50 years of George Best – The first superstar footballer

Blog by: Varun

George Best in action for Manchester United, at Old Trafford in Manchester, 1964.

George Best in action for Manchester United, at Old Trafford in Manchester, 1964.

In the 1960s, a football genius burst onto the scene – he graced the world with his talent, dazzled it with his beauty, and was so far ahead of his time that he proved to be the forerunner of any modern day football superstar. He loved women, he loved life, but most of all, he loved to kick a football around. George Best was the first superstar footballer who was born to play football, and to mesmerize the world with his silky skills and pop-star looks.

Best’s love for the game became prominent while growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. It was not long before his talent as a 15-year old boy was spotted by then Manchester United scout, Bob Bishop, who famously told then United manager Sir Matt Busby, “Boss, I think I’ve found you a genius.”

He was immediately called for trials at Old Trafford, and after fending off initial homesickness, the Irishman spent two years at Manchester United as an amateur before signing a professional contract with the club at the age of seventeen in May 1963. Just days after Best signed his contract, United were celebrating their FA Cup final victory over Leicester City when George Best’s father, Dickie Best, took Matt Busby to a quiet corner to reassure himself whether his son had what it takes to be a top level footballer. He told the United manager, “If George isn’t going to make it, I’d be grateful if you’d let me know within six months because I have a position held open for him back home in the printing trade.”

Sir Matt had full confidence in Best’s abilities and reassured Best senior that his son had a big future ahead in football. Four months later, Sir Matt’s moment for which he was preparing the shy, skinny lad from Belfast since 1961 finally arrived – George Best made his United debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. The rest, as they say, is history.  Fifty years on from his debut at the big stage,  his legacy continues to live strong in the hearts of everyone associated with the beautiful game.

When George Best arrived at Old Trafford, Matt Busby was still under the process of rebuilding his team from the tragic air crash in Munich in 1958, and it was the stylish Irishman’s influx into the team put upfront with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton that proved to be the brooding, swaggering catalyst for what followed next in the glorious five years at Manchester United.

Within minutes of his debut, United faithfuls realized that they had seen something special in this young lad from Belfast. Sir Matt later commented, “Almost immediately the little whipper-snapper had taken it(the match) by the scruff of the neck and was cheekily beating his man as if he’d been in the First Division for years. From the moment he started to play in the first team, George Best had pulses racing.”

Georgie’s greatest strength was his dribbling skills – speed, balance and superb close control. Everybody likes dribblers, everybody likes people who can control the ball, whom they can see while being on the edge of their seats. But very few possess the confidence and the ability to showcase the same in front of thousands of glaring eyes watching. George Best, however, had it in bucket loads.

Best could run as quick with the ball as he could without it. He was like an express train for which one didn’t know which way he would turn, until the very last second when he used to turn the defender inside out. The speed with which he turned with the football at his feet while running towards the goal was quite reminiscent to the cheetah hunting down its prey – the defender just knew that he would get beaten.

George Best holds up his 1968 Footballer Of The Year award.

George Best holds up his 1968 Footballer Of The Year award.

With Best becoming the complete player, he was at the heart of Manchester United’s holy trinity of Law, Best and Charlton. It used to simply roll off the tongue, Best-Law-Charlton, as they produced one magical moment after another on the pitch to become one of the most fearsome triumvirate of attack in Europe. And although they were different in terms of their abilities and lifestyles, they had one thing in common – to get United to the pinnacle of domestic and European football. The trio, led by Georgie’s heroics, helped United win their first league title in the post-Munich era in 1965.

Then, in March 1966, came the match of George Best’s career – a European Cup quarterfinal against the legendary Eusebio’s Benfica at the Stadium of Light – when the 19-year old well and truly announced himself to the world stage. It was a match where United weren’t expected to come away with anything. But when you’re a genius like George Best, there are often such days when everything falls into place and you become almost unplayable.

Georgie, on that particular day, was on fire. He was fast, he was quick, he was everything that you wanted him to be. Inspired by Best, who scored two goals of exceptional quality on the night, United ran out 5-1 winners in a match that would go down in history as one of Best’s all time great performances. Things would never be the same again for George Best.

With pop-star looks and a distinctive sense of style, he returned from Lisbon to a hero’s welcome and became an instant celebrity. The Portuguese media nicknamed him ‘El Beatle’ (fifth Beatle in a rock band formed in Liverpool in 1960). He became a worldwide star overnight. The chiseled face with flowing dark hair and twinkling black eyes – he could stop the traffic in those days. The women wanted to go out with him, while the men wanted to be him.

He became the first footballer who attracted legions of female admirers into the stadiums. Every time he got the ball, thousands of teenage girls used to scream and shout in the stands for him. Footballers, before George Best, were anything but glamorous. Georgie, however, made the jump from football into the show business. He became the first footballer to have that kind of adulation and madness about him from the media and the masses.

With his football superstar status confirmed, George Best was an advertiser’s dream. Sex appeal and football were a potent combination, and Georgie was the only one who combined both of them so explosively. He was so marketable that he could have sold snow to the Eskimos. By the late 60s, traces of that shy, skinny lad from Belfast flew by, as it was a 24-hour party time amongst booze, cars and women. He was like the pied piper – wherever he went, everyone followed.

As the charisma gushed forth off the pitch, George Best on the pitch was no less. After another league triumph in 1967, he became the scorn of Benfica again in the 1968 European Cup final, so typically of him going the hard way by rounding the keeper while giving United an extra-time 2-1 lead en route to a 4-1 success. His 32 goals in 53 appearances for United that season earned him the European footballer of year award too.

A supporter of Russia poses for a photograph in front of the George Best.

A supporter of Russia poses for a photograph in front of a graffiti tribute to George Best.

With the European Cup and footballer of the year award in his trophy cabinet, so much more seemed destined for George Best, but he wasn’t to know on that warm night in May 1968 that he had already reached the pinnacle of his career at the tender age of just 22 years. After achieving the zenith of their success, Manchester United approached the crossroads as the Busby era ended and an aging side was dismantled.

As the team started to fall into pieces, Georgie started to lose interest. The tackles that he shrugged off as a teenager, now provoked retaliation. Battles with the authorities mounted. And alcohol, that had once been a lubricant for success, now became the refuge from defeat.

The days of the mercurial Irishman weaving his magic on Old Trafford’s wings had long gone. He had been the greatest player of his time, but his time on the world stage was over. After 470 appearances, 179 goals, two league titles and a European Cup, George Best left Manchester United in January 1974.

After leaving United, Georgie became a kind of a journeyman making his football comebacks in various clubs across the globe. But it was his personal demons, most of which was alcohol, that he always struggled to cope with until he died in November 2005.

Besides all the front page stories that he created in the latter half of his career, George Best always wanted to be remembered for the back page headlines. The memories that he left are sufficient to say that the world has seen the best of George Best. Perhaps, it was his vulnerability and his public nature of alcoholism, he never lost the love of his many fans. Despite his continual battles with drinks, and medical problems that he had endured, George Best will remain loved and admired by everyone who ever saw him play. A true legend in the history of football.

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