'I felt like a gladiator coming into the arena'

Wednesday 14 September 2022 07:00

Today (14 September) marks the 59th anniversary of George Best's debut for Manchester United.

The dizzyingly talented Northern Irishman is still regarded by many Reds as the greatest player to ever don the United shirt.
He was just 17 when named in the starting XI for a First Division fixture against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford, and so callow that he was not even listed among the line-ups in that day's match programme.
A knee injury to a more senior winger, Ian Moir, a couple of days before the game, provided Best's opening: assistant manager and youth-football guru Jimmy Murphy was insistent that the teenager should be drafted into the team.
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Busby had considered giving George his debut in a 3-0 win over Blackpool the previous Wednesday, but eventually decided against it.
And his hesitancy was perhaps understandable: the skinny, light winger had played just four Reserves matches and two Youth Cup games. Most of his game-time had come for the club's B side, arguably the lowest-standard outfit at the club. But Busby's patience would be rewarded.

In years to come, Best would regularly recall the noise of the crowd; the sheer emotional intensity of what surrounded him at Old Trafford on the day of his debut. Whether that was the prospect of intimidating treatment from opposition full-back Graham Williams – described as “a killer” by Best's team-mates – or the simple nerves he felt around senior players that he idolised, like Denis Law.
“I felt like a gladiator coming into the arena," he later explained. “Even later in my career, playing at Liverpool or Benfica, or in front of 130,000 at Real Madrid, nothing quite compared with that first time. It will be there until I die.”
Amazingly, all that surround sound did not inhabit Best's confident performance one bit.
He unveiled his soon-to-become-legendary array of feints, nutmegs and swerves, and did everything possible to rile his opposite number Williams. The full-back's attempts to hack and saw Best to pieces were semi-successful – Best was moved to the left wing in the second half – but George still played his part in the game's only goal, scored by David Sadler.

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Best would go on to much greater heights within the ensuing years – leading United to the 1965 and 1967 top-flight titles and the 1968 European Cup, claiming a Ballon d'Or as a side dish – but Busby received all the information he required from those first few first-team minutes.
“Busby crucially learned two things about Best that he had suspected but could not confirm before sending him out against Albion,” writes Best biographer Duncan Hamilton in Immortal.
“The grand occasion galvanised rather than diminished him; and his airy attitude was not a fake front designed to disguise self-doubt. Best passed his test. He had taken on Williams, who looked perfectly capable of dicing him into quarters. He'd run at him and taken the ball beyond him. He'd made him lunge and curse. And he'd survived the sort of challenges that would have forced the faint or tender-hearted into instant surrender.”

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George would have to wait another three long months before another opportunity – a 5-1 win over Burnley in which he scored his first goal – but he was on his way.
In the evening hours after his debut, he wrote a letter to his parents, relaying his “fabulous experience”. He had egg and chips for tea, courtesy of his landlady, Mrs Fullaway, at Aycliffe Avenue in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, just a few miles from the stadium.
Meanwhile, Busby went home and pondered over how to manage the fledgling career of arguably the greatest footballer ever produced on these islands.

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The day after the game, The Observer published an interview with the Scot, given days before the West Brom win. Those days before Best's involvement in the game had even become a possibility.
“We've got an Irish boy here called Best and if he doesn't make a bloody genius I haven't seen one,” Busby enthused.
“It's all there: the heart, the ability. Everything.”