A tribute to George Best, the Belfast Boy
George Best was my hero when I was growing up and kicking a football on the streets of the Short Strand in east Belfast during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The Fifth Beatle, although I will always refer to him as The Belfast Boy, would have celebrated his 75th birthday today, 22 May 2021, had he not sadly passed away on 25 November 2005.
I truly idolised Georgie Best, I still do, and I can never thank him enough for helping me through the dark days of The Troubles in Northern Ireland by helping to distract my young mind from the many shootings and bombings that were taking place all around me on a daily basis and the senseless loss of more than 3,500 lives that occurred during this dark period.
For me, one game and one moment in time stands out which will help explain why Bestie was, and remains, the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.
In 1966, United played Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup. A few niggling injuries earlier that season meant Best had missed 11 league games, but he was raring to go when the Lisbon club - the reigning Portuguese champions - rocked up in Manchester in February. Benfica had beaten Barcelona 3-2 in the 1961 European Cup final to end the Spanish dominance of the nascent trophy, and they went on to retain their title 12 months later.
Final defeats followed to Inter and Milan in 1963 and 1965 respectively, but the Eagles were virtual European royalty at the time of the clash with the Reds. Nevertheless, United drew first blood in the tie, winning the first leg 3-2 in front of a packed audience of 64,035 at Old Trafford, thanks to goals from David Herd, Denis Law and centre-half Bill Foulkes.
It was a slender lead to take to the Portuguese capital, back in the days when European trips abroad would often end in defeat. Few journalists gave United the chance of emulating the sides of 1957 and 1958 by making the final four of the competition, with the 5-0 hammering at the hands of cross-city rivals Sporting in the quarter-finals of the 1963-64 European Cup Winners’ Cup still fresh in the mind.
But this was a different United team. Not only were we now the reigning English champions, but in Georgie we possessed a player who could win a game on his own if he was in the mood. The Belfast Boy had more moves than a chess grandmaster.
Prior to kick-off, the stadium announcer whipped the home crowd into a frenzy and the sound was deafening when star player Eusebio was invited out on to the pitch to be presented with the 1965 Ballon d'Or award. Standing watching Eusebio was United's Denis Law, who had won the coveted award the previous season and Bobby Charlton, who would succeed the Mozambique-born forward as Europe’s no.1 player. Best, whose time as the continent's most vaunted player was yet to come, was itching for the game to get underway.
Eusebio was a prolific striker, one of the most feared frontmen in European football and a player who had finished as top scorer in the Portuguese league in each of the previous two seasons. United knew only too well that if we were to hold out for the 0-0 result which would see us reach the semi-finals, Eusébio had to be kept quiet.
How could United handle the unenviable task of stopping the newly crowned king of European football from adding to his tally of seven goals in the competition?
Manager Sir Matt Busby sent his team out preaching caution, hoping either we could wear Benfica down and grab a vital away goal or hang on in there for a scoreless draw which would take us through. Best may have been in the toilet at the time, or, as his manager later said, he must have 'stuffed his ears with cotton wool'. For George, this was the moment that the Lisbon public were made aware of the real Manchester United and the real George Best.
The young Irishman swooped all over the Eagles' defence and within 13 minutes United were in the driving seat in the tie, Best having scored two magnificent goals. In the sixth minute, George soared high into the air to head a free-kick past Costa Pereira in the Portuguese goal and he then collected a flick on from David Herd before roaring forward and sliding the ball home to make it 2-0 on the night and, more importantly, 5-2 on aggregate. Benfica now needed three just to achieve parity.
The crowd quickly realised the enormity of the task before their team and their nervousness seemed to spill down from the huge stands on to the pitch. Within minutes United were three up when John Connelly hammered a pass from Best beyond a well-beaten Pereira. Suddenly the game resembled a match being played behind closed doors as 75,000 voices fell silent, dumbstruck by what was unfolding on the pitch before their very eyes.
Best was toying with the Benfica players like a matador teasing a bull before he moved in for the kill. He possessed the ability to make the ordinary look truly extraordinary.
The Eagles left the field to a chorus of incessant boos at half-time, however, for the small pocket of United fans stuck so high up in the corner of one of the huge stands, things could not have been better, with their beloved team on the verge of the European Cup semi-finals yet again.
Even Shay Brennan putting through his own goal could not rouse the Portuguese support, and two further goals from Paddy Crerand and Charlton secured a crushing 8-3 aggregate victory, which sent ripples throughout Europe. There was no doubting the fact that United’s demolition of the two-time winners would go down as one of the greatest-ever attacking displays by a team away from home in European competition and it was the dazzling skills of the Belfast Boy, and not Eusebio, that caught the eye. For George and his United teammates, the agony and despair experienced in Lisbon two years prior had been well and truly exorcised.
Emotions ran high and, after the final whistle, a fan ran on to the pitch with a knife and made his way towards George. Thankfully, he was brought to ground before he could get anywhere near our two-goal hero, but afterwards it was discovered that he had only intended to claim a lock of George's hair.
As the team touched down at Manchester Airport the next day, the attention was focused on one player. The 19-year old who was born in east Belfast stepped off the plane looking like a movie star. He was wearing a black leather jacket, dark sunglasses and a souvenir sombrero covered his long black hair.
The Portuguese media quickly dubbed him El Beatle, in a nod to the stratospherically popular Merseyside band. It was a moniker which the English press instantly adopted. The world was now literally at Best's feet.
There's absolutely no doubt that Best was football’s first truly modern superstar. Diego Maradona named him as his all-time favourite player, while Pele said that he was the best player in the world. Many years later, when George looked back on the game, he realised that it was perhaps the watershed moment of his career which would shape the rest of his life on and off the pitch.
“On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods. It was surreal stuff,” said George. Little did he know it at the time, but while he may have been halfway to heaven - and European glory with United, after another win over Benfica, at Wembley in 1968 - he was just half a mile from hell.
As the saying goes, the rest is history, and George’s name is forever embedded in the annals of Manchester United.
Happy 75th birthday to my hero.John White is the founder member and branch secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club. This article is adapted from John’s latest book: Manchester United: The Making of a Football Dynasty: 100 Great Matches - 1878-2021.