Noel Gallagher once wrote that ‘true perfection has to be imperfect' (Oasis, Little By Little, 2002), and nobody encapsulate the sentiment of flawed genius quite like the man whose photo is depicted on the front cover of the band’s iconic debut album.
Off the pitch, George Best was Manchester’s adopted rockstar decades before the likes of Oasis, the Stone Roses, or the Smiths had even picked up a guitar. On it, the United legend played the game with such beauty that even the blue half of the city couldn’t resist his charms. Even if his time at the top was shorter than it should have been, the boy from Belfast was Best by name and nature.
On 25 November 2005, football lost one of it’s all-time greatest stars and most loved characters to alcoholism. A life of excess ultimately resulted in the 59-year-old’s premature death, but his legend lives on.
The Northern Irishman is rightly regarded as one of the greats. While the younger Old Trafford generations still sing the names of the likes Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs, those fans old enough to remember the mop-topped El Beatle will tell you that he was a level above anything the club has ever seen before… or since.
Best’s superstar potential was evident from the off. In fact, ‘genius’ was the word Bob Bishop used to describe the raw 15-year-old talent to Sir Matt Busby after spotting him in his hometown, Belfast. However, Busby nearly missed out on the young prodigy altogether as the teenager’s first stint at the club lasted just 48 hours before he returned across the Irish Sea home citing homesicknesses. Thankfully, the rising star was back in Manchester to give it another shot within weeks. A legend in the making had been born.
Regulations restricted Best from being signed as an apprentice, but the Manchester United amateur was already being primed for a career at the very top.
The Red Devils were still hurting from the Munich air disaster that had shattered the club in 1958. A five-year rebuilding plan had culminated in Busby guiding his men to the 1963 FA Cup and, while a poor league season could not be dismissed, Old Trafford finally had the platform to build a new legacy.
Busby’s rebuilding mission had focused largely around the duo of Munich survivor Bobby Charlton and then-club record signing Denis Law, who had joined from Torino just 12 months earlier. A fresh sense of positivity filled the air around Old Trafford ahead of the 1963/64 season thanks to two of the club’s greatest attacking stars.
Little did the Manchester United fans know, however, that another superstar in the making was fast approaching the horizon; alongside Law and Charlton, he’d become part of United’s Holy Trinity.
On 14 September 1963, a 17-year-old Best was introduced to the world. The tricky winger wasted no time in displaying his star potential, giving West Brom full-back Graham Williams a particularly tough afternoon, treating the home crowd to a glimpse of the dazzling dribbles that would soon become his trademark. A first goal would follow, against Burnley, just before the turn of the year.
Best’s breakthrough season was fairly impressive. By the end of it, he had become a regular feature of Busby’s growing side while the United Trinity was already beginning to blossom. In fact, the trio’s first start together, incidentally at the Hawthorns, saw all three players find the net as the Red Devils cruised to a 4-1 victory.
The Old Trafford club wouldn’t win any silverware that year, losing out to the eventual winners in both the FA Cup and European Cup Winners’ Cup, but a second-placed finish in the league signalled a huge transformation from the 19th-placed finish of just 12 months earlier.
The rapid nature of Best’s progress was underlined by the fact he was still a key member of the academy team that would go on to lift the 1964 Youth FA Cup, in which he scored United’s goal in the first leg of a 5-2 aggregate win against Swindon Town.
By the end of the calendar year, he had established himself as a regular for the national team too, opening his international scoring account in the process. Back at Old Trafford, the club was on the verge of accomplishing the dreams that the Busby Babes had seemed destined for prior to that devastating snowy night in Germany. Despite still being a wiry teen, Best would play a crucial role throughout the forthcoming glory.
Busby’s adapted vision was truly coming to fruition in 1964/65 as United won their first title since the Babes had won their second successive crown eight years earlier. Beating fierce rivals Leeds United on the goal average ruling, cemented the Old Trafford club’s place back at the summit of English football. Charlton’s presence throughout the transition made him an icon while Law’s third successive season as the club’s top scorer had garnered plenty of plaudits too. But Best was already starting to emerge as the main attraction.
The tricky winger had returned double figures in his first full season, which was a testimony to his quality in itself. But Best was already so much more: he encapsulated everything brilliant about the Babes, continually bamboozling defenders with the skill and mastery that the Old Trafford crowd craved. For all that natural flair, it was the teenager’s strength and bravery that truly established his place in the hearts of United fans. Defenders regularly tried to kick Best out of the game; they failed. In fact, the new hero missed just one of United’s 42 league games.
Best’s growing legend had already transcended the sport. Donned the ‘fifth Beatle’ (or El Beatle following United's 5-1 demolition of Benfica in 1966) due to his distinct and strikingly good looks. The Northern Irishman was being met with fanfare wherever he went.
