemistry between them,” remembered Pat Crerand.
“Great players know how to play together. However tough the match was, you knew Bobby could unleash one of his strikes, Denis would make something out of nothing inside the box or George would just do something magical.”
3. INTERNATIONAL DEBUT
15 April 1964 | Wales v Northern Ireland | British International Championship
Rejected by several local Belfast teams due to his frail physique, Best never had a chance to represent his country at schoolboy level. However, once the news of his incredible performances for United’s junior teams filtered through to the Northern Ireland international set-up, he was invited to represent his country at the youth level on two occasions in 1962.
After his stunning displays in the Reds’ senior side, young George didn’t have to wait long for his first senior cap. Having only made 15 league appearances for the club, he was selected to represent his country at the senior level in 1964. Following a thrilling 3-2 victory over Wales on his debut, George made a further 36 appearances for Northern Ireland, scoring a total of nine goals.
4. EL BEATLE
9 March 1966 | Benfica v United | European Cup
Best’s career-defining moment came on 9 March 1966, when he almost single-handedly destroyed the Portuguese giants Benfica in a 5-1 away victory in the second leg of the European Cup quarter-final. His two goals inside the first 13 minutes inspired United to produce a remarkable performance, which took both the hosts and the footballing world by surprise.
Best arrives from Lisbon donning a sombrero.
On that night in Lisbon, a relatively unknown, shy boy from Belfast turned into a footballing sensation. Labelled by the Portuguese press ‘El Beatle’ due to his resemblance to England’s most famous pop group, Best arrived back in England with the status of an idol, which stayed with him for the rest of his career.
5. DREAM GOAL
29 May 1968 | Benfica v United | European Cup final
Instrumental in inflicting Benfica’s first-ever home defeat in the European Cup two years earlier, Best rose to the occasion yet again in 1968, when United faced the Portuguese side in the final of the competition. His remarkable goal, scored three minutes into extra time, spurred the team on to an eventual 4-1 victory.
On this tremendously emotional occasion, which came 10 years after the tragic events in Munich, United became the first English team to win the European Cup. Best’s 32 goals in all competitions during that 1967/68 season made him United’s top scorer for the first time in his career and led to him winning the Footballer of the Year award.
Best celebrates after giving United the lead at Wembley.
6. DOUBLE HAT-TRICK
7 February 1970 | Northampton Town v United | FA Cup Fifth Round
George’s growing frustration with the Reds’ poor form following the retirement of Sir Matt Busby began manifesting itself with outbursts of bad temper. Blamed for United’s downfall while serving a four-week suspension for kicking the ball from a referee’s hands, Best’s record-breaking six-goal comeback put an end to claims that he was responsible for the team’s mediocre results.
“I don’t really class myself as a footballer. I call myself an entertainer,” declared George after the game. Despite his amazing performance in this 8-2 victory, the icon’s enthusiasm for the game began to wind down as he felt unable to accept his place in an underperforming side.
Best in action against Northampton.
6.5 FIRST LEAGUE SENDING OFF
2 October 1976 | Southampton v Fulham | Football League Second Division
Following his famous ‘retirement’ to Marbella in 1972, George briefly came back to United before eventually leaving for good in January 1974. His departure from the club kick-started a globe-trotting series of destinations including Dunstable Town, the Jewish Guild of South Africa and Los Angeles Aztecs before returning to English football in 1976.
Brought to Fulham with a mission to attract big crowds, Best joined his fellow football legends Bobby Moore and Rodney Marsh. His short spell for the Second Division London club kicked-off with a proverbial bang, after he scored his first goal 71 seconds into his debut. Despite the obvious signs of aging, George still managed to daze the crowds with glimpses of his old tricks, teasing dribbles and immaculate control.
A month after that first game for Fulham, Best went down in history as the player who got sent off on the first day red cards were introduced into English league football. Despite receiving his marching orders for swearing at a referee, he returned to first-team action to help the Cottagers avoid relegation. His £500-per-match contract was terminated at the beginning of the 1977/78 season when he decided to return to LA Aztecs.
7.5 LAST GAME IN ENGLISH FOOTBALL
7 May 1983 | Bournemouth v Wigan | Football League Third Division
After leaving Craven Cottage, Best yet again globe-trotted around a number of clubs before making a final return to English football in 1983. His five appearances for Third Division team Bournemouth brought a lot of excitement to the Dorset coast, even if he didn’t score for the Cherries. His last competitive game of football on English soil came in a 2-2 draw against Wigan Athletic and his love affair with football ended in 1984, when he made a one-off appearance for the only Northern Irish football side he played for competitively, Tobermore United.
Hailed by Brazil’s World Cup-winning legend Pele as ‘the best player in the world’, George remains one of the most naturally talented footballers the British Isles have ever produced.