As George Best skips past Ron Harris’ desperate challenge there is only the inevitable to come; the flying Ulsterman bares down on goal, selling the stopper an outrageous dummy, before scoring low into the net. He drops to his knees, praising the heavens. One of Best’s defining moments is captured.
The goal, scored against Chelsea in the 1971 League Cup, remains a glittering morsel in an iconic player’s career. It was one of 27 that season – the final great campaign of Best’s career
Between 1963 and 1975 Best scored 181 goals in 474 games for the club, but it was that quintet of seasons from 1966 that elevate the player into a cadre of one at the head of Manchester United’s elite. Best is among the very finest in the game’s history; player, icon, lover, and drinker.
Those children not of the sixties can but fail to fully comprehend Best’s essence. Yet, amid the dizzying runs, sweetly struck volleys and delicate chips; the bottles of champagne, glamorous women and fast cars, there is still a sense that the player is unique.
“He was able to use either foot,” Sir Matt Busby once said, “sometimes he seemed to have six.” Best had at least as many personalities. The extravagant talent, allied to the flourishing sixties, a mix that brought fame, notoriety, sex and wealth. Perhaps, eventually, Best’s destruction.
Indeed, Best’s story was the stuff of legend even before the Belfast-born player made his United debut, aged 17 on 14 September 1963. “I think I’ve found you a genius,” was the simple message sent by scout Bob Bishop to Sir Matt on first seeing the 15-year-old schoolboy Best. Neither telegram, nor Best disappointed.
In the 50 years since Best’s United debut, an anniversary celebrated at Old Trafford this weekend, the player’s legend has only grown. United’s history, to paraphrase Sir Bobby Charlton, is built on players like Best. The club’s heart and soul, it’s raison d’être, the mistress of it’s legion supporters.
“With feet as sensitive as a pickpocket’s hands, his control of the ball under the most violent pressure was hypnotic” – Hugh McIlvanney
“Manchester United’s glorious history has been created by people like George Best. Anyone that witnessed what George Best could do on the pitch wished they could do the same” – Sir Bobby Charlton
“It seems impossible to hurt him. All manner of men have tried to intimidate him. Best merely glides along, riding tackles and brushing giants aside like leaves” – Joe Mercer
“He had the lot: Balance, pace, two good feet, he was brave, strong and a good header of the ball” – Johnny Giles
“What he had was unique, you can’t coach it” – Johan Cruyff
“He was the finest player I ever played with or against. I treasure my memories of him even though on occasions he made me look rather foolish” – Pat Jennings
“No player before had captured the public’s imagination off the pitch as well as on it” – John Roberts, Best’s biographer
“From 1964 to 1969 he was the best player in the country” – Denis Law
“George Best was one of the most talented players of all time and probably the best footballer who never made it to a major world final.” – Franz Beckenbauer
“George was unique, the greatest talent our football ever produced – easily” – Sir Alex Ferguson
Best on Best
“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. Against Benfica in the final I nearly did it, but then chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack.”
“In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life”
“I was in for 10 hours and had 40 pints – beating my previous record by 20 minutes” – on the blood transfusion after his 20xx liver transplant.
“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
“I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak. Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.”
“They’ll forget all the rubbish when I’ve gone and they’ll remember the football. If only one person thinks I’m the best player in the world, that’s good enough for me. All the bad times cannot wipe away the good memories, and despite all the ups and downs, when I look at my life as a whole, it is impossible for me not to feel blessed.”