How George Best almost chose a career as a printer before becoming the best footballer in the world.
Written by John White
The George Best Carryduff Manchester United Supporters Club, Belfast, Northern Ireland
On the 4 September 1961, 58 years ago, George Best arrived in Manchester, for a second time.
Bob Bishop was Manchester United’s Chief Scout in Northern Ireland from 1950 to 1987 and in his early years Bishop helped coach the famous Boyland Youth Club football team in East Belfast which earned a reputation as a nursery club for many teams in the English First Division. Bud McFarlane, George’s coach at his local youth club football team, Cregagh Boys, was a close friend of Bob and he persuaded him to take George away for the weekend to one of the many football training camps Bishop held at Helen’s Bay, County Down.
Bishop agreed and so George set off from his home in East Belfast making the short journey to the camp which was located just outside Belfast. George was an extremely shy lad, not at all extrovert, but Bishop liked what he had seen and decided to keep a close watchful eye on him. Leeds United had a useful scouting system in Northern Ireland at the time but according to their scout, George was far too skinny to cope with the demands of life in the English Leagues.
But McFarlane knew that George had what it took to become a professional footballer and asked Bishop to organise a friendly match between Boyland FC and his Cregagh Boys Under-16 team in the summer of 1961. At McFarlane’s request the Boyland FC team was made up of their best 17-18 year olds. Bishop stood on the side-lines watching the 15-year old Best weave his magic on the pitch scoring twice in a 4-2 win against the much bigger and stronger boys.
It was at that moment that Bishop realised that McFarlane had been right all the long, Best could make it as a professional footballer and he sent his now infamous telegram to the Manchester United manager, Matt Busby, with the message reading:
“I think I’ve found you a Genius.”
Busby invited George over to Old Trafford for a trial in the summer of 1961 during the school holidays. Best, and another young player who Bishop thought could make the grade at United, Eric McMordie, boarded the Belfast to Liverpool ferry in June 1961, a 10-hour trip across the Irish Sea. George wore his best clothes for the journey, his school uniform!
Speaking shortly after George died in 2005, Eric, who went on to play for Middlesbrough (1964-75) winning 21 caps for Northern Ireland, fondly recalled the game when George scored twice against his team:
“I’d played for a club in East Belfast called Boyland since I was 11. There was a man called Bob Bishop who spent his days watching Boyland and sent kids from there to the big clubs. It was like a nursery for Manchester United. George became one of the first to go to United who didn’t play for Boyland. Bob’s eye for talent was equal to none – he was a very special man. But a match between us and Cregagh Boys, who George played for, was set up. I’ve never seen a player with so many bruises on his body as George. He was picked on not just because he was wee but because he was so talented. But he fought back and that’s what made George the great player he was.”
None of the boys were accompanied by any of their parents or a guardian for the trip and were simply told to make their way to Lime Street Train Station in Liverpool and take the train to Manchester where a taxi would be sent to meet them and take them to Old Trafford. The entire journey was a terrifying ordeal for two kids from the streets of Belfast who had never been out of Northern Ireland before. When the boys arrived in Manchester there was nobody holding a sign with either of their names on it and so they jumped in a taxi and asked the driver to take them to Old Trafford.
Unknown to George and Eric there was two Old Trafford grounds and the driver took them to Lancashire County Cricket Club as the football season had ended and the cricket season had just begun. The taxi driver thought the two boys were just young cricketers hoping to join Lancashire County Cricket Club. When the pair finally made it to United’s home ground they were met by the club’s Chief Scout, Joe Armstrong, who took them to the Cliff training ground.
At the Cliff they met a number of the first team players including Northern Ireland’s Harry Gregg and Jimmy Nicholson before being taken on to their digs. Armstrong drove the two bewildered young boys to a terraced house in Chorlton-cum-Hardy, a suburb of Manchester, and introduced them to Mrs Fullaway. Little did George know it at the time but Mrs Fullaway’s house would be his home on and off for the next 10 years.
The Belfast boys were homesick on their first night away from their families and when Armstrong called at Mrs Fullaway’s house early the next morning to pick them up George told him that both he and Eric wanted to go home. So, the boys made their way back across the Irish Sea to their Belfast homes, George to his parents’ house in Burren Way, Castlereagh, Belfast. Sometime later in life McMordie, spoke about their brief stay in Manchester:
“It was an incredible time. There was George in his Lisnasharragh school uniform with his prefect’s badge and me. We were just a pair of kids who had never been out of Belfast. It was like another world. But it all became too much and we ended up back home in less than a couple of days. We were both overawed. A short while later George went back and the rest is history.”
