You’ve all heard of George Best, haven’t you? And you all know he walked out on Manchester United just a couple of seasons after being named European Footballer of the Year?
Some of you may know his next appearance on a football pitch was with Dunstable Town?
Here’s the story of how that happened.
George, the best
Belfast-born Best made his debut for Manchester United in September 1963, at the age of 17. The following season he was instrumental in helping the club win the League title. Their first since the Munich Air Disaster.
The following season Best was at his mercurial best in an inspired performance in the Stadio da Luz when United tore Benfica apart, winning 5-1 in the European Cup Quarter-Finals.
Two years later another league winner’s medal was his with the ‘gold standard’ of the European Cup at Wembley in 1968. Benfica were once again the opponents and Best scored in a 4-1 win.
United became the first English club to lift the trophy.
That season he ended as the top scorer in the First Division and Footballer of the Year. On top of that, he was voted European Footballer of the Year.
What no one knew at the time was things would never be as good for United for some years. For Best, that was as good as it got.
Matt Busby moved upstairs and the team was gradually broken up. After their historic European success, they finished no higher than eighth in the next four seasons.
1972-73 saw them finish just two points from going down. Something which seemed unthinkable just a few years before.
Best had fallen out of love with his first love. The directors actually publicly announced he would never play for the club again.
Manager Frank O’Farrell was sacked and Tommy Docherty came in. ‘The Doc’ kept them up and even persuaded Best to return.
But all was still not well at the club or in the player’s head. January 1974 QPR came to Old Trafford and walked off with a 3-0 win.
Best walked out of the ground after the game and never set foot in the place as a player again.
When he was playing in Belfast, Best was spotted by one of United’s scouts, Bob Bishop. He sent a telegram to Matt Busby which read “I think I’ve found you a genius”.
After signing for United he spent two years at the youth academy. It was here he met a young lad called Barry Fry.
Fry would become famous as the mad-cap boss of Birmingham City and Peterborough. But in the early 1960’s he was a fresh-faced youth who shared dreams of making it alongside Best at Old Trafford.
Coming from a close family, when he first arrived in England he became quite homesick. Initially, he only lasted a couple of days before heading back home to his parents. Gradually the club managed to talk them all round and Best was back in Manchester. Fry was a little more outgoing and the club asked him to look out for the young Irishman. The two became friends. The young lads would be given complimentary match tickets to see the first team every home game. Barry would buy George’s tickets so he could give one to his girlfriend’s father.
For George this became important. He sent his wages back home every week, so had no spending money. Fry’s generosity allowed him to buy some things.
Fry thought little of it, but as he would later discover, Best thought a lot of it.
Fry never made it past the apprentice stage at United. He struggled with blood clots and went onto have spells at a few other clubs without success, before retiring early from the game.
He was soon into management and at 29 he landed his first job, Dunstable Town.
Fry was born in Bedford so this was one of his local sides. The Chairman, Keith Cheeseman backed him but the club were in dire straits, financially. Competing in the Southern League North they were about two levels down from the Football League.
“My first crowd was 34, and the next was 43 because I made all my family come from Bedford”
“Attendances were so small, rather than announcing the team changes to the crowd, we’d announced the crowd changes to the team. We were about to finish at the bottom for the ninth year running, and I needed a gimmick.”
By now Best had turned his back on his club and his playing career and was frequenting his Manchester nightclub, Slack Alice. Fry turned up one Sunday night with a purpose.
He approached Best and asked him as he didn’t have a game would he turn out for Fry’s band of desperadoes.
Best agreed to two pre-season games. But there was a problem. United still held his registration.
Ever resourceful, and never one to admit defeat, Fry hot-footed it to Docherty’s door.
“Dunstable Town! What makes you think Bestie will play for ‘Dunstabubble’ when I can’t get him to play for Man United?” exclaimed the Doc.
Eventually, he relented and even agreed to send a United reserve team down as opposition.
Fry then set about encouraging former England international, Jeff Astle to turn out for Town too.
