When George Best came of age - by David Meek
In November 2011, Manchester United hosted Benfica in the Champions League and in the official match programme, the renowned journalist David Meek wrote a piece on George Best’s unforgettable game against the same Portuguese club in 1966. He also recalled his role in setting up what became an iconic photograph.
WHEN 'EL BEATLE' CAME OF AGE
I can still see him... slicing through the Benfica team as if they were statues to plant the ball firmly past goalkeeper Costa Pereira. George Best was on his way into football folklore as
“El Beatle”, a new superstar who went on to give me, and countless others, such joy to watch.
It wasn't planned, far from it, but it was the defining moment for the 19-year-old boy from Belfast as he gave the stunned Portuguese supporters a masterclass of supreme skill.
The occasion was the quarter-final of the European Cup in season 1965/66 with United in Lisbon after winning the first leg 3-2 at Old Trafford. The Benfica party looked quite happy after the match in Manchester because they didn't think a one-goal lead would be enough to shoot down the high-flying Eagles on their own ground. Few, in fact, gave United much of a chance and Matt Busby planned accordingly, ordering a cautious start in an effort to hang on to a precious but slender advantage. But he hadn't reckoned with George Best stamping a personal, fearless imprint on the game with a dazzling display against a team who had been unbeaten in 19 European games on their own ground.
On that night of 9 March 1966, Benfica were not just beaten, they were torn apart by an Irishman who scored twice in the first 12 minutes and then sent John Connelly in to slot home a third. There were 80,000 people crammed into the Estadio da Luz, most of them expecting to hail a Benfica triumph; and why shouldn't they have anticipated victory after watching their team win 18 and draw one of their European contests, scoring 78 goals in the process and conceding only 14?
Never had a visiting foreign side scored more than two goals in a match and the mood of the home crowd was one of noisy confidence as the 10pm kick-off approached and rockets shot into the night sky to celebrate the presentation of a statuette to Eusebio to mark his selection as European Footballer of the Year.
Within 12 minutes he should have handed over his award to the brilliant Best, the boy with the Beatle haircut who had produced such shimmering skills and spectacular craft to plunge the Stadium of Light into gloom. He scored his first goal with a header, leaving goalkeeper Costa Pereira stranded, from Tony Dunne's pinpoint free-kick. His second followed Harry Gregg's huge goal-kick, which David Herd headed into the path of the Irish youngster. Best streaked past three Benfica players before slamming a right-foot shot low into the comer of the goal.
Law masterminded the third as he drew two defenders before slipping a pass to Best, who played it further across to present John Connelly with a goal. Early in the second half, Benfica pulled one back, but Law laid on a fourth for United, finding an unmarked Pat Crerand on the penalty spot and, near the end, Charlton sailed through for a fine fifth goal to avenge the five-goal drubbing they'd received in Lisbon just two years previously in the European Cup Winners' Cup. Revenge was now complete as back home, England prepared to salute El Beatle – football's answer to the superstardom of Liverpool's all-conquering moptops.
“I couldn't believe it. Out this kid comes as if he's never heard of tradition and starts running at them, turning them inside out. I ought to have shouted at him for not following instructions. But what can you say? He was a law unto himself. He always was. I was cross with him... almost'”
George told me he had fallen in love with the place where United stayed in Estoril, down the coast from Lisbon; sunny, sandy beach, lovely park, luxurious hotel. It was certainly the moment we all fell in love with George Best, an unforgettable match with the atmosphere set for me the day before when we toured around Lisbon and came across the massive white-stone sculpture built in tribute to Portugal's intrepid explorers, Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama. Somehow I persuaded Sir Matt to let his players off the team bus to pose for an iconic photograph on the eve of another bold explorer breaking the bounds of football.
United were favourites to go all the way to at least the final, but lost to Partizan Belgrade in the semi-finals. Significantly, Best was carrying an injury in the first leg and missed the second to have a cartilage operation. It seemed that when Best went, the magic went as well, though nothing for me will dim his shimmering performance in the Stadium of Light in the quarter-final.
David Meek, United Review, 22 November 2011.