GEORGE BEST ( 1946 – 2005 )
by David Jack
On 28th December 1963, on a cold Manchester afternoon, this 10 year old was smuggled (as usual) into the press box at Old Trafford, under my late father’s overcoat. My team Manchester United had been hammered by Burnley 6- 1 a few days earlier, continuing what for them had been an ordinary season. United’s manager, the legendary Matt Busby had made one notable change to the side thrashed a few days earlier, bringing in a slightly built 17 year old Irishman, George Best.
My memories of that game are blurred but I do remember the bright orange colour of the ball, in vogue in those days and that this young boy, George Best scored one of the goals as United exacted 5 -1 revenge on their Lancashire neighbours. Best had made his debut earlier in September that year, but his fatherly mentor and manager, Matt Busby decided that George needed a little more toughening in the reserves before he would be let leash on the English first division. Best was never again left out of a United side during Busby’s reign, after that Burnley match.
I would subsequently forego the relative comfort of the press box to watch United with my school friends on the Old Trafford terraces. Best reigned supreme at United for 11 years outshining no such lesser names as Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. Still a youngster, I was not allowed to attend mid week matches, but can remember many a morning waking up after a midweek fixture and asking my dad “How did we go ?”. Very often, the response would be simply “Bestie murdered them”
As a child I dreamed of playing for United and I wanted to be Georgie Best. I wore my shirt out over my shorts like George, I tried to imitate George’s dribbling style and mannerisms and as soon as I was able to shave, I would try to grow the “designer stubble”. My family moved to Australia in March 1967 and I was devastated. How could I live without my United, my idol, Georgie Best.I didn’t have to wait long however, as Manchester United toured Australia in June that year. On a rain soaked Sydney Showground on a Wednesday evening, United put three goals past a Sydney representative side and George Best scored a memorable goal from a short corner. I later played with the man marking George that night, Cliff Van Blerk. Cliff is a lovely fellow but as a full back he could tackle as hard as anyone. Well Cliff fondly recalls that although he played in the NSW Federation (State League) into his 30’s, his struggle with George Best that night took 10 years off his life.
Having had this shot of Manchester United and Best, I carried on my life in Australia progressing through the local football ranks until 1970 when I was offered a trial with Manchester United. Truly a dream come true. I had three months at United and witnessed first hand the character and the footballing brilliance of George Best. I played in the United “B” team and was fortunate to be on the same training pitch and play in small sided games with George.
United offered to keep me on for a further twelve months, but I was homesick and decided to return to Australia. Maybe I was still trying to imitate Best, who himself fled Manchester for Belfast, after just one day at United before later returning. I played many years in the local NSW State League still trying to be George. I tried (successfully) to flick the ball away from a goalkeeper like Best did to Gordon Banks in Belfast. I went through a period of consistently trying the audacious lob that Best pulled off against Spurs at Old Trafford. I gave up shooting with power for a whole season -just lobbed everything. How ridiculous !
I was content to live out my life in Australia and enjoy the childhood memories of a player whose artistry, courage, speed and sheer football brilliance will never be matched. Out of the blue I came across George again in 1983. By now he had become a footballing mercenary and he arrived in Australia that year to play for Brisbane Lions in the old National Soccer League. Along with thousands of others, I travelled to Marconi Stadium to see George play. All came with great expectations but George, by then 37 had a quiet match but we didn’t care – he was George Best.
When George’s stint with Brisbane came to an end, he stayed on for a short while and amazingly I would again end up on the same pitch as my idol. The Best resume which showed “work experience” ranging from the world’s most famous football club to Dunstable Town, suddenly had a new entry – Dee Why Swans. George, a little short of cash at that time, agreed to play for Dee Why for a reputed sum of $5,000. A crowd of several thousand turned up at Cromer Park, Dee Why where my team Manly Warringah were to play Dee Why. George played the full match. He struck the post early in the first half from 35 metres, just to remind the crowd that they were in the presence of a one time superstar. Manly won 3 -2 but George did manage to get on scoresheet. When George scored, nobody cared that he was conservatively 3 metres offside. George rounded our keeper Mark Dower, with the same ease that he did when beating the Benfica goalkeeper, Jose Henrique to score that famous 1968 European Cup Final goal.
A shy and modest man despite the fame and adulation, George Best was the complete footballer. The adjectives to describe his talent are never ending and only those who saw him at his peak can bear testament to his true greatness. The world of football is an immeasurably better place for his life and was greatly saddened by his premature death.
George Best died in a London hospital on 25th November 2005 from complications resulting from an earlier liver transplant.