George, simply the Best
If there is just one collective belief among British football fans it is that George Best was one of the most gifted players to have emerged from their shores. Best mesmerised fans, rivals and even his fellow team-mates with his extensive repertoire of skills, explosive forays into the opposing area and ability to win matches almost single-handedly. With his Beatles' style moptop haircut, perhaps no other sporting figure so epitomised the feel-good mood of the swinging sixties.
As it would later in his life, fate played an important part in shaping Best's early career. Bob Bishop, a Manchester United scout scouring Ulster for fresh talent spotted a slight, bony teenager in action with Lisnasharragh Intermediate School and was impressed enough to immediately call club manager Matt Busby. The wheels were set in motion to bring Best and his friend Eric McMordie to England for a trial with United. The two 15-year-old's arrived at Old Trafford in 1961 but after spending just one day with the club, homesickness set in and the pair decided to return back home. But after some convincing by his father, Best returned to United a less than a fortnight later.
It would only take another two years before Best graduated to the first team. He made an impact on his league debut, aged 17, in the 1-0 victory against West Bromwich Albion on 14 September 1963. Two weeks later, he claimed his first goal as the Red Devils trounced visiting Burnley 5-1. United ended the season as runners-up to league champions Leeds United but it was clear that the young Best, finishing his debut season with six goals, was a hot prospect. It was also during this season that the teenage Best won his first Northern Ireland cap - which was toasted with a 3-2 victory over Wales.
United collected the league title the following year on goal average and there were more fleeting glimpses of Best's greatness. Showing a fearless attitude beyond his years, Best showed not the faintest glimmer of fear as he darted his way around the toughest defences in the top flight, gliding past the crunching tackles of infamous hard-knock stoppers such as Liverpool's Tommy Smith, Leeds' Norman Hunter and Chelsea's Ron Harris. On many occasion, those spell-binding runs were capped with a goal.
'El Beatle' is born
As his close friend Rodney Marsh explained, "Bestie was the quickest, the cleverest, and the most destructive player around. There was no-one braver, he could head the ball, score and pass equally brilliantly with both feet and had a superb engine. He never stopped running."
In March 1966 he scored twice as Manchester United beat Benfica 5-1 in Lisbon in a European Cup quarter-final. Pictured wearing a huge sombrero-style hat when he returned home, the papers dubbed him 'El Beatle.' At that moment he became football's first superstar in the truest sense of the word. His life was never the same again.
Best repeated his league championship success in 1966/67 as United finished four points clear of Nottingham Forest. But true adulation was to come. The following campaign saw the Northern Ireland international in truly magnificent form as United became the first English club to win the European Club Champions Cup. True to form, 'Bestie' slalomed in a glorious extra-time goal to put United 2-1 in front and pave the way to a 4-1 victory.
"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," he admitted later. "When I scored against Benfica I almost did it. I left the keeper for dead, but then I chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack." That season his status was elevated further when he was named both 'Footballer of the Year' and 'European Footballer of the Year'.
In six magical seasons with United, he scored 115 goals in 290 games including one majestic six goal haul against an unfortunate Northampton Town side in the FA Cup. Yet fame came with a price. The media glare took its toll and Best's rebellious streak came to the fore - he gained a reputation for clubbing and heavy drinking. Later on, he would miss the occasional training session which would be the turning point in his time at Old Trafford.
Best often told a story of a bellboy who entered his hotel room with a magnum of champagne in the early 1970s. Seeing him with the current Miss World and with multitudes of cash won from a night's gambling, the youth exclaimed, "George, where did it all go wrong?"
Indeed, one of the quotes attributed to the former Northern Ireland may act as the introduction to many of his obituaries read: "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars - the rest I just squandered."
On the 15 May, 1971, Best scored arguably the most famous 'goal' of his career at Windsor Park in Belfast against England. Gordon Banks tried to kick the ball downfield, but as he dropped the ball to his left foot, Best's right boot knocked the ball up in the air, behind the goalkeeper. The famous duo both scrambled towards the net, but Best outpaced Banks and headed the ball into the empty goal. His effort was disallowed for ungentlemanly conduct, but left fellow legend Banks rather embarrassed and dazzled by Best's ultra-quick footballing brain.
Best left United in 1972 and played out his career with numerous clubs including Stockport County, Cork Celtics, Dunstable Town and Fulham. Stints in the United States with Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes followed where he showed traces of the old magic. Then 25 years after his initial fall from grace, Best was voted the greatest British sportsman of all time by a panel of 1,000 journalists and sports personalities. By this time however, he was battling alcoholism and a crippling liver disorder. In 2002 he underwent a liver transplant and vowed to keep off the booze once and for all. But that was to prove a promise he was unable to keep.
Georgie, the Belfast boy, arguably the greatest player never to play at a FIFA World Cup™ finals may have departed this life, but his legend will always live on.