But Busby was persistent and persuaded George’s Dad, Dickie, to allow him to come back over to Manchester and he promised Dickie that he would take good care of his son. When George returned to Manchester he was not permitted to sign apprenticeship forms for Manchester United as a result of Irish and Scottish Football League rules which were in place at the time. This was because the Irish Football Association and the Scottish Football Association had previously lodged a formal complaint with the Football Association claiming that English clubs were poaching their most talented young footballers.
To get around the rules, George signed for United as an amateur player and trained with the first team squad two days per week. George had planned to take-up an apprenticeship as a printer in Belfast when he left school but thankfully Busby persuaded him to sign amateur forms at United in September 1961 and George ended up keeping printers all over the country busy over the following 12 years and more. It took the young Best a while to get over the homesickness, and to keep him occupied after training United got him a job as a clerk at the Manchester Ship Canal. George hated the job, having to run various errands and make countless cups of tea all day long for office staff.
A mesmerizing dribbler of the ball who, when he was in the mood would beat a defender with ease and then stop and do a U-turn just to show the same opponent he could beat him again at will. No wonder his team-mate, Pat Crerand, once famously said that George had “twisted blood.” United’s famous No.11 was blessed with pace, precision passing, accuracy, immaculate ball control, the ability to see a gap in a defence and exploit it, flair, charisma, both on and off the pitch, and a vicious body swerve that resembled a Rivelino free-kick. It was Rivelino’s team-mate, the legendary Brazilian, Pele, who said that George Best was the greatest player in the world. And who was going to disagree with Pele? Not us United fans that was for sure because we already knew George Best was “Simply the Best.”
But football’s first superstar, dubbed the Fifth Beatle by the press who reported on his every move, had a rollercoaster of a career. He made his debut for Manchester United when he was just 17 and whereas many of the game’s true greats began to mature and reach their peak as professional footballers in their mid-20s, George packed the game in aged just 26. George once famously said:
“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
Two English First Division League Championships medals with United in 1965 and 1967, a European Cup winner’s medal in 1968 and four-times Manchester United’s top goal scorer, George had the world at his feet. After playing his last game for United on New Year’s Day 1974, George turned his back on football. Over the following years George reached some lows: constant battles against alcohol, marriage splits, a liver transplant and a 12-week jail sentence in 1984 for drunk-driving and assault.
But it is the good times that George will be most remembered for. His magical performance in 1966 against SL Benfica in their own backyard when George scored twice in United’s 5–1 win, a performance that earned him the nickname El Beatle. Or his six goals for United in the FA Cup against Northampton Town, and who will ever forget that night at Wembley on 29 May 1968, when George scored in the European Cup final in their 4–1 win over Benfica of Portugal.
In season 1967-68, George, a member of United’s famous triumvirate along with Denis Law (European Player of the Year 1964) and Bobby Charlton (European Player of the Year 1966) scored 28 times in the League, 1 goal in the FA Cup and 3 times in United’s successful European Cup campaign. United’s Holy Trinity of Law, Charlton and Best had delivered the Holy Grail, the European Cup, for their manager, Mat Busby to help United erase the memory of the Munich Air Disaster some ten years earlier.
The 1967-68 season was the pinnacle of his career, his Everest season, sharing the title of the First Division’s top goal scorer with Ron Davies from Southampton, netting the only goal of the game against Real Madrid in the first leg of their European Cup semi-final encounter at Old Trafford culminating with George being named the Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year Award, at 21 the youngest recipient of the award (the PFA Players’ Player of the Year Award did not commence until season 1973-74 otherwise Best would have taken that honour too), and he won the prestigious Ballon D’Or, the European Player of the Year Award after securing 61 votes to Charlton’s 53 and Partizan Belgrade’s Dragan Dzajic’s 46 votes.
