Best of the Best
“I think I’ve found you a genius” – telegram sent to Matt Busby from scout Bob Bishop
Before football had become a multi-billion dollar industry and footballers were global superstars, a precocious young Irishman would emerge onto the British game and completely transform the idea of what a footballer and football could be.
That man was George Best.
With the label ‘genius’ already attached to him, Best arrived in Manchester from Belfast aged just 15 as part of the great Sir Matt Busby’s new look side. The Munich Air Disaster had ravaged the original Busby babes just five years earlier, and Sir Matt was determined to build a team that would surpass that great side. Homesickness initially hindered his progression into the first team, but after scoring in only his second appearance for the club it didn’t take long for Best’s talent to shine through and he soon became an integral part of this new look side.
In a league of hard men and hard tackles Best played with the freedom of a boy in the park, and his cheeky skills and dazzling feet soon became the star attraction in a team which featured the likes of Law and Charlton. Over the next couple of seasons Best’s star grew, and his good looks and charm brought him as much attention off the field as on it. After a 5-1 victory over Benfica in which Best had been the star player, the foreign press dubbed him ‘El Beatle’.
Just seven years after the devastation of the Munich crash United were crowned champions of England once again. A second title followed in '67 and in the following year with Best at the peak of his powers, United secured their first ever European Cup with a 3-1 victory against Benfica. Best was named European Footballer of the year and was even described by the great Pele as “the best player in the world” during this period.
Even after he left United Best showed glimpses of his prodigious talent, including this stunning goal for The Seattle Sounders
Unfortunately for United and Best these dizzying heights were never to be reached again. Sir Matt retired shortly after and an ageing United side began to slowly dismantle under a slew of new managers.
Without a guiding figure like Sir Matt, Best’s motivation and form began to deteriorate and after a series of self-imposed retirements and comebacks his time at Manchester United came to an acrimonious end in 1974.
Aged just 28 Best became something of a journeyman footballer, playing in South Africa, Cork and The United States. When asked about his decision to leave the British game Best said that he had become ‘bored with it all’, but there was a feeling that the temptations that came with his talent had strangled some of his passion for the game.
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He retired completely from football in 1983 exactly twenty years after he had signed for Manchester United, having scored 179 goals in 470 appearances for the club.
Amongst United fans his legend persists, having only been eclipsed by Ryan Giggs in a recent poll of United’s greatest ever players.
In his heyday Best was the scourge of defenders and goalkeepers alike, and he will surely go down as the greatest home-grown talent our game has ever produced. He remains to this day one of a select group of players who can truly be called a genius of the game.
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