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WHERE ANGELS PLAY

by Martin Hall

To those of us sat in the Stretford End for Manchester United’s game against Villareal and crammed into the Manchester Road End for FC United’s match against New Mills, the name Manchester United is relatively easy to define.  It stands for a stylish verve, a certain self-assuredness, a nobility of spirit and success achieved with flair.  And few players have better embodied the spirit of Manchester United than George Best.


When George Best died on Friday 25th November, it represented the passing of the greatest talent football has ever known.  Despite leaving United at the age of 27, Best won League titles, a European Cup and was named European Footballer of the Year in 1968.  There are some people who prefer to dwell on Best’s problems and cite his early departure from Old Trafford as proof of some ‘unfulfilled potential.’  Fuck them.  And fuck the idiots who believe their garbage.


Best’s discovery by United scout Bob Bishop has passed into legend.  He sent a telegram to United’s manager Matt Busby saying “I have found a genius.”  He was not exaggerating.  In modern sporting parlance, terms like ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’ are scattered around like confetti.  The truth is that greatness in sport -as, indeed, in life- is terribly rare.  It is bestowed upon a precious few and George Best was one of them.


He lit up the footballing world like a supernova during his time at Old Trafford.  He was the key ingredient in the holy trinity of Best, Law and Charlton, men whose names will live on wherever football is played.  Be it in the backstreets of Salford, on a Spanish beach or in the ghettos of South America , every dazzling goal, daring turn or impudent flick has the name of George Best stamped in its DNA.


Best arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1961.  Homesick, he fled back to Belfast prompting United’s manager Matt Busby to contact his family.  He returned the next day. At the end of United’s FA Cup winning 1962/63 season, Best was on the fringes of the Youth Team.  The FA Youth Cup had been dominated by United in the 50s; a side containing Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, David Pegg and Liam Whelan hammered Wolves 7-1 over two legs a decade previously.  Bobby Charlton and Wilf McGuinness later graduated through the youth team to the first eleven.


But five years after Munich , the club was in disarray.  Senior pos felt Busby had lost the dressing room and even young players such as the perceptive John Giles thought the club lacked leadership.  The FA Cup win and the acquisitions of Denis Law and Paddy Crerand gave Busby the time to build another great team, his third.


Best played against Sheffield Wednesday in the Youth Cup that season.  Wednesday won. Best played like a Sunday League dilettante that night; fucking about on the wing and forgetting the golden rules that Busby and his Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy instilled in all youngsters- the ball’s made round to go round, keep it simple, give it to a red shirt.


The consensus was that this skinny kid from Northern Ireland was never going to make it unless he abandoned the attempts at virtuosity and learned how to ‘play’.  This wasn’t the school field or the chalked goal on a council estate wall.  This was Manchester United. Six months later, Best made his first-team debut for United.  West Brom at home.  He played well- much better than in the Sheffield Wednesday debacle- and tormented the Welsh international Graham Williams.


Despite that, it was to be four months until he made his next first-team appearance.  Best had been allowed to return home for the Christmas of 1963 but after a string of bad results, Busby recalled him.  Burnley came to Old Trafford on December 28th and Best was phenomenal.  United won 5-1.  He scored of course and for the rest of the season, he kept his place.  He played for the Youth Team too - 27,000 people turned out to see them win the trophy against Swindon at Old Trafford.


Over the summer, they travelled to Zurich to compete in an international tournament for Youth Teams.  Best had his first experience with alcohol on this trip.  He spent the journey back from the pub hanging out of a taxi window lest he be sick and didn’t drink again for a couple of years. At the start of the 1964/65 season, Matt Busby had every reason to be optimistic.  His ‘golden apples’ as he called them had died in the Munich snow but this team had the potential to put Manchester United back at the summit of English and European football.  

 

There was Nobby Stiles from Collyhurst, the second generation Irish Catholic, the kid who wept when his heroes perished on that German runway; Bill Foulkes from St Helens, a tough man as hard as metal; Paddy Crerand- Scottish, streetwise, a beautiful passer of the ball whose vision and technique compensated for a lack of pace; the devastating sharpness of Denis Law; Bobby Charlton’s technique and incisiveness. Added to that heady mixture was George Best whose extravagant flair and spontaneity was allied with lightning pace. United won the league.


As champions, United had earned the right to compete in the next season’s European Cup.  In the Quarter-Finals they were drawn against Benfica who boasted Eusebio and Torres- two of the finest players of that decade- in their team.  They were widely acknowledged as the favourites to win the competition, particularly so when United conceded a late goal at Old Trafford in the first-leg.  Although United won the game 3-2, Benfica’s away goals and the partisan crowd at Benfica’s raucous Stadium of Light meant they were heavily fancied to progress to the last four.


