When Best played for Bournemouth
Ahead of Saturday’s Premier League clash with Bournemouth, United Review, our official matchday programme, reflected on George Best’s brief stint with the Cherries in 1983…
The last Saturday of March 1983, the week before Easter, was a chilly day on the Dorset coast. Six months into the future lay the 20th anniversary of his Football League debut; an arrival that changed the landscape of the domestic game forever. Noticeably thicker round the midriff in that trademark no.7 shirt, and without regular football for the best part of two years, there was still a collective intake of breath as, with an absent-minded wave, the heavily bearded 36-year-old shimmied across the Dean Court turf for his Bournemouth debut, against Third Division promotion-chasers Newport County.
Just 42 days later he had played the last of his five goalless games, a cameo that finally brought the curtain down on his tempestuous love affair with English professional football. But 37 years on, those who were there still talk excitedly about when George Best played for Bournemouth, recounting the buzz that turned seasoned terrace types back into excited schoolboys, agog for another glimpse of the Best glamour and all that went with it. It’s cast-iron proof of the man’s timeless allure; the box-office appeal that for right or wrong, good or bad, defined his remarkable sporting life: Icarus in studs, the boy blessed with sporting gifts that exacted such a taxing price.
“When I was a schoolboy and Georgie was playing for Manchester United, I could never have imagined that somebody like him would play for us,”says Neil.
“Can you imagine what a thrill it must have been for the players? It more than doubled the previous gate of 4,258, for Plymouth.”
Despite his whistle-stop tour of world football post-United, Bournemouth would have been the last place anyone imagined Best might pitch up. Promoted from the basement the previous season, 1982/83 had proved relatively uneventful on the field, with the team comfortably in mid-table as the campaign’s final third hove into view. In the boardroom, however, a power struggle had come to a head between chairman Harold Walker and the man who would be king, Anton Johnson, an ambitious maverick from a long-standing family chain of Essex butchers.
Then-captain John Impey was in what turned out to be the final year of nine seasons and close on 300 games for the Cherries. He recalls boss David Webb – himself replaced by Don Megson before Best’s arrival – asking for his recollections of George at his most recent while playing in the NASL. Impey had read regular reports and suggested it was worth a punt. As for Best, he and his agent were on the lookout for a new deal.
“George came over and had a little training session with us, and I thought he was as sharp as anything,”says Impey.
“And it was just a fantastic opportunity to play with one of the best footballers there’s ever been – that awareness, the way he played. I said, whatever he wants up front, you’ve got to try and support it – dangle the carrot. If the gate goes up – and we were generally getting 3,500-4,000 – give him a percentage. Anyway, we got 9,000. It was just amazing.”
Veteran journalist Pat Symes has seen it all in six decades of working the south-coast football beat. Though he had floated a couple of speculative Best stories for the papers, he felt it was little more than froth.
“There had been a few rumours, but it seemed outlandish – preposterous, quite honestly,”he recalls.
When the press conference to reveal Best’s arrival was scheduled – shortly after a cryptic interview for local television with the man himself suggested he might be appearing somewhere soon – Symes found his services in huge demand.
“I dashed down there, hands shaking, almost.“George Best? At Bournemouth?! It was a big press conference – local tellies, radio stations,”he says.“His agent did most of the talking. But Best said all the right things, that he felt he could help the club climb the table... I still had plenty to give... I don’t think I’m finished yet – it was almost to the script.
“But he looked his age, in fact he looked more than 36 – it was strange looking at him from a close distance, thinking: ‘My God, is that really George Best?’ But Bournemouth fans did end up seeing a lot more of George Best than they thought they were going to.”
As for Best?
“He hadn’t really had any chance to train, and it showed,”says Vacher.
“He was given, as I remember, pretty much a free role – I don’t suppose anyone dared tell him what to do!”Best missed the following Easter games – a 2-0 home win over Leyton Orient and a 2-1 defeat at Reading.
“We assumed that was it,”adds Vacher. His absence sparked complaints from disgruntled fans.
“They accused the club of sharp practice and demanded their admission money back.”
The truth was, as is often the case, somewhere in the middle. If Best’s itinerant lifestyle created the perennial headaches that interrupted his later years at United, Impey’s recollections are positive, of efforts made in training against a madcap backdrop in which Johnson’s takeover bid ultimately failed, and Walker returned.
“He was actually quite an introvert,”Impey says, with sympathy.
“I don’t think people have spoken enough about that, or what he had upstairs [in his head] – he was really sharp.
“And what it did for the team, the way it lifted us, put us on a pedestal – me, and young players like Nigel Spackman – we were playing alongside one of the greatest players the world has seen.”
Best’s five games – much to the disappointment of Bournemouth’s opponents – featured only one match on the road, a 0-0 draw with Southend, while fans at Dean Court were left to guess whether the iconic Northern Irishman would line up come matchday.“We had a home game with Doncaster on 2 May, by which time Best had returned,”says Vacher. George had gone on a walkabout in London, and given Cherries’ managing director Brian Tiler, who’d pursued him there, the slip. Catching his approaching reflection in the mirror of a pub bar, Best had swiftly disappeared via the toilets.“But he got injured and missed the match,”Vacher continues.“So, they knocked up these signs to put on the entrance: ‘George Best will not be playing today’, so everybody knew that before paying to get in.”
The last hurrah, with a strange symmetry, came in a 2-2 draw against Wigan, the Latics under the brief caretaker-stewardship of one Bobby Charlton. Five games, no goals – not even an assist – but a tale those present never tire of telling. It’s also worth noting Best also turned up for a local schools tournament in which he played for every side.
“Funnily enough, Bestie returned a couple of years later as a radio pundit when we drew United in the Cup,”adds Vacher. It’s a game Reds of a certain vintage need no reminding of.
“They described it as a battle between two of his former clubs!”Vacher laughs.
“It may have been a publicity stunt, or whatever, but there’s no doubt his appearance in our colours raised the club’s profile and brought a bit of glamour to Dean Court. He’s still on the wall of fame – and his sister asked for a copy of that poster for her book.”
“It was a lasting regret that I didn’t actually cover any of his games,”adds Pat Symes.
“All the papers were there for those. But we were all so intrigued – I think everybody knew that this really was it, that he was squeezing the last of the summer wine.”
A fleeting visitor he might have been, but Best’s Cherries’ ghost still looms large.
“It was the icing on the cake for me,”smiles Impey.
“I didn’t play top level – I played second, third and fourth division – so [the problems he had] didn’t follow me. But you learned things from him, and the way he lifted everybody was second to none.”
This story appears in Saturday's United Review - order your copy here.