George Best was one of the biggest names in football. He was so famous the media labelled him “the fifth Beatle”. The ‘swinging sixties’ saw Best elevated to star status in a way no other footballer had in England. But the limelight, attention and resultant trappings of fame took its toll on a player so fabulously gifted. Even now people say he was the greatest they’ve ever seen.
At just 15 Belfast-born Best was spotted by Manchester United scout, Bob Bishop who immediately sent a telegram to United boss, Matt Busby;
“I think I’ve found you a genius”, it read.
He made his debut at Old Trafford against West Brom in September 1963. His first goal in a United shirt came three months later in a 5-1 win over Burnley.
In all he spent 11 years at Old Trafford making 361 league appearances, scoring 137 goals. He helped United win two league titles as well as a famous night at Wembley in 1968 when they became the first English club to win the European Cup.
In March 1966 he received plaudits from around the world for his performance in the Estádio da Luz when he tore Benfica apart. A Benfica side including many of the players who would inspire their country to third place at the World Cup barely a few months later.
Representing Northern Ireland meant he never appeared at a World Cup himself, during an age when this was the measure of how good a player you were. Best broke through that barrier with his talent.
On pitches more suited to livestock, his incredible close control made a mockery of many a defender. Fans loved him. United fans adored him. Then he walked out on the club.
He returned but it was clear his heart wasn’t quite in it.
His final appearance for United was New Year’s Day 1974 at Loftus Road, where a struggling side were well beaten, 0-3 by QPR. Best looked lost. United looked a shadow of their stature, sitting in the relegation zone. Without their mercurial hero, they lost the battle to stay in the First Division. By then he was long gone.
He’d fallen out with manager Tommy Docherty and retreated to his Manchester nightclub, Slack Alice.
Barry Fry, a teammate when the two were teenagers in United’s youth side, managed to persuade him to turn out in a couple of pre-season matches for Southern League club, Dunstable Town where Fry was the manager.
After three games for Fourth Division Stockport County and a couple for Cork City in Ireland, Best was attracted to the glitz and glamour of the North American Soccer League. He signed for Los Angeles Aztecs and soon re-discovered his mojo.
After a summer season on America’s west coast, he was keen to maintain his fitness and accepted an offer from Fulham Chairman, Ernie Clay. Fulham were in the Second Division at the time and 12 months before Best rocked up, they were losing finalists in the FA Cup.
Clay had dreams of assembling a team of stars at Craven Cottage. Two years earlier, club captain Alan Mullery persuaded former England World Cup-winning captain, Bobby Moore to join him on the banks of the Thames. A year later they were FA Cup Finalists.
‘Mullers’ had moved onto the south coast and his first managerial appointment at Brighton. Clay now saw an opportunity to entice Best and one of his pals, Rodney Marsh to the Cottage to boost the gate.
It worked too, over 21,000 packed into the ground to see Best make his debut against Bristol Rovers. An increase of 130% on the attendance in the corresponding fixture the season before.
He duly obliged his adoring public by scoring after just 71 seconds.
Three weeks later he and Marsh turned on the style in front of the London Weekend cameras when they led Hereford United a merry dance in a 4-1 win. But it wasn’t long before the other side of Bestie was all to see. A week later he was sent off at Southampton for giving referee, Lester Shapter, too much lip. It always was his mouth which got him into trouble.
He was enjoying his football again, but this wasn’t enough to push Fulham towards promotion. The Hereford win had them fourth. By November they were in the wrong half of the table, where they stayed for the rest of the season.
In November 1976 George Best gave an interview to Shoot! Magazine.
I always think these sorts of things are like gold when you look back now. They’re a player’s thoughts and impressions right in the middle of their career. Not in a book written years after, not with the benefit of hindsight, just the views of a principal actor in the midst of theatre.
Best’s sojourn on the Thames lasted barely a year. At the beginning of November 1977, he walked out of the club claiming he hadn’t been paid. Something the club disputed.
The fact it never ended in court would suggest there were other extenuating circumstances contributing to this, and perhaps he was just bored again.
This is what makes the Shoot! Interview so valuable as things had not turned sour by then and he was full of hope.
The perfect ending to a bad period in my life
“When I knew I was being allowed to play in the Football League again I was over the moon. It made a perfect ending to what had been a bad period of my life.
“Yet just being part of a League club wasn’t the end of it – I had to prove myself. I knew that, for lots of fans I was G. Best, former star, now very much on trial for his footballing life.”
The media were lapping up the renewed opportunity to fill column inches they’d struggled to find so much enthusiasm for since Best’s disappearance.
“I can understand people thinking this was just another comeback by a player who had earlier done all the wrong things. Some writers said that I’d be okay as long as I wasn’t bored with the game. Their bet was that I’d be bored pretty quickly.
“But I know more about me than they do. I’d made comebacks galore before, and I accept that. But they had all been with the same club, Manchester United.
“It was a club with tradition and I felt that some things were not right there and – well, yes, I got bored. Though I’ve kicked a football around since I was just 18 months old and love the game, I was quite happy to get out of it.