On the pitch, though, his magic with a football verged on the realm of fairytale. For the working classes, football was still a form of escapism at the end of a hard week’s graft. Best had become the unrivalled entertainer; even if the 1965/66 season ended without a trophy, Old Trafford was now truly the Theatre of Dreams.
Domestic dominance was certainly on the agenda, but Busby’s ultimate fantasy was to lead the club to European glory. Best’s undiluted virtuosity was best showcased on the big continental stage. Even the great Eusebio could not overshadow the Manchester United winger, who underlined his capabilities against even the toughest of opponents with a starring role in that 5-1 European Cup quarter-final win over Benfica.
The manner of his second goal, an explosive run followed by a tidy finish, had become an almost weekly occurrence for the winger who was still a few weeks short of his 20th birthday. Unfortunately for Busby’s men, they would lose out to Partizan Belgrade in the semi-final. Nevertheless, the seeds had been sown.
Joined by veteran Scottish star David Herd, who had been the club’s top scorer in 1965/66, the Trinity set about winning the title back. Having missed the final weeks of the previous campaign with a knee injury, Best returned to score the season’s first goal within the opening minute.
Manchester United were at their brilliant best as they sprinted towards a second league success in three years. Busby’s has crafted an entirely new and efficient team all over the pitch, and hitting double figures underlined the right-winger’s importance to the winning mentality. As far as entertainment was concerned, however, Old Trafford has become centre stage for the George Best show.
At 21, Best was already a double First Division winner. The winger was already one of the stars of a generation; the following season would propel him into the realm of all-time greats.
The 1968 Football Writers’ Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or (European Player of the Year) awards followed.
The 1967/68 season is, and always will be, one of the most important in the history of Manchester United and English football as a whole. As English champions, Busby had been afforded another chance at achieving what many had predicted the fallen heroes would have eventually accomplished.
Conquering Europe had become an obsession, and one man was destined to deliver. The club’s run to the European Cup final had come at a cost as they surrendered their domestic crown to local neighbours Manchester City. However, Busby had the crosshairs set on another rival: Benfica.
By the time United travelled to Wembley, Best had already become the club’s top scorer for the season in the league, scoring an incredible 28 in 41 First Division appearances. None of those would come close to being as important as his final goal of the campaign. It would define not only his career, but also the entire glory of the Busby years.
In normal time, United had taken the lead through the inspirational Charlton only to be pegged back by Jaime Garca’s late leveller. Just 30 minutes stood in the way of Busby’s wildest fantasy, and he needed a moment of magic to make the dream a reality.
At the start of extra-time, Best delivered: latching on to a knock-on, a sublime first touch left Jacinto Santos for dead. With just the rushing Jose Henrique to beat, the No.7’s moment had arrived. One drop of the shoulder and a quick turn of pace would leave the goal gaping, and Best duly slotted home.
Benfica capitulated, allowing the Red Devils to score twice more through Charlton and Brian Kidd. A decade after the club’s greatest tragedy, Busby had finally realised the dream set out for the Babes. Only one showman could have ever produced the iconic image; it had to be Best.
Best left United in 1974, going on to play around the globe: the US, Hong Kong, to Australia before finally hanging up his boots by the mid-80s from. After retirement, Best openly suggested that United's inability to use that success as a platform was one of his biggest disappointments. And he was right. From the club’s perspective, the European Cup had been the reward of a 10-year program.
All energies had been ploughed into making that dream a reality, but the winger was still only 22. For him, it should have been the start of an ongoing era of continental glory. However, the 1968 European Cup would be his last major honour in the sport as United regressed in Busby’s final year in charge (barring a temporary stint following the sacking of Will Mcguiness) and failed to win another trophy until three years after Best’s departure.
Best still had plenty of life in his boots, mind. Despite the lack of team honours, the iconic No.7 continued to light up the Theatre of Dreams, finishing as the club’s top league scorer for five years on the spin, regularly treating fans to the entertainment that they specifically paid to see.
The rock star lifestyle was taking a toll on Best. Missed training sessions, infamous tabloid stories, and a perceived lack of focus eventually led to a falling out with manager Tommy Doherty, who would leave him throughout the final months of the 1973/74. United were relegated, and the footballing star bid Old Trafford farewell.
At 28, British football’s biggest attraction should have been in his prime. Instead, the iconic winger was considering permanent retirement. Best returned to football for another decade, playing for various clubs all over the world. In his post-United days, Fulham were arguably the only club to see the football superstar at his peak.
As with any great sporting story, Best’s is one marred by thoughts of what could have been. Even so, anyone that saw him play at his astonishing highs knows that his talent was truly out of this world – even Pele labelled him the greatest player that ever lived.
It’s been over a decade since he returned to the footballing gods, but his status within the game is stronger than ever. Best was a magician decades ahead of his time, and nobody will ever match the ‘wow factor' that he brought to the masses. His time at the top could have been longer, but it could have never been more special.