George Best was born in East Belfast on 22nd May 1946. Even from a young age his parents, Dickie and Anne, recognised George’s love for football. His mother, reflecting on her son’s early life, passed the comment “with George it was always the ball!”
He played for the local boys club in Cregagh. Even though his frame was small it didn’t get in the way of displaying his enormous talent. What did temporarily get in the way was George’s education. At 11 years of age he won a scholarship to the local grammar school Grosvenor High where, unfortunately for George, rugby was the only sport on the curriculum. George was lost without his beloved football and began to skip school. Inevitably he was caught out, with the result that both his parents and the school decided that George would be better off going to Lisnasharragh Secondary School. Back with his old friends from primary school, and a ball once again at his feet, George settled into his new school straight away.
As a young teenager George’s exceptional talent came to the notice of Glentoran – the local football team in East Belfast. But concerned about his small frame they passed him by. Bob Bishop, the Manchester United Scout in Belfast, did not. On seeing George play he knew he had discovered something special and immediately sent a telegram to Manchester United’s manager Matt Busby. The telegram simply read:
“I think I’ve found you a genius”
George was subsequently given a trial and signed up by chief scout Joe Armstrong in 1961.
Man Utd Years
In six magical seasons with United, George scored 179 goals in 370 games – six in one game!
However, initial homesickness nearly pulled the plug on his flourishing career. Just 24 hours after arriving at Old Trafford, George, along with another young Northern Irish player Eric McMordie, decided to flee back to their homes in Belfast. A telephone conversation between George’s father and United’s manager Matt Busby sent him back to Old Trafford within 2 weeks.
George turned professional in 1963 and made his Manchester United debut against West Bromwich Albion on 14th September 1963. At the tender age of 17 he ran his experienced Welsh opponent Graham Williams ragged. It is said that, after the match, the hard man shook George’s hand and delivered the line “Stand still son so I can have a look at your face. I’ve been looking at your backside all day disappearing up the touchline”.
Homesickness still plagued George and that Christmas he travelled back to Belfast to spend time with his family. While in Belfast the Club made contact, wanting him to play for Saturday’s home game against Burnley who had thrashed United on Boxing Day. The rather cheeky 17 year old, with only one professional game under his belt, said that he would play but only on the condition that they would fly him back to Belfast immediately after the game. The club agreed. It was at that moment that George knew he had made his mark. And it was in this match that the club knew they had not made a mistake giving in to George’s demands. United overturned their humiliating defeat and George scored his first goal.
As the newest ‘Busby Babe’ George soon became the driving force in the United team and the catalyst that would overcome the terrible memories of the Munich air disaster in 1958, in which 8 of the Busby Babes died.
Along with Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton, George formed probably the greatest football trio of all time. The special mix helped United win two first division championships and the coveted European Cup.
George had become the first show-business footballer, receiving more than 1,000 fan mail letters a week. The shops, modelling assignments and personal appearances aspect of George’s career was booming. However, for a modest lad from Belfast it was also overwhelming and it temporarily took its toll on his football career.
But true to form George came back with a corker in the European Cup, scoring twice against Helsinki. A clash with the mighty Benfica in the quarter finals saw United in one of their best performances – and George in probably his best match! With just 12 minutes gone and against Matt Busby’s instructions to “keep it tight”, George had scored twice – once with a header, and the second a moment of pure magic as he beat 3 opponents before shooting past the goalkeeper. The final score was 5-1 and George returned home, sombrero on head, with the title ‘El Beatle’. His entry into superstardom was now official.
George lit up United at home and abroad and in 1968 they had another crack at the European Cup. Ironically their opponents were once again, Benfica. That night George Best made Matt Busby’s dream come true. With time running out he took control of the game, receiving the ball with his back to the goal, drifting past his marker, ghosting past the goalkeeper and casually rolling the ball into the empty net. George was voted European Player of the Year.
Sadly, however, George had reached his pinnacle with the team. He began to drift and after Matt Busby retired each of the new managers failed to control the wayward player. As Sir Matt Busby famously once said of George:
“Let him alone. Don’t try to coach him, the boy is special”
Seeing United beaten by teams they used to hammer a few years ago was painful and his love for football slowly diminished. He began to drink more with the result that his training suffered and his appearances became fewer. But they were still magical days, with George returning from suspension in 1970 to score 6 out of 8 goals against Northampton.