On a Monday night in August 1974, as the home side ran out at Creasey Park, there indeed was one of the most famous people on the planet, George Best in home colours.
Thousands turned up. Some estimates have it at 3,500 others 10,000.
United’s team included George ‘Stroller’ Graham. So there was Graham, part of Arsenal’s double-winning side in 1971, Jeff Astle, a member of England’s 1970 World Cup squad and the fifth Beatle, Best, European Footballer of the Year, all on the same little pitch in Bedfordshire.
But the build-up for the game was a little tense for Fry and others around the club as many didn’t believe the Belfast boy would turn up. In fact, he only arrived 20 minutes before kick-off, due to his car breaking down at Knutsford Services. So determined was he to honour his commitment, he got a taxi to take him on the 150-mile journey to Creasy Park.
Delight for the home crowd too as Dunstable won 3-2. This sparked a pitch invasion but it was all good-natured. Best even mentioned it in his autobiography. It must’ve been a relief for him to see the love people had for him after the frustration and anguish of the end of his United career.
Fry says the players just couldn’t believe who they were sharing a dressing room with, they all wanted autographs and photos. They didn’t get to leave the ground till about 2am.
BBC ran the story on the news and for a brief period Dunstable was the centre of the football world.
This helped them attract new players to the club and the knock-on effect was increased attendance at their games. It was a glorious time as they won promotion, with Astle scoring 34 of the team’s 105 goals.
Fry was keen to make the point Best didn’t do it for the reported £200 he received. He already gave the club back £25 so they could buy new nets for the goals.
Bestie didn’t do it for the money. He had a nightclub and a boutique which were lucrative businesses at the time. He just did it as a favour,” says Fry.
“Nobody had heard of Dunstable, but because of the publicity, I was able to bring in players and it was a dream come true when we got promotion.
“Financially, we were making half a crown a week but in our promotion year we had 18 crowds of more than 1,000.”
Dunstable was the start of a bizarre period in his life where he turned out for an exotic array of clubs around the world. Cork City, Stockport County, Hibernian, Hong Kong and then spells in the North American Soccer League. He seemed to finally settle at Fulham in the Second Division in 1976. But once again this became a fleeting appearance barely taking up a year of his life.
Dunstable’s story also took a slide. Cheeseman was revealed as a rather shady character. Astle suggested in his autobiography the club’s Chairman had paid United £1,000 to make sure they turned up.
“About a year later, the chairman Keith got put inside for embezzlement – six years for embezzling nearly £300,000 – so the players weren’t getting paid”, Fry confirmed.
Dunstable ended up in liquidation, due mainly to the chairman’s behaviour. In 1975 he was charged with extorting £287,000, and later sentenced to six years for conspiracy to defraud with 318 fictitious loan applications. Then in 1990 he was sentenced to six and half years in prison for his involvement in the ‘City Bonds Robbery’. This was an elaborate conspiracy after a courier carrying nearly £300m in Treasury bills and certificates of deposit, was mugged at knifepoint. The robbery was the world’s biggest mugging. The whole venture involved the New York mafia, the IRA and Colombian drug barons.
In all, Best played three games for the club with Luton Town providing the opponents in the final game. His path crossed with Fry’s several times down the years as Best would often accept invitations for speak at functions and play in testimonials.
But what finally blew Fry away was when he said to him one day;
“I can’t believe you came to play for me at Dunstable”
To which he got the reply;
“Baz. I’ll never forget you, mate. I used to send my wages to my mum and dad. You helped me out with the money you gave me for the complimentary tickets.”
Fry says the comment gave him a lump in his throat. He had no idea it meant so much to him.
Similarly, Fry is of the opinion his mate never fully realised how much pleasure he gave to other people who watched him perform.
Today Creasy Park is now owned by the council and used by Dunstable Town and AFC Dunstable. The snack bar sells ‘Bestie Burgers’ and ’Barry’s Fries’, although it’s unclear how many of today’s attendances make the link.