“Yet when I went to America I felt the old enthusiasm coming back. I knew that I wanted to be part of the English scene again. And instead of making my umpteenth comeback with United, I went to a completely new set-up. For me, Fulham is a great club.”
Best will always be synonymous with United. His finest hours on a football pitch were in the club’s colours. Yet he first walked out on them in 1972. Over the next 18 months, his story at Old Trafford was one of missed training sessions, front-page headlines and drunken nights. In between there were the odd appearances in a football kit, but life would never be the same.
After one walkout cameras found him choosing sun, sea and girls rather than the mud and rain of Manchester. He was interviewed and revealed the strain of the media pressure he’d been under. He mentioned the phrase ‘nervous breakdown’ to illustrate how the scrutiny was affecting him. Back then little was really understood about something we now refer to as mental health. But it was clear he was falling out of love with something he held dear.
When he arrived at Craven Cottage not every player was enamoured to see him, possibly due to the disparity in wage packets. But Best knuckled down, determined to prove his fitness.
His time in America had shown he could play in short, sharp bursts. But English football demanded 90-minute fitness.
He was very complimentary about his new teammates, as he told Shoot!;
“I know better than most that football is a team game. Take Fulham. It was great to return to England and see Bobby Moore playing with so much commanding skill at the back.
“He can control things brilliantly. And John Mitchell, who knows how to score goals, is another fine player, learning all the time and a Londoner through and through.
“There are others. There’s Les Barrett, a long-term servant of the club, with well over 400 League games to his credit. Now he just has to be one of the best wingers in the business. He’s scored his fair share of goals, too.
“As for John Evanson – well, I heard our coach Bobby Campbell saying that Evanson just has to be the best free-transfer player ever. I’ll go along with that.
“Then there is the club captain, Alan Slough. He’s very much on my side. I’ve had a couple of bits of trouble since I came back, but Alan knows what it is all about and he does his best, as skipper, to protect me. He’s very involved in the coaching side of the game as well, and that is another bonus.”
Then to demonstrate his positive attitude towards his new teammates he added;
“No point running through the whole team. Fulham has the right blend of talent and the club is definitely going to make progress. No arguments.”
We discovered when he was part of the Soccer Saturday team in the late 90s that punditry and predictions weren’t necessarily a strong point of his.
Rodney and I have a remarkable understanding
He went on to cover the subject of his stardom on the football pitch as he accepted being a marked man in terms of crowd reaction away from home, and from opponents whether it be at home or away.
“Take the people who love to come and boo me. I can’t complain. It’s their right, and they pay through the turnstile for the privilege. But I can’t let it affect me. There is one way to silence the boo-merchants and that is to get in a winning position.”
Best then went onto pay tribute to his partner in crime, Marsh;
“Our gate receipts and attendance figures show that people want to see our kind of show, Rodney and myself. Incidentally Rodney Marsh is tremendous. The things he does out there on the park just defy description.
“A couple of the goals he’s scored this season have been as good as I’ve seen anywhere, especially the second one against Hereford at the Cottage – though I must say the one I got against Peterborough away from home was a little Irish gem.
“Rodney and I have a remarkable understanding. I know that some purists must have been annoyed when, against Hereford, he came back and actually tackled me to get the ball – but remember we were well ahead at the time and we weren’t taking any risks.”
He then addressed the issue of his disciplinary record;
“Now things are going well except that I obviously still have to learn to keep my mouth shut when I fell outraged about things that happen on the park. I’m always talking my way into trouble and when you think of the people who kick other people around and get away with it, then it seems a little bit unfair.
“I’ve got to bear in mind all the time that I am George Best, and that people think I’m something special. I don’t feel all that special when a game is under way. I’d rather be one of a team. But it’s obvious that I’m always going to be picked out.”
Best ended the first part of the interview giving a positive spin on his prospects for the rest of the season.
“I’ll be disappointed if I don’t score around 20 goals this season. When I was in America this summer, I worked really hard to get my weight down and get fit.
“I knew all the time that I couldn’t give up football. In the States, I hit 15 goals in 23 games. I’d had a couple of terrible years, but I wanted to remind people of the 12 years when I did things right.”
He would end up disappointed as he only found the target eight times in League and Cup. But what must’ve pleased his supporters was he turned out 32 times in the League and an additional eight cup matches so few could doubt his commitment.
There are times when I look back and realise I did something stupid or daft
In part two of the interview refuses the opportunity to turn back the clock;
“I don’t really want to change things at all. There are times when I look back and realise I did something stupid or daft.
“But, you see, the things that get me into trouble are all part of my character. I could perhaps try to be a carbon copy of the model player, the guy who never steps out of line or says the wrong thing – but if I did, I wouldn’t be George Best. I’m sure I’d lose something of the talent which I have.
“It’s all a matter of learning when to keep my mouth firmly shut. You can’t tape it up because I’ve got to call for the ball, shout to teammates on the park, otherwise I’d feel useless.
“But in my years in football, since I was 17, I’ve been kicked about a lot and I know that talking doesn’t hurt as much as being kicked.”
But then George looked up and his eyes lit up;
“Yes, after all, there is something I regret about my past life. It is that I didn’t keep as fit as I should have done. When I wasn’t playing, I didn’t do all I could to stay in peak fitness.
