The story of Best's first steps at United

Thursday 25 November 2021 09:00

On the anniversary of George Best’s sad death, John White, Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, recalls Georgie’s first steps to becoming a United legend…

Today, on the 16th anniversary of his passing aged just 59, I would like to pay tribute to the life of George Best, a fellow Belfast Boy, considered by many Manchester United fans as the greatest-ever player to have played for the club. And, having been born and bred in east Belfast, Georgie can I send you this message: you were, you are, you still remain and you will always be my hero.

Born on 22 May 1946, George Best began to play for his local youth club, Cregagh Boys in east Belfast, at the age of 13. The team was run by Bud McFarlane (a close friend of Dickie Best, George’s dad), who was also reserve-team coach at Glentoran Football Club in east Belfast. McFarlane knew from the first moment he saw this skinny, dark-haired and very shy kid play that he had what it took to become a professional footballer and decided that he would mentor the young Best. When Bud suggested George was concentrating too much on playing with his right foot, Best took Bud’s advice on board and over the following week he never touched the ball with his right foot.

When he turned up for Cregagh Boys’ next match, he brought only one football boot with him, his left one. George put the boot on and wore a ‘guddy’ (Belfast slang for a plimsoll) on his right foot. He scored 12 goals in the game and never once used his right foot to kick the ball.

Quite amazingly someone, somewhere decided that George was not good enough to represent Northern Ireland at schoolboy level, and this unbelievable decision was taken after George dominated a game for Cregagh Boys against a Possibles Northern Ireland Schoolboys XI. No-one really knows why he didn’t make it into the side, but perhaps his frail-looking 5ft, 8st frame was the main reason. Despite McFarlane’s support, even Glentoran thought he was too small and too light to be a footballer. 

Alex Stepney discusses the brilliance of former team-mate George Best.
But McFarlane was good friends with Bob Bishop, United’s chief scout in Northern Ireland from 1950 to 1987. He persuaded Bishop to take George away for the weekend to one of his training camps at Helen’s Bay, County Down. Bishop liked what he saw and decided to keep an eye on him. Meanwhile, the Leeds United scout for Ireland was asked to take a look at George but when he saw him play he wrote back to his Elland Road employers and said that George was far too skinny to cope with the demands of life in the English leagues.

To prove that Best could cope with professional football, McFarlane asked Bishop to organise a friendly match between Boyland FC and Bud’s Cregagh Boys Under-16 team. At McFarlane’s request, the Boyland FC team was made up of their best 17 and 18-year-olds. Bishop stood on the sidelines watching the 15-year-old Best weave his magic on the pitch, scoring twice in a 4-2 win against the much bigger and stronger boys. It was at that moment that Bishop realised McFarlane had been right: Best had what it takes. So he sent his now legendary telegram to Matt Busby with the message reading: ‘I think I’ve found you a genius.’

How right Bob Bishop was.

George was invited over to Old Trafford for a trial in the summer of 1961. He travelled with another young player who Bishop also thought could make the grade at United, Eric McMordie. The two young boys boarded the Belfast to Liverpool ferry in June 1961. George wore his best clothes for the journey, his school uniform. Speaking shortly after Best died in 2005, McMordie fondly recalled that journey to Manchester: ‘George became one of the first to go to United who didn’t play for Boyland. Bob Bishop’s eye for talent was equal to none – he was a very special man. But a match between us and Cregagh Boys, who George played for, was set up. I’ve never seen a player with so many bruises on his body as George. He was picked on not just because he was wee, but because he was so talented. But he fought back and that’s what made George the great player he was.’

The entire journey was a terrifying ordeal for two kids from the streets of Belfast. When they arrived in Manchester, there was nobody holding a sign with their names on it, so they jumped in a taxi, as they had been told to do, and asked the driver to take them to Old Trafford. However, as it was the cricket season, the driver took them to the cricket ground instead.

When the pair finally made it to United’s stadium, they were met by the club’s chief scout, Joe Armstrong, who took them to the Cliff training ground. At the Cliff they met a number of the first-team players, including Northern Ireland’s Harry Gregg and Jimmy Nicholson, before being taken on to their digs. Armstrong drove the two bewildered young boys to a terraced house in nearby Chorlton-cum-Hardy, and introduced them to Mrs Fullaway. Little did Best know it at the time, but Mrs Fullaway’s house would be his home on and off for the next ten years. The Belfast boys were homesick on their first night away from their families, and when Armstrong called at Mrs Fullaway’s house early the next morning to pick them up, Best told him that both he and Eric wanted to go home. So the boys made their way back across the Irish Sea to return to their families in Belfast.

Speaking many years later McMordie, who went on to play for Middlesbrough and won 21 caps for his country, recalled the journey: ‘It was an incredible time. There was George in his Lisnasharragh school uniform with his prefect’s badge and me. We were just a pair of kids who had never been out of Belfast. It was like another world. But it all became too much and we ended up back home in less than a couple of days. We were both overawed. A short while later George went back and the rest is history.’

George Best signing autographs for young fans.
Best’s father telephoned Busby to find out what had gone on and Busby persuaded him to send his boy back over again to see if he possessed the necessary talent and ability to become a professional footballer. Best had planned to take up an apprenticeship as a printer in Belfast when he left school, but thankfully Busby persuaded him to sign amateur forms at United in August 1961 and he ended up keeping printers all over the country busy for the rest of his life.

It took the young Best a while to get over the homesickness, so to keep him occupied after training United got him a job as a clerk at the Manchester Ship Canal. He hated the job, having to make countless cups of tea all day long. But on 22 May 1963, the day of his 17th birthday, he signed professional forms with Manchester United. Three days after celebrating his birthday and becoming a professional footballer, he was sitting in the stands at Wembley Stadium, a member of United’s non-playing party at the 1963 FA Cup final. Harry Gregg was sitting beside him and recalls: ‘Goodness knows how many United fans brushed past George that day without even knowing who the skinny dark-haired kid was.’ They would soon know all about him.

George, rest in peace.