Aged just 22 he had won 3 major honours with United, 2 English League Championships and European Cup, and 2 individual awards. But instead of George’s career going on an even greater meteoric path of glory it slowly slipped into decline, a course of self-destruct. This is perhaps best summed up by the well published account of George staying in a plush London hotel. He had just enjoyed a successful day at the races and ordered room service. George was in the mood to celebrate. The waiter knocked on the door of his suite and George beckoned him in. The young waiter entered the room with two bottles of champagne in a bucket of ice and two glasses. His eyes scanned the room, thousands of pounds in cash strewn across the bed and floor and Miss World at the time lying on the bed scantily dressed.
He looked at George who was busy grabbing some of the cash to give the waiter as a tip and said:
“Tell me Mr Best. Where did it all go wrong?”
George lived life to the full and had enough fun, a lavish lifestyle of money, a beautiful home, fast cars, parties, and nightclubs, Miss Worlds, winners’ medals and the adoration of football fans across the globe, to last a few lifetimes. He was football’s first superstar, a front-page celebrity at a time when football’s place in the media was rooted in the back pages of the dailies. Michael Parkinson, host of his own BBC TV show, “Parkinson,” interviewed George many times and the pair became very good friends. George would often stay with the Parkinson family and played football with their children in the garden. Parkinson, who wrote a book about his relationship with George, once said:
“He was quick, two-footed, beautifully balanced. He could hit long and short passes with equal precision, was swift and fearless in the tackle and he reintroduced the verb ‘to dribble.’ He was as imaginative and whimsical in midfield as he was economical and deadly given a chance at goal.”
Sadly George died on 25th November 2005, but the shy Belfast Boy will forever have a special place in my heart and in the heart of every Manchester United fan.
Thank you for the many wonderful memories Belfast’s very own George Best.
You Remain Forever In Our Thoughts.
Not too long after the first anniversary of George’s death, 25 November 2006, I put down in writing how I felt and this is what I wrote at the time:
The Boy Who Became A Genius
Millions of the children all over the planet have just finished watching the first week of the 2006 Fifa World Cup Finals held in Germany. Children of every colour, race and religion have watched in awe as some of the greatest footballers in the world today have forced the children out into the streets to re-enact some of the goals which they have just witnessed on their television screens. From Los Angeles to Rio de Janeiro, from London to Paris and from Tehran to Sydney, children everywhere are living the dream that they too are the next Claudio Reyna, Ronaldinho, Wayne Rooney, Zinedine Zidane, Ali Dai or Harry Kewell.
However, my own earliest memories of football are not of a World Cup, or indeed any major international finals, because this player never had the opportunity to grace such a stage, although there is no denying that had he then even today’s children would want to be just like him. The first player I remember seeing when I was growing up on the streets of East Belfast during the 1960s was George Best of Manchester United and Northern Ireland. George made his debut for the Red Devils before I was even one-year old. However, it was May 1968, when I was almost 6, that this guy with long flowing black hair, who glided across the television screen stirred my interest in the beautiful game. I sat up, eyes wide open, and watched this Magician do things with a football that I never dreamt were possible. His mercurial touch, his ability to shift his weight effortlessly from one side to the other as he ghosted past defenders, his timing in the air when he leapt like a salmon to out-jump bigger defenders, his silky touch, his arrow like passing, his mesmerising dribbling, his two-footedness, his fierce shot and above all else his love for the game, made me want to be just like him. And if all that wasn’t enough, he was as brave as a lion in the tackle, a trait not too many of today’s stars are keen to get involved in.
So, what did I do? Well, after he later appeared in Stylo Football Boots advertisements and Cookstown Sausages advertisements, I tortured my Mum to buy me a pair of the boots and pleaded with her to cook me Cookstown sausages for my tea every night so as I could be just like my hero, George Best. Alas, possessing the worldly goods was no match for what I really needed, George’s Genius.
When Bob Bishop, United’s legendary Irish Scout, first spotted a young teenage waif-like George playing football near his home in the Castlereagh area of East Belfast, he immediately telephoned the great Manchester United manager, Matt Busby, and said “I’ve found you a Genius”. George was only 15-years old but how right Bob was and how Manchester United, currently owned by the Glazer Family, could do with a player like George today. Believe me when I say that you can forget all the so called Superstars of World Football of late and today because as they used to say when football was a man’s game “Not one of them would be fit enough to lace George’s boots”. Bestie played at a time when big, rough/tough defenders were more interested in taking the man than the ball whereas today many of the players we label “heroes” would probably get a bronze medal for diving at the Olympic Games. George didn’t dive and he was no angel either because he gave as good as he took and he took punishment like no other player has ever endured during his career. Pele was practically kicked off the pitch during the 1966 World Cup Finals in England and in 1982, Italy’s Claudio Gentile gave a young Diego Maradona a rough time during the World Cup Finals in Spain. However, the punishment dished out to the Brazilian and Argentinean masters was nothing compared to the treatment George received in many of his games at home in England and across Europe for United.