“But at Fulham, there is Rodney Marsh and there is me – two entertainers who are determined to prove we can still do it. Determined to prove the people who wrote us off are wrong.”
At the time Best really did want to see Fulham succeed, as he went on to explain;
“I’m on a five-year contract. Just as long as the legs keep going, and it gets easier with each passing game, then I want to be involved in the best football I can.
“Most of all I want to be part of a Fulham side that goes out to play good football and doesn’t get bogged down in the usual sort of game we see.
“Take the American scene. Players like Rodney and I go out there and we know what is going on. There’s no doubt in my mind the United States will start winning things at international level and it’s going to be soon.
“We try and show them the tricks of the trade but what is important is seeing the number of kids who are taking up the game, rather than baseball and American Football.
“The American growth of soccer has taken time and lots of people thought it wouldn’t work, but I can tell you there are friendly games out there which are drawing crowds in excess of 40,000.”
Playing for my country is a great honour
This interview came during a time in George’s life when he was clearly very happy. His form for his new club had seen him included in a Northern Ireland squad for the first time in three years.
Up to September 1971 he was a regular for his country, but he’d made just three of the 30 squads selected since then.
Manager Danny Blanchflower called him up for the World Cup Qualifying match against the Dutch in Rotterdam.
45,000 turned up to see Best share the field alongside Pat Jennings and Johan Cruyff. He inspired his teammates to produce one of the best results they’d achieved to that point as they held the 1974 World Cup Finalists to a 2-2 draw.
“Playing for my country is a great honour. I’ve never been one to say that if I was born an Englishman I’d have been better off. It is a special feeling to pull on that green shirt – and it is to my personal regret that for one reason or another I’ve missed so many chances of adding to my 33 caps.
“But when Danny said he wanted to give me a run, then I was really delighted.
“I went out against the Dutch determined to show I’m a better player than Johan Cruyff. I am not a big head, but during the first half anybody would have said I was the world class player……not Cruyff.
“I really think we can make the Finals. If we get another good result in Belgium on Wednesday (10th November) we must be in with a great chance.
“We Irishmen are very proud of Danny Blanchflower. In fact, just before we started this interview, I’d been talking to Rodney Marsh about the Tottenham Hotspur team which achieved the double and won the FA Cup in successive years at the start of the 1960’s.
“Danny captained that side. Rodney and I were saying how it was an inspired kind of side, that scored goals and did things right.”
Unfortunately for Best and the Irish they lost 0-2 in Brussels. He made two more appearances for his country before his final outing when the Dutch arrived in Belfast. Cruyff was again in the visitors line-up as Willy van der Kerkhof scored the only goal of the game. Northern Ireland missed their chance to make the Finals but four years later they were more successful.
During this interview, George confirmed;
“Playing for Northern Ireland in the World Cup series just has to be a big ambition for me.”
Once the Irish qualified for the Finals in Spain there was much speculation as to whether Billy Bingham would pick him for what would clearly be his one and only appearance in a World Cup. He’d been playing back in the States with San Jose Earthquakes, who by his own admission were “a bad side”. As Best was 35 without a League club and five years from his last cap, Bingham looked elsewhere.
“I had half a chance to go, I suppose. Billy was under a bit of pressure to take me – sentimental stuff, really.”
In the end, Bingham took a fresh-faced 16-year-old, Norman Whiteside. Ironically, he’d been seen in a United shirt as much as Best had in the previous eight years, given he was still to make his first-team debut. But Whiteside went, beat Pele’s record as the youngest player at a World Cup and probably fulfilled the dreams Bestie thought he might’ve done.
Perhaps there was something of the spirit of Best in Whiteside in Spain ’82. Manchester United’s scout, Bishop, who’d discovered Best, had been the first to offer Whiteside a trial at the club.
Bingham never publicly regretted his decision but in 1986 he did the opposite when faced with the decision to select an ageing star who was also without a club contract. 41-year-old Pat Jennings was on Everton’s books as cover for Neville Southall towards the end of the season, and Bingham selected him for Mexico.
As mentioned earlier, things turned sour for Best’s relationship with Fulham. In March 1977 the player needed 55 stitches to facial wounds after crashing his car into a lamppost outside Harrods at 4 am, after a drinking session.
He scored in his final outing at Craven Cottage in a 3-3 draw with Sunderland. Then a week later he wore the Fulham number seven shirt for the very last time in a defeat at Stoke City. He left complaining of unpaid wages but the club had begun to fine him for missing training sessions so it was clear all was not well in the relationship.
Best returned to the States for another four seasons, turning out for Hibernian in Scotland in the winter months.
Things didn’t end particularly well for George’s playing career as he seemed to just go from one project to another without really concentrating on anything in any great detail. But it is clear to see at the time of this interview he was happy again.
Things right now are just about perfect
The final word of this fascinating interview belonged to Best;
“No matter what, if football is in the bloodstream then you feel lost, drained, if you’re not playing it. I’ve done silly things but I don’t regret them, because in Fulham terms, in Irish terms, things right now are just about perfect.”