In the dressing room before the away leg, Busby stressed the importance of keeping it tight for the first 20 minutes.  Don’t give the ball away cheaply.  Silence the crowd.  Be patient.  Best, one of his team-mates later noted, seemed distracted during this, gazing into the middle distance. Benfica! Best destroyed them almost single-handedly.  Harry Gregg, United’s goalkeeper that night, termed it “the perfect display of football.”    Best scored two within the first 12 minutes and would later boast: “If I’d have scored a third then I would have walked off the pitch.”


That night changed things forever.  Best went from being a well-known, talented footballer to a world-wide celebrity. The Daily Mirror’s front page featured Best wearing a sombrero as he stepped off the plane in England .  ‘El Beatle’ the headline read. United won the 1966/67 league away at West Ham against a team featuring Bobby Moore, Geoff Hurst and Martin Peters on the final day of the season.  It finished 6-1, with United scoring three in the first 10 minutes.  This meant Busby had another chance at securing the European Cup, his holy grail.


They progressed beyond the quarter-finals in the 1968 competition without facing any formidable opposition.  But the draw for the last four pitted United against Real Madrid.  Although they beat the Spaniards 1-0 at Old Trafford, the advantage was deemed insufficient, just as it had been against Benfica two years before. The doomsayers seemingly had their judgement supported when Real went in at half-time 3-1 up.  Teams did not come back from 3-1 down against Real Madrid.  Not in the Bernabeu.  And certainly not in the Semi-Finals of the European Cup.


United’s dressing room at half-time was like a mausoleum.  Busby and Murphy could find no stirring words or masterful oratory.  One of the players said “We only need one goal to get a replay.”  Another said “Let’s have a go.”  Game on. Manchester United flew at Madrid like a boxer at the sound of the opening bell.  They swarmed all over them and David Sadler made it 3-2 on the night.  That was enough for the Spaniards.  Madrid were, in the parlance of the game, ‘gone’. In the 78th minute, Best lost his marker, the aggressively classy Sanchis, and set off on a mazy run.  He squared the ball to the taciturn centre-back Bill Foulkes who made it 4-3 on aggregate.  

 

In the dressing room afterwards, Busby cried. The eleven players who beat Madrid all started against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.  It was a muggy May evening.  United played in blue and scored first, a well-designed glancing header from Bobby Charlton.  With a crushing sense of inevitability, Graca equalised with ten minutes remaining. In injury-time, Eusebio wriggled free from his marker Nobby Stiles and was clear on goal against Alex Stepney.  The Portugese lost his poise and blasted it straight into the grateful arms of  Stepney.  Stiles, a World Cup winner at Wembley two years previously, recalls the Benfica team lying on the pitch before extra-time: “They were like the Germans, knackered.”


Fittingly, it was Best who put United ahead in extra time.  Swerving past two desperately lunging opponents, he rounded the keeper and side-footed the ball into the net.  It ended 4-1.  Busby’s holy grail was his at last. In his room later that night, Bobby Charlton fainted. The families of the Munich air disaster were at the victory dinner where Matt Busby sang ‘What A Wonderful World’.  It was a glorious night but it would ultimately prove to be a strange kind of glory.  United fell into malaise, a decline that would result in their relegation to the Second Division.


By then, Best was gone.  Ousted by the duplicitous- but ultimately naive- Tommy Docherty.  One of the most glorious chapters in the history of Manchester United had come to an end. It is appropriate that Best’s apogee was 1964 to 1968. “The Britain of staid tradition was no more,” Eamon Dunphy has written of this era, “The icons of the new age were now joined by George.  Modelling the latest line in Sixties gear, the lithe, athletic, dark sensuous figure was vital and authentic.”


I argued in a recent article that Manchester United should build a monument to Billy Meredith at Old Trafford.  There is no need to build one for George Best.  Because every time Cristiano Ronaldo beats a full back with an intricate dummy or Paul Scholes hits a perfectly weighted cross field pass or Wayne Rooney beats three defenders before rifling a shot in the top corner, the finest traditions of Manchester United, as thrillingly personified by George Best, are being continued in the best possible way.


It seems appropriate to conclude this with the lyrics from Tightrope by The Stone Roses: “(He’s) all that ever mattered and all that ever will, that cup it runneth over, I’ll never get my fill; the boats in the harbour slip from their chains, head for new horizons, let’s do the same.”
He saw and blasted with excess light; now closes his eyes in endless night.


Rest In Peace, George.

 

 
   
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