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Football League Greats: George Best

4 June 2013

Sent by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop from Belfast, the telegram read simply, 'boss, I think I've found you a genius'. Matt Busby's reply was equally brief, 'send him over and let us have a look at him'.

The 'genius' in question was a 15-year-old by the name of George Best, who Bishop had seen playing for Cregagh Boys' Club before rushing to the nearest post office to contact United. East Belfast club Glentoran had already rejected the diminutive teenager, but Bishop was convinced they'd made a mistake.

Despite the troubled and tortured later years of Best's prematurely short life, Bishop was to be proved right.

The Irishman arrived at Old Trafford in 1961. His initial two-week trial lasted just two days, with Best succumbing to homesickness but he was persuaded to venture back across the Irish Sea for a second time when Busby wrote to his father Dickie. On his 17th birthday in May 1963, he signed his first professional contract. Old Trafford could scarcely have imagined what the future held.

The Irishman's debut came in September in a First Division clash with West Bromwich Albion, and although he dropped back into the reserves until after Christmas, his second senior game in late December saw Best on target for the first time as Burnley were despatched 5-1 at Old Trafford.

A total of 26 appearances and six goals in that first season represented a solid start to life as a Manchester United player, but it was in 1964/65 that Best emerged as a true star - and the faithful realised that Bishop had truly unearthed a rare gem.

Even as a teenager, Best's audacity and tenacity, vision, balance and mesmeric control with the ball at his feet were in ample evidence and despite his tender years, he was a central figure as United won the league title on goals scored, ahead of Leeds United. He missed just one of the 42 league games that season, scoring 10 times in the process, and only Shay Brennan, Tony Dunne, Bill Foulkes and John Connelly made more appearances for the new champions.

Fame was now firmly at Best's door and his reputation was further embellished in March 1966 when he scored twice in a 5-1 demolition of Benfica in the quarter-finals of the European Cup in the Estadio da Luz. It was a virtuoso performance that prompted the Portguese press to dub him 'O Quinto Beatle', the fifth Beatle.

Mercifully, the demons that were to curtail his career and ultimately his life, were not yet in the ascendency and Best was an ever-present throughout the 1966/67 campaign as Busby's side reclaimed the Division One title, tormenting defences with his unique blend of pace and panache.

The club's bid to lift the European Cup for the first time the following season was to be arguably Best's finest hour in the famous red shirt.

United beat Maltese side Hibernians in the first round, and Best was then instrumental in the 2-1 aggregate victory over Sarajevo, setting up the first and scoring the second in the second leg in Yugoslavia.

"[He is] the centrepiece of the chessboard," reported The Times after the match. "A player full of fantasy, a player who lent magic to what might have been whimsy."

After overcoming G?rnik Zabrze of Poland, United faced Real Madrid in the semi-finals and the Spanish giants were beaten 1-0 in the first leg at Old Trafford courtesy of a sublime goal from Best, before he then set up Foulkes for the decisive strike in the Bernabeu two weeks later to record a 4-3 aggregate triumph.

The final against Benfica was held at Wembley and on the greatest stage of his career, Best did not disappoint. Locked at 1-1, the match went into extra-time but just three minutes had elapsed before the Irishman ghosted into the area, beating Portuguese goalkeeper Jos? Henrique with an impudent dummy and then stroking the ball into an unguarded net. Brian Kidd and Bobby Charlton added the third and fourth goals, and United were the kings of Europe.

Best's exploits during the 1967/68 season earned him both the FWA Footballer of the Year award and the Balon d'or - beating Charlton, Dragan D?aji? and Franz Beckenbauer to the prize.

However, although the player and the United faithful may not have realised it at the time, that victory at Wembley was to be the pinnacle of his time at Old Trafford.

Six more seasons followed. The goals continued to flow, but as United went through transition, Best's indiscipline on the field and increasingly wayward behaviour off it, began to take their collective toll and in January he made his final appearance for the club against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.

For the next 10 years, Best embarked on an itinerant lifestyle which took him to clubs from South Africa to Hong Kong, the USA and Australia, as well returns to The Football League with Stockport County, Fulham and Bournemouth. But, as his battle with alcoholism spiralled out of control, his appearances became more erratic and fleeting.

He died in November 2005 at the age of 59, a victim of his own personal excesses.

"When you walked out of that tunnel in your kit on Saturday afternoon, it was like stepping into another world," Best wrote in his 2002 autobiography, Blessed. "Every game was like a new adventure. All I had ever wanted to do in Belfast was kick a ball around and now I was doing it for real, for one of the biggest clubs in England.

"Once I was on that pitch, I never wanted the final whistle to blow. I was young, not bad looking and had one of the best jobs in the world. I couldn't see how anything could go wrong."

For one glorious decade at Old Trafford at least, he was right.

Career Statistics:
Manchester United (1963-73) - 361 Football League appearances, 137 goals
Stockport County (1975) - 3 Football League appearances, 2 goals
Fulham (1976-77) - 42 Football League appearances, 8 goals
Bournemouth (1982) - 5 Football League appearances

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