By the end of the 1974 Season his days at Manchester United were over. He was only 26.
Northern Ireland Years
In 1963, at the age of 16, George made his debut for Northern Ireland playing for their under 18 youth team.
Just days before his 17th birthday he played his first full international against England. The manager at the time was Norman Kerrigan who, after seeing George with his scrawny frame and Beatle haircut, remarked “He’s like something I’d clean my mouthpiece with.”
But George got stronger and quickly established a reputation for being one of the best trained in the club.
In 1964, George, in a match against Wales, shared a room with renowned goalkeeper Pat Jennings. In stature the pair couldn’t have been more different but what they did have in common was the ability to make the game look easy. They would share rooms during most international games, giving Pat a unique insight into George’s abilities.
Pat Jennings, referring to George in later years, said:
“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”
In 13 years George only played 37 times for his own country, scoring 9 goals. But every time he put on the green jersey he electrified the crowd with his performances. Never more so than the day he practically defeated Scotland on his own on 21st October 1967 at Windsor Park.
As one of those mesmerised by the match, award-winning sports journalist Malcolm Brodie wrote:
“Without doubt it was the finest individual performance by any player to grace Windsor Park”
To this day it is remembered as ‘The George Best International’.
George was the ultimate genius. Remember him for his goals, incomparable artistry and the joy he gave to millions.
George once said of himself “I was born with a great gift, and sometimes that comes with a destructive streak”.
This destructive streak manifested itself early on in George’s career. With his good looks, impeccable style and women falling at his feet, his popstar lifestyle quickly overtook his career as a footballer. But ultimately the alcohol and wild nights spent partying would shorten his career and lead to severe health problems later on.
After leaving Manchester United in 1974 he turned out for a number of clubs and enjoyed a productive period in the USA. Although not as fit as he was in his prime, his incredible skills were still undisputed.
In late 1976 he returned to England and along with Bobby Moore turned out for Fulham, playing 42 games in two seasons and scoring eight goals.
In 1979 he made a scoring debut for Hibernian. At the time the club was lucky to attract 8,000 to the gates but on the day George made his debut, over 20,000 fans turned up – just to say years later, “I was there!”
The humour that followed George throughout his career continued at Hibs. In a game against Rangers George was constantly abused by the visiting fans who at one point threw a few beer cans in his direction. When he went to take a corner, George simply picked a can up and seemed to take a drink from it. The abuse stopped to be replaced by laughter at both ends of the stadium.
His last game for Hibernian was a 2-0 win against Falkirk after which he returned to the United States and the San Jose Earthquakes.
In 1983 George finally ended his football career with Bournemouth, although he did go on to play in numerous charity and friendly matches.
In the 1990s, he established himself as a successful sports commentator with Sky Sports and a popular after dinner speaker.
In December 2001 he received an honourary doctorate from Queens University and in April 2002, Freedom of the Borough of Castlereagh.
During this time George’s health took a turn for the worst, as years of heavy drinking finally resulted in severe liver damage. A liver transplant in 2002 gave new hope but its success was to be short-lived. Once again personal problems drove George back to the bottle and this time he was unable to beat it.
On 1st October, 2005, George entered the Cromwell Hospital in London with flu-like symptoms. Over the next weeks, his condition deteriorated and on 25th November, surrounded by his close family and friends, he passed away.
In keeping with his wishes, George came home to Belfast for the very last time and was buried beside his mother in Roselawn Cemetery. One hundred thousand people lined the streets and the grounds of Stormont to say a fond farewell to their greatest local sporting hero and millions more around the world watched as a legend was laid to rest.
In the years and months leading up to his death, George was passionate about raising funds for liver research. Alcohol addiction was something that he himself could not conquer but he was determined that he would do all he could to prevent others from following the same path. Through the Foundation, set up in his name, his wishes can now be fulfilled. As George, reflecting on his own liver transplant and on pledging his support to raise funds, said “This is one way to say thank you to everybody.”
Greg Dyke, former BBC Director once said of George; “Forget about the rest of his life. He was the most wonderful player. He could do things that no one else could do.”