George was that good and so popular during the swinging sixties, he was nicknamed “The Fifth Beatle” by the press and whilst the supergroup took the 1960s pop world by storm, a certain young boy from a very humble background in East Belfast took the soccer world by storm. He also dated several Miss Worlds. With Manchester United George earned instant stardom winning two League Championships in 1965 & 1967 and perhaps his greatest ever night, the 1968 European Cup Final win over the mighty Eusebio and his Benfica team-mates. In 1968, George was named European Footballer of the Year. He was just 21-years old.
Sure George threw it all away, retiring from professional football aged 27 in 1974, but that was George’s choice. However, his love for the game was rekindled in the summer of 1976 when he was lured to Los Angeles to play for the LA Aztecs in the North American Soccer League (NASL). The NASL began life in 1967 but did not really take-off until Pele signed a $4.5million three-year contract with the New York Cosmos in 1975 and many former world superstars joined him including: Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore, Johann Cruyff, Gerd Muller and Eusebio. George stayed with the Aztecs for three seasons before moving on to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (1979-80) and finally, the San Jose Earthquakes (1979-80 & 1981). In 1985, the NASL folded when it lost the vast majority of its franchises but not before it gave birth to a new generation of soccer mad Americans. Future internationals such as Eric Wynalda watched the Aztecs in the Cruyff/George Best days, John Harkes was a former NY Cosmos ballboy and Tony Meola was another NASL fan.
There isn’t a footballer alive today that wouldn’t swap his career for George’s. George was the first Football Superstar, with Maradona naming him as his all-time favourite player and even the legendary Pele said that George Best was the best player in the world. Who would dispute the opinion of the latter two greats? So when today’s children watch the 2006 Fifa World Cup on TV and the endless footage showing the superstars that have graced the tournament since the inaugural competition in 1930, there is one player missing, and his name is George Best.
On 25th November 2005, the soccer world was plunged into mourning when the Genius who was George Best died. He was just 59-years old.
George, you will always be my Hero. I miss you.
And here are some fantastic quotes from the Genius himself:
I used to go missing a lot… Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.
In 1969 I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life.
People always say I shouldn’t be burning the candle at both ends. Maybe they haven’t got a big enough candle.
I was born with a great gift, and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak.
Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town.
There used to be a banner at Old Trafford which read:
“MARADONA GOOD. PELE BETTER. GEORGE BEST.”
And I loved the line painted on a gable wall near my home in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, not too far from George’s place of birth in Burren Way, when I was a kid growing up in the early 1970s which read:
“Jesus Saves. But Best Scores The Rebound.”
Fantastic Irish humour from a bygone era.
In closing, I think the following two quotes from George himself should be how we remember the brightest star that ever shone at Old Trafford:
All the bad times cannot wipe away the good memories, and despite all the ups and downs, when I look at my life as a whole, it is impossible for me not to feel blessed.
They’ll forget all the rubbish when I’ve gone and they’ll remember the football. If only one person thinks I’m the best player in the world, that’s good enough for me.
• English League Division One (2): 1965, 1967
• European Cup (1): 1968
• Club’s Leading Goal Scorer (5): 1967-68, 1968-69, 1969-70, 1970-71 & 1971-72
• Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year: 1968
• European Footballer of the Year: 1968
• Professional Footballers Association: ALL STAR Award Winner Division 2 (Fulham) 1977
• Honorary doctorate from Queen’s University, Belfast, 2001
• Freeman of Castlereagh, 2002
• Inaugural inductee into the English Football Hall of Fame, 2002
• PFA Special Merit Award, for his services to football, 2006
• PFA England League Team of the Century (1907 to 2007): 2007
Some of the above is an extract from my book:
“Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish.”
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, Northern Ireland’s No.1 Official Branch
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