George Best (22 May 1946 – 25 November 2005) was a Northern Irish professional football player, best known for his years with Manchester United. He was a winger whose game combined pace, acceleration, balance, two-footedness, goalscoring and the ability to beat defenders. In 1968, his annus mirabilis, he won the European Cup with Manchester United, and was named the European Footballer of the Year. When fit, he was an automatic choice for the Northern Ireland team, but he was unable to lead them to the World Cup qualification, despite being capped 37 times and scoring nine goals.
In 1999 he was voted 11th, behind Marco van Basten, at the IFFHS European Player of the Century election and 16th, behind Lothar Matthäus, in the World Player of the Century election. Pelé named him as one of the 125 best living footballers in his 2004 FIFA 100 list and Best was named 19th, behind Gerd Müller, at the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll. In his native Northern Ireland the admiration for him is summed up by the local saying: “Maradona good; Pelé better; George Best.”
He was one of the first celebrity footballers, but his extravagant lifestyle led to problems with alcoholism which curtailed his playing career and eventually led to his death in November 2005 at the age of 59. His cause of death was a kidney infection, a side-effect of the immuno-suppressive drugs he was required to take after a liver transplant. Best’s lovable, cheeky image won him many fans, during his career and after, despite his public drunkenness on TV, his convictions for drunk driving and assaulting a policeman, allegations of domestic violence, and his inability to give up drinking even after the transplant. GQ named him as one of the 50 most stylish men of the past 50 years.
George Best was the first child of Dicky Best (1920 – 2008) and Anne Withers (1923 – 1978), and grew up in Cregagh, Belfast. Best had four sisters, Carol, Barbara, Julie and Grace, and a brother, Ian. Best’s father Dickie died on 16 April 2008, in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, County Down. He was admitted to hospital four weeks earlier. Best’s mother Anne died from an alcoholism-related illness in 1978, aged 55.
In 1957, at the age of 11, the academically gifted Best won a scholarship to Grosvenor Grammar School, but he soon played truant as the school specialised in rugby and his school blazer identified him as a Protestant, attracting sectarian abuse. Best then moved to Lisnasharragh Secondary School, reuniting him with friends from primary school and allowing him to focus on football.
Manchester United (1963-1974):
At the age of 15, Best was discovered in Belfast by Manchester United scout Bob Bishop, whose telegram to United manager Matt Busby read: “I think I’ve found you a genius.” His local club Glentoran had previously rejected him for being “too small and light”. Best was subsequently given a trial and signed up by chief scout Joe Armstrong.
Best made his Manchester United debut, aged 17, on 14 September 1963 against West Bromwich Albion at Old Trafford in a 1-0 victory. Two weeks later Best scored his first goal against Burnley. By the close of the season Best had six goals, and Manchester United finished second, behind champions Liverpool.
In his second season, Best and Manchester United claimed the league title.
Best hit the headlines the age of twenty when he scored two goals in a European Cup quarter-final match against Benfica in 1966, and was dubbed “O Quinto Beatle” (The Fifth Beatle) in the press.
Best’s talent and showmanship made him a crowd and media favourite. He was dubbed “the fifth Beatle” for his long hair, good looks and extravagant celebrity lifestyle, and even appeared on Top of the Pops in 1965. Other nicknames included the “Belfast Boy” and he was often referred to as Georgie, or Geordie in his native Belfast.
The 1966-67 season was again successful as Manchester United claimed the league title by four points. The following season Best became a European Cup winner after scoring in the final against Benfica. United won 4-1 and Best was later crowned European Footballer of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year; after that began a steady decline.
He opened two nightclubs in Manchester, in the late 1960s, Oscar’s and the other called Slack Alice’s (which later became 42nd Street Nightclub). He also owned fashion boutiques, in partnership with Mike Summerbee of Manchester City. However, he developed problems with gambling, womanising and alcoholism.
In 1974, aged 27, Best quit United. His last competitive game for the club was on 1 January 1974 against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road.
In total Best made 466 appearances for Manchester United in all competitions from 1963 to 1974, and scored 178 goals (including six in one game against fourth division Northampton Town). He was the club’s top scorer for six consecutive seasons, and was the First Division’s top scorer in the 1967-68 season.
Over the next decade he went into an increasingly rapid decline, drifting between several clubs, including spells in Ireland, America, Scotland, and Australia.
Best had a brief resurgence in form with Fulham F.C. in 1976-77, showing that, although he had lost some of his pace, he retained his skills. His time with the Cottagers is particularly remembered for an FA Cup game against second division outfit Hereford United in which he tackled his teammate, and old drinking mate, Rodney Marsh. Best stated later in life that he enjoyed his time most while at Fulham, despite not winning any honours.
United States (1976-1981):
Best played for three clubs in the United States: Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes; he also played for the Detroit Express on a European tour. Best revelled in the anonymity America afforded him after England and was a success on the field, too, scoring 15 goals in 24 games in his first season with the Aztecs and named as the NASL’s best midfielder in his second. He opened “Bestie’s Beach Club” (now called “The Underground” after the London subway system) in Hermosa Beach, California in the 1970s, and continued to operate it until the 1990s.
In his third season in the States, Best scored only once in 12 appearances. His moves to Fort Lauderdale and San Jose were also unhappy, as his off-field demons began to take control of his life again. After failing to agree terms with Bolton Wanderers in 1981, he was invited as a guest player and played three matches for two Hong Kong First Division teams in 1982.
In late 1982, A.F.C. Bournemouth manager Don Megson signed the 36-year-old Best for the Football League Third Division side, and he remained there until the end of the season, when he finally retired from football at the age of 37.
In 1988, a testimonial match was held for Best at Windsor Park. Among the crowd were Sir Matt Busby and Bob Bishop, the scout who discovered Best, while those playing included Ossie Ardiles, Pat Jennings and Liam Brady. Best scored twice, one goal from outside the box, the other from the penalty spot.
He was capped 37 times for Northern Ireland , scoring nine goals. Of his nine international goals four were scored against Cyprus and one each against Albania, England, Scotland, Switzerland and Turkey.
On 15 May 1971, Best scored possibly his most famous “goal” of his career at Windsor Park in Belfast against England. As Gordon Banks, the English goalkeeper, released the ball in the air in order to kick the ball downfield, Best managed to kick the ball first, which sent the ball high over their heads and heading towards the open goal. The famous duo scrambled towards the net but Best outpaced Banks and headed the ball into the empty goal. His effort was disallowed for ungentlemanly conduct by a referee whose back had been turned away from the incident.
Best continued to be selected for Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s, despite his fluctuating form and off pitch problems. There were still glimpses of his genius; in 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the 1978 FIFA World Cup. Holland – midway between successive World Cup final appearances – and Johan Cruyff were at their peak at the time. Five minutes into the game Best received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. Best took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff’s feet – nutmegging arguably the best player in the world at that time.
Best was considered briefly by manager Billy Bingham for the 1982 World Cup. However, at 36 and with his football skills dulled by age and drink, he was not selected in the Northern Ireland squad.
With Manchester United:
Football League Championship winners medal, 1965 & 1967
UEFA European Cup winners medal, 1968
European Footballer of the Year, 1968
Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, 1968
Professional Footballers Association: ALL STAR Award Winner Division 2 (Fulham) 1977.
Freeman of Castlereagh, 2002
Inaugural inductee into the English Footbalnidh aofn’s University of Belfast, 2001
PFA Special Merit Award, for his services to football, 2006