Part of Best’s greatness was his sense of theatre: on the biggest stage, he became the greatest star. In the match that everyone knew might ensure the legend of both Matt Busby and United, Best offered the night and the club one of its defining moments. The sight of him turning away from the Wembley goal having flashed the ball home in the first half of extra-time has become one of the best-known images in the club’s history.
Up until that minute, the game had been an ordinary one. It was a hot early summer night on a large pitch, and following a scrappy first half, Bobby Charlton’s header looked set to give United a narrow win before Jaime Graca equalised with 10 minutes left.
Before extra time began Matt Busby told his players to keep the ball more, and for once George took his advice to heart. Accepting Brian Kidd’s pass, he nutmegged one defender and eased around the goalkeeper Henrique. Benfica were broken by a few seconds of brilliance, and Kidd and Charlton put United out of sight before the first 15-minute period was up.
Soon afterwards, at the age of just 22, George Best was voted European Footballer of the Year, the youngest man ever to win the poll. The world was at his feet.
1) Benfica 1 United 5
European Cup quarter-final, 9 March 1966
George Best was already an exceptional talent when United travelled to Lisbon in March 1966 but it was this performance that turned him into a household name. Against a Benfica side that had appeared in four of the last five European Cup finals and boasted the great Eusebio (who, incidentally, was presented with his European Player of the Year award before kick-off in a move intended to strike fear into Matt Busby’s men), Best stole all the headlines.
Busby had advised his wingers before the game to stay back and soak up pressure in the early stages – understandable given the Eagles hadn’t lost at home in Europe in 19 attempts. Instead, Best, fearless and full of confidence, tore the Portuguese champions apart, scoring twice inside 12 minutes and setting up John Connelly for United’s third two minutes later.