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23rd November 2015

Remembering a Genius: George Best

Will Kelly remembers George Best of Manchester United, 10 years after his death

On the evening of the 25th November 2005, George Best, as he had done throughout his career, drew the crowds to Old Trafford. Only, this time, Old Trafford was not lit up by the artistry of the Irishman, for that was now a mere memory to those supporters, many who had placed bunches of flowers among the railings facing the statue of his previous manager, Sir Matt Busby, in memory of the Belfast boy who had just died at the age of 59.

Andrew from ‘Stretford End Flags’ (SEF), a Manchester United supporters group, summed up his feelings at the time of the news: “It was a sad day when George passed away. I never saw George play, but like all United fans, I’ve seen the footage, and he was magic. It was sad that alcoholism took over his life and that he suffered from what is an illness.”

I too, did not see Best in his heyday, and what can one write about Best that has not been penned hundreds or thousands of times before? One simply runs out of superlatives available to anyone trying to describe what he could do with the ball, and the goals he scored. The football world had lost what one can only describe as a genius.

Best was born on the Cregagh Estate in Belfast. Having started playing for the local boys’ team, word spread about the dockyard of a talented skinny teenager, quickly reaching the ears of Bob Bishop, Manchester United’s Northern Ireland Scout. Bishop organised a match for Best to play in and, despite being only 15 and up against a team of 17 year olds, Best bagged a hat trick. Subsequently, Bishop contacted Matt Busby and said, “Boss, I think I’ve found you a genius!”

Best was brought over to Manchester as an apprentice of Manchester United, but had trouble settling in to his new surroundings. In fact, Best would have packed it all in and headed off back to Belfast had his father, Dick Best, not spent time with his son in order to persuade him to stay in Manchester. Who knows what would have become of George Best?

As Best progressed through the United ranks at the Cliff Training ground, the Belfast boy began to gain a host of admirers among the United staff, and Best would turn professional on his 17th birthday in May 1963. On 14th September 1963, with injuries forcing his hand, Matt Busby gave the 17-year-old his league debut against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford. By the end of the season, Best was a regular in the side and also helped the club to an FA Youth Cup title. He followed it up by being part of the 1964/65 title-winning team, missing just one game out of the 61 that the Reds played that season. It was his partnership for years to come with Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law that would be immortalised in United’s history as ‘The United Trinity’, appreciated by the statue outside the ground.

From then on until the 1970s, Best tormented defences at home and abroad, creating goals and newspaper headlines on a more or less match-by-match basis. A second title followed in 1967 and perhaps his crowning moment was a year later in the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica, where he gave the Reds a 2-1 extra time lead en route to a 4-1 success. He was United’s top goal scorer that year with 28 goals, and was crowned the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year. Best would remain United’s top goal scorer for the next four years.

However, it was in these next 4 years that the world of George Best spiralled downwards, earning suspensions and missing games, not to mention the women that came and went. By the early 1970s, frustrated that the team wasn’t being strengthened, he began to miss training sessions, and his problems grew worse. Falling out with the newly-appointed manager Tommy Docherty, Best parted ways with the club in January 1974.

But as he rightfully asked, we should remember Best for the backpage headlines, and not the front. His moments of genius will never be forgotten, and what glorious memories they were. Best scored 136 goals in 361 appearances and holds the post-war record for the most goals by a United player in a single match—six in an 8-2 FA cup Fifth Round mauling of Northampton Town.

Wednesday 25th of November 2015 will mark 10 years since Best passed away, and Manchester United will be lining up against PSV Eindhoven of Holland, in a crucial Champions League group stage match. Just as Best lit up Old Trafford, supporters are being called upon by SEF to light up Old Trafford. As the clock ticks onto the 7th minute—Best’s iconic number—supporters are asked to turn on their mobile phone torches and to light up all of Old Trafford.

Best’s sister, Barbara McNarry, fully supports the tribute and had this to say: “During the darkest days of the troubles in Northern Ireland, George brought a shining light to so many people. It’s very humbling to know that this light has never gone out or even dimmed. Fans not just at home, but in Manchester and many other places around the world continue to honour his memory and support him in death as they did in life.

“Old Trafford will be lit up on the 25th of November in fond memory of an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent. Thank you to the Manchester United supporters for this beautiful gesture.”

Many, when asked whom the greatest players of all time are, would point to Pelé and Maradona. But it speaks volumes when they both openly admit that George Best was indeed, the best, and it will be this banner, made by SEF, which will be displayed on Wednesday night.

The Banner that will be displayed on Wednesday night. Photo: Stretford End Flags

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